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Why Is the Chinese Luxury Market Getting So Much Media Attention?

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In recent years, countless pixels and pages have been devoted to the Chinese luxury market. (See here and here for a couple of recent examples.) Yet despite the high volume of articles and blog posts about this subject, they largely share a tone of incredulity about the increasingly significant role China and Chinese consumers are now playing in fashion markets.

In some ways, the prevailing media attitude about the Chinese luxury market is understandable. China is, after all, an unlikely site to find a vibrant and growing luxury market. Even with the Chinese government's recent redefinition of poverty in December 2011 from 1,274 yuan to 2,300 yuan per year -- approximately $1.80 per day, a figure that's well above the $1.25 used by the World Bank for international poverty comparisons, this means that about 128 million people in China, many of whom live in rural areas, earn less than $2 per day. In other words, 13.4 percent of the Chinese population lives below the poverty line. Of course Prada, Louis Vuitton, and other luxury retailers are not targeting these consumers.

They're focused on the Chinese rising middle class, millionaires or people who have more than 10 million yuan, or $1.6 million, and the so-called super-rich, people with at least 100 million yuan or US$16 million.

But rapid (and grossly uneven) economic growth isn't the only factor driving the media attention to China. Two other BRIC economies, namely Brazil and Russia, currently the world's sixth and 10th largest economies, are also undergoing rapid growth yet are not generating nearly the same amount of media attention. According to the McKinsey Consultancy firm, Brazil has been adding 19 new millionaires every day since 2007 for a total of 165,000 millionaires in 2012. Luxury brands like Hermes, Chanel, Jimmy Choo, and Tory Burch are also establishing numerous retail sites throughout Brazil's city centers in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. So why is China the focus of much of the headlines about "emerging" fashion markets?

The subtext underpinning the Chinese emergent luxury market stories is the racial incongruity of "the Chinese luxury consumer." Luxury consumers -- and indeed the category of luxury fashion itself -- have long been defined by and through whiteness. Consider that white women like Emmanuelle Alt, Virginie Mouzat, and Ludivine Poiblanc embody the "opposite" of what Suzy Menkes recently described as the fashion circus. Menkes particularly names Asian fashion bloggers Susie Bubble and BryanBoy in her portrait of this fashion circus. The implicit story of the Chinese luxury market is the seemingly curious pairing of "fashion" and "Chinese" (which continues to be used as the monolithic designation for all Asians). Within the logic of Menkes's analogy, are Susie Bubble and BryanBoy the leading circus freaks?

So uncomfortable is the fashion establishment with this new racial configuration of the fashion body that Chinese and other Asian luxury consumers -- the very consumers luxury retailers hope to appeal to -- have been assailed as "tacky" consumers whose tastes are "undeveloped," "immature," and "unsophisticated." These taste judgments are longstanding codes for racial stereotyping. Another development in the spate of punishing attitudes towards Chinese luxury consumers is the recent practice by some European retailers to selectively increase prices on products that are mainly bought by Asian tourists.

The "Chinese luxury consumer" troubles conventional understandings about fashion as a distinctively Western concept and cultural object. For many, including scholars, journalists and lay observers, fashion is the material sign and expression for the modern attitudes, democratic liberties and creative dynamism that are believed to be the exclusive features of the white West. The racial configuration of fashion and, connected to it, the authentic fashionable body, helps to explain why the "Brazilian luxury consumer" has generated fewer headlines. While Brazil is a complex multiracial society, the uneven upward distribution of wealth in Brazil, like that of the U.S. and other countries, is stratified in ways that advantage white and light-skinned urbanites over darker and rural people. The result is that the Brazilian luxury consumer reinforces the whiteness of "the luxury fashion consumer" in ways that the Chinese luxury consumer doesn't.

Today, established and new Chinese premium brands are becoming increasingly competitive forces in the global and domestic luxury market, giving international fashion brands a run for their money -- literally. If international luxury brands want to hold on to Chinese luxury consumers, now a core segment of the luxury market responsible for 25 percent of luxury purchases globally, they're going to have to get over their stale ideas about what a fashionable body looks like.