The Fashion Billionaires Who Got Even Richer in the Year of the Pandemic | BoF Professional, China Decoded

SHANGHAI, China — “I am a stupid person,” Ma Jianrong once told state broadcaster CCTV in typically humble style. “All I do is make cotton thread into clothing [but] I believe that if you do one thing, stick to your main business, and remember your original intention, you will be able to do [that one thing] well.”

It was self-effacing but sage advice from one of China’s old-school fashion billionares. As founder of Shenzhou International Group Holdings, Ma hails from a generation who never expected to get rich quick, but he did eventually become very rich indeed. This year, according to the latest Hurun China Rich List, the self-made man saw his family fortune rise 17 percent, to around $10.3 billion thanks to a life spent wheeling and dealing from the factory floor.

Back in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping was opening up China to the global economy, Ma was just a 13-year-old boy who had just been apprenticed to a local textiles factory where his father worked. A decade or so later, amidst a wave of privatisations across the nation, the father and son duo managed to assume control of a struggling and under-funded state-owned plant. As many of their competitors diversified their operations, the pair decided it would be best to stick with what they knew.

There are many ways to make money in the fashion business.

Though many had their doubts at the time, it was a decision that was to reward Ma handsomely as his firm began compiling an impressive roster of international brand clients including Uniqlo, Nike, Adidas, Puma and others that were just starting to offshore production to China. More recently, as the country became less reliant on being the factory of the world for its economic success, Ma Jianrong invested in the next phase of offshoring — from China to lower cost operations around Southeast Asia.

There are many ways to make money in the fashion business. Some, like Ma, make clothing while others produce the raw materials that are later made into clothing. Then there are those who build fashion brands, and those who own the shopping malls or e-commerce platforms through which those brands pay rent, commission or fees of some kind to sell their wares.

But if you were asked to conjure an image of a modern Chinese billionaire, chances are you would soon bring to mind a titan of the country’s tech scene as charismatic entrepreneurs tend to dominate the headlines—and they too have fashion to thank for part of their fortunes.

Tech Moguls Keep Top Spots

Unsurprisingly, it’s good to be a technology entrepreneur in China in the year of the pandemic and, once again, the two Mr. Mas — Jack Ma of Alibaba and Pony Ma of Tencent — are duking it out for the number one and number two spot of the 2020 edition of the Hurun China Rich List, riding a wave of digital acceleration to a significant boost in their respective wealth.

This year has

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