“I think that my situation allows me to be the bridge between the two cultures”, explains Isabella Liu as she prepares to launch her latest collection in China having secured listings with retailers in Xian and Shanghai.
Liu was born in Wuhan, China, but is currently based in London having first come to the UK to study at both Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and later at King’s College London. Since then she has worked in the arts and jewellery industry since 2010, with various international renowned art galleries and jewellery companies, including Debut Contemporary, Babette Wasserman and Fei Liu Fine Jewellery. In 2014 she launched her own design studio:Isabella Liu jewellery.
Her latest collection, ‘Twilight’, has already successfully launched in the UK and is her first dive into ethical jewellery. The collection is made up of 25 pieces of high-tech ceramics and eco-friendly diamonds set in fine silver, with a higher price-point line featuring fair trade gold with lab-grown diamonds also available. Liu describes the markets as “hugely different” with fair trade and lab-grown a “relatively new concept” for the Chinese market. As such, she anticipates the fair trade options will appeal more to her UK and European customers; whereas the silver with zircon stones will suit the Chinese market.
UNDERSTANDING A DIFFERENCE OF TASTE
Liu says that it is vital for any brand looking to enter the Chinese market to fully understand the culture and to not play on simple marketing designs. “I never come out with a design that has a pure oriental element or oriental colour. My designs are very universal but especially for the Chinese market my designs are very subtle. Chinese consumers prefer subtle features, although this can be said for most asian markets. In the culture people do not like to show off with flashy designs as it is an introverted culture. My heritage allows me to perfectly understand this.”
Her inspiration for the twilight collection came when she was travelling in Egypt, learning about the role of the moon in Egyptian religion and its symbolism in the Islamic faith – and was not particularly designed with the Chinese market in mind. “When I work as a consultant with brands I can tell straight away if they are suited to the culture. I helped introduce Annaaria Cammilli, which is based in Florence, to the Chinese market and I remember the first time I saw their designs at Vicenza I just knew that it would work in China.”
She continues: “Around 99% of brands don’t work but ones that understand do. I worked with the brand for two years and I saw the success that they had. They visited the market frequently and appreciated the culture not just in jewellery but as a whole, because of this they had very intricate and subtle designs that just worked.”
The biggest pitfall, in her view, is when brands take a “superficial understanding” of the culture by trying to include a design featuring a rooster or pig or dragon. She recalls a few years ago when Burberry put a Chinese lantern on one of their scarves: “Everyone in China laughed as it just didn’t fit the market or their brand.
“If you look around Europe and think of German jewellery for example it is so different to French or Spanish or Italian – German jewellery is strong, simple and geometric while Italian is very colourful and sculptured. French jewellery is very refined and sophisticated – Chinese tastes are much closer to that of the French than any other.”
However Liu insists it is wrong to generalise the entire Chinese market as overall tastes are very nuanced and can even change depending on where in China it is being sold. “Some people from northern China love bigger and more expressive jewellery and do still shop for gold pieces,” she explains. “While in the South they are slightly more sophisticated in their choices and do go for subtler pieces. It is diverse geographically and through my own experiences I know which pieces determined by how provocative or how forward-thinking they are, should be sold in the mass market or if they would be better suited for smaller niche markets.”
Importantly, Liu also advises that it is not just important to identify the current trends in the market but to also anticipate them as she says tastes, compared with European consumers, change quickly which she notes may due to the recent rapid development of the chinese market having impacted consumers’ mentality and their consumption behaviour.
For herself Liu says the biggest challenge of launching The Twilight Collection in China was just “not actually being there” to manage what was going on. She explains that this was negated by having a good team based in London and forging strong contacts in China which she called “essential” to any brand. “I would highly recommend partnerships, you need to be able to find good partners there is a saying if you want to work fast work alone but if you want to go far work together. This is true not just for China but for everywhere.
“In China it is called “Shan Yuan 善缘: ‘Shan’ meaning ‘kind or good’ and ‘Yuan’ meaning ‘destiny’, so altogether Shan Yuan means building up your ‘kind destiny’. For my own philosophy for ‘building up Shan Yuan’ it means ‘like-minded people working together and supporting each other and because of this are more likely to grow’.”
Liu adds that she was fortunate as she “already knew a lot of the challenges beforehand” and knew which pitfalls, in terms of logistics, to avoid. She explains that she had been “laying the foundations” for entering the Chinese market for over two years and strongly advises that other brands take a similar level of preparation.
“In my case my own team can do very well on the content side such as the brand building, the production, the supply chain my team can do all that here. Where I needed help was the marketing and distribution and I still need some development in these areas.” Liu recommends for a young brand entering the market, a smaller scale retailer is a better fit than a department store, where although the product reachers a wider range of consumers, it also comes with lower margins and increased risk. However she says “it is about finding a place that shares a similar message to your brand and where your target consumers are most likely to go”.
When asked if smaller brands have an advantage in that area as they are more flexible and easily adaptable, Liu points out they also have a “lack of resources” to adapt if they are required to. “It will cost them a lot of resources and investment and the risk of entering the Chinese market is on a much larger scale,” she says.
“For the bigger brands while they have the disadvantage of being less flexible to changes and wish to stick to their traditional brand values, which may not work in different markets, they have the money and resources to do so – they can afford to take the risk and possibly get it wrong before they get it right.”
Looking ahead Liu wishes to eventually expand her offerings not only geographically across China but also her demographic. “I would like to grow my collections and to tailor them specifically to different areas of China. I was lucky with The Twilight Collection as I expected it be well received in the South but when I brought it to the North they also loved it.
“In China my target consumer is relatively young and sits between 16-45 where compared to the UK it is slightly older and goes up to the people in their 60 and 70s – I’d like to see my Chinese audience also reflect this.”
After reflecting further she adds: “I also want to further develop good partnerships in China, this does not necessarily mean on a large-scale as for me it is more important for it to be partners that try and help each other to grow and I can trust. Even if the opportunity looks good, but i’m not sure I can work with the people, I will not take it.”