When Angelica Cheung became the first editor of Vogue China 10 years ago, she learned the hard way what the elite fashion world thought of Beijing.
Photographers, designers and models turned down requests to do shoots in a country that is now probably the world’s biggest single market for luxury goods, but was then seen as a crass backwater.
“You thought being Vogue they would automatically want to work for you, and you realised no, because people didn’t know you, they were sceptical about China,” she said with a rueful smile.
“People thought China, to use a crude phrase, would be full of ‘new money’ peasants.”
Critics claimed the country had neither the money nor taste to make Vogue successful. But by the time her bumper first issue went to its third reprint, they had been silenced by Cheung’s vision of a magazine made to international standards just for Chinese tastes.
She did not just want to bring high fashion to China, but also to demand that the industry elite respect the needs of Chinese readers rather than peddling them hackneyed stereotypes of oriental mystique or transplanted western ideals.
Cheung has always been a strong advocate of Chinese photographers, designers and other creatives, but, particularly in the early years when the domestic fashion industry was still finding its feet, needed foreign talent on board to make a Vogue that matched international standards.
Coaxing famous names to come and work with her, then insisting their much-celebrated creative instincts were a bit off, was not a task for the faint-hearted.
“We started battling in a very nice way, you had to be careful not to scare them off …[I was] changing their point of view about China in a very respectful way,” said Cheung, whose trademark asymmetrical bob has subversive echoes of US Vogue supremo Anna Wintour.
She challenged, as diplomatically as possible, everything from a preference for “cheongsam”-style traditional clothes that “our readers’ grandmothers would wear”, to a moody tone that was off-putting in a country just emerging from decades of deprivation.
“They wanted to dress the models in ‘exotic’ costumes, and then they wanted to shoot them in some ‘ancient’ location,” said Cheung. “They tend to go for the moody, dark, artistic, and sometimes I have to fight and say that is too European.”
“The Chinese will think, ‘Why do I want to be that beauty, it’s not even beautiful? Look at that woman, that woman looks sick, that woman looks downbeat, that woman looks like she is going to commit suicide soon. Why would I want to become that woman?’”
She also had to fight to put Chinese models at the heart of her magazine. “The difficulty was, to be honest, the photographers did not want to shoot Chinese models. That was 10 years ago,” adds Cheung.
“First they were not famous,” she explains. More disturbingly, some photographers struggled to celebrate Chinese beauty. “Creatively, professionally, they didn’t have a feel for them, they had never worked with them, they never shot Chinese models, so genuinely they did not have a feel for how to make them more beautiful.”
Cheung decided the best way to resolve this was by making China firmly mainstream. “We needed a Chinese supermodel,” she said, and set about creating one, pushing homegrown talent with simple deals: ‘If you want to shoot this international supermodel, you also have to do a shoot with Du Juan.’”
Du went on to become hugely famous in her own right, her star rising along with Vogue China’s. The magazine is now one of the biggest in the world, more than twice the size of its UK sister and so popular with advertisers and the country’s moneyed and aspirational classes that they have added 12 supplements a year to the monthly magazines.
“Everyone can see we are so successful, there is a big market and if you want a foot in China you have to work with us,” said Cheung, now preparing for a bumper 10th anniversary edition in September, which will go out to around 1.4 million readers in print and online.
She drew in her original audience by running the magazine almost like a fashion text book for its first few years. Articles about 60s fashion meant nothing to readers whose main point of reference for that decade and the next one was the Mao suit.
“We had to catch our readers up on the last 50 years of fashion,” she said. “What does ‘inspired by the 1980s, inspired by the 1940s mean … who was Marie Antoinette? Even our own editors had to study, they didn’t know everything.”
She ditched the Vogue rulebook again after her daughter Hayley was born eight years ago and she started to think about the type of woman she wanted her to become.
“I painted a great picture of a stylish woman in the magazine, but that woman doesn’t have a soul,” Cheung says.
She brought in an “Attitudes” section, to showcase women’s work and character, and boost circulation among women who might not find time for a pure fashion fix every month. “Suddenly the magazine had a heart,” she says. “Vogue China readers are mostly working women, dressing is only a small part of their lives, so I have to capture the other parts.”
Cheung is as multifaceted as her target reader, as happy talking about her love for Arsenal as discussing her favourite Chinese designers and models. Before becoming a mother she would stay up until the small hours to watch British football matches in dingy Beijing sports bars, almost certainly the only person there who could analyse the success of both David and Victoria Beckham.
She won the battle for the heart of her magazine but is still fighting for the rest of the global fashion world to see her country as a source of inspiration, rather than just a giant storefront, and ditch the lingering cliche of Chinese as brand-hungry but otherwise indiscriminate shoppers.
The country’s sometimes strange and often mocked fashion trends of the 1990s and 2000s were born of the tumult of choice suddenly offered to people whose clothes had been as narrowly defined by the state as their job and marriage prospects, not any inherent lack of taste, she says.
“Not enough people come to understand contemporary China … [for them] there is always somewhere else more important than the country that makes up 50% of their business,” she says.
“They create advertising campaigns that cost millions of dollars but antagonise and confuse the customers.”
Some of that patchy understanding was on display at this year’s Met Gala, sometimes dubbed fashion’s Oscars, where the theme of the evening and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was “China: Through the Looking Glass”.
Along with a string of Chinese celebrities and designers, there were also plenty of the old cliches on display when guests arrived in dresses that owed more to Japanese than Chinese tradition, or were apparently inspired only by vague western fantasies of “the Orient”.
But Cheung, who helped to organise the museum show and chronicled the glittering ball on Instagram, said the evening had been a rare chance to get people talking about Chinese fashion.
“If you complain every time people do something, [saying] ‘this is done wrong, we in China are not like that’, then nobody does anything,” she said. “At least they created more awareness about China. I try to look at the positive side of things. It’s better than nobody giving a damn about anything Chinese … But is that the only image that I want people to see of China? No.”