China’s Mr Bags talks about being a KOL and the country’s favourite handbag influencer
- Tao Liang became interested in handbags while at university in the US
- He has collaborated with brands, including Givenchy, Longchamp, Tod’s and Montblanc
If you ever wondered why every luxury brand trying to make it in China can’t seem to get enough of so-called KOLs (key opinion leaders), you only have to meet Mr Bags.
A graduate of the University of Southern California and Columbia University, 26-year-old Tao Liang (his real name) is arguably China’s most successful digital influencer, at least if you measure success by the ability to drive sales.
Boasting a huge following on WeChat and Weibo, China’s largest social-media networks, Mr Bags has worked on capsule collections with luxury brands such as Givenchy, Longchamp and Montblanc.
Last year, he teamed up with leather goods house Tod’s for a special dog-inspired Lunar New Year range that sold out within minutes. While Liang had already collaborated with several brands before working with Tod’s, this was the first time he was involved in the design of the products, as he explained when we met him in Hong Kong late last year.
He was in Hong Kong to present Tod’s latest range of bags to his fans, who showed up in droves for a chance to meet him at one of the brand’s boutiques. “Tod’s was the first brand that let me participate in the design process,” he says. “It took more than eight months to make the New Year collection. We even went to Italy to work with the team at the factory.”
But how did Liang become a sort of “bag whisperer”? He says that as a university student in Los Angeles and then New York, while some of his fellow Asian classmates developed passions for playing video games or basketball, he fell in love with luxury bags and loved going on shopping sprees with his friends.
“During my last year in college, I didn’t know what to do because I was very undecided after studying finance,” he says. “My parents work in finance so they wanted me to do finance because finance people think that you only make money in finance; they don’t think of other possibilities. You know like children of doctors don’t want to be doctors? It was the same for me. I didn’t want to do finance.”
It didn’t take long for him to realise that he could turn his passion for handbags into a full-time job but even after he started getting some traction while still in the US, his parents were not entirely happy with his career choice. “Only after I started working with big brands and celebrities like Fan Bingbing they thought that perhaps this was a real business,” he says.
Fan, a former ambassador for brand such as Louis Vuitton, Montblanc and De Beers, has recently made headlines for a tax scandal that caused her downfall in China. Liang says that when companies team up with KOLs or celebrities, there are things that they can’t possibly control. “Brands need to be cautious when they work with a big celebrity in China,” he explains. “They get lots of exposure but when there’s a scandal the effect is mainly on the celebrities, not really on the brands associated with them.”
One issue that often comes up with KOLs is authenticity. When you work with different brands, how do you maintain your integrity without alienating your fans, who trust your opinions to be genuine and unbiased? “This is key for me and I really try our best to maintain that,” says Liang. “One of my advantages is that until not long ago I was based in the US so I wasn’t exposed to all the brand partnerships and advertising that the KOLs were doing in China so my content was 100 per cent pure editorial, but then I started working with brands and get first hand information while also giving my followers the right information and guidance.”
So how does Mr Bags, a young man with an innate fashion sense and an encyclopedic knowledge of handbags, guide his avid followers and win their trust? He only works with brands that his fans “naturally love” and turns down offers all the time. As for Tod’s in particular, there’s a special connection with as the first pair of expensive shoes that Liang bought for himself was a pair of Tod’s Gommino.
His influence in China is so pervasive that when he rechristened Tod’s Wave bag ‘big mouth’ because of the shape of the front zip, the Chinese began to refer to it as “the big mouth bag”.
Liang’s fan base is mostly female (about 90 per cent of his followers, according to him), and he feels that being a man is not a hindrance. On the contrary, by virtue of being a guy, he’s able to provide useful and unbiased advice. “My name is Mr Bags and lots of people find this name interesting but also confusing because generally bags are for women,” he says. “Normally when girls shop for a bag they don’t think too much and buy it right away, on impulse, so I help them think more rationally. For example, I categorise all the bags and tell them which ones are the classic pieces and the ones that have more staying power and the most iconic ones so I provide some logic behind their purchases. I think that as a guy I’m more objective and I can give them useful tips. I tell them that if you buy a bag that you can use in your life and enjoy it then you feel that your money is well spent and worth it.”
While Liang is planning more limited-edition collections in the future – “After the first year’s successful collaboration we both felt that the natural progression would be to partner again and strengthen our valuable relationship,” says Tod’s owner Diego Della Valle – he believes that his editorial work must come first. “Many people think that KOLs just have fancy lives and go everywhere for fun but in China we have so many channels, like WeChat and Weibo, so it’s really a lot,” he says. “I was just updating my channels on the way here. Editorial content is more important for me; 60 per cent of what we do is still editorial.”
Achieving the right balance between organic content and more remunerative ad-driven projects is the key factor in a KOL’s success, something that is not always as easy as it seems and that Liang has so far deftly mastered.