Swimwear, The Dark Horse on China’s Retail Scene


Carrie Chen | May 29, 2020

While the beauty segment has been seeing a great deal of growth in China, in part due to the “Lipstick Effect” observed in the nation last year, there is another consumer category that is quietly growing: Swimwear.

It is well known that China does not have a beach culture – or a swimming one, for that matter. While no official statistics are available, it is estimated that only 20 to 30 percent of the younger population in first and second-tier cities can swim. In remote cities, this number falls to around 10 percent. Drowning was reported by WHO to be leading cause of death in children and youth between the ages of one and 14 in the country, with locals blaming a lack of accessibility to swimming pools and formal lessons as a key reason.

As such, the Chinese market might not be top of mind for foreign swimwear brands looking to expand their global footprint. However, as the nation grows wealthier and more prosperous – prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, China was predicted to overtake the US as the biggest global economy by as early as 2020 – attitudes towards swimming and swimwear are fast changing.

Swimming As the New Status Symbol

With the fast-growing economy comes a corresponding rise in spending power – especially amongst the younger generation. Coupled with their increasing open-mindedness and exposure to other cultures, young Chinese look to pursue a higher quality of life in terms of health, happiness, and experiences. Upwardly mobile parents now send their children for swimming classes in hopes of equipping them with what has traditionally been seen as an ability limited to the upper and middle classes. More than just a life skill, swimming is starting to be seen as a status symbol as formal instruction continues to be scarce and expensive in the country.

At the same time, as vacations to beach destinations both domestically and internationally continue to grow in popularity, Chinese travellers are more keen to add swimming to their list of abilities, so as to engage in the wide range of water sports available, including diving and snorkelling. This trend is further fuelled by social media, where young netizens often post videos and pictures of themselves frolicking on sandy beaches in the warmer months. Consequently, this has led to a rise in demand for attractive swimwear – related posts on leading social commerce application Xiaohongshu (RED) on keywords like “swimwear” and “bikini” exceeded 70,000 as of 28 May, 2020.

Image: XiaoHongShu (RED)

Support from Government Regulations

While China has always displayed a strong showing at the Olympics, its general population is far less interested in fitness and exercise. Studies have shown that less than 3 percent of the country’s population holds a gym membership, compared to 14 percent in the UK and 20 percent in the US, for instance. Obesity levels in young children is also on the rise – in 2019, one in five was found to be obese.

This, and the country’s hopes of being a sports superpower, has spurred the government into action. In September of 2019, the Chinese State Council released a memo detailing plans that include building more venues for exercise, tax breaks for companies in the sports industry, and encouragement to build a more complete sports industry chain.

2017-2022 China Sports Industry Value Prediction
Data: Sohu

The government’s goal of inspiring a fitness-focused lifestyle in its citizens will undoubtedly have a trickle-down effect on demand for athletic gear – including both performance and fashion-focused swimwear. This growth potential in China’s sports industry leaves ample room for international swimwear brands to enter China. 

Changing Approaches to Femininity

While Chinese women might have held more conservative views on femininity in the past, societal views are evolving with the times. A fair complexion might still be prized by the majority and seen as an indicator of higher socioeconomic status (due to tropes about tanned manual labourers that the media and society continues to perpetuate), but the younger generation is gradually opening up to other beauty ideals.

When Fenty Beauty launched in China last year, its choice of Chinese singer Naomi Wang as an ambassador drew praise from netizens. With her tanned skin and full figure, Wang’s aesthetic is a far cry from the porcelain complexions and waif-like figures of typical Chinese celebrities. Then there’s Victoria Secret’s newly appointed ambassadors in China, Zhou Dongyu and Yang Mi. Known for its roster of voluptuous, leggy “Angels” the likes of Alessandra Ambrosio, Heidi Klum, Karlie Kloss and Miranda Kerr, Zhou and Yang’s girl-next-door appeal and diminutive frames mark a departure from the highly sexualised image often associated with the brand.

Image: Victoria’s Secret

Traditionally, Chinese women prefer to shy away from apparel that accentuates their figures, citing concerns that their bodies are not “perfect”. However, as the narrative evolves and China gradually embraces a more inclusive and expansive view of feminine beauty, women will feel more encouraged to be comfortable in their own skin. This will, in time, reduce the self-consciousness most females tend to harbour when it comes to donning form-fitting swimsuits as well.

How Can Foreign Swimwear Brands Thrive in China?

Embrace The Rising Feminist Sentiment

In line with the nation’s changing attitudes about feminine beauty, comes a corresponding change in feminist views and opinions. While the feminism movement might not be as aggressive as it is in the West, Chinese women are more aware of the issue, especially in first-tier cities. Women now play a very important role in the purchase decisions within the family, and the number of female entrepreneurs is also growing. In response, brands are increasingly running campaigns that celebrate the independence, freedom, and power of women. Swimwear brands that want to ride this trend need to consider sending messages along these lines.

Showcase the Right Brand Values

One of the main challenges that premium swimwear brands encounter in the market is competing with local brands or wholesalers that retail on Tmall, offering products that are both stylish and highly accessible from a price perspective. However, as shoppers in China start to mature, they are starting to pay more attention to brand values and opting for labels that are aligned with their personal ideals as well, according to Global Fashion IP White Paper from CBN Data, 2019.

A very representative case is that of Victoria’s Secret. When the brand made its foray into China in 2017, its overtly sexy aesthetic was already starting to lose steam on home ground. In China, however, it was met with enthusiasm as Chinese women were just starting to embrace their bodies and seeing sexy lingerie as a form of empowerment. According to a report by CBN and Tmall, Victoria’s Secret was the second top-selling underwear brand on Tmall in 2018. 

Image: Victoria’s Secret

However, as tastes and preferences evolved and Chinese women began accepting more varied definitions of beauty, inclusive lingerie brands like homegrown lingerie and swimwear label Neiwai have risen to the fore. At the same time, as previously mentioned, Victoria’s Secret’s newly appointed new ambassadors Yang Mi and Zhou Dongyu, are also seeking to appeal to this new brand of femininity. This adaptability has resulted in the continued popularity of both brands in China.

Select Appropriate Channels of Communication 

It is well known that influencers (or KOLs) are immense triggers of purchase in China. International brands often mistakenly assume that influencer strategies are the same everywhere, and that it is just as simple as finding the Chinese equivalent of the Kardashians.  However, this is not the case. Brands need to fully grasp local insights in order to appeal to Chinese consumers at different touch points.

Compared to Western countries, influencer culture is much more complicated in China. First of all, there are way too many KOLs. Brands have to be very clear about their objectives and  the intended outcome when selecting someone to work with. Secondly, KOLs may specialise in the same product category but have totally different follower demographics. As a result, brands have to be clear about their positioning and target audience in order to find the right KOLs as well.

Apart from social media, local media and entertainment programmes are also some of the more effective channels to influence Chinese consumers. For example, one of the most popular TV reality shows at the moment is “Wives’ Romantic Holiday” (妻子的浪漫旅行), which showcases four celebrity couples traveling to different places together each season. One particular season took place on a beach where four female celebrities were often spotted wearing stylish bikinis. During this period, the keywords “Wives' Romantic Holiday Swimwear” was one top suggested searches on Tmall. 

Image: Mango TV

The Chinese market is incredibly fast paced, and is evolving every day. Young, affluent consumers obsessed with refreshing concepts and luxury products are also aplenty. The sheer size of the Chinese market makes it a highly relevant target, but navigating the complex landscape is a tall order – and something difficult to do without the right local partner. Developing a strategic approach to the market and riding this wave is essential for swimwear brands looking to expand internationally and take their business to the next level. And with the different factors playing in the background, the opportunity is ripe for brands in this category.

China | Feminism | Swimwear