Independent fashion magazines are on the rise in China as they focus on style outside the mainstream
Publications such as Rouge Fashion Book are looking to create something edgy and arty for the expanding Chinese niche market, bypassing China’s tight media controls with a Chinese and an American version
China hasa huge number of native digital users, with a youth culture obsessed with online celebrities and almost a billion monthly active users on the dominant social media platform, WeChat.
In this environment, launching a costly niche fashion magazine seems counter-intuitive, and yet that is exactly what Lily Chou and Calvin Luo, an independent fashion designer, have done.
Rouge Fashion Book, really more of a biannual coffee table book than a magazine, recently launched its second issue with a party during Shanghai Fashion Week. Editor Lily Chou, a 22-year-old with a master’s degree in fashion history from Parsons, was inspired by international publications such as Carine Roitfeld’s CR Fashion Book to create something edgy, arty and fashion forward-thinking for the Chinese market.
“Now everything is very celebrity driven and people are craving for more. I have already passed the phase where Vogue is everything I need. For us, we are looking for people who are photographers, are artists, someone who really wants to get involved and wants much more.
“For a lot of ordinary people, fashion is a fantasy, it’s about luxury, but they don’t take it as art. I want people who take it seriously to pay attention to us,” she says.
Chou is quick to admit that not everyone is willing, or able, to part with 200 yuan (US$31) on a regular basis for her publication. But of the total number of fans who follow and like their content on social media platforms Weibo and WeChat, she estimates 20 per cent can afford the magazine.
She hopes they’ll be more willing to part with their cash for a product that offers something outside of the mainstream.
“If you want to know what is the newest lipstick shade of the season, you can see that from Gogoboi’s post, or from some random blogger, you don’t have to buy Vogue to get that. I mean, Vogue exists for a reason, they invite readers to enter into this world, to understand what is fashion, what is print,” she says.
Leaf Greener, a former fashion editor at Elle China and now the publisher of Leaf, a niche WeChat-based magazine, sees parallels between the luxury fashion consumer market and the fashion media market.
“It’s the same as the consumer evolution, they start with big labels and then they get to know themselves and they try new brands, maybe some independent designers, it’s the same thing as the fashion media,” Greener says.
“I think the audience in the future is already going down for the mass-market magazines, it’s a global issue. In the future, the mass market will all become digital. But if people want to read print it’s going to be something more like the bookazine. The bookazine is collectable, you love it and you want to keep it. That will be the print magazine market.”
Samantha Culp, a writer, editor and curator, has been fascinated by independently published “zines” since she was a teenager in the US. When she moved to China, her interest followed her and she has spent years tracking, collecting and exhibiting independent publications from around the country, even taking a selection from China to the Los Angeles Art Book Fair for three years running.
“When I first moved to Beijing in 2008, there was a couple of people who were interested or actively making works in this kind of vein or consuming them. Now I would say, unequivocally there are tonnes of people who are interested in this, so that is quite exciting. The whole community and the sense that there is something happening in China has exploded over the past 10 years,” she says.
This being said, even if there is a demand for such publications, the nature of China’s tightly controlled media environment makes it difficult for any kind of independent media to flourish.
“You cannot have independent magazines in China because of the political situation, magazine titles are very strictly restricted. For individuals, or even big brand companies, to have a politically acknowledged title you need to be in the pool and there are only 200 titles or so there, so you can’t do such a publication from a legal perspective,” explains Peter Xu, a key opinion leader, blogger, stylist and broadcaster, who is sceptical about the landscape for independent magazines in China for this reason.
Though she admits she is “so afraid of censorship in China”, Chou and the team at Rouge Fashion Book are attempting to work around this system by publishing two versions of each edition, one with a Chinese international standard book number [ISBN] that conforms to local laws and another with an American ISBN that is sold overseas and to the limited number of retailers in China with a special licence to distribute foreign media.
Culp says her interviews and collaborations with creators of independently published works in China actually revealed a greater feeling of freedom when producing limited-edition printed works, compared with online publishing.
“For WeChat, Weibo, the online publication of creative content, because of the nature of digital surveillance, it can automatically be flagged if there is something sensitive – or something it’s suddenly decided has become sensitive, some keyword or topic or image,” she says.
“Because of the nature of these small scale offline publications, there are risks there, but in a funny way, there’s a sense of a little more freedom at the edges. Like anything else, it’s a gamble – maybe no one’s ever going to see it.
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“That also could be why there’s this feeling that there’s a little bit more space, it’s a little looser. There’s more room to try and experiment, subconsciously that must be one reason it’s appealing to people.”