China – A Chance for European Designers?

Finally, I have a spare moment to mention my experience on the “China – A Chance for Young European Designers” panel in Berlin.

A growing number of foreign fashion designers are landing in China. History’s greatest economic miracle now might provide both markets for foreign brands and employment for foreign talent. This latest generation of foreigners focused on China is young, based here rather than overseas, and sees its future with Chinese companies as this market continues to expand.

我终于有空来写在柏林参加的以“中国–年轻欧洲设计师的舞台”为主题的研讨会了。

越来越多的外国设计师开始在中国落脚了。中国,这样一个历史上经济的奇迹,向外国品牌提供市场也为外国设计师们的天赋提供舞台。最新的一批年轻的外国设计师选择在中国拓宽市场,展望他们的未来。

In the photo are the panelists: me, Oliver Schütt of TMS Fashion LTd. Beijing, Nicole Chen, Chairman, CEO and Founder of NC.Style, and David Ubl, Art Director of Royal Elastics. Also present is Jennifer Browarczyk, Project Manager at Fashion Patrons GmbH, who moderated the event. Participating in the panel via Skype conference was Nancy Koh, CEO of Hempel Group China.

This was a discussion about what foreign designers must know about working in China and how they might get there. We talked about the challenge of learning the language, working in a Chinese company, and whether one can make real friends in such a foreign culture. David pointed out that networking can occur quickly in Beijing since everyone you need to know is often dining at the same restaurant. Meeting the relevant people is easy in the foreign community and, more importantly, everyone is in a good position and can potentially help with introductions and advice.

The audience – comprised mainly of young designers based in Berlin – was also interested in another question: sourcing. An abiding frustration that rising designers based abroad have with China is that the benefits of low cost production seem off limits since factories will only accept large volume orders. While acknowledging that this problem, the panelists pointed out that many companies are interested in improving the quality and skill of their work. Challenging commissions from smaller designers are a great chance to create samples that can later impress representatives of bigger brands. Also, with the economic slowdown in the West, traditional markets no longer offer fast growth for Chinese brands, who must now explore the domestic market and, potentially, smaller clients.

To get a sense for what the general response to the panel was I asked Jennifer, the moderator and organizer, for some reactions.

NF: Which comments from the panellists stood out most for you?

JB: All of it!!!!I think the most important information for young designers from the panel were the over all situation in China at the moment. It was interesting to hear first hand that European talent is being sought out and welcomed in Chinese companies. I also think that it was helpful to know that production factories are also willing to produce in smaller amounts as a means to show what they are capable of doing. I think this is very valuable especially for young designers interested in setting up their own labels.

NF: What did you think of the panelists – what other relevant people would you have liked to hear from?

JB: It was a great panel with a mixture of people who knew what they were talking about and were able to talk about first hand experience.

NF: After hearing from the panelists, would you recommend that young design students go to China to develop their career?

JB: Yes definitely. I know a lot of young designers looking for good opportunities to use their creativity and talent and I already have suggested to a few of them that they contact Oliver and Nancy and send them their portfolios.I think it is a valuable opportunity for them to kick start their careers, learn and understand the business better and it will open so many doors for them if they use their know how wisely as well as learn from the business, go to the factories, see how the production side is dealt with, and network.

NF: What recommendations would you give them regarding the best ways to do this?

JB: At the moment I would refer them to the panelists that were here. It is so important to have connections and talk to people who can direct you.

NF: What new challenges and opportunities do you expect China to present to the global fashion industry over the next five years?

JB: Challenges will always be there: starting with the language as well as the culture. It is going to be important to find the right people who are willing to move away from their homes and families for longer periods of time to work in a very competitive environment. The rewards though will far outweigh the initial obstacles. I think it is so important for more European designers to make that step and take the risk and they will do brilliantly in the long run. David is a perfect example: only 26 and he has already been able to do so many exciting projects and is now Art Director for Royal Elastics. I do think there is a big chance for the fashion industry in the next years in China to continue to grow.

NF: Thanks, Jennifer

That such a panel happened is interesting in itself and is noteworthy well beyond fashion.

This is quite a change. Formerly, most design work occurred abroad, while the manufacturing occurred here. Chinese brands would essentially study the products of foreign companies and, to a great extent, recreate it with minor tweaks aimed at making the product less expensive or more adapted to the local market. Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed foreign brands transferring their design offices to China as well – to take advantage of the huge pool of inexpensive talent. This trend has caused jitters as it seems now that not only production but also innovation and creativity can be moved to China, leaving the West a barren landscape of retail outlets and corporate headquarters (probably staffed by overseas Chinese).

But this sort of forum provides more than a glimmer of hope. To become more international and even to create products that rival those of foreign brands in the domestic market, some Chinese companies are turning to foreign talent, at least on the creative side. These numbers are likely to increase – in the short-term at least. Chinese companies will be acquiring more foreign brands and seeking foreign designers to maintain international competitiveness. One question in my mind is whether foreign designers will remain in competitive in the medium-term as their Chinese counterparts become more skilled, worldly, and creative. Will it still make sense to hire a foreigner if locals are just as capable of performing the job? Already, we see many major foreign brands relying on their design houses here in China for all but the most conceptual work. The technical skills of local designers often are stronger than foreigners, who might stronger creatively. Let us just hope that there will be opportunities for all.

照片里是参加座谈会的人:我,来自TMS Fashion LTd.北京部门的Oliver Schütt,NC.Style的创始人兼首席执行官Nicole Chen,以及皇家橡皮筋品牌的艺术指导David Ubl。Fashion Patrons GmbH的项目经理Jennifer Browarczyk是这次活动的主持人。赫普中国的首席执行官Nancy Koh通过Skype也参加了这次座谈会。

这次我们讨论了有关国外设计师如何了解如何到中国开拓市场以及在中国工作的现状。我们说了很多,有学习语言的挑战,在中国公司工作的不同,以及如何在一个全新的文化环境中结交真正的朋友。David说其实在北京积累人脉很容易,因为你需要认识的每一个人似乎都在同一个餐厅吃饭。认识同行的人在中国并不难。更重要的是,每个有一定位置的人都很可能帮助你,给你提供介绍和建议。

到会的观众们主要是柏林的年轻设计师。他们也同样关心另外一个问题:资源。这是一个一直困扰这些新生的设计师们在中国发展的问题,低成本的生产限制了工厂一般都只接批量生产的大单。承认问题存在的同时,与会成员也指出,很多公司其实都很愿意提升他们产品的品质与工人的技术。挑战不是大牌的设计师的订单,也算是为了日后可以给大品牌留下深刻印象。并且,随着西方经济走下坡路,中国的很多品牌无法在传统的国外市场中快速盈利,所以他们不得不在本土市场,很可能会从小客户那里另辟发展的道路。

为了了解大家对这个座谈会的反响,我问了主持人和策划者Jennifer一些问题。

NF: 会议上的哪些发言令你印象最深?

JB: 全部发言!我觉得其中对于年轻设计师最重要的信息就是中国整体的情况。这样直接了解到一手信息,知道中国很多公司对欧洲设计师们其实是看好的还是很有趣的。知道厂商们也会愿意接小单来证明他们的能力也很有帮助。总体来讲,这些信息对于想要自己成立品牌的年轻设计师都很有价值。

NF: 你觉得参加发言的成员们怎么样?有什么其他方面的相关人员的意见是你也想听听的呢?

JB: 这次参加的人员从不同方面为大家讲他们的亲身经验,都很棒。

NF: 那么参加完这次会,听到这些不同的声音,你会推荐学设计的学生去中国发展么?

JB: 当然会啊。我认识不少很有天赋和自己的想法,同时也在找机会的年轻设计师,而且我也已经建议其中一些联系Oliver和Nancy,把自己的作品小样拿给他们看。这可以帮助他们把自己的事业开好头,实在是一个很难得的机会。他们可以亲自去工厂看制作是怎么具体执行的,注意积累人脉等等,在实践中学习。

NF: 那你对他们都有什么建议呢?

JB: 至少目前我会推荐他们认识参加座谈会的人们。认识能引导你帮助你的人实在是太重要了。

NF: 在未来的五年里,你估计中国会给全球时尚产业带来何样的挑战和机遇呢?

JB: 挑战总是会有的:先从了解语言和文化开始吧。找到愿意背井离乡在中国这样充满竞争的环境下工作的人是很重要的。不过比起最初的艰辛,获得的收获绝对是多得多的。欧洲设计师们如果做好决定,愿意接受这样的挑战,从长远来看,他们一定都会做的很好的。David就是一个很好的例子:他现在才26岁,就已经接受了那么多激动人心的项目了,而且现在还担任皇家橡皮筋品牌的艺术指导。我坚信,未来几年内中国的时尚产业会发展得更好的。

NF: 谢谢你接受采访,Jennifer。

这个座谈会的开展本身就很有意义,已经超越了时尚本身了。

转变实在是很大。以前,更多的设计工作都在国外,国内大多负责生产加工。中国品牌还必须从很大程度上向外国公司的产品学习,改善自己的产品令其更为廉价或者更适应本土市场。在过去近十年内,我们目睹了外国品牌为了节省成本把公司逐渐转移到中国这样的过程。不过这样的趋势也容易让有的人感到紧张,因为似乎现在看上去好像不只是制作加工,创意和设计的部分也一样可以转移到中国完成,这样以来给西方留下的就是零售店和公司总部了(有可能雇佣的还是在海外生活的中国人)。

不过这样的讨论会还是为大家提供了更多的希望。为了变得更有创意,更为国际化甚至为了对抗来自外国品牌的竞争,一些中国公司向外国设计师抛向橄榄枝。至少在最近这样的趋势只会有增无减。不过我的疑问是面对来自中国的同行们已经变得越来越有创新精神和适应国际环境,外国设计师们是否能保持他们的竞争力至少在中游呢。如果中国设计师自己就可以做得很好,那雇佣外国设计师还有意义吗?我们已经看到了不少外国的大品牌们邀请中国的设计师来为他们做概念性的创意工作了。而专业技能方面,本地设计师往往都比外国设计师要强,虽然外国设计师更善于创意。还是让我们希望每个人都可以有机会吧。

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