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Chinese models hit runways around the globe

By Jo Kent, CNN
  • Website: 7.1 percent of models at New York Fashion Week were Asian
  • Chinese consumers will spend $9 billion in 2010 on luxury products
  • Chinese luxury goods consumption moves designers to use Chinese models
  • Luxury brands also stepping up their presence in the China market

Beijing, China (CNN) -- When the willowy Liu Wen stepped onto the runway at New York Fashion Week this season, she finally began to see a parade of models who looked increasingly like her: This fall, major design houses featured a number of Chinese models in fashion weeks as part of a bid by the firms to boost their sales in China.

"We are making history every day," said Liu, 22. Widely considered to be China's top model, the tour guide-turned-runway star from Hunan Province was among the most-booked models at fashion weeks in 2010, second only to French model Constance Jablonski.

It is a world that Liu's parents could not imagine when they grew up. Liu's designer-clad image is a giant leap from the monochrome gray-and-navy blue suits that crowded the streets of China just a few decades ago.

Today, Liu's image is splashed across fashion magazines, runways and designer brands around the world.

Asian models, led by a group of emerging Chinese faces, broke records this season, accounting for 7.1 percent of all models at New York Fashion Week, according to a seasonal survey by, a blog targeting women's interests, and Chinese state media. Chinese women made 296 appearances, with Liu Wen, Shu Pei, Fei Fei Sun, Du Juan, Emma Pei and newcomer Ming Xi, gracing the catwalks for major design houses.

Despite significant growth in 2010, the luxury markets in the traditional fashion capitals in the U.S. and Europe have not fully rebounded from the financial crisis. Luxury brand companies hope consumption in emerging markets like China will drive the market's growth as the Western economies continue to recover.

Chinese consumers will spend $9 billion in 2010 on luxury products, up from $7.5 billion last year, according to research by Shanghai-based consulting firm, China Market Research Group (CMR). CMR expects the market to grow by 20 percent annually for the next ten years.

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As a result, luxury brand firms are seizing a critical moment to focus on Chinese participants in the global luxury industry in a new way.

"Luxury companies want to create an emotional connection with Chinese consumers ... So they're trying to feature models who Chinese consumers will aspire to."
--Shaun Rein, managing director of CMR, a firm tracking China's luxury consumption

"People are savvy now, they dress to impress," said Shaun Rein, managing director of CMR, a company that closely tracks China's luxury consumption. "Everyone knows someone who was a pig farmer who now drives a Mercedes."

"Companies are no longer saying, 'whatever works at home will work in China,'" Rein said. "Luxury companies want to create an emotional connection with Chinese consumers, show respect and set themselves apart. So they're trying to feature models who Chinese consumers will aspire to."

The evidence is on the runways of Chanel, Dior, Marc Jacobs and 3.1 Phillip Lim, from New York to Paris to Beijing. And the effect is trickling down.

Beyond haute couture, Liu Wen and her counterparts have been breaking ethnic barriers for ready-to-wear labels and cosmetics. Liu was the first Asian model to tread the catwalk for Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in 2009. Earlier this year, Liu cemented her superstar status by inking a deal to become the first Asian face of cosmetics behemoth Estee Lauder.

Ann Wu, communications director for Estee Lauder China, said the company believes Liu will define beauty for the next generation of customers. Next month, Estee Lauder will launch a line of cosmetics and lipsticks exclusively sold in China, promoted by Liu.

"Liu represents beauty that can go beyond borders," Wu said. "Indeed, Estee Lauder values the Chinese market very much."

Other companies do, too. Earlier this year, Milan fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna chose to celebrate its 100th anniversary in Shanghai instead of Italy, demonstrating CEO Gildo Zegna's focus on the future -- in China.

"If you don't get (China), I think you go backward," Zegna told the state-run China Daily. Zegna's chief designer Alessandro Sartori agreed: "Milan is where we were born and Shanghai is where our future lies."

Hermes recently announced it is strengthening its commitment to the Chinese luxury market. The company is taking advantage of its famous name to launch Shang Xia, a less expensive satellite label designed by Hermes to be exclusively sold in China.

By testing the water for exclusive products in China first, Shang Xia's representative Angela Hua said Hermes was taking a new approach to China's market by prioritizing the Chinese customer first.

"If Shang Xia goes well here, we will consider opening more stores in other countries," Hua said.

It is a strategic move that could well pay off for Hermes. Of the billions to be spent on luxury products by China's consumers this year, only 40 percent will be derived from purchases in the mainland, according to CMR. Ultra-rich shoppers make most of their purchases in Europe or the U.S. for social cachet, wider selection and better prices.

In China, companies are focusing on targeting a younger demographic that is spending their cash at home.

"To increase their sales, companies are targeting younger women, for example, a secretary making $800 a month but hoping to purchase a $1,000 Gucci bag," said Rein of CMR. "They'll save three or four months of their salary to buy an item."

Despite their limited spending power now, experts predict that winning Chinese customers' attention and trust when they are young will pay off.

"You're seeing Chinese culture become more well-known outside of China," said Ray Ally, a Beijing-based branding and consumer expert at Landor Associates. "The fashion industry is picking up on that and capitalizing on that trend."