The challenges of Ever faster fashion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am


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Fast fashion brands are known for quick responses to shifts in trends and managing product life cycles that are often measured in only weeks.

On the mainland fast fashion is all of the above, plus - the 'fast' in fast fashion means to expand as quickly as possible.

While international clothing giants like Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and Gap are speeding up their shop openings in the country, some newcomers are turning to e-commerce as a faster and more cost-efficient way to tap the market.

Image Collection, a Japanese brand targeting young women, last month said it would enter the mainland market by selling its clothes through local high-end online retailer xiu.com. The website is also the online operator for BCBG, Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton on the mainland.

'The fashion market in Japan is shrinking, but China's is rising,' said Masakazu Myoga, chief executive of Image Group. 'We are well aware of how intense the competition is in China, but we decided to come as it is very close to Japan and it has many fans of Japanese fashion.'

The potential of the fashion market in China is huge, with more affluent shoppers willing to spend up on European fashions. A study by the Boston Consulting Group forecast that total fashion spending by Chinese consumers could reach 1.3 trillion yuan (HK$1.6 trillion) by 2020.

The importance of fashion in the retail mix is evident in the choices made by shopping centres, which prefer to lease their best locations to big foreign fashion names as a way of enticing young consumers to their outlets and improving their image.

Spanish brand Zara has the biggest presence of all foreign brands on the mainland, with 120 outlets by the end of last year. Sweden's H&M now runs more than 70 and says China will be its expansion focus this year, while Japan's mass fashion brand Uniqlo operates 143 shops on the mainland and in Hong Kong and Taiwan and has big expansion plans.

Earlier this year, British fashion label Topshop had established its first flagship store in Shenzhen, and US teen brands Hollister and Forever 21 also aim to expand into key mainland cities.

'The foreign players are very confident about their future in the China market,' said Hong Dongni, a merchandising adviser with Golden Wisdom Fashion Brands Management Consulting Centre in Beijing. 'They believe they can beat local companies easily with stronger brand power, better operating and management skills and lower prices.'

But the China market is more complicated than many expect.

Uniqlo, for example, suffered setbacks when it arrived in 2002. It had to close its two stores in Beijing in the same year due to poor sales.

A turning point then came in 2009 when the company started to sell products on China's largest shopping portal taobao.com. Online sales have more than doubled in each of the past three years.

A spokeswoman said the brand would stick to its double-channel sales strategy in the long run, operating online and offline shops at the same time.

'More brands will choose to expand in China on the internet rather than on the street,' said Hong.

The rising cost of opening shops and a limited number of top locations are major challenges facing fast fashion retailers.

Felissimo, one of the largest catalogue retailers in Japan, opened its first mainland shop in downtown Beijing in 1999 to sell Lohas (lifestyles of health and sustainability) clothing and lifestyle products priced between 200 and 500 yuan. It opened six more in the following decade.

But Yoshitsugu Tatsuka, general manager of the company's China arm, said sales were sluggish during the early years.

In 2005, it tested the online waters by setting up its own shopping portal, and later closed six of its seven shops in 2009 to focus on e-commerce. The company has recently begun to profit from the China market.

Yet Yoshitsugu drew a clear line between his brand and fast fashion labels. 'Fast fashion brands compete on price, but brands like ours compete on value,' he said 'Our target is not to be the number one, but the only one in the market.'

After dominating the market, some major players became notorious for quality problems.

In recent years big names such as Zara and H&M were reported to have mislabelled their products or failed to meet required colour-fastness standards.

Hong, however, expects fast fashion will continue to be a fast-growing market on the mainland for a long time despite the prospect that more consumers, especially in first-tier cities, may turn to other options for better quality and exclusivity.

'In the world of fashion there's no single successful business model for all time. Maybe in 10 years people will start to pursue slow fashion. Who knows?' Hong said.