Just like companies who release special Pride editions of products or collections around June for Pride Month, Chinese New Year (or Lunar New Year) is a time when big-name brands cash in on the Spring Festival period. In a bid to seemingly appease Chinese consumers, these companies will happily trot out products bearing Chinese-inspired designs and motifs in “lucky colours” of red and yellow or gold. And this year, bold tiger prints and images of the majestic beasts are of course plentiful. The Year of the Tiger allows many companies to be fearless and extravagant with their designs this year, because in honesty, apart from the Dragon, it is the only really cool animal in the Chinese zodiac. But why do companies do this exactly and what does it achieve for them and everyone else?
Well, the answer to the first question does seem to be what I have already stated. Anybody who has worked in fashion retail knows that Western brands (particularly American, British, French and Italian) and shops in those countries attract Chinese customers like moths to a flame. Their average spend is one of the highest among shoppers and many retailers rely on Chinese tourists and students to spend their money, especially close to Chinese New Year and before university terms start. Luxury fashion and special edition products are a statement of affluence and coolness in modern Chinese culture, and both peer and celebrity influence play a big part in people’s shopping habits.
The answer to the second question is not as straightforward as obviously company insights and sales of specific products or collections are never widely available to track just what is selling and exactly who is buying. So whether or not Chinese shoppers are actually buying Chinese New Year editions and products is not known, though I have personally not seen many people wear any of them. To some, however, the promotions and products are simply seen as an acknowledging gesture and having an understanding of and appreciation for Chinese culture, traditions and people’s buying trends.
The “agenda” of releasing Chinese or Lunar New Year products cannot really be compared to Pride, because some companies use it as a way to raise awareness of LGBT issues, proudly shout about the diversity they allegedly champion in their work culture and sometimes work with LGBT celebrities, models and designers or donate to LGBT charities. With Chinese New Year, much like Christmas, Halloween and times like Eid and Ramadan, giving back and “doing good” or spreading awareness is not a focal point of companies’ marketing tactics. It is more often than not just a potentially highly profitable season. However, some do do this for Christmas, highlighting the need to think of those less fortunate during that period.
But why can’t Chinese New Year be like that? Instead of exploiting one of their biggest consumer groups who they know have cash to splash in order to just to try and boost sales, why not use their voices, influence and reach to inspire and educate as well? Examples could be pledging to only use manufacturing warehouses and mills in China that adhere to proper quality standards and pay their labourers a fair wage, or donating profits to Chinese-based charities who aim to eradicate issues in China such as poverty, abandoned children and educational disparity as well as help marginalised groups. Sadly, there is more of a call to boycott anything made in China, rather than a call to help the labourers who are in need of the work they do producing textiles and other products. They could also diversify their workforces and executive boards with more ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) people.
And what about organisations that want to fight against anti-Asian racism? With the last two years wreaking havoc across the world, ESEA (not just Chinese) people have also suffered a dramatic increase in targeted hate crimes. If retailers, who have also suffered huge setbacks but have often always relied on Chinese shoppers, worked together with said targeted groups they would no doubt see more people taking notice. Advocacy works and is a marketing ploy that can benefit all parties. And with corporate social responsibility becoming more important, now is as good a time as any to follow these trends.
Collaborating with Chinese and other ESEA designers to create products or collections, utilising Chinese celebrities and influencers to promote them, and having ESEA models be the face of them, are other steps that can be taken. I looked at 10 fashion companies with Chinese/Lunar New Year collections out this year – more than half of them featured explicitly Chinese/East Asian models. These brands were: Adidas (yes), Armani, Burberry (yes), Gucci (yes), Hugo Boss (none in men’s but two in women’s), Moschino (actually more like a Kellogg’s collaboration), Prada (yes, and one of few companies highlighting the plight of tigers as well), Ralph Lauren (one), Timberland (yes), and Versace. This representation is important. While of course, in the world of fashion and modelling, standards are extremely high and entirely focused on appearance so are not necessarily things everyone will aspire to attain or be like, the increase in East Asian faces shows that the diverse talent pool across these industries is as vital as any other.
See here for even more brands, including cosmetic companies I have come across that also have collections, some of which also use East Asian models. Some, like Moschino with Tony the Tiger, also catapult off the image of other famous tigers, including Tigger from Winnie the Pooh and Tigress from Kung Fu Panda. It is interesting to see Dolce & Gabbana continuing their attempt to win back the Chinese market after their controversial comments in the past which alienated much of their customer base. Despite still clearly producing products to celebrate the Lunar New Year, D&G have done little else to repair their damaged reputation, though many patriotic Chinese shoppers continue to withhold forgiveness anyway. It should be noted that none of those I mentioned or those in the links I posted except Prada, however, appear to be making any charitable initiatives.
In athleisure though, the Vancouver Canucks – a Canadian ice hockey team – have had their team jersey redesigned by artist Trevor Lai. Lai has even altered the logo in the new design to resemble a tiger, which he hopes will send a message about inclusivity and anti-Asian racism. In addition, other merchandise has also been released as part of the collection and a portion of the proceeds from the line will go towards Elimin8Hate, a local community organisation advocating for racial equity and inclusivity for Asian Canadians.
Non-apparel companies also release products and collections for this time of the year. Apple, for example, have released a special edition case for their AirPods Pro in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore with a cute red tiger face emoji on them. For $256. This is approximately £189 so still cheaper than the £239 they sell for in the UK (but products are more expensive here anyway). But apart from the new design on the case, they are exactly the same as the original product. Lego often release a line of Lunar New Year products which is perfect for young children, if overpriced, and Barbie have a special Lunar New Year doll out too. This signature doll’s beautiful “qun kwa (裙褂/qún guà)” was intricately designed by one of China’s most famous couturiers, Guo Pei and the doll itself was designed by Joyce Chen. But unfortunately, its staggering price of $75 means it could only ever really be suitable as a collector’s item for well-off people rather than those who want a doll for their children to play with, especially Chinese children who rarely see dolls or toys that look somewhat like them.
At the end of last year, another Mattel-owned range of dolls American Girl, released a Chinese-American doll called Corinne Tan. Again, although it’s extortionately priced at $110 for just the doll and book hardly making it suitable for young, inquisitve children to play with, Corinne Tan’s backstory is an inspirational one. Written by Wendy Shang, Corinne’s story tells of the girl/doll’s experience of and fight against racism towards Asian people. It’s a story and doll that hopes to educate and represent, but one can’t help wonder how much profit they are making on it considering American Girl dolls are currently made in China, as are many Barbie dolls. American Girl, have however, teamed up with AAPI Youth Rising to promote the teaching of AAPI history and culture across the US and donated $25,000 to their cause (that’s the equivalent of about 228 dolls and books). Although a mere penny compared to the at least tens of millions of dollars they no doubt make a year, it’s still a small and important step in the right direction.
Over the last two years, the change in social trends has made waves for some ethnic groups and it’s nice to see ESEA communities being thought of by a very small minority of companies. But for the vast majority that simply hop on the annual trend of “celebrating” Chinese/Lunar New Year to entice shoppers with little to no social or environmental conscience (except the odd organically or sustainably produced lines) shows so much more change can be made. Will 2022 usher in a new trend that picks up over the next few years, or will this be a case of continued kowtowing to Chinese shoppers for a few weeks of the year then turning blind eyes to issues they could face head on? I’d like to be optimistic and say yes, but the cynic in me only holds a small candle of hope.