15 years ago, Minhua Xia, the founder of Chinese clothing brand Été, came from her home in northern China to Shanghai alone to study fashion at China Spinning University (中国纺织大学), struggling to keep herself financially afloat by working at a clothing factory in her spare time.
Two years after graduation, Minhua opened up a fashion brand with two classmates and 150,000RMB of seed money. But three years after that, the three friends left because of creative differences. After the breakup, Minhua branched out into her own brand, Été, in 2003. She went abroad to talk to potential investors and found two Americans who offered 2 million RMB in exchange for a 20% return on the new company’s profits.
Now, Minhua has achieved her original dream. She does her own sourcing, designs and finance, and has now successfully built a company with 60 women’s apparel retail stores all over China and a 30 million RMB sales volume per year.
We talked to Minhua about how she overcame difficulties to build a successful women apparel business in China.
What is the hardest part of being a fashion producer/designer in China?
Getting to know Chinese market. People have started shopping more rationally. Before, people would buy things because they were cheap but now, people have more brand-recognition so it is very important to know what will catch their eyes.
Where do you think Chinese fashion is going?
I think Chinese fashion is still in a stage of learning from the western fashion. Our ways of life are changing and mixed with western ones as well. We still have a lot to learn but if a market only learns but not blaze new trails, it will eventually fade away. Therefore, I foresee that we need to instill unique Chinese elements into the fashion market in the future 3 to 5 years.
How mature is Chinese market compared to international markets like the US, Japan, and Europe?
China has a great market thanks to its huge population base. International markets like the US, Japan, and Europe are definitely more mature; many brands have been established for over a century and it’s harder to build up new brand names. However, in China, it is easier to build your own brand.
Of course, many brands are springing up in China but many are dying too. It is very important to locate a brand you can sell to the right group of customers.
Does being a woman affect how you are treated in the business world?
In the business world, because I am a woman, a lot of people have looked after me, such as my investors – they have given me a lot of courage and support. However, it is some times very hard too. Nothing will become easier because you are a woman. I used to work from 9AM to 10PM everyday and in the beginning period of my business and I haven’t been in the cinema for the last five years.
That sounds really tough! How do you manage to find some time to enjoy life?
What do I think is enjoyment? To many people, enjoyment is practising yoga; enjoyment is having a nice dinner; enjoyment is listening to music. Yet, the most enjoyment for me is to develop my own business, to pursue my dream.
What advice would you give to other business people in China?
Keep your passion and cherish about your business. Never stop changing for the better. Most important of all, pursue your dream no matter what.