August 15, 2010

Wall Street Journal

By Li Yuan

The term China’s Oprah has been used for several female media personalities, but Hung Huang may be the one that comes the closest.

Chinese publisher, author, blogger, TV personality and actress, Hung Huang has now opened a store featuring Chinese designs.

Ms. Hung, chief executive of China Interactive Media Group, runs a fashion magazine, has hosted several TV talk shows, starred in a movie, published three books and writes a personal blog that’s attracted roughly 112 million hits and a microblog that’s followed by some 832,000 fans.

Now she wants to sell clothes too.

Betting that the growing wealth and sophistication of Chinese consumers will help cultivate China’s own Cartier or Louis Vuitton, she’s investing her own money and using her celebrity status to promote local brands.

On Sunday, she opened a new store to showcase and sell Chinese designs, called Brand New China (BNC), in a mall in Beijing’s hip Sanlitun area, where Armani and Versace are upstairs neighbors. Products of more than 100 designers, from clothes, accessories to furniture, will be sold on consignment in the 540-square-meter store. Many of the same designers are featured in iLook, Ms. Hung’s magazine, and there’s a potential pay-off for the magazine if local designers grow and have bigger advertising budgets.

Advertisements of the local brands now contribute less than 5% of the revenue of iLook, which has a circulation of 50,000 with a cover price of 50 yuan ($7.46).

“The other fashion magazines are just publications. They’re bystanders. Huang is different. She gets very involved,” says Simon Wang, the U.K.-educated designer whose women’s wear collection is sold at BNC.

Investors in BNC are China Interactive Media Group, Ms. Hung and a couple of her friends, including Yung Ho Chang, the head of the architecture department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Yung also designed the store and debuted his men’s wear collection there on Sunday.

It’s not yet clear if the business strategy will work. Ms. Hung has had a mercurial career across various fields in both business and media and not all her projects have panned out. She had to lay off most of the staff at an Internet venture after the dotcom bubble burst and shut down the Chinese version of teen magazine Seventeen because it wasn’t performing financially.

Meanwhile, the Chinese public is fascinated by Ms. Hung’s personal brand, her family background, and her tongue-in-cheek commentary that offers a glimpse into the world of China’s privileged class.

At 49, Ms. Hung has lived her life as an avant-garde figure in China. Her late mother was Mao Zedong’s English translator and teacher, and her late stepfather was China’s foreign minister in the 1970s. At 12, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, Ms. Hung was sent to the Little Red School House, a progressive school in New York City’s Greenwich Village, on a government program to train future diplomats. She got a political science degree at Vassar College, worked for the U.S. consulting firm Kamsky Associates Inc. and became the chief representative of German conglomerate Metallgesellschaft AG in China at the age of 25, earning $75,000 a year when most Chinese were making a fraction of that.

She has been married three times, to an American lawyer, a Chinese director and a French diplomat. She now lives with her long-time interior designer boyfriend and an adopted daughter in the suburbs of Beijing.

In 1996, Ms. Hung, who claims to like oversize T-shirts and haute couture equally, joined a Beijing investment and consulting company, Standard International Management Corp., and remains a partner. It is one of several backers of China Interactive Media Group, which publishes iLook.

She calls the relationship between her company and Chinese designers a weak-weak alliance. Unlike the Chinese editions of Vogue, Elle and Cosmopolitan, iLook doesn’t have access to globally franchised content or long-established ties with luxury brands. The designers are young, creative talents who lack the funding and experience to build businesses and brands. “[The Western fashion magazines] eat the meat, and we get the soup,” she says.

But the soup might turn out to be pretty meaty. China’s luxury-goods market is expected to grow by 15% in 2010, leading the global market, according to a report by consulting firm Bain & Co. Big fashion brands like Chanel are using more Chinese models at their runway shows, and Liu Wen, a Chinese model, became the first Asian face of Estee Lauder earlier this year. Many believe the timing is ripe for China to have its own Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese designers.

Ms. Hung became fascinated by Chinese designers about five years ago when she saw fashion designs by Wang Yiyang. Branded as “Chagang,” or Tea Mug, Mr. Wang’s designs use elements from the much simpler era of the 1970s, such as a white enamel mug with thin blue rims and tote bags with large print characters such as “Shanghai” or “Beijing.”

“This designer managed to bring the fashion sense of my childhood to the 21st century. I was deeply touched,” she writes in the Editor’s Note in the March issue of this year, which was dedicated to Chinese designers.

Unlike Oprah, Ms. Hung says she’s not expecting to become a top businesswoman with her magazine or the design store. It’s possible that her new business venture will be the guinea pig that gets into the game too early and bigger companies with stronger financial muscle can easily launch copycat stores if they find it lucrative, she says. In the future, even if the designers have more advertising money to spend, they might opt to spend on the bigger name Western magazines than iLook.

Ms. Hung isn’t worried. She’s in it for the money, but also for fun, another step in her “Sweet, Aimless Life,” the title of one of her books.

—Li Yuan is managing editor of Chinese, the Chinese edition of The Wall Street Journal Online.