China's role in the global fashion world has evolved dramatically during the past two decades, from textile-manufacturing center to massive consumer market for fast-fashion brands like Zara, H&M and The Gap as well as the world's most expensive designer labels.
Kinsen Siu, managing director of Lafayette 148 New York, is hoping there is a sweet spot for a high-end women's apparel brand that falls between these two extremes. His New York-based company opened its first retail shop in Shanghai last year, with a brand heritage that's both helpful and challenging in the mainland.
Founded in SoHo in 1996, and named after the New York neighborhood's Lafayette Street, the brand's style and image are deeply rooted in the trendy Manhattan world where they were created. The brand sells in over 400 stores in North America, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, and Nordstrom's, where its look appeals to professional women. (Lafayette 148 was also a sponsor of Ad Age's first China's Women to Watch event in Shanghai in September 2012).
While young Chinese have flocked to Manhattan-based entertainment like "Gossip Girl" and "Sex and the City," linking New York style to professional women's wear in China isn't necessarily a logical match.
But Lafayette 148 New York has an advantage over other fashion brands aimed at affluent Chinese women. It was founded by a Chinese family -- Mr. Siu's father, CEO Shunyen Siu, was born in Shantou -- making China a quick study for the company in understanding Chinese consumers, including their body type.
"The most obvious difference for this market is the sizing. We immediately had to change all the sizes [but] we have a very deep production background, so this is very doable by us. It astounds me if brands feel like they can just come to China with their standard sizing and expect it to work," Mr. Siu said this week on "Thoughtful China," an online marketing-affairs talk show produced in Shanghai.
"Being back in China has been a dream of all [my father's] life. It was just a question of the right timing," he added.
Setting up an operation in China isn't just a CEO's nostalgia for home. Apparel and accessories sales there are booming--and growing. China is expected to account for 30% of global fashion sales as early as 2017, according to a report this week in the Financial Times.
One-quarter of the world's luxury purchases last year were made by Chinese nationals, up from 5% in 2007, according to HSBC. China has overtaken Japan as "the paramount driver of growth" in the world's luxury-sales sector, according to McKinsey & Co.
Local designers like Masha Ma, Ji Chen and Chloe Chen, meanwhile, are looking to expand in the other direction, outside China. Many local designers now study at elite Western fashion schools and are further schooled under the eye of the world's leading designers. Ms. Ma, for instance, studied at Central St. Martins College of Arts and Design in London and worked for Alexander McQueen.
At the same time, their connection to Chinese culture and fashion inspirations increasingly appeal to Western consumers, said Jeffrey S. Buchman, a professor in the advertising & marketing communications department at The Fashion Institute of Technology.
"There are many unique and meaningful associations such as icons, colors, graphics, and the Art Deco chic of the '20's and '30's to the high-tech hipsters of today," Mr. Buchman said. "Importantly, there is a uniquely Chinese way of looking at the world, of relating to one's surroundings. This speaks to an aesthetic that can be used to position and differentiate Chinese fashion."