China’s luxury market took a hit in 2022, ending a five-year run of growth in the region as it faced the aftermath of lengthy lockdowns and heightened Covid-19 measures. However, as 2023 progresses, it appears the sector is once again on its way up, as brands and retailers cautiously emerge from confinement and begin to reinvent themselves for both the domestic and global industry. This is according to Bain & Company, which forecasted that China was expected to see positive conditions already return before the end of Q1 this year.
This optimism is something that showrooms in China are beginning to latch on to, as displayed in a slew of fashion industry events that have resurged after three years. Marketing agency Dia Creative Communications is one of those relying on the growing anticipation of the year ahead. The company once again took to the fashion season with the launch of its Tube Showroom concept, a project it initially debuted in 2015 that looks to showcase and promote young designers by connecting them with a wider network of brands, media and sales channels – contrasting the traditional function of a showroom.
For autumn/winter 2023, the biannual showroom followed the theme ‘Trek n Trek Inspired Hiking’, through which it looked to celebrate young designers and the stories they presented for the upcoming buying period. The agency also kicked off its 16th season alongside Shanghai Fashion Week, which it is promptly following up with the opening of a new experimental retail concept Dia Underground on April 8, where 59 designer brands – 38 of which were ready-to-wear – will exhibit their new collections.
The space is launching as a response to the offset of the lengthy lockdowns in the region, as noted by Dia’s founder Zemria Xu, who told FashionUnited: “The epidemic must have had a very big impact on every industry, and because of this difficult challenge, we decided to take the plunge and open the Dia Underground retail space to create a more complete platform for designer brands to showcase their concepts and aesthetics, and also to do more marketing assistance and merchandise testing for our partner buying shops while experimenting with retail.”
While Dia’s selection of brands fall in line with the demands of China’s current fashion climate, which has placed an importance on the localisation of both production and brands – something that has also been evident on a global scale as a result of the pandemic – the desire to continue amplifying connections on an international scale remains distinct. This is reflected in the choice of brands for the retail space, which Xu said were selected for their ability to show more distinctive Chinese aesthetic in order to “create an emotional resonance between consumers and brands for artistic and inspirational creations” while exhibiting the country’s design values to the global fashion industry.
Such a mission was present in the approach some brands took in their collections, where design language was focused on the exploration of China’s cultural heritage in a contemporary way. While Fabric Qorn used humour to portray its take on these values, ready-to-wear brand Nonsense Official explored the attitudes of young Chinese people as its way of experimenting with cultural significance. Many of the brands Tube represents were also participants in Shanghai Fashion Week this season, which returned to the limelight once again after three years of cancellations. Held between multiple venues around the city, with the most central being in the Xintiandi district, the fashion week ran for 10-days starting March 23 and boasted a programme of over 70 designers.
Showing in Shanghai comes with a range of opportunities for participants, namely that of providing a platform to showcase the latest products and concepts. Xu added: “As a showroom dedicated to promoting independent designer brands, by participating in Shanghai Fashion Week we are able to better showcase and promote these quality brands in China, attract more attention from domestic and international buyers and media, end channels and consumers, and provide more sales opportunities and business collaboration opportunities for the brands.” Those linked to Tube further cemented and exhibited the showrooms’ efforts to support the local industry while strengthening ties with international connections in their respective presentations.
Intercontinental: from collaborations to a physical presence
It must be noted that many of the brands presenting under Tube already have their own international presence, but opted to show at Shanghai Fashion Week this year to back the country’s revival and for their own convenience. A significant part of a handful of shows was notable collaborations with global brands. For Shie Lyu, who founded her brand in New York before moving back to China, this came in the form of a partnership with British designer Stella McCartney. While Lyu centred her theme around ‘Land Mermaids’, seen in fishtail inspired detailings, her idea to transform suit fabrics came from her creative corporation with McCartney, through which the duo have exchanged a set of their own designs for the other to freely modify. Like McCartney, Lyu also adheres to the concept of sustainability using her own zero-waste production technology. Her values were also present through support from Japan’s Ultrasuede, an artificial substitute for suede leather, which allowed her to use materials that are made to endure.
Another to look towards the outside world for collaboration was Staffonly, which partnered with American footwear brand Ugg for its ‘Orbit Voyagers’ show. For the show, Ugg supplied styles from its Foamo Slide and Tasman series, further bolstering the otherworldly feel the brand wanted to portray. The concept for the shoes was co-created with industrial designer Ah Bin, who developed a concept that utilised 3D printing technology to produce silhouettes that took on gravity-defying forms. Like the shoes, the rest of the collection also drew inspiration from worlds beyond, particularly referencing the planet Saturn, as seen in the prominent use of looped details and ringed prints.
Meanwhile, other brands were simply returning to their home country after stepping away from Shanghai in the years prior. Milan Fashion Week attendee Shuting Qiu had taken to living in Europe for several months before coming back to the city to present her autumn/winter 2023 line, with the goal of opening up a new vision for designers. Her time in the Western continent was mirrored in her inspiration for the collection, with references to Czech abstract painter Frantisek Kupka, whose work appeared in the use of floral patterns and prints. Sustainability and tech were also present in the line, with 60 percent of fabrics made of more sustainable and environmentally friendly materials – as noted in a release – and artificial intelligence (AI) incorporated into the creation of bodysuits.
Shushu/Tong is another that has begun testing the waters of the international market. Launched in 2015, the brand has already gained an industry-wide reputation and has set up retail bases around the world, including at Dover Street Market’s London and New York stores and in online retailers like Farfetch and MatchesFashion. The label is led by designer duo Liushu Lei and Yutong Jiang, who both returned to China to set the brand up after graduating from London College of Fashion, pointing at their intention of remaining immersed in their roots.
For this season, Shushu/Tong followed the theme ‘Backrooms’, an urban legend that originated in an online forum in 2019, where users would post images of unsettling empty rooms that could only be accessed via an online cheat that takes users out of reality. To tackle this topic, the designers explored the idea of the everyday world’s restrained atmosphere under an established order. Here, they unfolded a narrative around the sense of uniform, with looks that held clean and geometric structures. While seemingly sticking to classic tailoring techniques, pieces looked to adapt viewers perceptions by incorporating fabrics and embellishments that aimed to dismantle this established formality, further emphasised by the use of scattered diamonds and looks that attempted to trigger a sense of contemplation, such as a dress with no arms.
With its portfolio of brands that have already grabbed the attention of international retailers and consumers, Dia Communications is hoping that it can expand this strategy across its entire offering. Founder Xu added: “In recent years, the Tube Showroom platform has seen the birth of many brands that are active on the international fashion scene and have opened their own offline retail shops, and as one of our partners in the growth of brands, we also see the importance of design expression and communication in offline retail spaces, like the Dia Underground we are preparing, to allow consumers to establish a deeper connection with brands.”
Currently, the showroom’s clients consist mainly of stores, of which they aim to connect with ones that have a good understanding of design and support the brands to the fullest. Their clientele has not yet extended to the end consumer, but Xu did note that its network of buyers have become younger and more internationally-minded over the past few years, further driving the industry-wide shift. She concluded: “This has given us more confidence in the commercial development of designer brands.”