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Tianwei Zhang: Writing to bridge the gulf between China and the West

WWD’s London/China Market Editor discusses the virtues of learning on the job rather than the classroom, the cultural ignorance around China in fashion, and why you need to be able to tell WeChat from Weibo.

 

2019
18th July

Nowadays, it seems like any fashion writer worth their salt needs to be a jack of all trades, able to produce lucid prose on anything tangentially fashion-related at the drop of a hat. An ability to turn your hands to any of the topics that intersect with the industry is certainly a valuable skill, but discovering and honing in on your personal niche can often be just as important in setting you apart from the crowd. One writer that has proven his ability to do both is Tianwei Zhang, the current London/China Market Editor at Women’s Wear Daily (WWD).

China-born, but now based in London, Zhang has forged a career from the plural cultural perspectives that his education and subsequent career have given him, keeping one foot firmly in his immediate western fashion environments, with the other anchored in the goings-on of his homeland’s buzzy scenes. In doing so, he has become a reliable bridger of the gap between Chinese and western fashion contexts, helping to curb the misinformation that those looking to enter the Chinese market have traditionally faced. First moving to London in 2013 to undertake a master’s degree in Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins, Zhang dove straight into the London’s journalistic scene, interning at The Business of Fashion (BoF) while still at school. “Right from the moment he arrived at Central Saint Martins, he always seemed one step ahead,” says Roger Tredre, Zhang’s course tutor at CSM.“He fitted in very quickly and very impressively into life in the UK.” 

After BoF received funding to launch a Chinese edition, Zhang was brought on as a permanent hire, and held a position at the fashion media start-up for 6 years. Over the course of his tenure, Zhang oversaw the organic growth of the platform’s Chinese following, accruing a six-figure following in his time there; he was also responsible for the development and launch of the BoF China prize, which just a few weeks ago was awarded to designer Caroline Hu at a reception in Paris.

Zhang’s most recent career move saw him take up his current position at trade title WWD. Armed with a contact book and cultural familiarity that allow him to break stories that few others can, his work offers invaluable, clear insights into a market that has previously been clouded by prejudiced misconceptions.

“Getting into Central Saint Martins really isn’t about what you learn at school, it’s about the doors that it opens for you.”

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you become interested in fashion and why did you choose to study in London?

It was because of Style.com actually! When I was in high school, I would go on there and look at show reviews. Before that, fashion to me was something really distant. It was through Style.com that I realised there’s an intellectual perspective to fashion, and that’s when I decided that maybe being a journalist and writing interesting things about fashion was what I wanted to do. 

In China, I didn’t have a background in either fashion or journalism. I studied a bachelor’s degree in marketing, but after four years of that, it was about time that I pursued what I actually wanted to do. By that time, I’d already been writing for Chinese publications since I was 18 years old, so I had a good idea that Central Saint Martins probably had one of the best fashion journalism courses in the world, so I applied for that.

Can you tell me more about your first time writing about fashion?

I started a fashion blog at the age of 14, it was called ‘The Fashion House of Tea’. I would review each issue of Vogue China, debunking it from cover to cover, page by page, and thinking as a critic: What is good in this issue? What’s not? What’s performing, what’s not performing? I would count how many advertisements they had and things like that. 

By that time, I got some attention from fashion editors and people who were into fashion in China to notice me. An editor from Elle and another from Harper’s Bazaar left a comment on my blog. When I graduated high school at 18, an editor from Cosmo reached out asking me to write a column, so I did!

Even though I didn’t study journalism, I wrote my way through university life in China. Then, after four years of experience as an official contributor, I needed to legitimise what I was doing with a qualification, so I applied for Central Saint Martins. So, I guess, to answer your first question, the reason I came to London is because of Central Saint Martins.

I got a C+ at graduation. My energy wasn’t there at all, but sometimes that’s the trade-off you have to make. I think that my career has been an extension of my education. It’s real life, real time problems and questions that need to be solved, and everyone is looking at you for a solution. University is a launchpad, but the rest is up to you.”

How was your experience at CSM? 

You know what, getting into Central Saint Martins really isn’t about what you learn at school, it’s about the doors that it opens for you. It’s an access pass to a club that entitles you to talk to people. 

With designers, you have a common bond because a lot of them spend ages at CSM from foundation to BA to MA, and they see you as family the moment you tell them you went to the same school. It’s very beneficial when it comes to being a journalist because sometimes you need to peel back the layers to ask them very sensitive questions. 

In your opinion, how can students begin to lay the foundations of their careers while still in school? Is there something particular you did? 

I joined Business of Fashion in the middle of my course, and because I worked so hard at BoF, I got a C+ at graduation. My energy wasn’t there at all, but sometimes that’s the trade-off you have to make. I think that my career has been an extension of my education—I learned way more during those years at BoF – that’s real life, real time problems and questions that need to be solved, and everyone is looking at you for a solution. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s a good learning experience. University is a launchpad, but the rest is up to you.

It takes guts to dive into a start-up so early in your career and trust it will work out. How did your role at BoF evolve compared to when you first started?

Back then I was thinking: ‘What’s the most I can lose? In the worst case, I go back to China, become a fashion editor at some magazine and I’ll still have a good life. But I’ll only live once, and I am in my twenties. So, why not do something that I’ve never thought about doing?’ 

When I joined it was a tiny start-up with no more than 15 people and they had very high expectations of what to deliver. My boss always joked with me that the company expects you to make miracles happen with zero investment. I can comfortably say I kind of made that happen. Looking back now, by the time I left we had 150K subscribers on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform – which is almost half the number we have on the global newsletter. All of those followers are organic too. I have to say though, I didn’t really enjoy pure business reporting because I like fashion fashion as well. 

Even though business is a very large part of the industry, it’s not usually thought in a course like fashion journalism. So how did you get yourself into a business mindset? 

I really appreciated my boss at BoF, Robb Young, who kind of forced me to get in touch with the owners of all the Chinese fashion companies that the fashion press traditionally looks down upon, as they’re not considered to be as polished as luxury brands, even though they have thousands of stores across China.

It took me years to finally appreciate what these businesses are capable of. Nowadays, Chinese companies can compete directly with established European brands. They are becoming global power players by snatching up everything in the West. For example, Chinese retailer Icicle bought Carven, and Fosun bought Lanvin. I think that, over the next ten years, we’re going to see Chinese money buying up everything. I’ve been really lucky to have built this platform and to have documented this very moment from the beginning of the process.

“Whether a person has WeChat or not is a great indicator of how well they know China. If you email Chinese people, they will never reply; if you send them a WeChat message, they will reply to you in 30 seconds.”

How has living in the UK helped you navigate both European and Asian fashion markets? 

I travel back to China a lot, 4-5 times a year. Every two or three months I go back for a few weeks so I’m always in touch with people on the ground. What’s more, because of WeChat, I’m able to connect with everyone seamlessly. I can remain in touch with everyone while still having a life in London.

Being in London allows me to understand what the West wants to know and what the misconceptions are. When I’m consulting or writing an article, I know exactly how to paint the picture for the western reader because, sometimes, unless you really pay attention to China, a lot of people still think of it as an oppressed country. The fact is that the coastal region of China is as wealthy as Spain or Finland. My role, both with BoF and now with WWD, is to shed light on the things that are super interesting, but that no one knows about.

My goal is to provide substantial, useful business intelligence to help companies make more informed decisions when entering the Chinese market. I realised that a lot of the companies only see China as a lucrative business market, but they don’t have the know-how or local guidance to help them through it. I feel that I understand both markets and I can really help them really navigate that. 

Communication is constantly evolving, especially in China with new platforms like WeChat. How has this changed fashion journalism for you and your way of working?

Whether a person has WeChat or not is a great indicator of how well they know China. Everyone I’ve met here that has business relationships with China is on WeChat. From people at the BFC to fashion brands, to big PR companies like Karla Otto or Purple. As long as they are dealing with Chinese clients, advertisers or sponsors, they will have to use WeChat to communicate. If you email Chinese people, they will never reply; if you send them a WeChat message, they will reply to you in 30 seconds. 

Because of the nature of my job, I’m in touch with lots of Western brands and Chinese brands as well. I realised that communication is key. They all want the same thing but just from their own personal perspective and their own language. Of course, that creates a lucrative business for agencies, but I still believe that, even though digital communications are really convenient these days, face to face communication, having a drink over a business dinner, for example, is still very useful, especially with Chinese business people.

While you were at BoF you worked on the BoF China Summit and Prize. How important was being part of these initiatives, and how have they changed your career path?

I worked on the China Summit and I helped to arrange the guest speakers, but what I really came up with was the BoF China Prize. Fundamentally, I still see myself as a journalist, but I can’t see why a journalist can’t be more creative and business-savvy, especially when I’m covering fashion business at the forefront of the industry. 

Launching the BoF China Prize was my attempt to prove that I can bring in a big sum of money with a meaningful initiative. The winner gets 100,000 US dollars and shows at London Fashion Week on the official calendar. Media today isn’t just about communicating and sharing information, it’s also about making an impact on the industry. 

I abandoned my ego a long time ago. Sometimes, to speak with a person, I’ll do whatever I can for them to talk to me. That’s what a journalist does and there’s no shame in that. You just need to keep showing up.”

What is something different that you are bringing to your new role at WWD?

WWD has been around for 110 years, the things they have done over those eleven decades is crazy. I’m really proud to be a part of a new journey where I can use my knowledge to help this legacy media brand create something interesting that’s linked to the globalisation of fashion at the moment. 

I believe I’m their first Chinese China hire in recent history. They have people that covered China before, but they’ve been foreigners who lived in China and covered it from an external point of view. For me, what I can bring to the table is an internal perspective on the Chinese fashion industry. My role is to get things out the moment something happens on the ground, so there’s no delay in the transaction of information between East and West. For a global media company these days, seamless communication is very important.

There’s a lot more attention on China and there are lots of business opportunities that the Chinese want to grasp here. Mutual communication has become increasingly important and there’s a big opportunity there to highlight things that people don’t see. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve only highlighted maybe 1% of the wider Chinese fashion industry and it will take a big team to unearth the reality of what’s going on within it. 

What’s your opinion on the relevance of print issues, particularly given that you’ve worked at publications that are more journalistically focused than they are editorially?

Before I came to London, I worked in fashion magazines in China for a long time as a contributor, so I know how print works. Having worked in news-oriented publications for a few years, I don’t see why they couldn’t find a middle ground. But I do believe social media blurred the line; there’s no definite line between editorial magazines and a news-oriented newspaper any more. We all want a slice of each other’s thing. Prints do daily news story online, and newspapers do more long features and shoots these days as well. 

Also, I don’t believe print is dead. I see value in print. I still buy lots of magazines, and they are perfect for interior decoration and gathering dust. There’s ever more value in trade titles, it really takes a team to run a news organisation. Not one influencer can replace what we’re doing, but ten influencers can replace any fashion magazine. Basically, all the sectors from a fashion magazine (lifestyle, fashion, food, travel) are being taken away by influencers. But a trade title like WWD or BoF becomes more meaningful because it’s above the system and it’s a look-down approach. 

Favourite designers at the moment?

Mine always change. I’m not very loyal in terms of favouring designers, I believe you need to have universal love for people so that you can remain receptive to new things. If you only have one preferred designer over time, it can restrict your point of view. 

At the moment, I think Ximon Lee is doing really well. What he does conceptually and visually is outstanding. He did an amazing show in Shanghai and he did another show in Paris, which was nice as well. 

Another designer I really like in London is Ryan Lo. His practice is based on Hong-Kong referencing Japan, Japan referencing western culture. I find it particularly interesting because I grew up in a similar way to him. When I look at his clothes, I know exactly which Japanese anime or which characters he’s referencing. 

Are there any fashion writers you look up to?

I think it will always be Tim Blanks. He was in many ways, the reason why I wanted to work as a journalist, and he’s also a really lovely person. Who knew that we would become colleagues for two and a half years! 

Do you have any advice for young fashion journalists starting out? 

Don’t be afraid. When I first started at BoF, I was really frustrated because I really didn’t know where it was going. Robb would say, if we are not making money in the first two years we might potentially have to fold. So, I was really scared because it wasn’t just me losing a job, but also the opportunity to live in London. Looking back, I would tell myself that as long as you work really hard, things will work out. And it turned out the company needed you more than you need them.

Also,  people always say it’s a very saturated market, but the reality is that it’s a market with a lot of business opportunities. It’s just up to you to craft your niche and really go for it. 

This can be a very tough industry to set out into; how have you navigated it? 

I abandoned my ego a long time ago. Sometimes, to speak with a person, I’ll do whatever I can for them to talk to me. That’s what a journalist does and there’s no shame in that. You just need to keep showing up. It doesn’t matter what you do, but if you keep showing up for five years, everyone will know who you are. That’s something I would tell the five-years-ago me that was studying at Saint Martins. Persevere, work hard and deliver. Always deliver, no matter how hard it is. That’s how you build credibility. And if you’re talented enough to have good work out there that people know, you’re a star already.

Images courtesy of Tianwei Zhang