To Chinese fashion designers, New York Fashion Week hasn’t lost its luster.

During the NYFW menswear shows on Wednesday, four Chinese brands and designers — Peacebird, Li-Ning, Chen Peng and CLOT — presented on the runway in front of New York’s ecosystem of buyers, editors and influencers, as well as an audience of Chinese industry members. It was the first showcase, dubbed Tmall China Day, dedicated to Chinese designers debuting collections during New York Fashion Week in a five-year partnership between the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Alibaba’s e-commerce marketplace Tmall and Suntchi, a Chinese management company for fashion and entertainment.

“We’re anxious to bridge Eastern and Western fashion,” said Steven Kolb, the president of the CFDA. “This is just the beginning, and you can expect to see this partnership and platform evolve over the next five years.”

The partnership is opening up new business potential for Chinese fashion designers who have built loyal followings at home, but have yet to get in front of an international audience. Of the four, only Chen Peng has sold in American outlets, Dover Street Market and Opening Ceremony, in the past, and the brand’s signature quilted puffer coats have been worn by celebrities like Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

“Peacebird has been around for 20 years. We have more than 4,000 stores in China. We’re hoping to bring Chinese fashion to other countries, and we’re undergoing major business strategy planning in order to launch in overseas markets,” said Peacebird’s brand director Zoey Zhou. “It’s our mission to present ourselves and tell our story on the international stage.”

At the center of the business strategy for these designers’ international growth is Tmall. Every designer brand in the showcase sells on Tmall’s e-commerce platform, but the Alibaba-owned company’s influence and resources stretch well beyond online retail. Under Jessica Liu, Tmall’s fashion and luxury president, the company is aiding brands in manufacturing, fabric sourcing, production development, data strategy, marketing, immediacy and — in culmination of all the above — global expansion.

Pushing the pace of production
For designers in China, it’s not really a question of whether or not to sell on Tmall. If you want online sales — and you do, as China’s e-commerce market size is set to hit $1.7 trillion in the next two years — Tmall’s reported 500 million users is an essential group to target.

“Tmall is the biggest e-commerce platform in China,” said Feng Ye, the general manager of e-commerce at Li-Ning, a Chinese fashion and sportswear brand launched in 1991. “But what they do for brands goes far beyond e-commerce. It’s a resource for everything from product development to public relations.”

Li Ning New York Menswear Fall Winter 2018-1019 NYC February 2018The Li-Ning fall 2018 runway show

Tmall’s influence on the fashion industry in China starts before products even hit the online store. Through a network of manufacturing and fabric sourcing partners, the company can connect designers to local factories, mills, distributors and other production facilities in order to design, test and produce new items close to home, and quickly.

“Brands partner with us for our logistical channels,” said Liu. “From sourcing design materials to finding the best facilities, we collaborate with both designers as well as production factories to make sure they can turn their creative ideas into a business.”

Perhaps even more acutely than the rest of the world, customers in China are used to getting things fast. This plays a role in the way designer brands set up their businesses on Tmall. By working with a close-knit network of production facilities, brands can quickly design new product, order a test, make changes, put it on the site and place orders for more inventory as customers buy online.

This reactionary production comes into play during the see-now-buy-now component of the Tmall China Day events. Tmall will be streaming the collections for the next two days on the Youku and Tmall apps. Customers can click to order anything they see on the runway through their linked accounts.

“Fashion trends, before, would appear in New York or Milan, and then a year later, Chinese customers would get a sense of these new trends,” said Liu. “But because of the way media works now, all trends simultaneously hit in China. A lot of young customers are really sensitive about being on top of these trends, so it’s necessary for us to use this new technology to enable purchasing right away.”

Even outside of big events, these Chinese brands have kicked production into a fast-fashion pace. Peacebird’s Zhou said that a new item can go from design to production, to the Tmall sales floor in a matter of two weeks.

Tracking the customer’s every click
Once designer collections are live on Tmall, the company begins collecting what it calls a “data bank” for each brand. Through the data bank, brands can parse through customer insight that covers not only who purchased from the brand, but who searched for it, what they searched to land on it, who clicked on it, who viewed branded content, who bought or returned, and who left feedback. Basically, any customer interaction through Tmall is tracked and stored.

“We have 10 million customers on Tmall, and we’re using that customer data to learn more about the people who not only buy our brand, but are paying attention to the brand and maybe haven’t made a purchase yet,” said Zhou. “Looking at their purchasing habits, their demographics, what trends their interested in informs us from a design perspective and helps us target our distribution and marketing.”

For Tmall — unlike, say, Amazon — data is not something to hold close to the chest. The more the company can share about who a brand’s customer is, the more closely dependent that brand will become on Tmall’s ecosystem. According to Liu, relaying that customer insight back to brands is “vital” at any point in the purchasing journey. Like the logistical support, it comes down to speed.

“In traditional retail, it takes incredibly long to get customer feedback. You design, you ship to a retailer, they sell to the customer — it takes months,” said Liu. “We open the data feedback loop as soon as a product goes live on the site. You can react immediately. Quick feedback is very important today, because the consumer is changing so quickly.”

Building a blueprint for international growth
As more international designers plan to launch e-commerce operations in China, Tmall plans to pitch the same benefits to that crowd. That includes manufacturing and marketing support, logistics, data and see-now-buy-now. In the fall, Jason Wu and Opening Ceremony participated in the Singles’ Day see-now-buy-now event to get in front of Chinese customers.

For the CFDA, Tmall and Suntchi, the goal of the Tmall China Day event is to not just get exposure for China’s fashion scene, but to create an open source of customer data that can bridge and boost both markets.

“Beneath the surface-level marketing lies tangible data, customer intel that informs business decisions,” said Kolb. “I depend on these partners in China to give us insight into that industry. American designers think it’s a time for open discovery in the region, but there’s a lot more to it in order to navigate business strategies.”

The designers involved, while angling for international growth, acknowledged that global recognition means there’s more to gain at home, too.

“A lot of people look at China’s market and just see the money, and wonder how they’re going to make that money,” said Edison Chen, the founder of the brand CLOT. “But this gives us an opportunity for our creativity to shine. People that collaborate with us will discover much more next-level creativity from Chinese talent. We have to cooperate with each other to make our market stronger. International brands should come and launch pop-ups and work with more local talent. That would really help us out.”

Image credit: Don Ashby

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