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How H&M went from global to ‘glocal’

Glocalisation is a trend that’s been evolving in retail chains for more than a decade: It’s the art of fostering a local appeal in a globalised retail offer. Glocalisation empowers regional decision-making in the hope of creating a bond with people in communities of consumers a world away from a company’s head office. However, companies that embrace it can continue to enjoy the advantages of critical mass in production, logistics and other back-of-house operations.

The fashion industry, trapped in the pressure cooker of seasonality-driven product design and release, has been slow to respond to the trend. While luxury brands have always found an insatiable audience of consumers in markets like China, where wearing a brand is a sign of status and success, some mainstream global fashion brands have floundered abroad.

Gap and Agent Provocateur failed in Australia, and in Asia Victoria’s Secret had mixed success after discovering its styles, fits and sizes weren’t really a natural match for typically petite Asian physiques. River Island and Banana Republic never took off in Singapore, Marks and Spencer quit Mainland China – and labels like Forever 21 and Macy’s struggled to make any headway on the mainland.

And that’s before you consider some of the public relations disasters in recent years by brands large and small that were tone deaf to cultural differences and regional geopolitical tinder points (think Versace, Coach and Givenchy, who learned the hard way not to project Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as territories separate from China).

Given that context, H&M has begun to stand out from its peers by steadily building affinities with local personalities, influencers and designers – and most recently, models. Not just in China, but regionally throughout Asia, where the company is aggressively expanding its store networks as growth wanes in Europe and North America.

The move has been subtle and undertaken without fanfare (H&M declined to comment for this feature) but it gained momentum last year when the company appointed musician and artist Lay Zhang Yixing as its spokesperson for its menswear collection in Greater China.

Most recently, the company assembled a group of models from around Asia for a photoshoot for its upscale H&M Studio Spring Summer 2020 collection, choosing women well known in their home markets. While H&M has long embraced diversity in the talent modelling its new lines, this was something quite unique for the label.

From Gotland to Sumba

While top international models posed in the new collections on beaches and sand dunes in America, far away on the island of Sumba in Indonesia, five Asian models created a very different look for the range. The five were Quynh Anh Shyn of Vietnam, who has her own fashion line; Iman Fandi Ahmad of Singapore; and three Malaysians: designer Kittie Yiyi, blogger Rachel Wong, and fashion and beauty entrepreneur Bella Kuan.

The move drove widespread exposure for the brand and the range across Southeast Asia as the models-cum-influencers shared their experiences during the photo shoot, which one Vietnamese fashion magazine described as an “island boot camp”.

“Free, colourful and bravery – adjectives to describe H&M Studio Spring Summer 2020 – are also adjectives easy to relate to Quynh Anh Shyn’s fashion style during the past year,” it wrote.

That’s grassroots glocal praise for a fashion brand bedded in Sweden and a range inspired by a research trip to the Swedish island of Gotland, according to H&M creative adviser Ann-Sofie Johansson.

“The SS20 collection muse is a forward-looking free spirit – someone who surfs, climbs, explores and who wants to experience new things,” she explained at the US launch. “The collection is both raw and refined: natural fabrics with raw edges are mixed with refined elements, such as shiny metallics and futuristic accessories. There’s a freedom in the way the collection can be worn, too: we want our customers to feel that anything goes.”

Some of the new Studio pieces went on sale in February this year and the rest will be launched in late May. 

China focus

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a core focus of H&M’s glocalisation in Asia is Mainland China.

Lay’s appointment was a first for the brand’s menswear collection. The 28-year-old Chinese singer was a member of the South Korean-Chinese boy group Exo and has starred in films including The Island and Golden Eyes. Lay has also served as an ambassador for other global fashion brands, including Converse, Mac Cosmetics, Chaumet Paris and Ray-Ban. Last year he also signed on as Calvin Klein’s first Chinese global spokesperson and publicly terminated a similar contract with Samsung after the company violated the One-China policy.

When he was signed with H&M, the company said in a statement that the move was aimed at continuing to enhance its market competitiveness and brand influence.

“The brand is taking a bigger step developing further its business in Greater China based on its menswear products with design and quality.”

“I hope everyone can see the versatility of H&M menswear through Lay’s interpretation,” added Magnus Olsson, GM of H&M Greater China, at the time.

In late September, H&M released its first collaboration with a Chinese designer, Angel Chen, which it says was inspired by kung fu.

“The collection portrays a surprising, unique east-meets-west street style via a ground-breaking combination of vivid colour and embroidery,” a spokesperson for Chen said.

Educated in London but now Shanghai-based, Chen has her own successful label, which is now sold through 70 retailers around the world, including high-end department stores Bergdorf Goodman in the US, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, Galeries Lafayette in France and Selfridges in the UK. She has tailored garments for influential celebrities including Bella Hadid, Chris Lee and Fan Bingbing, all influential pop culture figures in Mainland China.

Lunar New Year provides an opportunity for many international brands to plug into a core feature of China’s culture and H&M is no different.  

This year, the brand released what was probably its most extensive range yet, spanning women, men and children. Celebrating the Year of the Rat, items featured motifs, bold red colour swatches and comfortable silhouettes, spanning more than 100 SKUs. The accompanying campaign and photography focused on families sharing time together, a core aspect of the festive season across Asia.

H&M has a long way to go in its Asian journey. While it has an established presence in Southeast Asia, there was – before the coronavirus pandemic – a plan to open stores in smaller cities.

India is H&M’s fastest-growing market globally, with 47 stores in tier-one cities and an online presence achieving 49 per cent year-on-year growth last year. It is now targeting smaller cities and has announced a collaboration with local designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee to launch a new collection this year.

With their rapidly rising middle class, parts of Asia represent a huge opportunity for global fashion brands. Using local models, influencers and celebrities is a sure-fire way to engage with consumers, adding local context to a global brand name.

This article was originally published in Inside Retail Asia.

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