Photo Credit: Design by Wang Siqi; elements from Lucrezia Seu

Factory to Fashion: China’s Fashion Industry in Transformation

Insights from designers and industry experts on how China evolved from the world’s clothing manufacturer to an emerging fashion hub

China has been the leading global producer and exporter of apparel for over a decade, but it’s also now the world’s biggest fashion market measured by apparel and footwear sales. As of 2021, 170,000 apparel companies were employing over 8 million people in China.

From big corporations to independent designers, Chinese brands are finding success in the local market and abroad. Flourishing e-commerce, the shifting taste of local consumers, and brands’ need to expand overseas are driving the evolution of China’s fashion industry. In this podcast episode, we talk to a Chinese designer and fashion insiders about the industry’s recent changes. We dive into how a young fashion designer can create a brand, and explore how the Chinese fashion industry might impact your life more than you thought.


CK Zhang is a fashion designer based in Guangzhou, and the founder of Saianzi, a China-based fashion brand.

Li Boyan is a fashion photographer based in Paris.

Lucrezia (Lulu) Seu is a marketing and fashion expert based in Shanghai and founder of Plush Consulting.

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The following are excerpts from the transcript of the episode (edited for clarity):


Aladin: Back in the day, say 10 or 15 years ago, people saw China as the factory of the world: where we have our products made cheaper. But as time went by, Chinese companies started to make their own products. Now we see Chinese electric vehicles, for example, entering European markets, along with phone brands like Huawei or Xiaomi, and so on. Is there a parallel in Chinese factories making clothes taking the same path as has happened with cars and phones?

Lulu: I believe there are three main factors contributing to this shift from just being a production-focused industry to creating brands. First of all, as the manufacturers and the factories here in China gained experience and expertise, they realized that by making products of their own or working with local brands, they could make more margin. At the same time, the purchasing power of Chinese customers has grown, as has the acceptability of spending money on local products. Later, there was also no more major difference in quality or perception between some imported and local products. These three factors have contributed to where we are today, where we have a portion of the industry still catering to production only, and a portion of the industry that caters to creativity, innovation, and the creation of new brands.


Aladin: So CK, you started your own brand recently. Could you share a little bit about why you entered this industry?

CK: I’m a part of a larger trend of Chinese students attending school abroad to get art degrees. Fashion is always what I wanted to do. Our brand is very niche and very small because of the high price range, smaller market, and more limited sales channels. But in China, production is a lot easier. There are a lot of traders helping clients oversee production within China. They work with niche designer clients from Paris or Milan, connecting them with local production in China.


Aladin: So designers like CK would be at the beginning of the production chain, while at the end of the production line, on the marketing side, we would have photographers like Boyan. Could you share your recent experiences?

Boyan: I had a lot of clients from China from the beginning. There are four fashion weeks in Paris a year. So mostly I worked with influencers, celebrities, or Chinese magazine editors, shooting during the show. Then I also got requests from Chinese brands who have a lot of stores in China. Most of them went to France to take photos and videos for publicity in China. But they’re not interested in the European market. They make a lot of sales in China.

Lulu: Chinese brands, especially more commercial fashion groups, used to do photoshoots abroad to show that they are international. But now more brands don’t need to enforce this narrative. They can say that these are Chinese brands and they don’t need to justify that, and they can form whatever narrative based on their authentic inspirations and concepts that have come from China.

Boyan: I also got more requests for Asian or Chinese models for the shooting recently, which was not the situation before. Big brands from China used to ask for European models or other nationalities.

Lulu: Consumers want to be represented. And it makes sense that if you buy products, especially if you buy cosmetics, you want to see it represented on a skin tone that is similar to yours. When it comes to clothing, it makes sense that it would fit your own lifestyle. Also, with the rise of social media, a lot of consumers base their research or their purchasing choices on online influencers.


Aladin: Could you share how important self-media is becoming for fashion brands and designers?

CK: Social media has become one of the major ways to promote your own brand, especially when you’re small. It’s also one of the fastest ways to create a social media presence as the designer to represent your brand. All my peers do it. I have a friend who’s really good at promoting himself, so his brand grew fast with his followers growing rapidly on all the social media channels. Social media content is definitely very important.

Boyan: I agree. Brands also send their content from commercial shootings, like campaigns and lookbooks, to influencers for them to make some social media content and to do some advertising on their own platforms. It’s almost as important as commercial publicity.


Aladin: It’s also interesting to see big Chinese groups buying brands abroad to expand their portfolio.

Lulu: I worked with a big fashion group in China called Semir. On top of having their local brands, they have invested and bought licenses for foreign brands. We were consulting for the international brands that they just brought into the group, which is always a very interesting task because you have to maintain the identity of the brand and how the brand is known abroad. But at the same time find ways to localize it and make it relevant to the consumers here. In terms of this kind of acquisition of foreign brands, I think it’s because when groups have resources, they want to expand. It’s more cost-effective to buy a brand and try to localize it and make it relevant in China than to start a brand from zero, whether this brand is international or local.

CK: It’s also common for Chinese capital groups to invest in foreign brands. That’s what happened to the company that I worked at before, Alexander Wang. It’s much easier to buy or invest in a brand already successful and well-acknowledged internationally. So, they quickly opened many more stores in China and North America and expanded their sales channels.


Aladin: Where do you think the Chinese fashion industry is heading in the future?

CK: Your opening remarks are actually connected to this question: The whole parallel to Chinese electronics going abroad. Shein is a great example of a Chinese apparel company expanding into the European or North American markets. There are many other similar apparel trading companies from China taking a huge market share abroad. Another example is the swimwear brand Cupshe. These companies only focus on foreign markets and have grown rapidly and they are now some of the biggest clients of Google in terms of online promotion.

Lulu: Another huge trend is social media becoming an e-commerce platform. More consumers are happy buying through live streaming. In my job, I have to adapt this strategy for clients, who probably would not consider it before. But now, it’s either doing your own live streaming of the brand or working with influencers specialized in this realm. In China, social media platforms are already made to support this trend. But Instagram and other Western counterparts are still trying to figure out how to monetize this trend.

The Middle Earth Podcast
is your source of insight into China’s culture industry, where you can hear from people creating and producing content in the world’s second-biggest cultural market. Hosted by Aladin Farré, and presented by The World of Chinese magazine.


author Aladin Farré

Aladin Farré is the founder and host of Middle Earth Podcast and a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

author Liu Jue (刘珏)

Liu Jue is the co-managing editor of The World of Chinese Magazine. She has been working for TWOC since 2012. She is interested in covering history, traditional culture, and Chinese language.