In Vogue in China

Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 00:00

INTERVIEW:It’s one of the most successful editions of ‘Vogue’ in the world, but Angelica Cheung, editor of the famous fashion magazine’s Chinese publication, was more interested in becoming a lawyer than Asia’s most influential fashion figure, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

THE 340-PAGE STYLE bible, tabloid-sized and weighing in at a meaty 2.2 kilos, rests sleekly on a desk in Vogue China’soffices in the plush Huamao Centre in downtown Beijing. The magazine is coloured gold and has a hand-stitched character on the front signifying it is an anniversary edition.

Inside, Chinese mannequins Du Juan and Liu Wen, international supermodels Gisele Bündchen, Raquel Zimmermann and Kate Moss and other big names woo Vogue China’sreadership, convincing them of the merits of Dolce Gabbana, Balenciaga and Armani.

The dazzling images are by Lachlan Bailey, Eric Maillet, Jason Capobianco, a phalanx of top photographers. And it’s not just fashion. The ads are for Chanel, Etam, Audi. All the top brands in the world are in here.

Editor Angelica Cheung waves her hand in the tome’s general direction as she tells of how it is just one of the 16 editions of Vogue China published every year. Vogue Chinaneeds all those editions to keep up with the demand for advertising space, the kind of situation that sounds almost impossible in the current environment.

More than one quarter of the world’s 1,000 richest people are Chinese now, and China is poised to dominate the market for luxury goods in the next decade. Against this flourishing backdrop, does Cheung think she has the best job in the world?

“Everyone says to me I’m in the best position, it’s boom here and bust everywhere else,” she says, laughing.

Her bob is cut short on one side, and despite a head cold she is impeccably turned out in a grey cardigan, a black ruffled scarf and black trousers.

She switches to schools for girls, as we both have young daughters, and this is a big concern in a country famous for tiger moms who push their children to the maximum. Cheung is no tiger mom, and is terrified of overbearing parents as a rule.

Then Cheung is talking about how quickly things change in China, how people who made money four or five years ago now see themselves as Old Money.

Circulation of the magazine is 650,000 and it has made a profit every year since it began seven years ago. When I met Cheung at the Vogue Chinalaunch party seven years ago she exuded the same confidence and charm, underscored by a certain journalistic distance from the whole world of fashion that she still does today.

Her confidence was not misplaced. In 2011, the Chinese edition of Vogueranked third among all its international editions in 15 countries in terms of revenue.

While the rest of the world teeters on the brink of recession, China is still expanding – more slowly than before, perhaps, but the economy is still set to swell by 8 per cent next year.

“In some ways it is great to be in a very positive cycle in a place where things are working and you can see the result of your hard work quite directly, from both readership to business gains. These days I joke how I don’t need to go anywhere anymore, because people come here, I see everybody here, which is great.”

It’s hard to work out what a typical Vogueeditor is supposed to be. Presumably someone such as Anna Wintour, as characterised by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Cheung is not like this. She is no naif, but she is no gimlet-eyed fashion maven, either. What she is, is the most powerful woman in Chinese fashion.

A lot of this unorthodox image is down to her background, which does not fit with what you would expect for a Vogueeditor.

Cheung grew up in Beijing and has a degree in law and English language and literature, as well as an MBA. She comes from a strong journalistic background and has worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong, including Marie Claire. She was previously editorial director of Chinese Elle, and has been editor of Vogue Chinafor seven years now.

And she confesses that she did not have a major interest in fashion originally.

“It still amuses me how come today I’m still in the centre of this fashion world. I have an MBA; I always thought I would be a diplomat or a lawyer. Before I joined Condé Nast I was ready to quit journalism to become a lawyer,” she says.

“Some designers like Alber Elbaz from Lanvin ask me if I’m a creative editor or a business editor, and I say it’s both really. Anna Wintour comes from a creative background, she’s a stylist, but now it’s about the overall thing. If you’re 100 per cent journalistic, the magazine can also go to an extreme. So it’s really a mixture.”

Condé Nast convinced her to shelve her barrister ambitions, saying how she would regret it if she didn’t take on a leadership role in the biggest magazine in fashion in the biggest emerging market.

Vogue Chinahas a strongly journalistic bent – it runs 300 pages of editorial a month, compared to about 100 in the US. Her background as a reporter gives her a useful objectivity.

“It was never my dream to be editor of Vogue, unlike Anna Wintour who at 16 wanted to be editor,” she says. “Being editor of Vogue China,you are in the middle of the fashion business, but I feel like an observer too, and I don’t think many people in the business feel that way.”

As a journalist in Hong Kong she worked on all aspects of life there in the run-up to the handover to China in 1997, political stories, social stories. Her colleagues from the time remember her as resourceful, with a head for ideas.

“I can quickly go to the heart of issues. Daily newspaper training was what made me what I am today,” she says. “As the editor it’s a different position from fashion editor or features editor or beauty editor. As the editor you are the person to set the direction of the magazine and the vision for the magazine, you pretty much set the business direction of the magazine.”

The reason for Vogue China’ssuccess has been the way in which it uses nearly all local content.

“We create all the covers and inside material ourselves, by using the best talents in the world. We use Peter Lindbergh, Inez and Vinoodh , all the hottest photographers and stylists and supermodels in the world to tailor-make materials for Vogue China.So it’s international but for Chinese readers, offering an international viewpoint in ways Chinese readers want to see. It’s a different level from other magazines,” she says.

To anyone interested in taking his or her luxury brands to China, Cheung says do come, but urges caution. This is a land of opportunity, but it is not for everyone and there are pitfalls.“The brands want to expand more quickly probably because other markets elsewhere are not doing well so there is more focus on China. There are more opportunities here,” she said.

“It’s good, it’s positive but you feel the pressure. And things take time in China usually, and it’s not always that easy to have things done in China. It takes time to nurture people and get things going,” she says.

People who keep a calm mind and proceed with business with a sensible approach will succeed, and avoid being gung-ho.

“It’s very important to keep a cool mind amid all this hype. Half of it in China is genuine – it is growing. But to grow healthily takes time. To think you can have 200 shops within a year or two and still manage them healthily is scary – to train the kind of staff, the support system.”

The magazine runs a mixture of Chinese and international covers. She is very keen to promote Chinese models, and makes sure that there is a good balance. And of course the Chinese models are shot by the big photographic names, such as Lindbergh and Inez and Vinoodh.

“I need great Chinese models to shoot, but I also feel there should be more Chinese models to represent the industry, and these models are great ambassadors,” she said.

China is changing fast, and Cheung firmly believes that Voguetutors women in China, helping them catch up and gain confidence by stressing the inner aspect of women. Not for them the life of simply dressing well and hosting dinner parties, like the tai-tais of Hong Kong and Shanghai in the olden days.

“Modern-day women are really women like me. We work, we want a career, and we want a family. I want a glamorous life, but I also want a real life. We are the ‘want it all, have it all women’. You don’t to give up everything, but you are under a lot of stress because you want it all,” she says. “Women like us want to have more positive examples. I want to know how other women do it. I want to live a meaningful life, of value to society and a beautiful life. My girlfriends want to know how I manage to combine my work with having a daughter and a husband, how I can still come to work looking good,” she says.“Through these stories, our readers can become stronger women. This is what shines through. I see so many women who dress in the latest brands, but you don’t feel they are Vogue women because they don’t have that inner strength,” she says.

Vogue China’s“Attitude” section is a major part of this thinking for her. It features real stories about issues like careers and families, dreams and aspirations. This is a two-year-old section, which has given Vogue Chinanew momentum.

Among the names to watch in China, she says, is Uma Wang. “I took her to Milan Fashion Week last season and she received a really good response with her collection. I am sending her to New York, she’ll work at Donna Karan and Michael Kors to help her upgrade more quickly,” says Cheung.

Among Irish designers she likes John Rocha in particular. “Also Philip Treacy works a lot with us. But even showing in London, it’s not all London designers, but I don’t think it matters where people come from.”

The economists and bean counters tell us China is heading for a fall, that growth will have to slow eventually. Cheung believes there is still enough momentum in the second- and third-tier cities to keep things ticking over for the time being. “Knowing China as I do, you have to think it through. People who keep a calm mind and proceed with a sensible approach will succeed. You have to think: ‘Will this business sustain itself if there is a blip?’ This is a new market, and you can’t expect everything to keep growing all the time.”