BEIJING, China — It often takes a dramatic turn of events to expose underlying issues in today’s fast-paced media business. Some say that the writing was on the wall for quite some time, but the recent exodus of three of China’s top magazine editors has nevertheless cast an air of uncertainty over the local fashion industry.
On March 13th, China’s Trends Media Group announced the resignation of its president and CEO Su Mang, citing personal reasons for her departure. Off the record, however, several media insiders close to situation say that she was compelled by the group to resign.
In the two decades since she joined its advertising team, Mang grew Trends Media Group into an 18-title magazine empire encompassing Chinese editions of Cosmopolitan and Esquire, and honed a distinctive approach to the fashion media as editorial director and executive publisher of Harper’s Bazaar China. Trends Media has stated that chairman Liu Jiang will take on the role of president following Mang’s departure, to be effective from May 8th.
Mang’s resignation marks the end of an era, while signalling a wider sea change in China’s fashion media. Last February, Shaway Yeh left her post as editorial director of Modern Weekly magazine to take on the role of group style editorial director under the magazine’s parent company Modern Media. Karchun Leung, former editor-in-chief of Numero China in the group, has taken over at the helm of Modern Weekly.
During her tenure at the title, Yeh shaped Modern Weekly into a highbrow, avant-garde and, at times, subversive glossy that reached a readership of nearly a million Chinese luxury consumers. She revealed her editorial ethos to BoF in an earlier interview: “I don’t believe that mass has to be mindless or mainstream.”
In China, the print to digital shift has been fast but drastic.
Yeh and Mang’s departures bifurcate what was known as China’s ‘Big Four Fashion Editors’, alongside Vogue China’s Angelica Cheung and Elle China’s Xiao Xue. “It’s more of a personal choice and a response to the times we live in,” Yeh tells BoF, when asked what prompted her departure. “I spent over a decade in my previous role. Now the media landscape is quite different.”
Other top media talents have recently made their own power moves. In late 2017, Dan Cui left his post as fashion director of GQ China and editor-in-chief of GQ Style to take on the role of partner and co-editor at Huasheng Media, as well as editorial director of its Chinese editions of T Magazine and Nylon Magazine. Meanwhile, Huasheng Media founder Feng Chuxuan switched gears to take the helm as editorial director of Wallpaper China. At GQ China, ex-Esquire China publisher Paco Tang filled the vacancy left by publisher Ella Wong, and deputy fashion director Anson Chen was promoted to fashion director after Cui’s departure. Deputy fashion director Jojo Qian and deputy fashion features director Xiaobin He left GQ China and followed Cui to T Magazine.
Some of these shifts are symptoms of the wider global media revolution, with digitisation as the elephant in the room. According to Wilson Chow, PwC’s global technology, media and telecommunications industry leader for China and Hong Kong, global revenue for print media will remain static at best in the next five years, whereas online and mobile advertising revenue are expected to grow at 6 percent and 15.3 percent respectively. Chow predicts that advertisers will continue to inject marketing budgets into new forms of digital advertising, as emergent technologies such as virtual reality and livestreams gain popularity. In China, where internet penetration reached 730 million at the end of 2017, the print to digital shift has been fast but drastic.
China’s already complicated media landscape has been disrupted by emergent technologies. According to iResearch, up to 400 million Chinese web users regularly watch mobile livestreams on apps such as the short video service Meipai operated by Meitu — fashion influencers have been known to make a lucrative profit from advertising own-brand clothing to legions of fans. Other players such as the e-commerce, publishing and events multi-platform Yoho! have fared well with younger audiences due to their hybrid model. It is becoming increasingly difficult for print-first fashion magazines to sustain their audiences and attract advertisers.
However, digitisation isn’t the only reason for China’s recent editorial exodus. To a certain extent, departures among top editors can be expected as part of the normal reboot that happens in the industry. But some of the current shake-up can also be attributed to a change in cultural values.
“There are more young people involved in fashion now — they’re the first ones who grew up in an international China, and a lot of them studied abroad, lived abroad,” says a director of one of China’s most well-known luxury fashion magazines, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. “China opened up to the West later and older generations weren’t growing up with the same exposure to fashion, which was often seen as frivolous and not as reputable as a career.”
Older generations see fashion as frivolous and not as reputable as a career.
The wider journalism profession is also undergoing a millennial shift: according to a 2016 survey conducted by PR Newswire, over 80 percent of China’s front-line journalists were under 30 years old. At the same time, there is growing demand for seasoned editors to adapt their expertise on new platforms to appeal to younger audiences.
Case in point: new platforms and fresh talent have been the focus of Yeh’s work since leaving Modern Weekly. Last year, Modern Media and Dazed Media’s joint venture Modern Dazed acquired a majority stake in digital content platform Nowness, where Yeh now oversees video content as co-creative director under the group’s new media division.
Yeh has also launched her creative agency Yehyehyeh. “The idea is to bring together sustainability, creativity and innovation in a three-prong attack to instigate the kind of valued-based change that our industry desperately needs now in China,” she said. “It’s about using my new passion and practice, along with my new platform, to initiate change — at first within the fashion industry to help drive it more towards sustainable and responsible development.”
GQ China’s editorial director Wang Feng told BoF last year that “there are revolutionary changes taking place at the moment that are all-encompassing [and] they aren’t limited to a [single] company or publication. What’s evolving is the essential foundation of how magazines exist as a medium [in China], from readership to business models as a whole.”
Furthermore, other changes are taking place that are outside of the industry’s control and extend to the realm of government policy. Though China’s netizens have been savvy users of VPNs and other tools to circumvent sites blocked by the government-imposed firewall such as Google, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, recent crackdowns by Beijing’s Cyberspace Administration on the country’s video streaming sites and VPNs are making it harder to stay connected.
Last year it ordered WeChat and Weibo to shutter 60 social media accounts for undermining socialist values — the likes of which included Harper’s Bazaar and For Him Magazine. Though the changes in government policy don’t have immediate and direct implications for the fashion media as a whole, the intensification and unpredictability of the media crackdown makes any Chinese editor’s job challenging.
In Other News…
Shanghai’s ‘Cloud Fashion Week’ debuts digital buying model. On March 20th, Tmall announced that it will be partnering with Shanghai Fashion Week to disrupt the traditional fashion week model. ‘Cloud Fashion Week’ — which debuted at the Autumn/Winter 2018 shows — harnessed Tmall’s Cloud Data technology to pioneer a cloud buying system, which digitises all product and buyer information as well as buyer and consumer behaviour data.
New facial recognition technology also launched at Shanghai’s Xintiandi show venue, tapping into Alibaba’s ‘New Retail’ solutions arsenal. Past New Retail launches include an AI tech-based ‘magic mirror’ allowing shoppers to try on eyewear, makeup and clothes, and a ‘Cloud Shelf’ that stores behaviour data, mobile gasification and data collected from facial recognition. The New Retail strategy encompasses Alibaba Group’s ambition to reshape retail’s online-offline disconnect, and utilise innovative technology to enrich the physical shopping experience.
AI travel translator targets Chinese globetrotters. Sogou announced on March 19th that its new travel translator — made available for pre-order exclusively on JD.com on March 12th — has already exceeded 10 million yuan ($1.59 million) in sales, topping the site’s translator product category. The gadget, which is the first of Sogou’s AI offerings alongside the Smart Translation Recorder, provides real-time speech and image translation in 18 languages to target Chinese travellers.
Although the big brands’ boutiques abroad already have Chinese speaking staff, the impact on smaller fashion boutiques in cities like Paris, London, Rome and Dubai could be significant. According to a report jointly released by China Tourism Academy and online travel agency Ctrip, Chinese tourists’ total spending on trips abroad amounted to $115 billion in 2017, when Chinese buyers made up 32 percent of the luxury goods market.
World Consumer Rights Day broadcast delivers anti-climactic result. CCTV hosted its annual World Consumer Rights Day broadcast on March 15th, which has become notorious for calling out international companies — last year, Nike was targeted for misleading advertising and Apple issued an apology for its after-sales service following 2013’s broadcast. This year, the programme called out automaker Volkswagen as well as local bike sharing firm — a subdued result compared to the programmes of recent years.
Reuters notes that brands, in fear of being shamed on the show, are becoming increasingly savvy at laying down PR groundwork, which may lead up to six months in advance. “The days that a big company would be completely caught with its pants down are largely past,” states James Feldkamp, chief executive of independent China consumer watchdog Mingjian. “Pretty much all the big corporations have their PR machines ready to jump into action, because they’ve seen what happens when companies are not prepared.”
Meitu on track for an AI pivot. Meitu, the company behind China’s most successful selfie and video editing apps including Meitu, MakeupPlus, BeautyCam and Meipai, released its financial report for the year ending 2017 on March 26th. According to the report, Meitu Inc.’s total revenue increased by 186.8 percent year-on-year to 4.528 billion yuan ($721 million). As predicted before the company’s IPO debut in Hong Kong, it broke even before the end of 2017 and reported a total of 454.7 million live users in February.
Earlier this year, Meitu partnered with Dior in launching a customised user interface for the app featuring Dior’s Miss Dior campaign. The app has also partnered with Gucci, Nars and over 100 top beauty brands to provide users with customised experiences on its photo enhancement app BeautyCam. Looking ahead, founder and chief executive Wu Xinhong has been vocal about his plans to transform Meitu from a mobile internet company to an AI company, and data and AI drivers are positioned to bring further user growth in 2018.
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