Niche brands have been causing waves on Chinese social media for years, winning the hearts and wallets of millennials and Gen-Zers who’ve been wanting unique styles over traditional luxury logos. Despite the central government’s Great Fire Wall — which it uses to stop its nationals from using social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter — Chinese fashion watchers have used VPNs to bring back a range of intriguing niche brands.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have dampened people’s interest in buying luxury, but niche brands with accessible prices are faring well with China’s middle class. A 2018 research study by the investment bank Everbright Securities said that the market size of accessible luxury, including the products of niche designer brands, would reach $17.7 billion (124.2 billion yuan) by 2020. New York-based Apede Mod’s founder Claudia Lin told Jing Daily previously that orders from China spiked during the national lockdown. In April, Bulgarian brand BY FAR launched on JD.com, a few collections were sold out within two hours.
Having noticed exponential growth from China, many niche brands have been planning direct interaction with their hardcore fans, who have been making their purchases via overseas fashion e-tailers like Shopbop and Farfetch that add on custom taxes. But with Chinese e-commerce platforms that bridge the gap between them and local consumers, these niche brands can get exposure to a wider audience and ready themselves for a future online-to-offline model in China.
Jing Daily spoke with three handbag brands that are launching e-commerce stores on WeChat and Tmall about how they’re growing in China and what their next steps in this important market will be in 2020.
Founded in New York in 2016, Apede Mod was initially designed as athleisure, taking a different position than most lines with an urban, vintage feel. “We wanted to combine fashion with utility for the handbag brand,” said co-founder Claudia Lin. “Now, we have added decorative elements and made changes to colors and materials, but the utility of the products has also been a focal point in our design.”
Despite being an Instagram darling while holding positions on many fashion media recommendation lists, the brand didn’t find fame in China until late last year. According to Lin, she noticed a rise in impressions on Chinese social media after the brand launched new products during New York and Paris fashion weeks.
Meanwhile, actress Dilraba Dilmurat’s look in the popular TV series “Love Advanced Customization” earlier this year gave the brand even more visibility. The appearance of Apede Mod’s $330 Medium Le Book, which stood out with its crocodile-embossed genuine leather and gold metal handle, helped move around the brand’s social media conversations to Chinese mainstream media.
But becoming famous has its disadvantages. Now the brand has a long wait for customers and must deal with cheap counterfeits. While the former might have a silver lining by creating a branded sense of exclusivity, the latter can damage the brand. A quick search on Tmall shows how several sellers are showcasing bags that look almost identical to Apede Mod’s hottest item: the Froggy, which is a shoulder bag with heavy golden and pearl chains. While the original item’s price is $275, counterfeiters are pricing their fake versions as low as $5.
“We are raising our own bar for quality control now that people expect more from us, which puts a hold on our production capacity,” Lin said. “As a result, customers sometimes have to wait up to three or four months, leaving room for counterfeits. It’s something we are working on.”
In 2020, Lin decided to launch an official Tmall store, but she also plans to make space for more direct-to-customer interactions. “As a native Chinese myself, my team has a natural advantage when it comes to localization,” she added, “but what customers are looking out for are design and cost-effectiveness.”
China has generated the biggest market for the London-based Yuzefi brand since its early days in 2015, according to Yuzefi’s Iranian founder and designer, Naza Youzefi. “[Chinese consumers] are the early adopters of the contemporary market and can have a big impact on a brand’s growth and success in the longer term,” she explained.
In addition to an e-commerce website with free worldwide shipping, Youzefi has already taken extra steps to appeal to its Chinese consumers, who mostly consist of millennials in first- and second-tier cities and expats living around the world.
Yuzefi is known for its sculptural designs and unconventional details. The latest season on its website includes a $580 (£460) Dolores bag, which has a half-moon curve structure, and a round top handle with a knot. There’s also a $372 (£295) Mini Bom, with an inverted gusset structure and a drawstring closure crafted out of smooth leather.
The brand’s bags are currently available in China on Tmall’s cross-border e-commerce platform, Tmall Global, JD.com, and Secoo, as well as in brick-and-mortar stores like Galeries Lafayette, Lane Crawford, and SKP-S. Now, to get closer to this crucial customer base, Yuzefi is launching an e-commerce store via the super app WeChat in July, according to Youzefi.
This year, Yuzefi is on track to grow the direct-to-customer side of its business by offering “tailored” brand experience and customer service. “A lot of our customers won’t be traveling this year, so we need to bring as much of the brand experience to them digitally as possible,” Youzefi said.
The footwear and accessories label from Bulgaria known as BY FAR took Chinese social media by storm after Chinese fashion bloggers brought the Instagram looks of supermodels Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid, and Kendall Jenner that featured the brand to Weibo and WeChat over recent years.
“The BY FAR girl is effortless, cute, empowered, and modern, and she has been very much present in China since our launch four years ago,” said the brand’s co-founder Valentina Ignatova. BY FAR was founded by Ignatova, her twin sister Sabina Gyosheva, and their lifelong friend Denitsa Bumbarova in 2016. They serve as the chief marketing officer, chief executive officer, and designer, respectively.
BY FAR aesthetic is inspired by styles from the late ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. The Mini Rachel, which has become one of the brand’s most popular handbags after being featured in street photos of Bella Hadid, is modeled on the style of the character Rachel from the classic ‘90s sitcom “Friends.” It’s a small baguette with a thin strap that now leads the “Armpit Bag” category on Chinese e-commerce platforms.
The brand first entered China through Lane Crawford in 2018 and started working with SKP-S in 2019. In total, it currently works with over 30 avenues into China — both online and offline — according to Ignatova. Thirty percent of the brand’s business comes from this market, primarily in the cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou. Its fan group is mostly millennials and Gen Zers, but it also includes a more mature segment of the market.
When asked about their future vision for the China market, Ignatova said that the “sky’s the limit! We believe this is just the beginning, and the future will show our true potential.” BY FAR will officially launch on Tmall soon, and the brand also plans to expand its physical presence via existing partners and dedicated flagship stores.