How Rising Designer Fang Yang Works China's Celebrity Clout

Courtesy of Fang Yang
Fang Yang

The Shanghai-based designer counts Chinese actresses like Angelababy and Cecilia Han as fans.

The influence of celebrity on luxury fashion is as potent in China as it is in the West. "Chinese pop stars have a huge influence. Take the Givenchy collaboration with famed singer Chris Lee — that sold out in a few minutes," says Shanghai-based designer Fang Yang. So how do independent brands like hers, with limited budgets, compete in a system where celebrity influence is so often bought with multi-million-dollar deals by the likes of Givenchy, Diesel and Dior?

Instead of paying hefty fees to dress celebrities, Fang has found success with a softer approach, leveraging personal friendships and connections with stylists and stars and gifting outfits to key industry figures. China's fashionable "in" crowd, including actresses Angelababy, Yang Mi, Sandra Ma and Fang's close friend, Cecilia Han, has been wooed by her combination of origami-inspired shapes, Asian handcrafts and modern Euro flair (Fang studied fashion in Paris and is fluent in French). The Sino-French vibe is underlined by the fact that the brand is run by Fang and her Parisian husband Gregoire Caillol.

 

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As a startup, they've relied on small trunk shows, personal appointments, runway presentations and collaborations with the likes of Swarovski to boost brand visibility and appeal. But the most recognizable piece of promotion they've had wasn't purchased by them — a L'Oreal China billboard and print ad in which legendary Chinese address Gong Li dons a striking, bright-red origami gown. "People we meet always reference this image," says Caillol. 

While payment for the red carpet is common in Hollywood (whether as a one-off or part of a broader partnership like Jennifer Lawrence with Dior, for example), the Chinese system is often more opaque, say fashion insiders.

"In China, there’s lots of back-handed cash exchange," argues China-based stylist and jewelry designer Yi Guo. Guo started her fashion career styling in New York, working for the likes of Vanity Fair and W Magazine before moving to take on a role at Vogue China. 

 

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Both the By Fang ready-to-wear label and Atelier by Fang couture line have been making waves on the Chinese fashion scene since 2013. Although the brand hasn't paid to dress celebrities so far, it's not something that they're opposed to. "Now, we don't have the budget and luckily haven't had to — yet," says Caillol, "but maybe in the future, if we get investors."

Today, the brand is stocked in international boutiques like Paris' Baron Y, Legacy on Thompson Street in New York and Beams in Tokyo. (Ready-to-wear prices range between $500 and $1500, while couture and bridal range from $3,000 to $25,000.) And Fang and Caillol's network now includes stylists and celebrities regularly willing to support young, local brands. When social media posts of these actresses or singers in their outfits appear on WeChat or Weibo channels (the most popular Chinese social media platforms), they often result in an immediate deluge of orders from clients. Just like in the U.S., the star effect on fashion can be powerful and all-encompassing.

But with China's native celebrity dressing system, "saturated with backhand cash deals," Guo says that it can be tricky and often expensive terrain to navigate.

"I know a lot of celebrities who chose to have 'stylists' who are basically glorified personal shoppers, and they get money or gifts as incentives to dress celebrities in certain brands," she adds. With several media platforms, and even fake "at the airport" paparazzi photos, these stylists can work with celebrities on multiple income streams. "Because I work with brands directly, I hear some real horror stories," says Guo.

A brand like Fang's has had to tread carefully to avoid these pitfalls. This month, it will be easier as she steps up her game, opening a maison couture villa in the center of Shanghai's Former French Concession — meaning that her celebrity business is likely to grow.

"It's exciting to have a space that genuinely reflects our DNA," enthuses Fang, "and yes, the continued support of local stars will be really important as we grow. There’s this new Chinese saying now, it's called 'dai huo ming xing,' that translates as 'celebrity who shifts the goods.'"

 

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