The High Priestess of Fashion
The editor of Vogue China, Angelica Cheung, reveals to Kawai Wong the dizzying inside world of the Mainland fashion market, its patrons and their style destiny
In the Middle Kingdom, where 50 percent of the world’s luxury goods are devoured by the mushrooming millionaire classes of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, there exists a fashion high priestess who seeks to steer the country’s unquenchable consumption into a classier state of stylish indulgence. But this is no easy task. The evangelist in question, the editor of Vogue China, Angelica Cheung, has readers who take Chanel for a double C handbag but not Coco Chanel’s storied label. Cheung is therefore on a mission to proselytise high fashion to Chinese women whose wardrobes have been expensively malfunctioning for almost two decades. Still, Cheung has two things going for her: firstly, there are now almost a million millionaires in China; secondly, the speed with which the Mainland fashion market is able to adapt is nigh on breathless.
In Cheung’s eight-year reign at the magazine since its launch in 2005, she has seen Vogue’s circulation blossom from 300,000 to more than 650,000. It’s easily the fattest edition of Vogue in the world, weighing on average a hefty 2.2kg per issue – and, of the 19 international editions, it has been said it is currently ranked third in terms of advertising revenue. That will soon change, though. Give Cheung a few more years and even parent company Condé Nast would agree that Vogue China will overtake Anna Wintour’s 120-year-old American edition. As Cheung tells Time Out: “We don’t discuss revenue but all the figures are probably just behind...” It’s not difficult to imagine what she’s trying to say between the lines.
Make no mistake, Vogue China may be teething in terms of lifespan, but Cheung, 46, is every bit as influential as Wintour is in the States. Every time a hitherto unknown model appears in her magazine, the ingénue quickly appears on top international catwalks before bagging lucrative ad campaigns – supermodels Du Juan and Liu Wen are just two examples. Says Cheung: “We are respected so much by the fashion elite including Lagerfeld and Armani, and if Vogue China wants something, we are always a priority around the world.”
Tellingly, there has also been a seismic shift of influence in the past five years. Where once Vogue spelled out ‘entitlement’ and ‘aristocracy’ in the West, now it spells ‘success and mobility’ in the East. Vogue’s century-old manifesto of nobility simply doesn’t wash in China. The new rich middle classes want their Gucci goodies – and want them now.
“People ask me about Chinese new money wearing these designer logos all the time,” Cheung tells Time Out at The Four Seasons’ The Lounge restaurant. “But you have to think these people were probably still digging mines three years ago. The fact they know Louis Vuitton and Gucci is already a huge step forward in the style sense. At Vogue I keep telling people not to be too snobbish. It took the West 100 years to get to where they are. Without the wage, there will be no market for these brands. But these people will gradually know what they like through experimentation. Without that logo, they won’t be buying couture in a few years’ time. We need to educate them instead of just sneer at them.”
This is enlightening. Fashion editors aren’t normally this forgiving of style faux pas but then Cheung isn’t your average fashion boss. When Time Out met with her, we half-expected an unsmiling empress with a granite visage, yet it took just a few minutes before she was laughing boisterously and sharing off-the-record gossip using a wonderful confluence of fluent English, Cantonese and Putonghua. She’s been in publishing for around 20 years but journalism wasn’t actually her first love. Having studied English literature at Beijing University, Cheung came to Hong Kong to work as an import-export clerk because she ‘wanted to get out [of China]’. She soon left that post and started her own company manufacturing memorabilia before deciding she ‘didn’t come to Hong Kong to get rich’. She then ‘stumbled into journalism’ and without any formal training became so good at her job she was soon made editor of Marie Claire Hong Kong. About 10 years ago she was headhunted to edit Elle China. On the verge of leaving journalism because she had ‘seen everything and known everything about newspapers and magazines’, the mighty Vogue beckoned.
“It was Elle that brought me back to China so I thought it was a bit naughty,” chuckles Cheung. “It took me a while to take the offer. I realise if I haven’t done Vogue my career wouldn’t end on a high note. I mean, this is a job that most people would die to fight for. And it’s been handed to me on a gold plate.”
Cheung’s only brief when she arrived at the magazine was to ‘make sure this is the best magazine on the market’. She was given a ‘first tier budget’ allowing her to spend other magazines’ entire monthly budgets on a single fashion shoot alone. Cheung can pump millions of RMB into her shoots because she helps shift billions of dollars of luxury goods for her conglomeratic advertisers such as LVMH, Richemont, Clarins and L’Oreal, which practically own every Landmark-worthy brand on the market. In return, her magazine is rewarded millions in advertising revenue in order to keep the consumption engine revving. But we can’t help think that Vogue China is partially responsible for feeding Chinese shoppers the myth of Western branding as a mark of social status, in effect suffocating homegrown fashion companies.
“For the brands it is a moneymaking thing,” says Cheung. “But for the consumers, they love it, they enjoy it, so it’s very good to help lift Chinese shoppers’ sophistication levels. Only when they become really sophisticated will they go for clothes they like instead of the label.”
Cheung now runs regular local talent columns among the endless pages of Prada, Versace and Gucci goodies. But what does she really feel about China’s own talents? “To be honest, things happen naturally,” she says. “When I started Vogue in 2005, I was struggling to find a few decent Chinese designers to feature in the launch issue. But now there are too many of them. In these couple of years the attention to Chinese design is unprecedented [but] only when the consumers become sophisticated will they go for Chinese design with no logos.”
Cheung has pioneered programmes to exchange Chinese designers to America and Italy in order to gain international exposure. In partnership with Anna Wintour and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, every year an outstanding Chinese talent is sent to New York for work experience, and a few designers get sent to Milan Fashion Week to showcase their work. “[The designers] only become successful if your magazine is influential,” adds Cheung. “In the creative field you can only be influential when your work is exceptional. I think genuinely creative people only respect fellow professionals. You don’t get respect by saying you command a big market.”
Curiously, however, most of Cheung’s fashion shoots take place in Europe. Why not in China? “I use Western photographers because they are the best for my readers,” she says. “I only use whoever is the best. I think it’ll be insulting for a Chinese photographer to be told that he was being used because he has the right passport. The Chinese need to see what is better in order to improve. I don’t think that’s shameful at all because the whole industry only started a few years ago.”
Still, with the likes of Paris, Milan, New York and London showcasing their seemingly endless fashion sensibilities to the world, when will Beijing – and Chinese women – own a true fashion identity?
“I think it’s an overly exaggerated issue,” says Cheung. “These days people travel around the world, they read on the internet, they watch movies. I feel more strongly about individual styles rather than collectively as Chinese women.”
Individuality is not something the Chinese authorities identify with. The Communist Party sees ‘harmony’ as its biggest virtue and hence any singular vehicle that has the potential to stir a ripple must be put under immediate surveillance. Publishing is still classified as a dangerous concept in the Mainland and every publication in some way or other is either wholly or partly owned by a state organisation. Vogue China may well be owned and published by Condé Nast, but it can only do so in partnership with the state-owned China Pictorial Publishing House. Every page, every caption, every headline must go to China Pictorial first for ‘approval’ before publication. Does Cheung find this method of press censorship an enemy of fashion?
“There is no censorship,” says Cheung automatically. “We are not a political magazine so we never really have problems with them. The only problem is nudity but I don’t identify with it anyway. I think that as a fashion magazine you need to show fashion. Showing a person’s body is not a fashion magazine’s job.”
As our interview concludes, the subject of the epically hilarious ‘Dolce&Gabbana debacle’ in Hong Kong raises its head. The Italian house courted controversy at the Canton Road store in January this year when its staff stopped Hongkongers from photographing inside the boutique (but allowed Mainland spenders the go-ahead). Front page hysteria ensued.
“Oh my god!” laughs Cheung. “From my instinct, someone who dealt with it at the front level did not react with common sense. I would not imagine it is an instruction from the brand. Nobody is that stupid. I know the designers and they are very charming people. They value the Chinese market utterly. I think it was just utter stupidity on an operational level.”
Cheung waves Time Out goodbye and then joins her friends, her daughter Hayley and her husband Mark for lunch. We’re guessing that, in 24-months’ time, Cheung could potentially be the most influential editor in the fashion world. But then suddenly we remember what she tells us at the start of the interview: “Fashion only occupies a little bit of my life. The rest of the day is just family and the job.”