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Angelica Chung: My journey has taken me from Karl Marx to Karl Lagerfeld
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Angelica Chung: My journey has taken me from Karl Marx to Karl Lagerfeld

Considered as “one of the most powerful women in fashion”, Angelica Cheung has been editor in chief of Vogue China since the magazine’s launch in 2005. She revolutionized China’s fashion industry. Under her brave leadership, Vogue China became Vogue’s biggest and most dynamic international edition. Mrs Cheung talks about her success, “Made in China” label, and Anna Wintour. 

You grew up during the Cultural Revolution where everyone was dressed the same. What were your early years like?

There is a picture of me around four or five years old, taken in a studio, holding a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Clearly, it was what everyone did back in those days when they had a formal picture taken, showing loyalty to Chairman Mao. It is true that everyone was dressed the same, although my mother tells me I did once go to school in a pretty dress, made by my grandmother, who was a seamstress, and was subjected to ridicule. It was considered to be bourgeois. So clearly, I didn’t go to school in a dress again; it is ironic, of course, that my life now revolves around pretty dresses and other gorgeous luxury clothing. As a kid, you don’t really think much beyond your immediate surroundings, and in China, at the time we had no idea about the outside world. I wasn’t conscious of being unhappy, in fact, my childhood memories are sunny. I come from a family of strong women and my mum pushed me academically, so ultimately, I passed the exams to go to Peking University, which is the Oxford or Cambridge of China. By that time, things had begun to normalize in China and it had gradually begun to open up to the outside world, so there were more opportunities to travel.

I like to say that my personal and professional journey has taken me from the Little Red Book to the Little Black Dress, from Karl Marx to Karl Lagerfeld. It sounds flippant, but it is true –when growing up, I had no idea that the world of luxury existed, we didn’t have a television, not even a black and white one. The height of affluence was considered to be owning the four moderns which were, if I recall correctly, a radio, a watch, a bicycle (albeit a not very modern design) and a fridge. It wasn’t abject poverty = we were never hungry – but it sure wasn’t wealthy.

You are well known for your asymmetrical bob – a style you’ve had for 15 years. Based on your hairstyle, critics share different opinions about your personality. Which one is true?

I have had it a lot longer than that! It is funny how people pick up on that, and compare it to Anna Wintour, but I honestly have had that style for a long, long time, before I entered the Vogue world. I am not sure it is a reflection of my personality, that is for others to judge, I just find it a convenient style and people say it suits me. There again, when you are Vogue editor, people probably don’t tend to criticize your hairstyle, or offer negative views!

For someone who initially planned to be a lawyer, how do you see the fashion scene after all?

I did study law at university, along with English literature, and had thought an out re-training as a lawyer until the Vogue China job came along. I also have an MBA from the University of South Australia, but not many people know about that, I am not sure even my bosses do.

Although the legal background and MBA have not done me any harm, most of my training has come about on the job, learning from experienced people. It also makes me slightly different from many other fashion industry editors and business people and gives me a broader perspective. I am not a fashionista per se, I arrived at a fashion magazine after working in many other areas of journalism: I was a feature writer, an aviation and shipping correspondent, a broadcaster and a columnist for Reuters. I was the publisher of a lifestyle magazine before gravitating towards fashion, as Editor-In-Chief of Marie Claire Hong Kong and Elle China and then launched Vogue China 13 years ago.

Angelica Cheung, Editor of Vogue China. Angelica Cheung, editor of Vogue China photographed in the Vogue China offices in Beijing China. Courtesy of Financial Times.

Critics claimed China had neither the money nor taste to make Vogue successful. What was going through your mind every time you heard those critics?

Well in some ways they had a point. Nobody knew for sure that there were enough people with discerning and sophisticated taste back in 2005, when Vogue China launched. My bosses at Conde Nast felt the time was right, and I agreed with them, but there was some apprehension, inevitably, about launching such an upscale magazine into an untried market. You can’t launch Vogue in a half-hearted way – it is all or nothing, supermodels, top photographers, world-class stylists, exotic locations. Did China have enough people who had heard of Vogue and would want to buy Vogue China? After all, this was a whole new dimension, the world’s fashion bible being launched for the first time in an emerging nation. Sure there were rich people who collected designer labels – and flaunted them – but were there truly enough people who understood fashion and wanted to learn more by buying Vogue China.?

In the event, there were way, way more than we could have expected in our wildest dreams. The first issue was a sellout in only hours and we had to reprint and reprint. I think that launch issue sold something like 300,000 copies, it is probably a collector’s item now, and showed definitively that China had mature and sophisticated Vogue level readers. Those self-same readers are still with us, and we have picked up younger generations along the way.

What was the advice you have given from Anna Wintour before launching Vogue China?

Anna was helpful in many ways and still is. Before the magazine launched I went to New York to see how American Vogue operates. Anna kindly allowed me to sit in on meetings and observe the way the magazine was put together. I am not sure there was one specific piece of advice from Anna but in general terms she taught me the value of thinking big, having the courage of your convictions and never, ever, compromising on quality. If it is a Vogue shoot, or Vogue anything, it has to be the very best. The Met Ball that Anna organizes every year is a great example of how she insists on excellence.

I have to say that Alexandra Shulman of British Vogue was also hugely helpful. She hosted a party to introduce me internationally to other industry people and asked me to write a feature story on how Vogue China was launched. And, of course, the then editor of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld, styled the very first cover of Vogue China. It was shot on a restaurant terrace in Shanghai. It has pride of place on my wall at work, and I still smile fondly every day when I see it. One of the cover models, Du Juan, went on to become the first Chinese supermodel and now has a successful and critically-acclaimed movie career.

How close are you with Anna Wintour and what are differences and similarities the management style between yours and hers?

I see Anna regularly at fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris and she is always willing to give wise counsel. I was able to return the favor when the Met Ball had a China theme a few years ago, offering her suggestions on China and helping to connect her with A-list celebrities from China.

People say that Anna is like me, in that we are both very direct and demanding. But I think it is for other people to compare and contrast our management styles. Anna is an inspiration and role model for all Vogue editors – she has kept the magazine at the very top for many decades. She was also one of the first editors to spot the power of celebrity. She is known for being supportive of young, upcoming designers; one of Vogue China’s missions, likewise, has been to raise the profile of Chinese designers internationally.

 

I think the secret is to constantly evolve. You can’t just launch Vogue China and then step back and admire the results. Once you are the market leader you have to keep leading.

 

Vogue China is now one of the biggest in the world, more than twice the size of its UK sister. What do you tell people when they ask your ‘secret’?

I think the secret is to constantly evolve. You can’t just launch Vogue China and then step back and admire the results. Once you are the market leader you have to keep leading. That has meant constant re-designs for the magazine, changes of focus, spotting new talent, launching new titles such as Vogue Me and Vogue Film. And, of course, embracing digital technology. I am told that we are the most advanced of all the Vogue titles digitally – you have to be in China, a country that is incredibly digital savvy.

In the early days, it was not so easy to persuade the very top photographers, models, and stylists to work for us. But once they saw the quality of the magazine, and the influence we were having, they all wanted to work for us. I think pretty much all the major industry names have worked for us, including the best-known model, Kate Moss, and the most famous photographer Mario Testino. And, of course, all the top Chinese models and movie stars want to be on the cover.

What is the most unromantic aspect of being a Vogue editor?

The long hours. The success of the magazine is not the result of a magic wand, it has come about through many, many 10, 12 and even 14-hour days. Even fashion weeks, which sound incredibly glamorous – sitting on the front row watching some of the most exquisite clothes in the world pass before your eyes – can take their toll. It is a four-week marathon with long days and back-to-back meetings with designers, agencies, models and advertisers. I also have to fly back to Beijing, in between to oversee the different magazines and digital platforms, so it is basically a repeat cycle of shows, meetings, planes, office. There is no other way to do it: people expect to see the editor of Vogue in person, on the front row. My typical travel schedule during fashion weeks is Beijing-New York-Beijing, followed by Beijing-London-Beijing and so on.

Having said that, I am not complaining, it is part of the job. On balance being a Vogue editor is one of the most amazing jobs in the world – especially in China where the changes have been so phenomenally fast since I launched the magazine 13 years ago. It is a demanding job but it is never dull, not for one instant. There can only ever be one launch editor, and I find it a huge honor that I was chosen for that job and – I hope! – executed it well. When Vogue launched, and for some time afterward, I was also the youngest worldwide Vogue editor. Not anymore, sadly.

What’s the most memorable thing a fashion designer has said to you?

I think the most gratifying moments have been receiving profuse thanks from the Chinese fashion designers I have helped. Right from the get-go we have promoted the talented Chinese designers and now there are a number that are truly world class. It was a proud moment for me when I attended the opening of Huishan Zhang’s first store, just off Bond Street in London recently. Likewise, I always try to attend shows by Masha Ma in Paris. Both of them are young, talented and ambitious.

 

Be prepared to be flexible. It seems that the days of the job-for-life have gone. The divide between disciplines, in the creative areas at least, is narrowing.

 

Since the first in the United States were founded in the pre-Civil War era as an expression of female empowerment, the woman’s magazine has always been a political object. Now we’re witnessing how they get more politicized by reacting to travel bans, sexual harassments, and sexist statements by male politicians.  Where does Vogue China stand?

We don’t really get involved in politics directly, but, of course, we are all in favors of powerful women, and regularly feature movers, shakers and pioneers in our pages. We are first and foremost a fashion magazine, and always well be, but our feature pages cover broader topics that are pertinent to the modern, free-spirited Vogue woman. On the broader topic, our parent company Conde Nast has strict workplace guidelines that are followed by all the titles.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a message for the world during his opening speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress: China supports an open economy, and it will further liberalize its markets to foreign investors. How should we read his speech? What’re your feelings about the China’s liberalized future?

From where I am standing the future certainly looks rosy. Next year will be a bumper one for Vogue China, as they all have since we launched 15 years ago. Even if China luxury did begin to slow down slightly, it would be growing at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world. It has been an amazing ride to see China grow and grow and achieve higher levels of sophistication. You only need to glance around any of China’s major cities to see how the international influence has increased, not just in the luxury sector.

I always advise anyone who asks me about China to come and see for themselves. It’s a mystery to me why people would not want to come and visit if their business involves China in any way shape or form. Beijing and Shanghai are two of the most intriguing cities in the world and the fastest changing. The pace of change is mind-blowing, even living there, I am still astonished by it.

Last year, authorities have cracked down on China’s top video-streaming websites, doubled down on their crackdown of virtual private networks (VPNs), removed foreign TV shows from online platforms. How do you deal with censors in this digital age?

We play by the rules and follow the letter of the law. Our content is not considered foreign. While we do, of course, use overseas locations and crews, all the production is overseen by me and my staff. Our latest series of Vogue Film clips, featuring pretty much all the A-list actors in China actors, have been an incredible success, with hundreds of millions of views.

Do you think ‘Made in China’ tag finally lost its negative associations?

That is a broad question. China is still the world’s biggest manufacturing nation by volume and that includes everything from televisions to cars. There are plenty of cheap goods still made here. At the higher end, China is perfectly capable of producing quality, as Chinese fashion designers have shown, I think in future standards will be higher and higher – one main factor is that Chinese people increasingly insist on quality and are not prepared to accept second-rate, or shoddy, goods, or service. Whether there will be a Chinese brand as renowned as Dior, Gucci, or Chanel in the next few years is another matter. China is still evolving. I like to think that Vogue China has done a lot to raise standards, and awareness, and promote quality China-made products.

You’ve launched “Vogue Me”, targeting young, post-Nineties, “me” generation a few seasons ago Unlike older age groups, they are focused on individualism and are influenced by the opinions of their peers a lot. How are you able to communicate with this audience? What are the main challenges? Also, what have you learned from them?

Vogue Me has launched four years ago, aiming at the millennial generation and was an instant success. It is fun and funkier version of Vogue with a less rigid format and a strong emphasis on the online content. We have helped launch – or boost – the careers of many promising young actors, singers and models through Vogue Me. The magazine targets urban millennials who are the first Chinese to grow up without encountering poverty. They are the dream target for all advertisers – almost all are only children, because of China’s one-child policy, now relaxed – and they are avid consumers, particularly digitally.

Your daughter Hayley turns fourteen next year. What kinds of advice do you have for people raising kids?

That is a question that I could spend a long time answering. The basic answer is, try to involve them as much as you can in your life. Hayley has been going to fashion shows since she was a toddler and knows Paris almost as well as Beijing.  We always try to talk to Hayley about every kind of topic and involve her in family decisions. My advice would be to savor every second: it all goes by so quickly and they are times you cannot replicate. When it’s gone it’s gone. And don’t try too hard to force your views, or tastes, on modern-day kids or they will rebel.

Do you have any advice about balancing parenthood with the demands of your career and your own personal development?

At Vogue China, we encourage our readers to try to have it all. They can have a good career and also a family, so I have to life what I preach. When I had Hayley 11 years ago, I started to limit evening business entertainment to once a week, tried not to work on weekends and avoided unnecessary trips. A big part of my day is receiving visiting CEOs and designers, but I usually see them in the office rather than out over dinner. When I travel for long period of time, I try to bring my husband Mark and Hayley along. It is not easy balancing work and family, but I believe if you are an efficient manager at work, you can apply those skills to running a family too. You just have to plan ahead, think fast, speak fast and do things fast! The ability to multi-task is very important.

When it comes to my own development at work, I am still learning every day. I knew little about the process of making videos, and mini-movies until we launched the digital platforms. It has been a steep learning curve to understand how a film is put together. It is a fascinating process acting as producer, where you bring together all the elements  … actors, director, film crew, location, theme, money.

 

My daughter is really good at keeping me grounded. She would say things like “Mummy, it is so uncool to say someone is cool!” “You are so last year,” is another favorite. Now that is a real put-down for a Vogue editor!

 

What advice would you give those currently 10 years younger than you about how to make the best use of the next decade?

Be prepared to be flexible. It seems that the days of the job-for-life have gone. The divide between disciplines, in the creative areas at least, is narrowing. So while achieving academic results is important, having multiple talents will be of equal use in the future. Just look at the bloggers and KOLs – they have turned a hobby, or passion, into a profession, lucratively in some cases with a combination of digital savvy, street smarts and old-fashioned hard work. Blogger was not a profession that existed when we launched Vogue China.

What will change when you turn into 70?

A good question, but not one I want to spend too much time contemplating! When I left university three decades ago, I little thought I would one day be editing the most important fashion title in the world and back in the city of my birth. I think I will still be involved in China, in the fashion and creative industries in some role that links China with the world.

Do you feel like you’re living the dream?

A lot of people ask me to write books, but I really am too busy living life rather than reflecting on it. Perhaps one day I will. The biggest satisfaction comes not from the glamour part of the job, but from the privilege of being able to influence millions of readers to adopt a positive attitude and to embrace life with energy through Vogue platforms. There are many rich people in the world, but how many of them can have such a voice to influence people?

What keeps you grounded?

My daughter is really good at keeping me grounded. She would say things like “Mummy, it is so uncool to say someone is cool!” “You are so last year,” is another favorite. Now that is a real put-down for a Vogue editor! – [Revised, and re-edited from an interview with Ali Tufan Koc]

 

 


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