The COVID-19 pandemic gave China’s concept stores an unexpected boost.

With the nation’s wealthy fashion shoppers trapped within, a cohort of players such as Labelhood, Dongliang, SND, and ENG expanded nationwide, forming sizable retail networks that benefited local designers and global players who invested in the market early on.

According to Yeli Gu, founder of Ontimeshow, Shanghai’s largest fashion trade show, there are around 3,800 multibrand stores in China at the moment with more than 20,000 registered buyers attending the trade shows in Shanghai every season.

Common Place in Beijing

Common Place in Beijing.

Courtesy of Common Place

In Beijing, retailers such as Common Place and Anchoret are pushing the limit of experiential retail, while Dongliang, often considered a pioneer in the development of concept stores in China, has expanded to 10 locations in Beijing, Shenzhen and Qinhuangdao.

Common Place was founded by Chinese artists Ji Zhang and Cheng Huang in 2016. Utilizing a former factory building owned by Zhang’s father outside the urban core of Beijing, Common Place features a menswear store, an art gallery, and is partially utilized as Zhang’s personal art studio.

The store was an early champion of local heroes such as Windowsen and Rui, and comes with ample archival storage space for designers such as Walter Van Beirendonck, Boris Bidjan Saberi, and Marc Le Bihan.

Anchoret, a concept store that carries brands like Ziggy ChenJohn Alexander SkeltonPeter DoHed Mayner, and Paul Harnden Shoemakers and is located in Beijing’s Taikoo Li Sanlitun, caters to those who “look for a sense of depth and rarity,” according to its owner Nicky Chau. Last year it opened a second location five minutes’ walk away from the first one.

Shanghai, during the period, became the battlefield for major designer fashion players that include I.T., Lane Crawford, Labelhood, ENG, SND, XC273, R130, LMDS, The Bálancing, Assemble by Réel, Looknow and more. It even attracted London’s Machine-A to establish its first international outpost there.

Interior of SND Shanghai store.

SND, a fashion boutique that originated in the southwest region of China, has been expanding nationwide with 14 boutiques in Chongqing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Guiyang, Sanya, and more.

In Shanghai, it took over the space above the Gentle Monster flagship on Huaihai Road. It puts items from brands like Y/Project, Raf Simons, Lemaire, Marine Serre, Hyein Seo, and Our Legacy next to life-size robotic animals and hosts dramatic pop-ups that makes the spot a must-visit for fashion lovers coming to town.

Will Zhang, founder of SND, says due to the travel restrictions imposed on the nation during the pandemic, fashion consumers in China are now very used to the idea of buying from homegrown concept stores.

“The rise of social media such as Xiaohongshu and Douyin has driven consumer awareness of stores like ours and emerging designer brands. Also, a large number of property developers are taking us more seriously. It means that we have more opportunities to open in key shopping centers. It enables us to connect with the mainstream but wealthy customers,” says Zhang.

ENG store in Beijing

ENG store in Beijing.

Courtesy of ENG

Similarly, ENG, a retail concept with stores in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing carrying brands like Juntae Kim, Mugler, Knwls, Mowalola, Rick Owens, and Charlie Constantinou, has expanded into Beijing because the landlord The Box, a regenerated shopping mall in Chaoyang district, needed ENG’s cachet to bring in the young and affluent consumers that it is targeting.

Zhang observes that Chinese consumers are becoming more accepting of designer brands and are willing to spend money on niche labels that they might not even recognize. He adds that the Croissant Bag from Lemaire is its bestseller so far.

ENG founder Sherry Huang, meanwhile, notes that her customers are increasingly looking for items that can showcase their personality and taste level, as well as pieces that can offer more pragmatic or emotional value.

She adds that brands with unique design languages and loyal communities are outperforming the rest, such as Blumarine, Courrèges, Didu, Greg Ross, Kusikohc, Thug Club, and Office Kiko, a brand founded by Japanese model Kiko Mizuhara.

Labelhood, arguably the best-known concept store for its advocacy for homegrown talents, expanded up the value chain. Not only does it run five stores in Shanghai and one in Shenzhen, but it is also the organizer of the emerging talent showcase during Shanghai Fashion Week and operates its own showroom, Lab. Last year it began to provide the mono-brand operation service for Shushu/Tong.

Tasha Liu, founder of Labelhood, observes that China’s concept store boom is partially the result of a homogenized retail landscape. “Consumers are looking for one-of-a-kind products and those who are able to cater to that demand manage to grow and expand rapidly,” she says.

SND store in Guangzhou

SND store in Guangzhou.

Courtesy of SND

LMDS, short for Le Monde de SHC, is also looking to expand, potentially with a new location in Europe. The three-story boutique in the heart of Shanghai’s historic former colonial area has acted as a catalyst in the past four years, attracting trendy brands like Lululemon and Aesop to open stores in the same neighborhood.

Founded by fashion veteran Eric Young, who has two decades’ experience in fashion running his agency SHC Creative, the store carries a mix of brands including Dries Van Noten, Y/Project, Bode, Mira Mikati, Umit Benan B+, Martine Rose, and Chopova Lowena, as well as local talents like Penultimate, Samuel Gui Yang, and Caroline Hu.

According to Young, China’s concept store boom is likely to cool down in the coming years. “After all, in the past few years, this market has had too many of them. That said, there are still opportunities for those who have something new to offer in my opinion,” he says.

“In the case of LMDS, we will continue to collaborate with some of the world’s most interesting designers series. At the same time, we are exploring new ways to provide unrivaled experience for our top customers. In addition to ready-to-wear brands, we will be offering bespoke couture, designer furniture, and a selection of contemporary artwork in the near future,” adds Young.

Meanwhile, Ontimeshow’s Gu notes that those who prevailed post-pandemic are investing heavily in online channels, whether it’s live streaming, e-commerce, or curated content across Tmall, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu.

Liu from Labelhood says that retailers need to act fast to make sure they reach every corner of the internet, be it through e-commerce, social media channels, Wechat Mini-program, or their own personal shopping chat groups.

“China has the most diverse range of channels for purchasing the same item, and new consumption habits based on the rise of new platforms can form very quickly. This is something very unique to China’s retail landscape,” adds Liu

B1OCK in Hangzhou

B1ock in Hangzhou.

Courtesy of B1ock

The store B1ock in Hangzhou is also considered a benchmark for conceptual retail in China. Launched by the Hangzhou-based fashion company JNBY Group, the 64,000-square-foot space takes up a 10-story building within the company’s 17-building headquarters complex OoEli, designed by Renzo Piano.

Not only does it sell a wide range of designer brands, but it also has a floor dedicated to Japanese home furnishing and lifestyle brands, an art gallery, a B1ock Lab that lets customers play with 3D printers and cutting machines, and a terrace café.

“We want to provide the younger generation of creatives a true retail experience. Even if they go away not buying a thing, they can still leave feeling content,” says Alessio Liu, cofounder of B1ock, adding that Maison Margiela and Rick Owens are two top-performing brands.

Next May B1ock will open a second store at Aranya Gold Coast, an upscale and trendy resort town a two-hour train ride from Beijing, where Louis Vuitton last year hosted a “spin-off” show for its men’s spring 2023 collection.

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