What fashion media can learn from China

Written on November 2021

Western fashion magazines in China have to reinvent themselves through social media, opening up new opportunities in the digital age.

Western fashion magazines in China are adapting to a new style of working since setting up in Beijing and Shanghai. From Condé Nast’s Vogue and GQ through to independent titles such as Wonderland, they are building fan communities in China and changing the way that fashion media operate.

 

The figures are impressive. Harper’s Bazaar in China, for example, has 18.4 million followers on Weibo and 135 thousand subscribers on Xiaohongshu, China’s current most popular social media platform.

 

In China, social media is the primary channel for fashion media to stay connected with subscribers. “No one reads magazines in China anymore,” admits Sherry Li, editor-in-chief of digital at Bazaar China.

 

Angelica Cheung, former editor-in-chief of Vogue China, used to say, “If it’s in Vogue but not online, it’s never done.” Changes in people’s social habits have reinvented media communication in China and encouraged fashion print media to follow suit. “Social media offer visibility to our work,” Li says.

 

Dominant social media platforms include Official Account on WeChat, Xiaohongshu, Douyin and Weibo. These platforms have content combined with shopping access built into the apps. Together, they provide super-fast communication between business and followers, eliciting a faster circle of consumer behaviour.

 

China’s social media world includes different styles of platforms, each with a different personality. On Xiaohongshu, Bazaar China shares behind-the-scenes documents to quench readers’ thirst for the private side of celebrities. It also provides a platform for content that doesn’t fit into print issues, such as beauty tutorials. “How-to features are the most popular in China because they’re what we call dry material – things that are useful and come in handy – instructional,” explains Li.

 

WeChat send daily feeds directly to users, allowing magazines to connect with their readers efficiently with articles and multi-media content. GQ China pioneered WeChat management using Webtoon in 2017. Webtoon is a type of digital comic designed to be read on smartphones. It incepts a trend for fashion magazines to produce contents that not only suits Chinese readers’ interests but also their social behaviour which heavily relies on smartphones. Li recalls, “They redefined the game for magazines’ social media, and many then followed.” Content on GQ’s WeChat is relatable and fun to read. The titles tell the stories: “Straight guys: I’m at the bottom of the beauty pyramid”, “Spiritually Beijing vs spiritually Shanghai vs Spiritually Chengdu” and “Everybody has been gay for while”. Weibo, by contrast, is used as a Chinese version of Twitter.

 

Innovative technologies and feature functions provide fashion magazines with different opportunities to build personalities online. However, it takes sustained effort to fully  embrace new modules. “Social media is personal. But magazines can’t be personalised. We stay at the opposite side to what social media is looking for,” Li comments; a perennial paradox indeed.

 

With influencers and vloggers competing on different platforms every day in China, fashion magazines lack the unique elements that make them compatible for social media. Their competitors are no longer other publications but individual players.  

 

Fashion vlogger duo Ahalolo has nearly 1 million followers across Chinese social media platforms, including notably 600K followers on Bilibili, China’s highest streaming video website. The two, who both graduated from University of the Arts London, share fashion-related knowledge in their videos, such as Dior’s brand history.

 

Inky Peng, creative producer at Nowness China, finds this phenomenon intriguing. “Traditional fashion magazines are gate-keepers. Their roles are not to educate readers about fundamental fashion knowledge.”

 

Vloggers like Ahalolo fill the gap between perception and the consumption in China. They help Chinese consumers understand what brands are selling. Brands in return pay for influencers to support their marketing. Traditional magazines are left out of the mix.

 

However, brands and influencers have to do it subtly in order not to annoy subscribers with hard advertisements. “This is why follower numbers on Bilibili are considered more valuable in China,” Li says. Bilibili’s videos, like YouTube’s, are usually longer and require more patience to finish watching. Vloggers can softly bring up promotions during the video, as followers have been watching thus far, they’re more likely to accept and carry on. “The relationship between subscribers and vloggers is more like friends,” explains Li. Therefore, Bilibili’s fan community has a more sustainable loyalty.

 

Traditional magazines wouldn’t be able to provide this experience. Their authority, now sheered out by social media creators, are difficult to embrace.

 

“When you use social media right, it’s effective and practical to enhance your performance in China,” says Yoanna Liu, fashion features director at Bazaar China. China’s highly digitalised lifestyle leaves fashion magazines having to find new ways to reinvent themselves.

 

“Leading figures in live commerce, such as Li Jia Qi and Wei Ya, have significantly helped brands build their reputation and promoted sales. Dior Beauty’s collaboration with KOLs and the app Xiaohongshu is very successful for example,” Liu notes.

 

Fashion magazines are under pressure as never before. “At a time when everybody can be some kind of source online, why would the readers choose you?” Li asks, rhetorically.

 

Print may be on the way out. Dazed China, produced under joint license from the UK’s Dazed Media and China’s reputable e-commerce and media group Yoho!, has now reduced to an online version after a few seasons in print.

 

Although Western fashion magazines are no strangers to social media management, it takes insiders’ perspective for them to stay relevant in China. Yoanna Liu told Fashion at Central Saint Martins, a six-episode podcast, “When I was at CSM ten years ago, we learned everything from the west. But today I think it’s time for us to tell them how to make a successful business in China. This market is so special – you can’t manage a brand in China through someone who’s sitting in a New York or Paris office.”

 

Nowness China, acquired by Chinese publisher Modern Media, has a China-based strategy. “Brands who collaborated with us wouldn’t be expecting Nowness to replicate what they have done somewhere else. They are looking for something relatable and exclusive to the Chinese community,” Peng says.

 

For fashion magazines to stay relevant in China requires people who understand the culture and its connections. “There’s something in Chinese culture that remains untranslatable. If you know, you know.” Liu says. 

 

Western fashion businesses, media and brands alike, need to sharpen up fast. China is the largest luxury market in the world. Social media is a goo