Interview: Timothy Coghlan

As China becomes the world’s second largest consumer of luxury goods, industry giants are pouring into the country in constant droves hoping to gain from the riches and promises of this new goldmine.

Timothy Coghlan, author of the brilliant shares with us his insights into the local luxury industry, the future of fashion in China, and how brands can successfully engage with Chinese consumers.

Tell us about your background. What led you to the fashion industry and China?
I’m from Australia and was into street and pop culture activities like skateboarding and break dancing. Through these I became interested in street fashion and collecting sneakers. I also started to design my own T-Shirts. As a teenager I had travelled in Asia and I fell in love with it, so I went on to study Mandarin at University and did a year-long language exchange in Beijing. To make a long story short, after graduation I combined my interest in fashion and China to wind up where I am today.

Your blog, focusses on the business of fashion and luxury in China. 
Can you describe the current luxury fashion scene in the country?
Right now China is the hottest market in the world for luxury fashion. Hot in terms of all the brands coming into the market and also in terms of Chinese consumers demand and uptake of luxury brands. Chinese people are very brand conscious and also appreciate the quality and lifestyle promise that luxury products offer them.

What do Chinese consumers expect from luxury brands and what are some of their motivations for purchasing luxury products?
A main motivating factor for Chinese buying luxury goods in the past has been as a display of status. This is still relevant, but consumers (especially the young) are also maturing and enjoying luxury more because it fits into their modern international lifestyle.

From luxury brands, the basic expectations are quality, authenticity and a story of what the brand stands for, i.e. the brands culture. 

With the recent influx of luxury brands coming into China, many brands are doing their utmost to wow local customers with extravagant events and parties—notably the arrival of the Louis Vuitton in Shanghai this July; and Dior, who presented their first haute couture show on the mainland earlier in the year. 
What do you think are some of the important factors for brands to consider to successfully tap into the Chinese market? And how do you think this will impact on the local fashion scene?

For marketing and events that create brand traction, the important thing to consider are who is their target audience and how to reach them. For example, for designer fashion brands aimed at younger generations its mandatory to have a presence on weibo. For a top-end jewelry or watch brand their target consumer is likely to be more mature and discrete so private events may be more suitable.

In the end, the fashion business is about retailing, so brands have to have concrete retail strategies. Although E-commerce is on the rise, in China the store experience is vital, so in that sense brands must consider their store strategy in terms of location, image and size, etc. This is already an area which is very competitive.

Overall this is impacting the local fashion scene by creating a big gap between international and domestic brands. Mostly noticeable in the luxury and high-end space the international brands have massive budgets to market themselves and ensure the best store locations. This in turn attract the Chinese consumers and creates a spiral effect so Chinese don’t want to buy domestic brands.

But in second tier cities there are still many brands that dominate their own city, and in the fast fashion space, Chinese brands like Metersbonwe, and on E-commerce brands like Vancl are already quite strong and can compete with H&M and Zara etc.

Aiming to change the all-too-familiar adage that “Made in China equals cheap and bad quality”, many locally designed and produced brands are looking to change this stereotype. What are your thoughts on this and how do you see the future of Chinese Fashion?

It’s a funny situation. Many Chinese seem happy to use Chinese made products and appliances inside the home where they won’t be seen, but prefer foreign brand fashion and cars etc. that they show to the outside world. You may be surprised at the amount of international (luxury) brands that (at least partly) produce products in China.

As Chinese become more confident in themselves over time they will begin to revert back towards Chinese made products. One way for designers to get around this is to use their own city as a branding point. So for example, ‘Made in Shanghai’ could stand for something.

I think production wise ‘Made in China’ gets a bad wrap but actually Chinese quality is very high.

‘Designed’ in China is still an issue which will take a while to improve and China’s challenges in creating a sophisticated design environment goes deep into the Chinese culture including the education system that doesn’t encourage creativity. This will be harder to change.

Can you tell us about your personal style? What are your priorities when dressing or choosing an outfit? Where do you find inspiration?
My personal style is always evolving and now I wear suits most days. My style tends to be more understated. I try to be a little interesting and insert colour. I also like to employ the art of organized confusion with a different patterned tie, pocket square, shirt, and suit material, which on one hand all clash, but if done correctly also compliment each other perfectly.

I try to design everything myself and avoid logos at all costs.

I find inspiration everywhere. I love the patterns and costumes of feudal China and traditional Chinese colors and silks etc. Recently I was inspired to make a pair of pants by the green and orange tiles on the roof of the Forbidden City.

What are some of your favourite labels and stores?
I prefer to make my own clothes and so don’t have any particular loyalty to any brands products. Of the well known designers, the suits by Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren are the most alluring for me.

In terms of the worlds and stores the labels create I have a few favorites. The new Louis Vuitton Store in Plaza 66 is beautiful, and the Dunhill Mansion Store on Huaihai Lu is an amazing place for discovery, I always just want to sit in there and read for the afternoon. The Ralph Lauren mansions in New York, Paris and London are also like old mansion-cum-museums full of discovery and old world appeal.

Other favorite stored are select stores like United Arrows and Beams in Tokyo where I walk around and want absolutely everything and get so flustered I have to leave without anything.

Beijing Questions:
Favorite neighbourhood?

Tuanjiehu – right in CBD, but retains old Beijing charm and has old shirtless guys playing cards on the street, etc.

Favourite Beijing restaurant/cafe/bar/store?
Café – Park Hyatt 63F lobby café – comfortable, great view, and always important people around to meet.
Bar – Mohiki on Lucky street, Chaoyang Park West Road.
Store – The antique stores on South Third Ring Road.
Restaurant – The Rug, hidden inside the Lishui Garden Apartment complex opposite South Gate of Chaoyang Park.

Describe your perfect day in Beijing?
6:00 – get up and exercise for an hour
7:00 – read non fiction books and learn something
8:00 – study Chinese
9:00 – 13:00 – four solid hours of meetings, desk work, emails and/or writing to produce something tangible to show for the day
13:00 – a lunch with friends outside on a nice day
14:00 – 18:00 more work, but active, creative and inspiring, may include visiting a fabric market, drawing, location scouting
18:00 – 19:30 be outside, go for a run, or go to the park with my wife and dog, people watch
19:30 – nice dinner
21:00 – attend a international fashion event, meet the brands designer and CEO, feel the emotion of it all and become inspired to do something creative as well
23:00 – read fiction or watch an inspiring move
00:00 – bed