What they learned: Customers want something unique.
"Some of the comments we heard were that the Chinese were getting a little sick of a Louis Vuitton store on every corner," said David Neville, co-founder with Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone. "Some of the really affluent people are starting to want stuff that isn't everywhere. ... The uber luxury brands have been there a long time."
The three brands staged a fashion show at Ming Dynasty City Wall Relics Park at the Great Wall of China. It was a receptive audience, said Meredith Melling Burke, Vogue's senior market editor, who accompanied the designers last month. "There was a sense of excitement on both sides about discovery," she said.
"We are always inspired by the juxtaposition between the old and the new," said Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. "Having a runway show in the Forbidden City while being surrounded by urban Beijing was a memorable moment of the trip."
The designers were selected by Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and the Council of Fashion Designers of America as part of a joint Fashion Fund program.
On her own trip to China a few years ago, Wintour noted that U.S. labels didn't have the same presence as their European counterparts. If there's anyone in a position to change that, it's probably Wintour, especially with the mentoring-focused CFDA and the financial support of Silas Chou, who helped bankroll Michael Kors.
"There's a market for less-known names, not the household names yet — something special and personal," Wintour said during a recent phone interview. "One of the reasons the European houses went to China is that they needed to expand. The U.S. didn't have that sense of need at the time, but young designers are working in a very different environment when a Ralph Lauren was their age and they are thinking in a very different way. They are thinking globally."
The Rag & Bone designers flew to Beijing from London, where they had just put on a menswear show. "We were already halfway around the world, so we got up the next morning and went the rest of the way," Wainwright joked.
Keren Craig represented Marchesa while her partner, Georgina Chapman, stayed home with her newborn son. Although a seasoned traveller, including several trips to India, Craig had never been to China. "For a country so full of people, I was amazed at how open it felt. It didn't feel as bustling as I was expecting," she said.
Craig learned that Chinese customers are enthralled with travel, and Marchesa happens to be launching a collection called Voyage this year. "It was great feedback to feel like we're going in the right direction. It was very exciting."
Marchesa already has "leaned quite heavily" on Chinese-style embroidery and traditional colours, but Craig imagines future collections will aim to capture the intricacy of the architecture and art that she saw. (If she could figure out how to do it, she'd also capture the exciting and awesome feeling of whooshing down a toboggan at the Great Wall, which was a highlight of her trip.)
Wintour said an exchange program such as this or the one the CFDA does in Paris is the next generation of trunk shows, where designers talk with customers who buy straight from miniature runways set up in department stores. Now, huge houses such as Chanel will stage versions of their fashion-week catwalks in far-flung places to keep that personal connection to their markets and the people who live there.
"I would love to bring a group of designers to India next," Wintour said.
Neville said his visit will be invaluable as his brand tries to grow in China. "We've travelled a lot to different places on the planet, and this felt like a different world. You need some local expertise and partners to help guide you."
Does it matter that two other labels got the same insight? Not at all, Neville said. "It's not like there isn't room for all of us."