The Vogue Editor who bridged China’s generation gap
Angelica Cheung on Instant Success & Challenging Stereotypes
Photograph by Henry Bourne
The fashion world scoffed, but 12 years after the instant success of Vogue China, Angelica Cheung still advocates individuality to a new generation—and challenges misperceptions.
Whilst Anna Wintour is famous for her elliptical sunglasses, Angelica Cheung is discernible for her asymmetrical bob. If style choices are signals (and in fashion they most certainly are), then Cheung’s trademark cut is indicative of an editor who is sharp, smart and judiciously savvy—helpful qualities for someone charged with the leviathan challenge of launching Vogue China just over a decade ago.
A reporter by trade, Cheung was on the cusp of retraining to become a barrister when she was approached by Condé Nast, and asked to install their celebrated title in a country many scoffed was not ready for Vogue. “I didn’t think I would be the perfect Vogue editor material,” she says. “But now, looking back, that was what made it work for me.”
Despite the derision, Cheung saw an opportunity to create something entirely new. Enjoying an economic boom, China was undergoing rapid social change, yet its consumers were still reading second-hand, syndicated content. Vogue China was a chance to offer access to authentic journalism for the first time; original stories and shoots that could help readers shape burgeoning perceptions about culture, fashion and femininity—albeit under the vigilant gaze of the state censor.
If the concept behind the magazine was ambitious and radical, the process of launching it was unexpectedly arduous. China had neither the infrastructure nor the homegrown talent in place to prop up a title as authoritative and iconic as Vogue. Quickly realising she would have to enlist external help, Cheung introduced herself to the titans of Western fashion, and started persuading stylists, supermodels and photographers to come and work for her embryonic project, which many suspected would be a flop. “A lot of people asked questions like, ‘Do you know who I am?’” she recalls. “‘Do the Chinese understand my pictures? Are you capable of handling my pictures?’”
The pivotal difficulty she faced, though, was that these towering creatives didn’t actually understand China, instinctively peddling hackneyed, Oriental stereotypes, steeped in archaic ideas of East Asian society. In her quest to educate her readers, Cheung had inadvertently stumbled across a startling epidemic of cultural illiteracy.
Still, when the first issue of Vogue China was published in September 2005, its initial, 300,000-strong print run sold out, and had to be reprinted twice. For Western audiences, this instant success is difficult to comprehend, because it is closely entwined with Chinese history. For years, the grip of the Cultural Revolution, with its pervasive conditioning of mass mentality, was ubiquitous. Cheung had the foresight to identify a generation of women just beginning to feel the stirrings of individuality, and, after she excitedly pledged to speak to them in the pages of her magazine, they responded with equal, unprecedented enthusiasm. “We did plan to give it two or three years for the business to take off in China, but it took off from day one,” says Cheung. “If you were used to riding a horse and then suddenly you were presented with a car, you were sold.”
This was the beginning of a historically fast-growing period in Chinese history and, to keep up with the brisk pace of change, Vogue China has undergone numerous reincarnations in its slender 12-year lifespan. The first significant shift occurred after Cheung had her daughter, Hayley. “I realised that while what we were doing was fine, the magazine needed a soul,” she explains. “After I came back to work, I decided to create that soul.” The Vogue China woman became less of a look, and turned into Cheung’s symbolic surrogate daughter: someone who was smart, popular, educated and stylish. “We all know people who look great,” says Cheung, with a note of caution. “And when they open their mouths they are really dull, and you don’t want to be their friends.”
The next lurch in direction was Vogue China’s enthusiastic embrace of the internet. If digital strategy has perplexed other editors, for Cheung it was an unrivalled opportunity to harness the mounting power of young millennials, or the “Post-90s generation”, as they are known in China. A crucial segment for the luxury sector to tap into, The Boston Consulting Group estimates that the under-35 demographic accounts for a staggering 65 per cent of consumption growth in China, a figure set to increase even further up to 69 per cent in 2021. So, in 2016, Cheung launched Vogue Me. Boasting Kendall Jenner and Chinese superstar Kris Wu on its debut cover, it smashed online sales records: 30,000 copies of the limited edition sold out in a swift six minutes.
Why does Cheung think she was able to speak to a younger generation—one which, constantly connected and furnished with ample amounts of cash, is notoriously difficult to appeal to? “Their parents lecture to them, their teachers lecture to them, their bosses lecture to them,” she explains. Cheung, on the contrary, understands how to talk with millennials rather than talk down to them. Yet again, her singular ability to innovate, take risks, and override misconceptions kicked in. “While I’m editor of Vogue China, I have the responsibility to extend the legend to a lot of people,” Cheung says. “While we do that, we also have to experiment and try new things.”