Dig­i­tal Dar­ling

At just 24, Nancy Zhang is rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing on­line lux­ury shop­ping in Main­land China. The en­tre­pre­neur­ial in­flu­encer—a so­cial me­dia sen­sa­tion for the bet­ter part of a decade—talks with Mar­i­anna Cerini about her pas­sion for fash­ion, e-com­merce and learn­ing

Hong Kong Tatler - - October - Pho­tog­ra­phy crazy rouge Styling am­ber choy

At just 24, Nancy Zhang is rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing on­line lux­ury shop­ping in Main­land China. We talk to the en­tre­pre­neur­ial in­flu­encer—a so­cial me­dia sen­sa­tion for the bet­ter part of a decade—about her pas­sion for fash­ion, e-com­merce and learn­ing from the best

Nancy Zhang has spilt her tea. She’s laughing so much that liq­uid has sloshed from her cup onto the ta­ble in her Bei­jing of­fice. The cause of the hi­lar­ity is my ob­ser­va­tion that she’s fast be­com­ing the Natalie Massenet of Main­land China. As the founder of Net-a-porter in 2000, Massenet pi­o­neered the on­line sell­ing of lux­ury goods, for­ever chang­ing the way we con­sume fash­ion. Nancy is now do­ing the same for on­line lux­ury retail in China, as chief fash­ion ad­viser at hus­band Richard Liu’s com­pany, Jd.com, also known as Jing­dong.

The com­par­i­son tick­les her. “I wish!” she ex­claims. “That’s so flat­ter­ing. Natalie’s been the core of Lon­don fash­ion, and is an in­cred­i­ble busi­ness­woman. Yes, I’d like to be that for China with Jd.com. If I can cre­ate a great lux­ury plat­form and raise aware­ness about Chi­nese de­sign­ers on an in­ter­na­tional level, then I could say that I’ve done my job. Massenet has been fan­tas­tic at that [in the West].”

Mod­est she might be, but Nancy, who is just 24, is not far be­hind Massenet. Al­though she doesn’t hold an of­fi­cial ti­tle at Jd.com, the largest e-com­merce ven­ture in the coun­try, she has be­come closely in­volved in build­ing its fash­ion and lux­ury port­fo­lios since mar­ry­ing Richard in 2015, and to­day, thanks in no small part to her, Jd.com is one of the world’s fastest grow­ing play­ers courting the Chi­nese lux­ury mar­ket, the world’s largest.

Much of the com­pany’s dra­matic growth has oc­curred in the past two years, since Nancy came on board. In May 2015, Lvmhowned cos­met­ics re­tailer Sephora and lux­ury eyewear con­glom­er­ate Lux­ot­tica launched of­fi­cial stores on Jd.com. In the same year, the com­pany part­nered with the or­gan­is­ers of Mi­lan Fash­ion Week to de­but an “Ital­ian Fash­ion Mall” on its site. Jd.com was also the first—and, so far, only—retail gi­ant to bring emerg­ing young Chi­nese fash­ion de­sign­ers to the New York and Lon­don Fash­ion Weeks in 2016, a prac­tice it plans to con­tinue.

Fur­ther strate­gic moves have been made this year, as Nancy has more pub­licly taken the wheel of the fash­ion op­er­a­tions. In Fe­bru­ary, the plat­form cre­ated a new on­line chan­nel, JD Fash­ion, which in­cludes Ar­mani, Swarovski and Chopard among its brands. Three months later, Nancy hosted a pri­vate fash­ion party in New York at­tended by a plethora of fash­ion and lux­ury ex­ec­u­tives as well as style icon Iris Apfel. Most re­cently, Jd.com has signed ex­clu­sive col­lab­o­ra­tions with cov­eted It de­sign­ers and so­cial me­dia dar­lings, such as Chiara Fer­ragni, be­gun work­ing on per­son­alised app in­ter­faces for its cus­tomers, launched its own line of gar­ments de­signed in­house, JD X, and de­buted a premium delivery ser­vice where couri­ers in suits and white gloves de­liver pur­chases to cus­tomers via elec­tric cars rather than scoot­ers.

“And now we’re ex­tend­ing our reach abroad,” says Nancy, non­cha­lantly. She’s re­fer­ring to Jd.com’s pur­chase in June of a US$397 mil­lion stake in the high­end Lon­don-based e-com­merce plat­form Far­fetch, a move that sig­nif­i­cantly boosts its pres­ence in the on­line lux­ury sphere. Richard now sits on the board of di­rec­tors, along­side Massenet.

“It was just the nat­u­ral next step in our tra­jec­tory,” Nancy says. “Jd.com is still quite young as a high-end fash­ion player, while Far­fetch al­ready has a solid of­fer­ing, with some 200 brands and 500 bou­tiques as partners on their site. We need that wealth of re­sources, both for our cus­tomers and as a com­pany.”

At this point, I would say the Massenet com­par­i­son is more than fit­ting: Nancy is def­i­nitely her nat­u­ral heir. Even their style is some­what sim­i­lar. The chair­man of the Bri­tish Fash­ion Coun­cil (Massenet left Net-a-porter in 2015) is known for her im­pec­ca­ble yet re­laxed looks and a pref­er­ence for un­com­pli­cated ac­ces­sories—think skinny jeans and breezy blouses, del­i­cate or­na­ments and laid­back pumps. When we meet, Nancy is sport­ing her “ev­ery­day uni­form,” a ca­sual grey Acne Stu­dio T-shirt, high-waisted and flared Derek Lam jeans, and sim­ple, un­der­stated jew­ellery. From her In­sta­gram pho­tos, too, it’s clear she likes to keep things sim­ple.

Has she al­ways had a pen­chant for fash­ion? “Not at all. I didn’t care much for clothes un­til I started at­tend­ing Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity in Bei­jing. I guess moving to the cap­i­tal [Nancy grew up in Nan­jing] made me more aware of my wardrobe. And then, when I spent one year in New York as an ex­change stu­dent at Barnard Col­lege… That city re­ally opened my eyes to the potential of fash­ion.”

It also led her to Richard. The founder of Jd.com was study­ing at Columbia Uni­ver­sity when the two met and fell in love at first sight. The re­la­tion­ship caused quite a me­dia frenzy, and not just be­cause of Richard’s high pro­file.

Well be­fore they met, when she was still at high school in Nan­jing in 2009, Nancy be­came an ac­ci­den­tal so­cial me­dia star, and she’s been ac­cus­tomed to the lime­light ever since. A pal had posted on Sina Weibo pho­tos of Nancy hold­ing a cup of bub­ble tea, and they went vi­ral. Her an­gelic ap­pear­ance—she has a pe­tite, dainty frame, with pale skin and a porce­lain doll-like face—at­tracted hordes of ad­mir­ers and made her an on­line sen­sa­tion. She soon be­came one of Main­land China’s first big so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers and to­day counts more than 1.4 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Sina Weibo.

So the at­ten­tion the cou­ple re­ceived at the be­gin­ning of their re­la­tion­ship—and con­tinue to ex­pe­ri­ence to­day, as ev­i­denced by a scan of main­land me­dia—was noth­ing new to Nancy, though it has made her very pro­tec­tive of her per­sonal life. She and Richard wel­comed their first child, a daugh­ter, last year, but Nancy makes it quite clear she wants our chat to steer away from their pri­vate lives. “I can say, moth­er­hood is a beau­ti­ful, chal­leng­ing thing. I’ve al­ways wanted to be­come a mum.”

With that, the fo­cus turns back to work. Be­yond the lux­ury fash­ion realm, Nancy is the di­rec­tor of TQ Cap­i­tal, the fam­ily’s ven­ture cap­i­tal fund, which she and Richard es­tab­lished in 2014. She is also hon­orary di­rec­tor of Jd.com’s phil­an­thropic arm, the JD Pub­lic Wel­fare Foun­da­tion, for which she of­ten en­gages in char­i­ta­ble work.

Through TQ Cap­i­tal, Nancy has in­vested in Chi­nese com­pa­nies across a range of in­dus­tries, such as the cold-pressed-juice en­ter­prise Heyjuice and elec­tric car start-up Nio. Fur­ther afield, she has bought stakes in Uber and Aus­tralian baby for­mula com­pany Bubs, both of which she is help­ing to pro­mote in China. She is also one of the main back­ers of inwe, a brand rein­vent­ing Chi­nese tea in a con­tem­po­rary way, which has stores in Bei­jing, Shang­hai, Hangzhou and Nan­jing.

“I don’t have a back­ground in in­vest­ment nor fi­nance, so I’m still learn­ing, but I have the amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity to be around the world’s top in­vestors, so I’m try­ing to ab­sorb as much as pos­si­ble from them. It’s chal­leng­ing but fun. I do lots of ob­serv­ing,” she adds. “I look at the mar­ket and trends, try­ing to gauge what sec­tors or con­cepts stand a con­crete chance of suc­cess. The next thing I fo­cus on is peo­ple: the team be­hind the idea. Then I ex­am­ine the busi­ness model.”

Start-ups are what most in­ter­est her. “They are ex­cit­ing. Tech ven­tures, too. I’d like to ex­plore the cross­over of fash­ion and AI [ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence]. I think there’s a lot of un­tapped potential there.”

Tech­nol­ogy is some­thing Nancy has also been ap­ply­ing to her char­i­ta­ble causes. Since its launch in 2015, the JD Pub­lic Wel­fare Foun­da­tion has em­ployed aug­mented re­al­ity videos and the Jd.com plat­form it­self— both its web­site and mo­bile app—to raise funds and se­cure goods for its mis­sion to aid un­der­priv­i­leged women and chil­dren on the main­land. And now she’s lead­ing the de­vel­op­ment of the first direct-pur­chase on­line do­na­tion plat­form in main­land China. “Our cus­tomers can search for phi­lan­thropy on our site and see all the projects and NGOS we’re back­ing, as well as the list of items and ma­te­ri­als needed for each project,” she ex­plains. “They can then se­lect the ven­tures they want to sup­port, and do­nate how­ever much they want—100 books, 20 rain­coats, 40 bas­ket­balls—buy­ing di­rectly from our stock and us­ing Jd.com to de­liver the goods. It cuts out the mid­dle­man and any ex­tra costs. It’s trans­par­ent—a new fron­tier for char­ity.”

At this point, I can’t help but ask if she ever sleeps. “I do,” she laughs. “I have a full life, that’s for sure. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.” And, then, it’s straight back to busi­ness. “I have a lot of plans for the com­ing year. Fash­ion weeks are next on the agenda, of course. This sea­son, JD is spon­sor­ing the show of 3.1 Phillip Lim dur­ing New York Fash­ion Week. It is the start of a long-term col­lab­o­ra­tion with Lim and it’s also the first time a Chi­nese retail plat­form has done some­thing of this kind. And then there’s the po­si­tion­ing of our JD X la­bel… I wouldn’t mind hav­ing a go at de­sign­ing for it one day, you know?”

I can’t say I’m sur­prised. She would prob­a­bly be very good at it.

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