Fashion Magazines Rush to Mold China’s Sense of Style

Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: October 3, 2005
SHANGHAI, Oct. 2 – From behind her big desk on the top floor of a sleek new office tower in the Xintiandi district, Angelica Cheung, the guiding hand behind this country’s new edition of Vogue magazine, contemplated a very Chinese dilemma.
Vogue has advertised heavily in China’s Xintiandi district. One of the magazine’s goals is to teach readers how to shop and dress, said Angelica Cheung, editorial director of Vogue’s Chinese edition.
“Just a few years ago, China definitely wasn’t ready and didn’t have consumers at the level of Vogue,” said Ms. Cheung, the magazine’s editorial director, as smoothly spoken as she was elegant in a black-and-white pattern Max Mara blouse and skirt. “Two years from now, though, would have definitely been too late. That’s the way China is, moving incredibly fast.”
Fittingly for one of the world’s premier fashion magazines, Ms. Cheung’s offices are in a neighborhood whose name means “new heaven and earth,” a roughly three-square-block area that contains some of Shanghai’s most stylish real estate. By day or by night, Xintiandi is a stalking ground for young movers and shakers.
All over the neighborhood, at bus stops and newsstands, huge reproductions of the magazine’s second cover, featuring the leggy Brazilian model Giselle Bundchen wearing a fur-lined coat, beg for attention. The chances are good that the slick crowd here can relate to a Western model and the high-end fashions she is selling. But Vogue’s $8.6 million wager is by necessity about much more than winning over a postage-stamp-size portion of China, and it is not clear how many of the hundreds of millions of Chinese women are willing or able to join the Vogue bandwagon.
Vogue is not alone in its gamble, and in fact the race to create lucrative fashion and lifestyle magazine franchises based on successful Western publications has never been more crowded, with Elle, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire already bulging from vendors’ racks.
On the men’s side of the newsstand, grinning models baring rippling midriffs peer out from the cover of the Chinese edition of Men’s Health magazine, first published two years ago. Last May, the competition for the male fitness and lifestyle market was joined by FHM magazine, and there are persistent industry rumors here that two other foreign publications, Maxim and InStyle, will be introduced soon.
“How to pick the right tools and the right girls,” was how the editors of FHM described their magazine, which puts scantily clad women on its covers and features purportedly candid talk about sex and relationships from single women. “We court the metrosexual,” said Jun Jin, the editor. “That’s our reader target, 22 to 45, with high education and high salary. They are crazy about new technology, and they like dating pretty girls.”
By reputation, China is all but closed to foreign news media. After years of involvement with the country, Rupert Murdoch said recently that his efforts to expand in China had “hit a brick wall,” adding that Beijing was “quite paranoid about what gets through.” In August, China’s government announced a tightening of controls on foreign media, saying this was necessary to “safeguard national culture.”
But for now, it seems that Chinese authorities have decided that the fashion magazines, which promote whiter skin – a popular theme – Western styles and an obsession with brands, and the men’s magazines – which promote toned bodies and carry lifestyle and sex advice that would not be out of place on a newsstand in New York – are safe.
Indeed, technically at least, Vogue’s Chinese partner is the country’s State Council, in whose name edicts like the one concerning foreign media are issued. All foreign publications in China are required to have a local partner, which by law must retain at least 51 percent ownership. In Vogue’s case, the partner is the State Council-owned publication China Pictorial, a dowdy photo monthly that dates from the country’s revolutionary days and whose title is still written in Mao Zedong’s red-inked calligraphy.
For all of the state’s pretensions of protecting Chinese minds and preserving Chinese ways, the editors at many of the new foreign magazines could not be clearer about their goal of ushering in cultural change, and thereby molding more consumers of high-end foreign goods.
“You inspire the girl to believe if I take care of myself, if I buy the right things, and I educate myself, tomorrow will be better,” Ms. Cheung said.
Education is a word that crops up in her speech time and again. Given that China was all but closed to Western fashions less than a generation ago, Vogue’s mission in China, much more so than in other countries, unabashedly involves teaching readers how to shop and how to dress. “You get the readers familiar with the designers, you show them what works, and sometimes you actually tell them what to buy,” Ms. Cheung added. “It can’t get more basic than that.”

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