Yvonne Gan is the next creative that Jing Daily is highlighting as part of China’s community of individuals who bridge the gap between global brands and the country’s fashion industry. This section profiles industry leaders who contribute to both national and global fashion communities, from consumers and behind-the-scenes employees to business executives and influencers.
Yvonne Gan quickly rose from working as an assistant buyer to helming one of China’s most innovative luxury ventures: the Bailian Group’s retail concept known as The Balancing.
When the state-owned fashion juggernaut Bailian Group wanted someone to run its new experimental retail concept (built on a triangular base of creativity, uniqueness, and quality), it tapped Gan as chief executive. The glamorous and internationally-minded Gan previously lived in Hong Kong, but moved to mainland China to oversee the fashion choices for one of Shanghai’s most advanced retail conglomerates.
Location is what makes The Balancing so unique. Housed within Bailian Groups’ department stores, it’s a novel idea — a store within a store — which offers an entirely new and unexpected way to diversify the company’s consumer offerings. And while The Balancing’s luxury offerings sit somewhat unconventionally beside products from the mid-tier shopping malls, this trial has now been rolled out across three other locations — the latest opened last year in the Pudong area.
The concept stores account for a small percentage of the company’s main business, which covers department stores, shopping malls, and outlets as well as non-retail sectors. However, they act as an important marker for the group looking to establish a creative luxury fashion industry supply chain. This infrastructure, which supports design, distribution, and retail, includes a new Fashion Center to help foster the careers of local designers, which is part of a plan to eventually “close the loop” of retail for the group.
On a practical level, Gan is the steady hand a retailer needs to reposition and advance itself in the fast-paced, competitive domestic Chinese market. One of her first solo projects was devising a shoe emporium as part of the company’s retail spaces; it was one of the first luxury shoe concept spaces in China. Here, the luxury leader shares her insights on how the buying process has changed over time, ways local designers can win consumers, and new strategies adopted by The Balancing in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
How did you get into fashion?
I grew up in Canada, and when I went back to Hong Kong my first job was at Joyce in 1993. My background is actually business administration, so when I started at Joyce I was in the merchandising department. I was always helping the buyers as my boss was always away travelling, and I loved it! I requested a transfer and then started as an assistant buyer. It was only on the job that I realized how much I enjoyed fashion. I had no intention to go into fashion, so I guess it was destined for me. I climbed my way up from that role to where I am now.
What was the Buying profession like then?
We had no line sheets. Everything was about sketching, and these were sketches that we cut out with scissors and pasted on to pages, and I liked doing that as a child. I always helped them with orders and devoted so much energy to it. I’m old-school, so we used a pencil, calculator, and an eraser. You would write out the order and calculate it. There were laptops, but you didn’t use them to type in the line sheet. It was a very detailed process documented by hand.
What do you find most problematic with the current buying process?
You know it’s a very personal thing. You have to touch and feel the fabric. You need to see how the clothing hangs or the color under daylight [because] color changes. But now, a lot of the brands don’t allow you to put your choice on the rack, so you miss out. You can only see snapshots. You don’t see the whole look like you would in the shop or by making a nice rack. Now, if we buy anything, [we buy] from existing brands as we know their trends, so we have more choices on that…For a garment or an item of RTW, it would be difficult [to buy] from a new brand.
Tell me about your personal style or favorite brands.
I don’t have a favorite brand as fashion changes so quickly, but I have a personal favorite style. I would say I’m less mainstream and like brands like Facetism, Marques Almeida, Chika Kisada, and Enfold. To me, those are brands [where] there’s a sense of mystery about them. Marques Almeida are quite extreme, but I like the style and it stands out. There is nothing that anyone can’t live without, but it’s always nice to own a Loro Piana cashmere, a good old Rolex watch, and a Moncler jacket.
How do you approach buying brands for The Balancing?
We are trying to provide our customers with newness, so we keep replacing brands, especially ones that haven’t been to China. The new generation is very curious and willing to try things. September will be all about looking for new brands to keep the store interesting. We always keep sourcing new talent and we always look at our sales — if brands aren’t doing well we have to replace them.
Right now, in terms of the brand mix, Chinese brands are less than 10 percent, so we are slowly growing that side. There’s a lot of English brands currently stocked, including Stella McCartney and Paul Smith. At the moment, Gucci and Celine are the popular brands that aren’t in our stores, yet I think they would work well.
How are Chinese brands doing in the store?
Brands like Staff Only and Short Sentence are doing very well, and we don’t even have to push them as we have the right local brands that stand out well. The price point is a major factor; it can be hard to work with the right Chinese brands as they are expensive, and customers often complain. They need to be 20-30 percent less, even if the design is amazing sadly, since there’s no shipping.
People will ask themselves if they want to pay the same price for a local designer as they do [for ones] from Italy or the UK. Young brands have to be more patient as sometimes it’s difficult for them to find a brand DNA they can develop and they are less consistent each season than international brands.
What are your thoughts on how China is dealing with COVID-19?
So far, it is doing amazingly. I’m so astounded by the response to this. There are so many people [in China.] It’s such a big population, but they are so disciplined — even in Hong Kong — where people are used to more freedom. Everything here is closed, and it’s incredible. But I feel that it’s going to be over soon. China is becoming the safest place now, and we will recover.
How is Balian Group and The Balancing stores coping during the current crisis?
We are government-owned, so we are supporting a lot of free rentals for our clients right now. But everyone is being hit at the moment. People aren’t coming out to shop. It’s a tough time. But we have various new online initiatives; we use WeChat groups, and each store has one we created to share targeted content. Traffic has recently slowed down a lot, as people are back to work. Before this, WeChat was doing very well when people were alternating days [at work]. Now, it’s a little bit tough. We can’t go against government advice though if they are saying stay at home.
We are starting to do a lot of livestreaming. On Tmall, we are outsourcing this to a consultant who will be our face online and is working with the sales team. Even when life gets back to normal, which I’m sure it will soon, we plan to continue this two or three times a week. It should only get better, as many second and third-tier cities are still not fully covered yet.
We will move our Pudong store in August, so we are looking for new locations and new malls which is key for our stores — not necessary from the Bailian Group this time which is interesting.
What are your favorite destinations — both at home and abroad, online or off — that you are looking forward to shopping at soon?
To be honest, I do more market research than shopping. I must say, I miss Collette in Paris and the old 10 Corso Como in Milan, and the original Dover Street Market in London. In New York, I spend my time in the Meatpacking and SoHo areas. At home, I would only buy from our stores because they have everything I want. For online, I usually opt for Farfetch.
Finally, what do you find most inspiring about the industry?
The pace because you are always a season ahead of most people, and you always encounter beautiful products — on both workmanship and creativity levels — so that’s a great feeling.