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China's Top Trendsetter Is Communist Party Royalty With Fashion Lessons For The French

Hung Huang has come to Paris to unlock the secrets of the Chinese fashion market.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Hung Huang speaking at a TED conference in Beijing

PARIS - Hung Huang talks about herself with a humility that can disarming, if not misleading. The 51-year-old woman, who made it on Time’s Most Influential People list, declares herself “from the Chinese middle class.”

“I am not rich! I don’t own a yacht or a private jet," she says. "I'm a journalist, so my income is really very average. I have influence because I write a blog, but that’s it."

She says the most important thing in life is her eight-year-old daughter, having free time, cooking …” She sounds like an ordinary person, but don't be fooled.

Few like her have grown up inside Beijing’s Forbidden City during China’s Cultural Revolution. Hung Huang’s mother was Mao Zedong’s English teacher – she was his interpreter when he met Nixon in 1972. Her father was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Like many Chinese “princelings,” she studied in one of the most prestigious U.S. universities – Vassar College. She speaks English without an accent.

And not many average people are invited to Paris by an advertising company (CLM BBDO) to talk to all the Parisian luxury specialists. They listen to what she has to say, because her specialty is – luxury. She talks about it in her magazine, “iLook,” sells luxury items in her shop, BNC, and mostly, she blogs about it online to her 6,5 million followers. When she likes something, all the luxury specialists know about it. They know, for instance, that she loves Chanel and Hermes, and that this year she particularly liked the Dior fashion show by Raf Simons. 

With her well-connected parents and her brilliant studies, Hung Huang could have done what most of the Chinese princelings do – use her connections to make a fortune. But, she didn’t want to. She was too independent. “Our middle class is so much more interesting than our nouveau riche. The middle class is the one who works, who speaks English, who has been opening itself to the outside world,” she explains.

So she decided to live out her passions. “I came back to China to save a fashion magazine that was failing, iLook. But I soon realized that it was much harder to put out than it was to read. And that dealing with advertisers took up a huge chunk of our time. When American giants Condé Nast and Hearst launched their magazines on the Chinese market, we went through a difficult time. Compared to them, we looked pathetic. But we survived, by staying original, and also thanks to the support of smaller European brands.”

More than six million followers

To survive, she opened a shop in Beijing to sell the objects featured in the magazine. It was a huge success. Then she discovered the Internet: “I started writing a blog, and very quickly, it had more readers than the magazine,” she says.

Then she went on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter – Weibo. About 6.5 million people follow here online. She writes about fashion and every thing she can think of. The Chinese authorities don’t always approve: “From time to time they make my posts disappear. Between them and me, it’sa game of cat and mouse.” She’s not about to rise against the machine, though.

“What do we want? A revolution?  Certainly not. To go through what Egypt is going through? No. Our history has been very violent in the past decades; I don’t think anyone wants re-live that. When western people talk to me about freedom or censorship, I am always a bit… hesitant. Am I free today? Not really according to your values, but I am a lot freer than before.”

“The government has at least succeeded in developing the country economically. So I find it quite annoying when western people judge us. I don’t think China should be judged using western values. You are so hypocritical – you criticize us but it doesn’t stop you from coming here to invest and profit from our market."

"Yes, it’s true; China is still a medieval country. Mao was an emperor and every time we change leaders it’s like a new king ascends to the throne. But at least they are trying to change things. They just want to avoid the pain of a revolution. Is this good, is this bad? I don’t know, but I don’t want to see riots."

"And don’t forget that it’s amazing to live in today’s China. I lived in the U.S. for 15 years, and I never regretted moving back to China. I wanted to go back to my city, and even if it’s the worlds most polluted city, it’s where I am happy.”

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