Joshua Hupper and Qiaoran Huang, the designers for indie label Babyghost, have reached an international audience by growing their seven-year-old brand in both China and the U.S. simultaneously.
“We live in both places — Shanghai and New York,” said Huang. “We really have to know both sides.”
The brand was founded in 2010 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, after Huang and Hupper met during overlapping stints at Diane von Furstenberg, but it quickly gained an audience in China, where Huang is from and where the brand had a second studio. The team attributes its growth to a combination of their design aesthetic and the overall lack of young designers in China. At the same time the brand began picking up speed in the U.S. (its first retail partner was designer shop VFiles in Soho), it launched an e-commerce channel in China.
With a core customer demographic of women in their late teens and early 20s, Babyghost — while still a small and relatively cultish brand — has hit on two revenue sources that other luxury brands are still trying to crack into: Gen Z and Chinese customers. According to Hupper, rethinking ways of building a luxury brand was the strategy from the beginning.
“Just showing up at a trade show and being like, ‘Hey! We’re new!’ is like, forget it,” Hupper told Nylon in an interview. “The 1999 way of selling just isn’t going to work anymore, and we’ve watched a lot of other brands and designers who came before us restructure their whole businesses.”
Here’s how Babyghost strikes a balance between its two hometowns.
Using see-now-buy-now for an international edge
After making its New York Fashion Week debut in 2015, Babyghost switched its selling strategy to an in-season model for its most recent showing this September, putting collections on sale as soon as they hit the runway.
“We’re directly selling to our customers, and our biggest group of customers is 18 to 24 years old,” said Huang. “They grew up in the online social environment, so this is how we promote our brand. When we show them what’s new and on sale, they can buy it right there.”
In order to switch to a see-now-buy-now strategy, the designers worked with their Shanghai team of 18 to remodel the way the brand’s manufacturing process works, which included recruiting more factory partners in China to speed up the production schedule. After taking a one-season hiatus to switch to the new schedule, the brand has incorporated monthly product releases in the style of a streetwear brand to keep customers coming back.
While Hupper acknowledged that see-now-buy-now hasn’t quite worked out for a lot of the designers who have tried it in the U.S., he said it’s a no-brainer for the Chinese customer.
“When you’re generating excitement around a show and and then making them wait, it’s hard to get that excitement going again, especially considering the age group. They want it now,” said Hupper. “Other designers from Shanghai that have been selling online think it’s crazy, because this is how it’s been the entire time for them. It’s the best way to sell clothing.”
Aligning side-by-side social media and e-commerce strategies
In the U.S., Instagram is fashion’s go-to platform to both rack up followers and reach influencers. In China, the brand has fleshed out a strategy on local platforms WeChat and Weibo to reach customers.
“We had to completely change our social media strategy [in China],” said Huang.
In China, new campaign materials and videos are released on those platforms, and Hupper said those new drops result in a large portion of day-of sales. The company also sells through Alibaba e-commerce store Tmall.
An integrated Chinese e-commerce and social media strategy is a benefit for a small brand, as other luxury and designer players are only now testing the waters of what it means to sell directly to online shoppers in the region. Even those that have a wide audience of Chinese customers, like 3.1 Phillip Lim, are still deciding between owned e-commerce and partner platforms.
For Babyghost, establishing a selling network through social media and e-commerce early on has given the brand more freedom to operate independently in the U.S. It doesn’t have a wide network of wholesale retailers — VFiles and a few other boutiques carry the brand — and as a result, it was able to flip selling models without cutting off business.
Building on blockchain
Last September, Babyghost’s Shanghai fashion show was one of the first to incorporate blockchain into such an event, using the encrypted code network to bring the stories behind each piece to life and building a digital marketing campaign out of the show.
But the technology, which was done through a partnership with BitSe and Vechain, a blockchain platform, has capabilities outside of promoting a campaign. By verifying a collection of products on the blockchain network, Babyghost has protected its designs from counterfeiting, as well as effectively optimized its supply chain for transparency and efficiency, something that became even more critical when the brand switched to an in-season model.
For a brand straddling two regions, protection against counterfeiting is key to building trust and customers in both China and the U.S.
“Both brands and consumers have been put off that there’s such a high volume of counterfeit product on sale online in China, but technology like this is moving toward a place where the most advanced brands that adopt it will have a leg up,” said Rob Nowell, marketing manager at strategy firm Brand View.