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.