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.
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。