The founding editor of Vogue China, launched eight years ago to instant acclaim and catering to an increasingly sophisticated market of affluent, stylish women, talks to Libby Powell
Vogue China has more pages than any other Vogue edition. How did that happen?
We launched in 2005 just as the Chinese market was ready to take a step forward in terms of luxury and lifestyle. We used the best photographers, supermodels and stylists to tailor-make high-quality materials for Chinese audiences. The night before the launch I couldn’t sleep. I had vision of piles of magazines on the newsstand and nobody buying them. But by 10am we started to get complaints from people who couldn’t find a copy. By lunchtime we had sold out. I am so pleased we didn’t underestimate the market. I always go back to the Ford comparison: If you asked people what they wanted back then they would say a faster horse, until you showed them a car.
How has China’s fashion industry changed?
As people’s living standards have risen, they have become more confident. They want to wear Chinese designs, not because they are cheaper but because they like the style. Chinese consumers are more aware; they also travel. It’s easier and easier to afford designer clothes but it’s not just about the price tag. They want to feel they belong to the savvy fashion elite.
Is there a place for traditional Chinese culture in new fashion trends?
Traditional Chinese culture that was once considered old fashioned is going through a revival. People are looking at their roots and trying to find a new language to interpret that. Ultimately, Chinese designers want to find that voice that is both Chinese and international; both traditional and modern. I am glad to see those experiments move beyond the simple symbols of ‘Chineseness’, like dragons. They are finding more sophisticated ways of expressing their Chinese influence: a new interpretation that suits the modern lifestyle. People don’t think their roots are something to leave behind anymore.
Is the idea of vintage fashion now acceptable?
Among many of the young fashion lovers, wearing vintage clothes has become a sign of sophistication. This was unheard of a few years ago. Vintage clothes have come back with a new identity. If you know what you are doing with fashion, you can call it vintage. If not, they just remain second-hand clothes.
Is China’s view of beauty changing?
International photographers all try to shoot Chinese models in a way that they think the Chinese should look like, particularly with thin, long eyes. Even when models do not have thin, long eyes, they try to make their eyes thin and long through make-up. Sometimes they won’t want to shoot a model because she doesn’t look ‘Chinese’ enough. These stereotypes come from the Western perspective, but Chinese women have moved on. They wear the same Western clothes and the lifestyle in Beijing and Shanghai is ‘internationally’ urban. Yet Western photographers continue to look for ‘old China’. There is no need to create a sense of mystery around Chinese women. They are not that different.
Do you feel you have a role in promoting women’s empowerment?
One reason I feel Vogue China is successful is that we are the first Vogue magazine that promotes an identity for women. I believe Vogue China is the one Vogue that really has a soul. I have seen some very unhappy rich women. You can have the latest clothes and jewellery but, deep down, you need to feel the world needs you. While we build up the fashionable side of the Vogue China woman, we are also building up her mental side: to be brave enough to have the courage to face challenges with ease and confidence. We don’t lecture in the magazine. We share stories of other women and how they balance life and keep an upbeat, positive attitude. In the modern world, people are so troubled. It is very important to keep a positive outlook or otherwise there are many reasons why you would want to top yourself.
Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
To be honest, I don’t see myself as a feminist. I don’t fight for women’s power or influence. In the 80s, women had to look powerful and this was reflected in their clothes: big shoulders to make them look stronger. But even back then, when I was in school, I felt that, as a woman, you should argue that you are good because you are a person and not because you are a woman. Gender should not come into the discussion. Our readers happen to be women. But I don’t think we are a feminist publication. The confidence we promote is expressed in a very relaxed, understated way. In the fashion industries, you tend to remain among the main world cities and most people I know in Chinese urban areas are not into feminism. But in the countryside it can be more of an issue. Everybody knows about reports of abandoned baby girls but that is, by and large, in the countryside. Most of my friends want to have daughters because we are in the fashion industry.
Has motherhood changed you?
I have become more tolerant. I feel that my whole focus on identity within Vogue China initially came from the thought: what kind of woman do I want my daughter to become? Because that is the kind of woman I want my readers to become. I don’t want my daughter to just become a clothes horse. I want her clothes to reflect her sense of self and give her the confidence to meet the world.
First issue: 2005
(UK edition: 1916)
16 editions per year
(UK: 12 per year)
Average number of pages: 450
Chinese designers to watch:
Yang Du, 33, from Dalian, has worked with Giles Deacon, Vivienne Westwood and Galliano.
Huishan Zhang, 28, from Qingdao, sold out his first autumn/winter collection within a month at Browns.