This is the final article in a series published to mark Taipei’s designation as the 2016 World Design Capital.
Charin Yeh got her start creating clothes for her family out of leftover rice bags from mills near her house. When an army unit was stationed in her village, she upgraded to reusing the fabrics they left behind. Now, more than three decades after launching her fashion brand in 1985, Yeh markets her apparel in 21 stores around Taiwan and has enjoyed success matched by few other Taiwanese designers.
Until the 1980s, Taiwanese designers rarely ventured beyond taking creative roles within Taiwan’s manufacturing and trading companies. As the economy grew more prosperous, however, some local designers like Yeh began to establish their own brands.
While the number of Taiwanese fashion designers has grown over the years, aided by design programs set up at various local universities, the challenges faced by designers are also more daunting than before. In the past, local department stores provided a ready platform to help them launch their brands, and the market was “less competitive than it is now,” Yeh recalls.
Taiwan’s fashion designers now compete against Western brands for both retail space and customers, and department stores tend to reserve few spots for domestically designed apparel. Customers typically prefer imported goods, and designers are hard-pressed to develop a sustainable business model.
In many ways, Taiwan’s fashion industry is still at a starting point, decades after its establishment, notes designer Athena Chuang. The industry remains so small “that you cannot even sense it,” she says. In addition to the stiff competition from developed brands, designers have to struggle to find investors willing to put brand development over short-term returns and manufacturers willing to produce small-batch orders. Many new designers show just one or two collections before being forced to cease operations.
Nevertheless, some observers see new opportunities arising for the industry, as the novelty of foreign products has begun to wane and local consumers come to better appreciate the value of Taiwanese goods. While near-term profitability is still often emphasized over brand development, designers are learning to navigate the tricky business of staying true to their brand concept while earning enough money to continue to operate.
Taiwan’s fashion industry likely will never come close to rivaling those of Paris, Tokyo, or New York, but then again it doesn’t have to. Taiwan’s diverse cultural background provides a fruitful resource for designers to draw from, notes Justin Huang, president of the Taiwan Textile Federation. Taiwanese designers must pay attention to the trends originating in the West, he says, but there is also plenty at home to inspire them.
Designer Austin Wu first attracted attention by winning the reality television show Super Designer in 2011. The following year, he won the Taiwan Fashion Design Award. Wu had jumped into the fashion industry soon after graduation from Shih Chien University by launching two lines: one targeted at regular customers and a select line sold to celebrities. But despite holding a degree in fashion and having gone through these grueling competitions, Wu says he has sometimes felt unprepared for the world he has entered.
He notes that certain flaws are common among young designers: the expectation that success will come easily and a lack of clear vision for their brand. They expect their garments to fly off the shelves, but quickly discover that building a brand is an extremely complex undertaking. “In Taiwan, we still lack enough education in the business aspects of the design industry,” Wu laments.
One frequent challenge for new designers is gaining access to suitable retail space. Since most designers lack the initial capital to open their own stores, they generally must promote their brands through department stores or smaller retail outlets.
When Charin Yeh broke into the business, department stores were much more profitable than they are today and Western brands had not yet saturated the Taiwanese market. At the age of 34, she began selling her garments in a popular local department store, and with the owner’s encouragement, started her own brand. In those days, the department stores were all locally owned, and they were more focused on local designers. “Now the department stores come mainly from Japan or other countries, so they tend to emphasize international brands,” she says.
Eslite appears to be one of the few havens for young designers these days. The opportunity to have a pop-up store in Eslite encouraged Lu Xue Zheng, a designer of culturally influenced clothes with a modern twist, to expand his brand. When the pop-up opportunity ended, however, he was left without a distribution channel. A few stores showed interest in Lu’s brand, but the consignment model that is the general practice ties up designers’ capital while they wait for their clothes to sell. Payment is not only late but less than generous. Young designers are not in a strong negotiating position, Lu explains, with the result that stores often take 30-40% of the profits.
At the same time, it is hard to find business partners or outside investors in Taiwan, particularly those who recognize the importance of long-term brand development. Athena Chuang considers herself fortunate to have financial support from InDesign, a subset of Taiwan’s Yulon Group that seeks to promote young designers in Taiwan.
Chuang’s background includes study at the Istituto Marangoni and several years working for the Italian luxury fashion house Fendi. Now out on her own, she says she strives for the same level of excellence as was expected at Fendi, where resources were no object, but finds that managing her own brand requires a different skill set. Balancing brand development and profitability is a constant challenge. This fall she plans to launch a more commercial sport-chic brand in order to have more freedom with the luxury brand.
Utilizing trade shows
Early in his career, Lu Xue Zheng exhibited at Hong Kong Fashion Week, where his designs were well received. Still, the experience failed to open doors for the young designer because he did not know the ins and outs of conducting business at this kind of show – from setting up the right kind of booth to pitching potential customers. By trial and error, he has gradually learned this side of the business over the years, but similar challenges discourage many young designers. Trade shows can be the key to brand development, but they are costly to participate in – and lack of proper preparation can mean lost opportunities.
The TTF’s Huang gives the example of a young designer who exhibited at an international trade fair as part of a Federation pavilion. When a buyer inquired about the price of a displayed bag, the designer immediately responded “US$1,000” instead of asking for more pertinent details that would affect the price calculation. Huang notes that he should have asked a series of questions: “How many pieces? When will the order be placed? Do you need any modifications? Any manuals? Who will provide the packaging?”
Even domestically, designers frequently run into difficulty managing the manufacturing of their lines. “Young designers cannot easily find factories to give them long-term service,” says Huang. “Because their orders are so small, they usually have to beg small factories to take their orders.” Late delivery is often an issue because the factories don’t attach priority to these small batch orders, he adds. Taiwanese designers often receive their goods six week after new collections were shown, which impacts sales and the opportunity for expansion.
Organizations like TTF and InDesign try to provide assistance to help designers overcome the obstacles they face, but they can only do so much. Huang says he encourages young designers to learn the industry by working at a larger company before branching out on their own.
How do you decide between two brands of similar style and price? In Taiwan, if one of those brands is from the West or Japan, it will almost always receive preference over a Taiwanese product, says Chuang. She says she often faces this situation, especially since she is selling at a high price point. “When customers see that this is a Taiwanese designer, they’ll say ‘oh no no no, I’ll go somewhere else,’” she notes.
Chuang finds that this partiality in Taiwan toward foreign brands and predisposition against high-priced local products is changing with each generation, but the change is coming too slowly to allow her to focus only on the Taiwanese market. For some other designers, such as Lu and Yeh, their Eastern-influenced brand concepts allow them to reach customers who appreciate their unique designs and do not compare them with long-established Western brands.
Taking another perspective, Huang notes that the apparel business always depends on fashion trends. “Now who is defining the trend?” he asks before supplying his own answer: “Western people.” His point is that any designer hoping to gain international acceptance must have a good basic understanding of Western markets. Even domestically oriented brands must recognize the influence of Western fashion on local trends.
With the industry so centered in the West, how can Taiwanese designers carve out their space in the market? Taiwan’s complex history may provide reason for hope. “In Taiwan, we’ve had many different kinds of cultural impact – American, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch, English, Chinese – so it’s very much diversified,” says Huang. He suggests that designers use this diverse cultural history to their advantage to create unique designs that draw from Taiwan’s many influences.
The most prominent example of a Taiwanese brand that has successfully leveraged its Eastern background is SHIATZY CHEN. Launched in 1978, “SHIATZY CHEN’s distinctive fashion label was born as the ‘neo-Chinese Chic’ that transformed designs re-interpreting traditional Chinese history and culture into unique stylish avant-garde silhouettes and styles,” explained founder Shiatzy Chen by email. The brand has presented more than a dozen collections at Paris Fashion Week, and has a presence around the globe.
Lu Xue Zheng also recognized the importance of utilizing Taiwanese culture early on. “When I started my label, I thought: ‘What is unique design? What is special about my design?” he says. Lu decided to modernize aspects of Taiwanese culture, making traditional Taiwanese styles accessible and practical for people today. And instead of following the usual practice of photographing his apparel as worn by a foreign model in front of a modern building, he arranged the photo shoot for one of his collections to take place in a traditional Taiwanese market.
Although fashion trends are still often dictated by the West, Lu says Taiwanese designers can carve out a niche by drawing on their cultural background to create designs that people haven’t seen before. His only international experience, in Hong Kong, has left him feeling optimistic about the potential reception abroad for his Taiwanese-inspired designs. He says he just needs a business partner with the money and know-how to help him make it.
The success of SHIATZY CHEN in developing international brand recognition will not be easy to replicate, in part because of the money involved, but also because it is hard to become widely known when you come from a market of just 23 million people, especially when that market doesn’t quite know what to make of its homegrown designers.
Yeh’s transition to culturally influenced design, in fact, occurred only after she felt secure in her brand’s profitability. But it has proven to be a fruitful decision. Yeh and Lu both now have a loyal customer base for their apparel, usually women above the age of 30 who have the financial means – and cultural appreciation – to buy their work.
Austin Wu, on the other hand, has found that a balance between Eastern and Western influences is possible. His work tends to be inspired by his life experiences, with the most recent collection derived from a trip to the German design school Bauhaus. “The difference I have found between Western and Eastern designers, is that in Asia we tend to use more emotional stories to present the brand,” he says. “Our designs are more low-profile in appearance, but more important are the inside feelings.”
Clearly, both positive and negative changes have occurred in the decades since Chen and Yeh first launched their brands. While department stores are no longer the source of support that they once were, the internet provides a low-cost virtual store. Although Chen and Yeh benefitted from a more localized Taiwanese market in the 1980s, a larger swath of the population able to afford their designs is available to Chuang, Lu, and Wu.
While each designer has shown a willingness to persevere in Taiwan’s fashion industry, some of them cite forces outside of Taiwan’s control that may impede the development of the industry.
Huang notes the recent growth in cross-Strait friction, which may limit the possibilities for designers to expand into the Chinese market. Designers have occasionally encountered difficulty even getting their samples through customs on the way to mainland trade shows.
Chen adds that “the big environment is getting tougher because of the uncertainties of economics, politics, and even the climate,” making it harder for small businesses to prosper. She urges young designers “work on highly distinctive design and quality to survive.”