How Chinese fashion designers built their labels on e-commerce website, despite sneering even from their friends

Like every other business selling to consumers in China, independent fashion designers are taking to e-commerce to reach an audience of fashion-hungry millennials – with impressive results.

Taobao – the popular online shopping website operated by Alibaba – is known as a mass marketplace for cheap goods and knock-offs, but is rarely thought of as a breeding ground for innovative independent fashion design.

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Indeed, most sellers on Taobao’s platform are middle men, dispensing a dizzying array of products and brands to its user base of more than 580 million mobile monthly active users, 70 per cent of whom are in their twenties and thirties.

However, some of China’s top design talent is now looking to access this massive market while taking advantage of the relatively low start-up costs that come from making Taobao their base of operations.

Min Liu is the designer behind Ms Min, a Chinese designer label fast growing with an expanding number of stockists, both at home and abroad. Ms Min’s major point of difference is its unique use of Chinoiserie, a style inspired by art and design from China, and bespoke additions. It’s overtly Chinese while also being completely modern, with a focus on tailoring and custom prints thrown into the mix for good measure.

After seven years working for luxury labels in Europe, Liu returned to China and opened a store on Taobao selling pieces from her accumulated collection of vintage clothing and accessories. It was an immediate success.

“Motivated by the success of the vintage shop and disappointed by the fact that I felt girls were wearing less and less Chinese clothes for Spring Festival, I created a capsule collection for Chinese New Year of modern Chinese clothes. This was 2010 and the first Ms Min collection. The capsule was a success and the brand was born,” Liu explains.

This online popularity didn’t just bring Ms Min a customer base, but also to the attention of press and retailers. There was an element of surprise and even a certain stigma attached to being a designer brand with a price point varying from basics at around 2,500 yuan, right up to winter coats selling at almost 10,000 yuan – the equivalent of the prices of many European luxury brands in China.

Imagine being lead to an amazingly fresh underground street label by word of mouth inside the world’s largest mall. We love this idea.

Joshua Hupper, Babyghost

“Many people, friends included, looked down on the decision to sell the collection on the Taobao platform. The motivation to be on Taobao is simple convenience. It was the easiest access to the largest audience of active consumers; everyone in China shops on Taobao,” Liu says pragmatically, adding that there were other advantages, including an immediate feedback from customers.

“It offers instant gratification,” she says. “The platform allowed us to get immediate feedback, good or bad, as opposed to waiting for six months in the usual fashion cycle.

“It also allowed us immediate cash flow, enabling us to grow the business at a speed and scale that would not have been possible otherwise and be open to markets you might never get to otherwise.”

Another designer label the Taobao machine gave birth to is the Shanghai- and New York-based Babyghost, helmed by Qiaoran Huang and Joshua Hupper. The pair are pupils of designer Diane von Furstenberg and launched the brand – a favourite of hip young China things such as Ju Xiaowen – in 2010.

It had been Huang’s dream to launch her own designer brand on Taobao since her student days in Shanghai, when a latent e-commerce industry was beginning its sustained boom in China and her college dorm was inundated with packages for students obsessed with shopping online.

Like Min Liu, Hupper describes the customer feedback as a major plus for a Taobao-based business, as opposed to a traditional fashion brand set-up, with its built-in distance between design teams and its final consumers.

“Our customers post regularly what they are and what they are not happy with. Their feedback used to be something that I felt too sensitive to listen to. Now it’s become the best way to improve our designs. We love listening to what they have to say about the purchases they’ve made. It’s maybe our favourite part of the platform honestly,” he explained.

Taobao’s mass market appeal is something Babyghost has also wholeheartedly embraced.

“Taobao is like the world’s largest mall. There are millions of products and choices to be made there and it’s not an insult to call the reach that it has as ‘mass’. We believe that is one of the best places to grow a cult label, though,” Hupper says.

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“Imagine being lead to an amazingly fresh underground street label by word of mouth inside the world’s largest mall. We love this idea. That customers and fans of our brand feel special because they know about Babyghost is part of its allure.”

Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

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