China has a saturation problem: the Chinese fashion magazine industry is almost exclusively dominated by print. In an era where social media and indie publications seem to have taken over, the print industry in China serves as an isolated example of maintaining tradition over change.
This is a phenomenon that seems unlikely when all we hear about these days is the death of print journalism. Yet according to a recent Business of Fashion article discussing the oligarchical nature of the country’s fashion magazine business, China is the exception to that rule.
The Print Standard
Fashion and government are not two institutions you would think tend to cross paths that much, but governmental influence in the Chinese print industry plays a huge role in limiting indie influence.
According to the BoF story, print publications in China must cooperate with state-owned media houses. Vogue China operates under China Pictorial Publishing House, while Elle China works with Shanghai Translation Publishing House; both state-owned and regulated.
And while this industry model doesn’t necessarily mean the magazines surrender editorial control to the government or limit international publications –in fact, there are several foreign magazines currently in circulation– the regulations do straight-up prohibit completely independent print magazines. In other words, if you’re an indie print magazine looking to start up in China, don’t bother.
Besides governmental influence, another explanation for the dominance of big-name publications is a unique commitment to fashion education in China. Citing Andrea Fenn, an expert on Chinese digital strategy, the BoF article points out that the relatively new fashion marketplace is looking for education in the industry. And in an industry where Vogue is essentially the bible, this has culminated in an emphasis on authority over innovation.
Another side effect of big-name publications dominating the Chinese fashion magazine industry is their over-commercialization. Kai Z Feng, one of the most successful Chinese-bred photographers who is now a staple at British Vogue and Elle shoots, rejects the creative limitation.
“There were a lot of people asking me to do shoots in China, and I would refuse because I didn’t think their creative teams were great,” Feng told BoF. “I was honest with my work, and I didn’t want to work with people just for money.”
i-D and the Digital Difference
But with the birth and prominence of digital media, the opportunity for independent voices in the fashion industry seems promising. One example is London-born fashion publication i-D.
i-D’s media powerhouse owner Vice launched the site into eleven global markets, including China. The Chinese version stays true to the i-D brand by including 30-40 percent local-interest content in addition to translated pieces from the publication’s other editions. According to BoF, i-D’s fresh voice and perspective has already garnered a significant following, boasting thousands of followers across China’s social networks a month after its launch.
However, with the advent of the digital marketplace come new online publishing laws. In March, China passed regulation to restrict widespread online publishing by foreign companies unless the publication has government approval and uses servers based in China.
So how has i-D escaped the scrutiny of the Chinese fashion magazine industry? Quite simply, it’s not a traditional fashion magazine. In fact, it’s not a magazine at all; the fact that it’s digital-only means it is licensed to operate independently. i-D China managing editor Adam Chen told BoF that he believes the publication’s storytelling will connect youth culture and fashion.
“There is still a gap in targeting a youth audience,” said Chen. “There are loads of local publications aimed at youth culture, but there is not necessarily a bridge between high fashion and youth culture.”
It is still unclear how publications like i-D will ultimately fare in competition with the established Chinese fashion magazine industry. Those hoping to follow in its footsteps and fill a void in addressing China’s youth will pioneer a movement that marks a shift in China’s media industry. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see how this unfolds.
By Elizabeth Leavitt, CR Studios