What It’s Like Being An Independent Fashion Label In China: A Conversation With Thisnorthat

Thisnorthat is a Shanghai-based genderless fashion label founded by the dynamic duo of Tan Li Chen and Lin Yu Bo. They both met whilst studying fashion design in Milan and what started as a fun collaboration collection between the two subsequently spiralled into seven seasons of Thisnorthat. Tan is originally from Malaysia, whilst Lin is from China, they were both recently in Penang for a showcase at Hin Bus Depot where Tan hoped to bring attention to her hometown fashion scene. We spoke to Tan about what it’s like trying to make it in China.

What makes Shanghai different from the big established fashion capitals of the world?
I think Chinese brands are developing their own aesthetics now, it’s still in the development stage in comparison to Paris or Milan where you can tell that they have a very strong aesthetic. In Shanghai, the scene is developing in a sense where there are no strong trails, like Milan which is Ready To Wear or Paris where it’s Haute Couture or Avant Garde. In Shanghai, it’s like you don’t know if it’s designer, high street, ready to wear, Haute Couture etc. However, there are a lot of independent designers that have studied in the West, in places like London, and are mixing Western aesthetics with influences from growing up in China. It’s like an East-meets-West but in a visually appealing and not so obvious way, like no cringe-worthy embroidered dragons, but more subtle references that people that grew up in China can relate to.

Do you feel that there is a stigma against Chinese brands?
Right now, everyone understands that China is such a huge market and there that is bad quality stuff and at the same time, there is also very good quality products being made. Because of the media, everyone knows that a lot of production from many Italian or French brands is done in China, so I think that people know that the quality varies a lot depending on the situation. When you market yourself as an independent designer, they respect that, so a lot of Chinese designers that went to trade shows during the global fashion weeks get orders from international buyers, so the stigma is not as bad as before.

How does being based in China affect you?
In Shanghai, you always have to be innovative and inspired. You have to constantly be looking for what is new. We have to consider things like if the design is “in” or has the style already flooded Taobao, if it is, then maybe we shouldn’t touch it, then we have to balance if the design is too out there for people to relate to or will it be “out” when it hits the market. Due to the fast pace, it could be in now but could be out by the time of release.

The advantages of being based in China is the growing market and the growing need for independant designers, with the flipside to this, being the huge amount of competition.

 

So how has your journey been so far?
We were really contented with designing stuff that we personally liked, but as the seasons passed, we realised although we can be happy just doing things we want, the brand will never go anywhere. If you can’t relate with the consumer, it essentially means your designs are worth nothing. We realised we couldn’t sustain by not making profit and not understanding the market, so we wanted to make the brand happen, that is why we started to change up our gameplan at the end of 2017.

How did you go about doing that?
We looked more into the planning and production stage, in China you need a huge range of SKUs for buyers to be able to make a profit, you need to have new products out every month so we’re looking at around 120 pieces for 6 months. We divide those into different tiers, with 10% being the key looks that define the brand such as our signature oversized blazer brushed in silicone rubber to create a dripping effect. These runway pieces will cater for a small niche of clientele and will be more prominent in our marketing. The remaining 90% of production will be split evenly into 3 price ranges to cater to different segments of the market.

So how has that worked out for you so far?
At first I questioned myself, like I do I really like this design? Am I compromising? However, now I am accepting of this as I don’t see myself just as a designer anymore, I see myself like a director for the brand where I have to manage all aspects, like sales, marketing etc, it is no longer just being a designer. So far the feedback has been great as buyers have told us our early stuff was like too out there and when we changed, they started coming back and telling us things like the designs have a story and soul. We are in our seventh season now and since adopting this new strategy starting we’ve managed to triple our sales for our Spring/Summer 2019 collection.

Thanks to Li Chen and Yu Bo for their time, you can purchase Thisnorthat from their Weibo store or message them directly on Instagram (@thisnorthat), they will also be opening the first physical retail store in the trendy Xintiandi area of Shanghai later this year if you happen to be in the area.