Carving out a space (or two) in China’s massive market
While China’s overall economic growth has slowed over the last two to three years, the region remains the market of choice for both established and emerging luxury brands. Consumer analysts predict the country shall account for just under one quarter of global luxury sales in 2015, somewhere in the ballpark of 28 billion dollars. While the country’s leviathan middle class continue to covet luxury horology & automobiles, a microcosm of that market has emerged that is slowly transcending typical Chinese consumer trends.
That customer base, composed largely of thirty-something year old young professionals, is developing a sustainable appetite for artisanal menswear. Buoyed by access to the internet and a higher than average disposable income, these individuals travel to continental Europe to patronise local craftsmen. Naturally, the time and financial cost spent traveling can often be unjustifiable, raising the question of whether solutions may be developed locally. Since BRIO Beijing opened its doors earlier this year, Chinese menswear aficionados have gained something closer to home. Hosting numerous makers that represent the benchmark in their respective industry, BRIO is a boon not just to locals but to any discerning menswear consumer traveling through China.
While luxury menswear in China is not a novel concept, BRIO focuses on a dimension of that market that remains surprisingly neglected. Purchasers regularly demand products bearing mark-ups that reflect their nature as status symbols, influenced by glamorous marketing and global recognition. Within that conversation quality is often an ancillary concern to the product’s popular appeal laying the groundwork for a market in which the high-end (rather than high-quality) drives sales. The result has been a proliferation of ‘tailors’ throughout the country that charge anywhere between 20,000 to 100,000 RMB (approximately up to 20000 dollars) for suiting that lacks the technical pedigree of more established Japanese and Italian makers.
“Before BRIO opened, if a gentleman in China was to procure truly high quality suiting, he would have few options”. George Wang, owner and founder of BRIO, aims to carve a unique niche in China’s burgeoning luxury market in full awareness of those lackluster options. Through its brand roster and rich association with family owned enterprises, BRIO hopes to service an expanding demographic of Chinese menswear consumers who are “graduating” from buying name brand luxury. According to George, authenticity is an integral part of the store’s business model. Products are selected first and foremost because they represent the best in their field, tested by the rigours of history. “I wouldn’t say that our approach is groundbreaking. But, we saw a niche in this [Chinese] market that no one could quite fill. We leveraged a skill set – unique to the region – focusing on product knowledge and curatorial experience to take advantage of that uncaptured niche”.
To capitalise on their distinctive new venture, George and his team have built a multi-tiered space in the heart of Beijing’s Sanlitun (“three mile village”) neighbourhood. Part of the Chaoyang district, the area has been a focal point for urban redevelopment since China re-opened its doors in the mid 1980’s. Popular with expatriates and Beijing’s trendy young professionals, Sanlitun houses some of the most interesting menswear brands available throughout the country. The area is dotted with prominent local tattooists and workwear stores, sitting alongside designer brands with a more international profile including Maison Martin Margiela & Lanvin.
Located on a quiet stretch of road, BRIO stands at approximately 300 square metres. Divided into two floors, the ground area houses the store’s ready to wear offering. At a glance, it is safe to say that the guys at BRIO are only interested in stocking the very best of the menswear that interests them. It’s an intimidating roster including industry stalwarts like Sartoria Formosa, Merz. B Schwanen, Talarico, and Edward Green. Despite this, George and co were adamant that BRIO’s offering also possess a unique touch – they are currently prototyping some new hand luggage designs – and shall continue to offer Sartoria Dalcuore, one of their flagship partners which is exceedingly difficult to procure outside of its native Italy.
The second floor, constructed out of a semi-open basement space, houses the store’s integrated barbershop. The combination of both clothing and personal maintenance products is a tested pairing, adding a welcome layer of relaxation to every customer’s experience. It is worth noting that in the latter area the staff at BRIO have spared no expense, opting for traditional apothecary products – from some of the oldest barbershops in Milan – over tired ‘modern’ shaving solutions. The store also possesses private parking and a facade designed entirely in-house. It was a significant undertaking in terms of a physical storefront that George is still eager to improve. “Of course our location is not perfect but it fits many of our criteria well”.
International & domestic reception
Although BRIO has only been open for a little over six months, the store’s reception internationally has been met with a warmth uncharacteristic for businesses originating from China. Prominent names in lifestyle journalism – notably, Simon Crompton – have recognised the quality BRIO represents, sharing it with consumers who might otherwise dismiss Beijing as a place without a thriving menswear community. Locally, it is a different story altogether. “Within China we wanted to remain low key, it is an integral part of our value” George says of the BRIO team’s approach to building a local Chinese clientele. “We have only done marketing and promotion through social media. Our most active platform is Instagram, which is incidentally blocked here”.
What emerges is a customer base composed of referrals, energised by word of mouth passed around a hushed members club. “We are doing well for a shop that has been open for only six months, which is a testament to the quality of our products and service”. In the course of discussion, George tells TVG that many of BRIO’s Chinese customers met while pursuing products that transcended the flashy emptiness of the country’s current luxury zeitgeist. Having become extremely interested in the styles of the various Italian and French bespoke houses, these customers attempted to replicate such an aesthetic with local tailors. Leaving ultimately disappointed – having been reeled in by extremely persuasive marketing gimmicks – many of these consumers went back to the drawing board, researching more extensively, and subsequently finding themselves on BRIO’s doorstep. With some joy, George recalls the first time many of his clients saw a truly authentic Neapolitan jacket or touched the waist of a hand welted Goodyear shoe. “They could no longer look back”.
Despite what could be an incredibly lucrative opportunity to up-sell their products, the staff at BRIO attempt to find value in everything they supply. George concedes that as a result of China’s extremist import taxes that “there is a premium attached to the price”. But he is adamant that BRIO’s manifesto, rooted in finding the best and not necessarily the most expensive, translates to as many of their products as is sustainable. As an example, the team wanted to offer a hiking style boot within previous winter collection. Instead of going to a reputed atelier and re-branding another maker’s product, George and co located an Italian cordwainer who manufactured in collaboration with them a style “retailing at half the price of a certain French luxury brand maker”. Try as I might, I could not convince George to reveal the name of said maker.
Man & his tools
With rumblings of a location soon to be unveiled on China’s east coast, the coming years shall prove interesting for George and his team at BRIO. The direction of the venture is notable in many ways, not just for China but indeed the entire menswear community. Neither street style obsessed nor vintage for vintage’s sake, BRIO have developed an offering of products and services that should appeal to every man with a soft spot for beautiful things, it’s as simple as that. George has frequently propounded an ethos to developing the business that encourages customers to develop meaningful relationships with their purchases. His ideal is an analogue for the relationship men once possessed with their everyday tools – loved but sturdy, beautiful yet functional. Trousers and shirts are for many of us the tools of everyday life. So why settle for anything less than the best?