China's Women to Watch

With Vivian Chen, H&M Is Adapting Western Fast-Fashion for China

Part of Retailer's Success In China Has Come From Getting the Details Right

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Fast-fashion chains are pouring into China as millions of young adults head into the work force -- and the dating pool -- and need to look good on a budget.

"Chinese love to shop, but growing up in Nanjing, consumers of my generation didn't understand Western fashion. They just copied Hong Kong trends," said 32-year-old Vivian Chen, China marketing manager at Hennes & Mauritz, or H&M as the Swedish fashion retailer is better known.

Vivian Chen
Vivian Chen

Today's young adults are far more fashion conscious, thanks to rising incomes and the popularity of style websites, magazines and reality shows such as "Creative Sky," similar to "Project Runway."

"The trend is clear: Fast fashion will dominate the retail fashion market in the next five years, gradually changing consumers' consumption behavior," said Ms. Chen. The former Ogilvy & Mather PR executive joined H&M in 2007 to oversee marketing, advertising and social media in China, where the global retailer now operates 85 stores in 33 cities.

For international brands like H&M, that means getting sizes and styles right. "We do focus groups with customers to improve the sizes and choose the right colors," said Ms. Chen.

For example, H&M sells men's hats in green, but not in China, where the phrase "wearing a green hat" refers to a cuckold. And forget about summer dresses with playful daisies. White flowers are associated with death in China.

Affordable fast fashion is a relative term among young Chinese. A $35 H&M sweater is a bargain in the West, but per capita disposable income in Shanghai, China's wealthiest city, was just $5,760 in 2011.

H&M is building a foundation in China's second- and third-tier markets, where disposable income, and fashion sense, are still in the early stages, Ms. Chen said. "Many lower-tier consumers don't know how to wear the clothes, how to mix and match."

Distribution is another challenge for H&M as well as rivals such as U.S.-based Gap, Japan's Uniqlo and Spain's Zara. In China, H&M works with 60 developers, many of whom have never heard of the brand.

Even so, H&M is thriving there -- its 2011 sales totaled $539.4 million, up 42% from the previous year.

Ms. Chen identifies digital media as her next challenge, working with key opinion leaders online to raise the brand's profile and expanding e-commerce sales through partnerships with online retailers.