Vogue China Empowers Women Beyond Fashion

Clifford Coonan of The Independent catches up with Angelica Cheung, the editor of Vogue China, to discuss the challenges facing women in modern China and the secret behind the success of her magazine:

Cheung believes the reason for Vogue’s success is because it tries to be more than just a style bible – it offers a tutorial in how to be a modern woman. China’s opening up to the world is only three decades old, which means that much of Vogue’s readership is starting from scratch when it comes to understanding not just fashion, but the whole idea of being an independent woman.

It’s an uphill struggle for many. Women are still woefully under-represented in politics. At the once-in-a-decade Communist Party leadership transition last month, the number of women on the party’s new 205-person Central Committee fell to 10 from 13. Women make up just 4.9 per cent of Party membership.

The suicide rate among women is high. There were an estimated 500 female suicides per day in 2009 – the last year for which records are available – with society struggling to tackle social ills such as forced abortion, domestic violence, abuse of migrant women, and the traditional preference for male children under the one-child policy.

But business is one of the few arenas where women are thriving, and Vogue is certainly appealing to a rapidly-growing sector of society. More than a quarter of the thousand richest people in the world are Chinese and it is forecast that by 2015 the Chinese luxury market will be worth £17bn. Vogue produces several extra editions every year, as it has more advertising than it has room for in the normal monthly editions, the kind of fact that has editors of publications in other countries shaking their heads in wonder.

As Coonan notes, and as The New York Times reported over the summer, fashion magazines have found success in China as the public spends more and more on luxury goods:

Late last year, Cosmopolitan editors in China started splitting its monthly issue into two magazines because it was too thick to print. Elle now publishes twice a month because issues had grown to 700 pages. Vogue added four more issues each year to keep up with advertising demand. Hearst is even designing plastic and cloth bags for women to easily carry these heavy magazines home.

“We never take anything for granted. But so far this year, we look like we’re having a pretty good year of growth,” said Duncan Edwards, president and chief executive of Hearst Magazines International, which has agreements to have 22 magazines, including Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, published here. “There is an enormous hunger for information about luxury, and there aren’t many other places you can get that information than in fashion magazines.”

Many Chinese women will spend far more of their income than their Western counterparts on these magazines and the products featured inside them. According to a 2011 study conducted by Bain & Company, mainland China ranked sixth in the world for spending on luxury goods ranked by country. In 2010, it was a $17.7 billion market. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci remain the most desired luxury brands.

For example, both Vogue and Cosmopolitan cost about $3.15, which is significant when the average monthly individual income in Beijing is about $733. Mr. Edwards added that it was fairly common to find Chinese women who earn $15,000 a year spending $2,000 on one luxury item.

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