As western luxury brands rush to tap the Chinese market they are having to unlearn gender stereotypes associated with the products they sell.
Chinese women buy more whisky and fast cars than their western counterparts, for example, while men purchase more face creams and bags. Coach, the U.S. leather brand, says men represent 45 per cent of the $1.7-billion (U.S.) Chinese market for luxury bags and accessories, compared with 15 per cent globally.
At one Shanghai Prada store, the shop assistant explains that Chinese men have more of a penchant for male handbags partly because they need to carry so much cash. "Many shops don't take credit cards here," she explains while stroking a $745 black leather clutch that would require a stack of renminbi at least an inch thick to buy.
Victor Luis, president of Coach's international business, says "man bags" are popular in China because they satisfy practical needs that are not counteracted by exaggerated notions of manliness.
L'Oréal sees a similar trend. The French group sells more male grooming products in mainland China than in western Europe. It says Chinese men see appearance as key to social and professional success. A glimpse at the jet black hairdos of China's top political leaders - most of whom are elderly - drives home the point that Chinese men are enthusiastic consumers of hair dye.
McKinsey says women in China are increasing their spending on luxury goods twice as fast as men, prompting western companies to try to understand what makes Chinese women tick.
The rise of women entrepreneurs - more than half the world's richest women are Chinese according to Hurun Report - is propelling their share of luxury spending.
"In China, women are ambitious … so they will buy more 'high powered' products than women in the U.S. or Europe," says Tom Doctoroff, greater China head of JWT, the advertising agency. "A woman here needs to project her power in ways that a western woman simply does not need to."
Luxury car companies are finding the age-old desire among the rich to drive a fast car in China is unisex. Maserati says 30 per cent of its Chinese buyers are female, far higher than the 2 to 5 per cent common in Europe and the U.S.
More Chinese women drink Johnnie Walker whisky than in the west, according to Diageo. As a result, it plans to make the brand more "gender bilingual" and include more women in a social media ad campaign.
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