CBI Case Study: High Fashion on the Small Screen

Guli Nazha on “Return the World to You”

With approximately 60 percent of Chinese now living in cities, “urban drama” (都市剧) is one of the most popular formats for television and streaming video in China, appealing to the aspirations of an increasingly large swathe of the population. Fashion increasingly plays a role in defining the characters of these shows, from high-powered lawyers in formal business attire to energetic young women in bright styles. But in a new crop of dramas, high-end fashion takes center stage in its own right.

The trend towards linking luxury brands with urban drama kicked off a few years ago with the series “Ode to Joy,” which has been described as a Chinese counterpart to “Sex and the City.” The show’s five female characters were dressed according to their personality, social background, and stage of career, with a heavy emphasis on designer labels. It was this that drew some criticism, as the number of brands appearing in the series rose along with its popularity — from about two dozen in the first season to more than 50 in the second.

This summer’s fashion drama of note is urban mystery/romance “Return the World to You” (归还世界给你, also known by the French title “Retourner le monde à toi”), which has drastically upped the placement of designer labels to 120-plus.

The series stars actress and model Guli Nazha as the co-founder of a fashion house, a role played by the Shenzhen-based Ellassay (which owns the luxury brands Laurel and Vivienne Tam, among others), and opens as the brand prepares for its first appearance at Paris Fashion Week, amid ongoing threats of sabotage from rivals. The series premiered on Jiangsu Satellite TV on July 19, 2019 and aired 58 episodes through August 19, and was also made available for streaming on iQiyi, Youku, and Tencent Video. 

Premise: “Return the World to You” is reported to be the first series independently produced by Diamond Pictures, a production company established by Shen Dongjun, the chairman and CEO of Leysen Jewellery (formerly Tesiro). It follows Shen’s successful investment in the 2015 comedy-romance series “Diamond Lover” (克拉恋人), which took Tesiro as its workplace setting. 

A drama set in the world of high fashion provides an appealing backdrop for Leysen’s diamonds to sparkle, though Shen has also expressed larger ambitions in his wish to create a show that can compete with the quality of Korean and Japanese productions. “I hope that viewers watching the series can develop some awareness of China’s current fashion industry and elevate their tastes somewhat, based on the fashion styling in the drama,” he said. 

Implementation: The presence of Leysen diamonds is evident from the opening scene, in which the camera zooms in on a magazine ad for Blue Flame, a trademarked, 89-facet cut. The Leysen brand also receives prominent placement in other episodes. 

The editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar China served as fashion director

The Ellassay clothing brand is most deeply integrated into the storyline, and Shen described the cooperation between Ellassay as a sponsor and the production in an interview with Beijing News. “We wanted to use a clothing brand as a background story, so the screenwriters had to understand the conditions in the industry by going to the company to observe, conduct interviews, and understand matters,” he said. “So you can understand (this brand’s) implanted advertising.” 

Still, leading fashion brands prefer to lend out clothing rather than make the more significant investment involved in sponsorship. Although Nazha’s character Shen Yien is the CEO of Ellassay, and the brand is central to the storyline, she wears clothing and accessories from dozens of other labels, including big names such as Chanel, Gucci, Balenciaga, and Louis Vuitton, with a reported 260 costumes for her character and more than 120 brands crediting in the closing credits. The extent of her wardrobe became a viral topic on social media, and Nazha even described her work on the series as that of “an emotionless clothes-changing machine.”  

To create this realistic world of fashion, Shen Dongjun recruited Su Mang, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar China, to serve as the show’s fashion director, and Su oversaw the wardrobe for the leading characters, leveraging her industry connections along the way. Shen said he created the role for Su in order to bridge a gap in Chinese fashion dramas, many of which still typically rely on more traditional channels to procure their wardrobes. 

Results: “Return the World to You” highlights some of the risks of relying on on television dramas for effective integration of fashion brands. 

  • Content and airing risks: The series was filmed in 2017, and it was originally reported to be set for a 2018 release. The delay may have contributed to the rather condensed release schedule of 58 episodes in the course of one month, which also left the brand with less time for exposure.
  • Critical reception: Although the series had consistently decent viewership throughout its run, maintaining a position in the top 10 dramas on network and satellite TV, it was poorly reviewed, with a Douban score of 3.6 (out of 10) and 53 percent of reviewers giving it just one star. Viewers cited the quality of acting, improbable storylines, and poor pacing of the drama as key deficiencies. On the plus side, the quality of the production, including cinematography, set design, and shooting locations, were generally praised.
  • Lost in the shuffle: With so many designer names in the mix, it is hard for any one brand to stand out apart from those that played a key role in the production, such as Leysen and Ellassay. It takes an assiduous viewer to catalogue the fashions worn by Nazha in the series, and the brands are not otherwise widely mentioned.

Few brands were mentioned by name

Nevertheless, we are likely to see more luxury brands on Chinese screens in the near future, with several new and upcoming series set to showcase fashion designers as their female leads. There’s “My Mowgli Boy” (我的莫格利男), currently airing with popular actress Yang Zi as a livestreaming influencer/fashion entrepreneur, “Wait in Beijing” (我在北京等你) a romance between a lawyer and aspiring designer set in New York City, and “Love, Haute Couture” (爱情高级定制), based on a popular online novel and starring Diliraba, an in-demand ambassador for luxury brands. All seem primed to provide further opportunities for the integration of fashion brands into their storylines.