Last February, Chinese fashion designer Taoray Wang, wearing a khaki lapel coat whose form she herself conceived, waited for a taxi with me on windy Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, New York City. I remember her saying to me with calm confidence, “We will be attending New York Fashion Week every season from now on.”
Many Chinese business empires, such as Alibaba and insurance giant Anbang Group, have come to the U.S. and bought out American companies, perhaps most notably the Waldorf Astoria hotel. In doing so, they expand their overseas influence without having to rely on selling their products directly to the U.S. market. However, Wang has brought her high-end collection to the twice-yearly New York Fashion Week (NYFW) for five consecutive seasons in the hope of selling her Shanghai-made collections to third-party buyers and individual customers, both in the city and beyond.
Before founding her own company, Wang was chief designer and managing director of the brand Broadcast: Bo, one of China’s most successful womenswear brands. Now, she is slowly making a name for herself in America. This September, after Wang’s fifth NYFW show, Tiffany Trump — daughter of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump — wore one of her dresses to her father’s first televised debate with Hillary Clinton.
Wang’s business model gives us a window into how a Chinese fashion company is expanding its territory — not by exporting clothes made in China, but by making its designs appeal to an entirely new market. Her case in localization provides a strong lesson for many Chinese fashion companies aspiring to break into overseas markets.
One issue Wang faced was how to understand the existing culture and practices of the U.S. fashion industry. For ease of communication, she had hired a Chinese agency to help her with her 2014 debut show at NYFW. However, the owner of the agency, Hope Huang, had more experience with Chinese fashion shows than with American ones, and an initial lack of help from experienced locals hampered Wang’s preparation.
On the day of the show, this lack of local knowledge threatened to derail proceedings. Wang’s team found that they couldn’t even move their clothes to the exhibition hall because legal restrictions mean freight elevators in the U.S., unlike in China, cannot be operated before 8 a.m. Had they been aware of this unexpected rule, they would have sent the clothes down the day before. The result was a mad rush to prepare the clothes in time for the 11 a.m. opening.
Later, a second problem arose: The American assistants who help the models change clothes between turns on the catwalk do not iron each piece first, the way their Chinese counterparts do. With only a few Chinese staff on hand, Wang had to enlist the help of volunteers to get the models looking presentable.
Another common problem for many high-end Chinese fashion brands is that they find it hard to appeal to the tastes of American buyers and thereby promote their products to consumers. Many labels do not own their own retail space and are therefore dependent on third-party retailers to purchase, display, and sell their garments for them. Indeed, Wang’s group did buy their own property upon arriving in New York — only to find that local zoning restrictions prohibited them from using it as a commercial space.
However, Wang was not shy about putting her name and products out there in other ways. She knew, for example, that the catwalk at NYFW would be the best way to expand her business. Ribo Group, the holding company on whose board Wang sits, spends around $200,000 each season to put on the grand spectacle. Despite the exposure, however, making money from the New York market is still difficult, partly because consumers are still swayed more by European and American brands than by Chinese ones.
This September, when I asked Wang how sales were doing after five seasons of NYFW promotion, she was proud to count well-known names like Tiffany Trump among those who are interested in her designs, but she also admitted that she was having trouble attracting large-scale, influential international buyers who are in a better position to sell her clothes more widely.
A third challenge Chinese companies face is that they struggle to gain exposure in American media. While many Chinese news outlets with offices in New York have covered Wang’s story, most of their reports are in Mandarin. Without a strong English-language marketing strategy, both Wang and her Chinese contemporaries will struggle to reach affluent consumers locally.
Like other talented Chinese designers, Wang has shown a certain level of bravery in trying to break into the New York fashion market. Yet her case also reveals in stark terms how the lack of an overarching localization strategy has limited her success to date. During my interviews with her, I asked whether she had considered sponsoring fashion bloggers and celebrities to wear her designs, and if she had undertaken any targeted market research since arriving in New York. She replied that she had not.
While the scope of Wang’s operations is still relatively small, and while she cannot be expected to cover all her bases yet, the need for local advisers is clear. Without an efficient localization plan, the intricacies of the U.S. fashion market can only hope to be mastered through the experience gained by resolving problems as they arise during day-to-day operations — and in the cutthroat fashion industry, the inefficiencies that necessarily result from continuous trial and error can do serious damage to one’s brand.
(Header image: Taoray Wang directs rehearsals at the Taoray Wang fashion show during New York Fashion Week, at The Dock, Skylight at Moynihan Station, New York City, U.S., Sept. 12, 2016. Astrid Stawiarz/GettyNorthAmerica/VCG)