Beyond Milk and Honey: Taking Kiwi fashion to the Asian Market

Words by Sonia Sly

Technology helps us to stay connected. And the speed of that connection enables us to seamlessly navigate between emails, social media, the latest news, to games, and yes, online shopping and alerts and pop-up ads that direct us to newness and exclusive online sales. Mobile shopping apps have also been a game changer for fashion retail, and statistics from the Fashion and Apparel Industry Report reveal worldwide e-commerce sales are projected to rise from US 481.2 billion dollars (2018) to US 712.9 billion dollars over the next three years.

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And with sites like ASOS now offering free international returns and utilising tools like Applepay - the ultimate electronic wallet, providing a safer and faster way to complete transactions, online shopping has never been easier.

All-in-all mobile commerce solutions create more alternatives for fashion retailers, but they also put pressure on smaller, independent businesses in the industry.

Vivian Cheng is the co-owner of New Zealand menswear label French 83 and says the fashion industry is highly sensitive to sudden changes and mood swings.

“With powerful e-commerce and mobile commerce by retail giants like ASOS and The Iconic, businesses are forced to be hypersensitive to consumer needs and wants and we are often pressured to offer the same fulfillment services as larger retail chains, while remaining profitable and being sustainable for the environment,” she says.

Vivian runs the label with brother, Peter Cheng and together they have combined their complimentary backgrounds in marketing and finance to run the business, and they’re not afraid of branching out and taking a few risks.

French 83 retail in Beijing. Image supplied.

French 83 retail in Beijing. Image supplied.

“We wanted to introduce another way for men to shop as we understand they do not shop the same as women,” says Vivian of the brand’s Auckland retail store, which offers coffee and also shares a space with a hair salon.

They have also identified gaps in the market and other opportunities further afield.

Asia is a lucrative market for those in fashion retail and China has nabbed the top place for global revenue income with a US 291 million dollar revenue forecast for 2019, which is only set to grow to 431 million over the next four years.

“Expanding to China was definitely outside our original game plan,” says Vivian of their branch in Beijing, run by her brother Peter.

She adds that heading straight to Hong Kong where the brand has an established presence at Harvey Nichols seemed like a more obvious choice, but when the opportunity presented itself three years ago, the pair decided to bite the bullet.

“It has been an amazing journey getting a store set up there,” she says.

The siblings saw Beijing as the perfect place for their brand, as opposed to the more cosmopolitan Shanghai. Vivian says their Beijing customers are more cultured and experimental, preferring pieces with character.

But behind the scenes, setting up a business in Beijing required plenty of ground work to attract locals to a brand they had never heard of. Competing with luxury international designer brands was also daunting.

They had to learn and adapt to a completely new culture, and learn about the different laws and ways of doing business. Aside from the obvious challenge with a new language, there was also another obstacle - the long-held association that links New Zealand with natural produce like milk, honey and kiwifruit. The concept of ‘Kiwi fashion’ being far removed from the Chinese consumer mindset.

Images from left to right: 1. Staff outside the French 83 store in Beijing. 2. French 83 menswear inside the Beijing store. 3. The brand have also started venturing into womenswear for the overseas market. Images supplied.

“It is challenging to educate them about our brand concept, while competing with the luxurious European brands because China to some extent is a closed ecosystem…they also have their own social media, language and product displays, and so on,” she says. “But luckily, we have local partners there to help us.

Vivian says Chinese consumers shop at two extremes of the market - the high and bottom end, which is referred to as the “hourglass shopping model.”

“I think it is because materialism reflects your social status in China, more so than in New Zealand.”

Vivian adds that Chinese consumers are also more likely to buy an expensive branded wallet, for instance, because people will see it. But they will purchase cheap slippers for private consumption. Whereas, New Zealanders are attracted to mid-market brands that are relatable and that they feel emotionally connected to.

Consumers everywhere are becoming more socially conscious and savvy, and China, according to Vivian is no exception. Despite the country’s long-held association with the mass manufacturing of cheap consumer products, today Chinese consumers also value quality.

Online shopping has become more accessible in China and is now a growth industry for international brands. E-commerce sales in China are projected to hit US 1,123 million dollars by 2023.

“They do a lot of research before spending, especially the younger generation,” says Vivian. “E-commerce has also become part of their everyday lives and it is becoming cheaper and easier, so everyone is shopping online.”

The exciting next step for French 83 is setting up a store in Hong Kong.

Vivian Cheng -co-owner, French 83 backstage at the brand’s runway show at NZFW 2017. Image supplied.

Vivian Cheng -co-owner, French 83 backstage at the brand’s runway show at NZFW 2017. Image supplied.

Vivian Cheng: The Lowdown

Hometown: Auckland
The best thing about your current location: Great work/life balance
The worst thing about the city you live in: Expensive petrol!
Name of labels and website links: www.french-83.com
Vivian’s top three tips for doing business in China:

A) Do a lot of research and for example, design an appropriate size chart for Chinese consumers.
B) Understand the culture before putting out marketing materials because sometimes you may think you are localizing by using a lot of red or dragons, but you may come across some backlash.
C) Invest in E-commerce/mobile commerce platforms as it has become a lifestyle to shop.