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In China: Man bags and make-up for men

Adrienne Mong

Xin Xin paid $200,000 in cash for her Porsche, which NBC cameraman David Lom films.

BEIJING – Xin Xin is a 24-year-old west Beijing native who runs her own media consultancy.

In 2006, she bought a limited edition Mini Cooper GP.  Only three of them exist in China.  Two years later, with her parents’ help, she forked over $200,000 in cash for a pink Porsche Cayman.  "I like the lines of the car," she said.  "It's very pretty....  And I like changing gears so you can accelerate very quickly." 

It's extraordinary enough to hear that someone this young in a nation still making the transition from a low-income to a middle-income economy can buy a top-shelf German sports car.  (In cash! In a city with Beijing's traffic problems!)

But what's more remarkable, for retailers and advertisers, is that Xin Xin’s not the only one.  In fact, many other young Chinese women are snapping up high-performance sports cars.  (One woman named Guo Meimei was pilloried after she posted on China's Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo, photos of herself with some of her cars, including a Maserati and a Lamborghini.  At the time, she claimed to be working for the Red Cross Society of China, which triggered a flurry of Netizen speculation that she was siphoning funds, the Red Cross was corrupt, or she was the mistress of some official.)

Fiat – whose Maserati brand now counts China as its second biggest market after the U.S. – says 30 percent of its Maserati customers in the mainland are women – far greater than the percentage of women buyers in Europe or the U.S., which ranges from 2 to 5 percent.  

The number of women who buy Ferraris in China is double the global average.  About 300 models were sold in the mainland in 2010, with women accounting for 20 percent of the sales. 

"[Women] are  much more involved in China about buying the car: the look, the feel, the actual decision to buy the car," said Matthew Bennett, Asia-Pacific Director at Aston Martin. 

But they're not just, ahem, steering the decision on what family car to purchase.   

They're buying high-performance sports cars for themselves.

"The culture is very different," said Angelica Cheung, Editorial Director of Vogue China.  "A lot of women in China are very independent women....  They really made their own fortune.  They earned their own success.  And they just feel that, I can have what men have." 

Indeed.  Xin Xin, who takes her cars out regularly to a local track to race other drivers, said, "We Chinese girls not only have a heart of girls, we also have a wild heart for driving sports cars.  You can feel the charm of racing cars just like boys do." 

Which drives sports car aficionado Paolo Gasparrini, well, a little nuts.

"I am thinking of my country, Italy, you don't give your sports car to your wife, frankly speaking, not so easy, here it's easy," he said.  On a regular basis, Gasparrini sees young Chinese women driving a high-performance sports model around the streets of Shanghai. 

"You see much more here than in Europe, [where] we have a different attitude about car[s]," he continued.  "The men, we are very jealous about [our] cars....  But here it's fantastic.  It's very, very open." 

Role reversal
In fact, as president of L'Oreal China, Gasparrini thinks the average Chinese luxury consumer is very open to displaying symbols of wealth and power in ways that their European or American counterparts might be a little shy about. 

"I think that in the Chinese culture there is not a taboo" about men spending time and money on grooming products, he said.  Ten years ago, such products were virtually nonexistent in China.  Today, it's an industry worth nearly $800 million.  

"Nobody pulls your leg if you take care of your face...so little by little more and more Chinese men use [these grooming] products," said Gasparrini, whose company dominates the men's sector with its Biotherm and L'Oreal Paris lines.  In fact, 30 percent of Biotherm's overall sales come from its men's skincare products. 

They're consumed by Chinese men like Jacky Sun, an ebullient young Shanghai native who had just purchased a Biotherm skin cleanser.  "More and more of my friends like to use these things, because they think it's very important...to leave a good impression on other people," he said. 

A recent survey by the Hurun Group, a consultancy which tracks China’s wealthy elite, finds that these impressions are critical to the rich.  

“Chinese luxury consumers are in general younger, many under 40 years old….  Furthermore, they are mainly new rich, with a rather short history of luxury consumption.  Therefore, the social function of luxury goods is most important to them,” according to the GroupM Knowledge—Hurun Wealth Report 2011.

But some luxury goods also serve a practical function.   

The 'man bag'
Going back to our young Shanghai native, Sun possesses another important status accessory – the man-bag. 

"The purse?  My friend says that's a purse," laughed Sun as he held up his small shoulder bag.  "This way I can make my hands free, and it can take my wallet, my key, small stuff, so I like it....  Sometimes my friends from America will tease me that it's a purse, a woman's purse, but I still like it.  I don't care." 

As a report by the Los Angles Times put it, “Luxury leather goods makers can't believe their luck:  Both sexes in the world's most populous country adore purses.” 

“Our survey shows about thirty percent of male consumers buy bags or shoes regularly,” said Mao Mao Xun, Beauty Director at Men’s Health China.  Moreover, “Chinese men have a different view of masculinity from that in the West.” 

A random sampling of interviews with young men in central Beijing suggests the practical benefits of toting around a small handbag outweigh any Western conventions of masculinity.   

Jing, who did not want to give his full name, was toting a leather clutch during a visit to Sanlitun Village one Saturday afternoon.  It was given to him by his mother, and he raved about its functionality.  Other men said they’d rather wear a shoulder bag than have a bulky wallet and cell phone jammed into their pockets. 

“Given the commuting nature of our Chinese consumer, we find that cross-body bags, bags that hang over their body, are much more popular than they would be here in the United States,” said Victor Luis, President of Coach International Retail, which has designed special editions for the China market.  In fact, male consumers make up half of Coach’s mainland China sales of premium handbag and accessories. 

And it’s not just Coach.  All the foreign luxury brands sell well in China. 

”Bags are very discernible,” said Mao.  “You can easily tell the brand by a bag.  Many Chinese buy these products to be known, to be noticed.” 

There’s no question these young consumers get noticed.

Xin Xin, the owner of the Pink Porsche, is already working on her next purchase. 

"Lamborghini," she said confidently. 

And this time she's planning to buy it with her own cash.