For New York Fashion Week, Alibaba’s B2C e-commerce platform Tmall sponsored its third seasonal China Day with a lineup of runway shows featuring Chinese labels from across a broad spectrum of China’s fashion industry representing the theme of “China Cool.” Tmall has made significant strides in attracting American fashion labels to its platform in recent months, with Michael Kors, Tory Burch, and Everlane recently opening official Tmall flagships, while Coach just officially announced that it will be re-joining the platform. As it has also been increasing its roster of European fashion labels, the e-tailer is expanding China Day to Paris Fashion Week and Milan Fashion Week this year as well. For more information on Tmall’s international fashion initiatives, we interviewed Tmall Head of Fashion for North America James Lin, who discussed how Tmall’s data can identify trends and what brands need to do to succeed in China.
What are the benefits for brands participating in these Tmall runway shows?
Tmall is known first and foremost as the gateway for foreign brands to reach Chinese consumers, but this is the other way around—it’s something a little different, where we bring these Chinese brands and offer them this global platform.
Would you say the benefit for brands participating is bigger internationally or within China?
Honestly, it’s both. We’re livestreaming all of their fashion shows; there are certain collections being launched immediately as they walk down the runway. From a short-term strategy, they’ll feel the effects in China. For the long-term strategy, it’s about building their brand abroad. We chose these five brands because they represent this heritage Chinese trend combined with this burgeoning youth consumer trend that’s happening, and how they adapt and make these cool again. We think the U.S. market and the European market will respond really well to that.
Are there any ways in which the Chinese consumer is pushing the needle in the fashion world?
Even beyond product, the whole idea of experiences and activations—that’s been first and foremost driven by the Chinese consumer. They’re always looking for the next thing to do and experience. Many of these consumers in China don’t necessarily have a brand flagship store in their Tier 3 or Tier 4 cities, so they’re looking for an experience to understand the brand that way.
We yield a lot of consumer insights as part of our platform; during Paris Fashion Week, we’ll be releasing a trend report. It’s a combination of what we’re seeing both in market and also what we’re being fed from our platform. This year’s fashion shows are actually partially driven by the trends and consumer insights that we gave them—the utilitarian outerwear, crop tops, the second skin, the jewel tones, the oversized blazers—were all driven from insights from us. We gave them to the designers very early on for them to consider that as they moved forward with their collection.
Have any of the Western fashion brands utilized this data in their designs yet?
Whenever brands launch, I’ll connect them to someone with consumer insights in our company, and they will actually do an assortment and purchases based upon our consumer insights. Whenever they have a discussion with us, we’re fully aware of their brand at their price level at their peer group, and can assess what types of products they should be purchasing for their launch. They are using it all the time at this point.
Is there a fashion brand that you point to that you feel has gotten China right?
I’m not going to point out a single brand but I can give some key things I’ve noticed about how a brand can launch successfully. Not only considering the first- and second-tier cities, but also considering the third- and fourth-tier cities, and engaging with those consumers, is number one. It’s not a box solution. Very frankly, China is not a bandaid to a business that is not doing well. It will not solve your revenue problems. It is investment; it requires work; it requires a team. If you can understand that, then you’re already ahead.
Tmall is built around branding and marketing and experiences. It’s very much that today and that has to apply to your brand as well. I always tell brands, “I’m not here to tell you to ruin your brand DNA or guide it in a way that you’re not comfortable with, but understand that you will have to adapt your current strategy to fit what the Chinese consumer is one, used to, and two, looking for or hungry for.”
What are challenges for Western brands trying to work in a more digitally sophisticated market like China?
Americans are used to Amazon. You go to Amazon to save time. You go on Tmall to spend time. Just that mentality alone takes a little bit for someone to understand. We have 700 million consumers on our app. Every single person has a different homepage. It’s about personalization. They don’t understand the big consumer knowledge and insight that we have that’s built into our platform.
Everlane recently launched on Tmall. How does the journey work for smaller DTC brands that aren’t as established in the China market?
Our consumers are hungry for brands. Yes, there’s a burgeoning luxury market in China. Nobody questions that. There’s also a lot of people looking for different brands. We’re growing our brand portfolio every single day to make sure that whatever our consumer wants, whatever they’re looking for, we can offer a selection of that for them. There’s always room for brands that have a point of view.
This interview has been condensed for length.