A career in fashion was not the family choice for Alison Yeung, founder of Shanghai based accessories brand Mary Ching. Citing ‘strict and conservative Chinese values’, Ms Yeung explains the pact she made with her father, where she would only be allowed to pursue fashion as a career should she first complete a degree in business.
After graduating with a BSc in Business Management at King’s College, in which time her father somewhat hoped she would change her mind, she completed a BA in Fashion at famed Central Saint Martin’s and went on to work for private equity firm W Investment, focusing on fashion as an analyst.
It was during her time with W, on a business trip to China, India and Dubai, that Ms Yeung identified an opportunity in Shanghai, to launch a homegrown luxury accessory business. Drawing on her Eurasian heritage – Yeung’s mother is British and father Chinese – Mary Ching was founded in 2008, designed as a fusion of Yeung’s own eclectic aesthetic: Asian elements with vintage fashion without ever succumbing to “East Meets West” conventions.
As all eyes fall on the increasing wealth and luxury consumption within China, Ms Yeung gives Luxury Society some insights from a Shanghai local.
Tell us about the current luxury climate in Shanghai
Shanghai’s luxury climate is in the first stages of dating – testing the scope of interest, scared to make the first move yet knowing instinctively that it feels right. Customers are aspirational, local residents are increasingly coming into substantial wealth and learning how to spend it, yet they need to be educated in both taste and brand heritage. Shanghai is steadily moving toward ‘the first kiss’; between the innocent customer and seductive brand.
When I first came to Shanghai I noticed that there were no young designers in the footwear market. There were the big boys as I refer to them, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci amongst others, but there were no ‘designer’ brands. In London or New York you could list young shoe designers on two hands, but here in Shanghai not even one finger! I took a leap of faith that Shanghai was the fashion centre of China and that young affluent professional women craved high fashion at an accessible price. I wanted to create an affordable luxury that was still unique.
How do your products and manufacturing reflect a commitment to China and the Chinese consumer?
Our mission statement, and what I believe defines Mary Ching as a business, is pioneering that we are proud to be made in China, created in Shanghai. There is a stigma associated with ‘made in China’ where most consumers believe designs are copied, mass produced and low in quality. I want to show the world that made in China can be unique, high quality and original.
In terms of manufacturing, it is now easy to see that the craftsmanship is improving, the standards are being raised and the fundamental quality of taste is maturing. I compare it to the perception of Japan twenty years ago, when it was still considered poor. Today Japan prides itself on being one of the highest quality producers in the world, even diversifying as far as Superyachts. I think those that don’t take China seriously as a quality manufacturing hub will eventually be eating their words.
“ I don’t feel that buying branded big names is indicative of a lack of support, instead it is a lack of home grown brands available in today’s market ”
In its early stages, the Chinese market seems heavily driven by branded luxury goods and logos. What challenges have you faced as a new player, with a focus on quality and design?
Aesthetically my consumer likes more: more lace, more snakeskin, and more mink. There is a niche market for minimal, understated design but there is also a niche market craving extravagance, decoration and embellishment. The beauty of the Chinese market is that there are customers for all tastes.
Young consumers in China are aspirational. Once they come into wealth, they first and foremost want to show-off their status and logo branded luxury items play a key role. However, as they become more sophisticated and confident in their own style, this philosophy will change: they will strive to become unique and seek unique brands to differentiate themselves from their contemporaries. The Chinese are instinctively patriotic, so I don’t feel that buying branded big names is indicative of a lack of support, instead I believe it is a lack of home grown brands available in today’s market.
As a local, what do you believe lies in the future of the Chinese luxury market?
I strongly believe the future lies in the rise of home-grown luxury brands, as manufacturing trends move towards manufacturing in China, for China, as opposed to export. The success stories of old world luxury brands entering and prospering in the Chinese market will be those that take the time to understand the Chinese client, looking at where brands have succeeded and where they have failed. We tend to only hear of the success stories in China, but if you dig a little deeper not all brands have succeeded here nor understood the market.
Then there are the political elements, where the Chinese government want to support home grown brands and are somewhat tired of seeing foreign power and fashion/luxury houses profiteering from their labour. For the first time they are seeing the profitability, appeal and success that they too could be part of, if China moves into producing their own. On the other side of the coin, I believe we will see a rise of Chinese-born local luxury brands entering international markets quietly, till they are acknowledged as a mistress.