In late January, Angelica Cheung, the veteran editor of Vogue China, returned to her home city of Beijing after a week at the Paris fashion shows and an international Vogue conference in London, excited to be reunited with her family.
Cheung had been so busy on her travels that at first she’d paid little attention to news coming out of the city of Wuhan, 700 miles from Beijing, about the emergence of a mysterious new coronavirus that had been identified by the Chinese government on December 31.
“Just in the last two days in London, I started to feel it might be serious,” says Cheung, who, as the arbiter of taste to an audience of 1.4 billion people, is arguably the most powerful woman in fashion in the world. “London colleagues even offered to send some masks to Beijing for us.”
On landing in the capital, she immediately caught the bullet train to Thaiwoo ski resort, 160 miles north of Beijing, where her Yorkshireman husband, Mark Graham, and daughter, Hayley, then 12, were staying to celebrate the Chinese new year. “I thought it would be safe there away from the city and the crowds,” she says.
But the following morning, the family were informed that in just a few hours the resort was shutting down. Cheung’s family were some of the last guests to leave, dragging their cases along empty corridors. “Hayley commented that it felt rather eerie, a bit like in the horror movie The Shining,” Cheung says, chuckling.
“While we waited for the railway station shuttle bus to arrive in driving snow, we were full of apprehension, wondering what would await us,” says Cheung. Back in Beijing, they learnt they were to be confined to their apartment in a city-centre compound for two weeks, the coronavirus incubation period.
Finding Her Rhythm
Two weeks, of course, have dragged into two months – and with Britain now playing catch-up with China, I’m fascinated to learn if Cheung, 53, has experienced the same fear and stresses as we have.
“Obviously people were very worried – what would this lockdown be like? No one knew what you could and couldn’t do,” she says. “Everybody was trying to read everything about the virus and, seeing the figures, you began to feel a bit apprehensive – and for a while, everything seemed to be getting worse. But amazingly, after a while you do settle into a different rhythm and you do get used to it.”
Cheung’s talking to me from her Beijing apartment where, throughout the lockdown, she has been working with a team of remote colleagues, keeping afloat Chinese Vogue.
This is the biggest-selling of all the magazine’s international editions, with a print readership of 2 million and a social media following of 12 million, informing the style of a population that currently consumes 33 per cent of the world’s luxury market, a figure predicted to rise – notwithstanding the virus’s economic effects – to 41 per cent by 2025.
“But amazingly, after a while you do settle into a different rhythm and you do get used to it.”
I’d imagined she would be a forbidding Vogue-editor stereotype (the handful I’ve met in person haven’t disappointed on that score). But either this was never Cheung’s style, or the pandemic is a great leveller – either way, she couldn’t be more friendly, laughing readily, inquiring after my wellbeing, even if she’s mildly flustered when she answers her phone – with no PA to hand, she’d completely forgotten I’d be calling.
We can’t see each other. She’s shattered after another day of nonstop video-conferencing (“You have to talk so much more loudly. It’s exhausting”) and prefers just to talk, but she tells me that right now her trademark asymmetrical bob is in slight disarray.
“My hair needs a trim every two weeks, so it’s got really long. I tried to wear it with Hayley’s hairpins, and she said, ‘Mummy, you look so much prettier and softer,’ but I thought it wasn’t really me: it looked feminine and girlie.” When restrictions slightly relaxed, Cheung had a haircut. “But that was about three weeks ago and now it’s starting to get long again.”
Has she abandoned her make-up routine? “Well, we all wear masks when we go out, so you can’t really put on make-up because it pollutes the mask. Online there are all these tips about how to wear eye make-up when you’re wearing a mask.”
What about the designer outfits that, to an extent, it is part of a Vogue editor’s job to wear? “Hayley’s been clearing out my wardrobe, so she takes out my dresses and demands that I wear one, but I say, ‘No, I can’t be bothered.’ But it was her 13th birthday a couple of weeks ago, so that night I agreed to wear a dress – and it did feel nice to dress up again.
“I do get out of my pyjamas in the morning. That’s a ceremonial thing to say I’m in work mode,” Cheung continues. “But I tend to wear a lot of jumpers or hoodies or shirts with cardigans over jeans or chinos – on a video call, they don’t see your bottom half and it needs to be a comfortable outfit to make it easy to dash out and pick up a delivery.”
Dash and Dine
Ah, deliveries. Cheung and I are speaking during the early days of UK lockdown when the most pressing quotidian concern, for the healthy, is how to obtain our groceries.
“The first week, gloves and masks ran out everywhere. Everyone was exchanging information about where you could go to get these things. Then there was the question of food. Luckily, in Beijing the delivery service is quite advanced, so we quickly figured out where to get meat, where to get fresh vegetables. So then the issue was just running out of the gate of your apartment block when they arrived, grabbing them and running back in again and then spraying disinfectant on everything and washing your hands again and again. After a few days you got everything you needed and things calmed down.”
“I do get out of my pyjamas in the morning.”
Unlike in the UK, restaurants and non-essential shops have stayed open. “But nobody wanted to go out: everyone wanted to stay home and stay safe.”
There was still a question of housework. Most of Beijing’s domestic workers were in their home provinces for the new year when lockdown happened. Even after they returned, it was safer for them to stay at home. “In Asia, generally most households have a full-time helper to do everything, so for lots of us it was an experience to clean the toilet and the bathroom every day, to cook dinner every night. At first, we thought, ‘Oh, all this work!’ But then gradually we started to enjoy it. We had friends who had never cooked a meal before who suddenly have all become gourmets, posting what they’ve made for dinner every night. It’s very funny – they’ve spent all these years studying and working hard and now suddenly they’re finding joy in conquering a new recipe. They’re really enjoying the little pleasures in life.”
There were other concerns, such as how Hayley, who attends Dulwich College – the Chinese co-ed branch of the London public school – would cope with virtual lessons. Cheung fretted about the amount of time she’d fritter online. “But compared with the worry about safety and health, it’s not as immediate.”
“We had friends who had never cooked a meal before who suddenly have all become gourmets, posting what they’ve made for dinner every night.”
In fact, Hayley and her father used much of their new spare time to organise her mother’s vast wardrobe – with Graham, as he described in an article for the South China Morning Post, working as an “unpaid labourer transporting dresses, coats and bags to an area designated for appraisal”.
For years previously, Hayley had reacted indifferently to encounters with designers such as Victoria Beckham and private visits to, say, Valentino’s couture studio, preferring to wear jeans and T-shirts from high street brands including Brandy Melville and River Island. But now Cheung explained to her daughter what made each piece unique, “whether it is the fabric, the cut or the colour”, as well as, in many cases, the thought process behind the garment. It gave her a new appreciation of high fashion, even if that came with the upsetting realisation that her mother’s hundreds of shoes fitted her perfectly, meaning next year they’ll be too small. “I thought, ‘At last you’re showing some interest in what Mummy does!’ ” Cheung says.
Cheung also has an elderly mother to worry about, who was recuperating in hospital after a leg operation when lockdown began. “Her hospital was probably the first to decide to lock down very early on, so no visitors were allowed. At the time I was fairly angry about it, thinking surely there must be some flexibility, but in retrospect they were very wise. So she’s bored. She doesn’t really realise how bad it is outside and keeps asking to go home and I have to say, ‘No.’ But she has a helper, luckily, and all the electronics, so we video-call and she’s recuperating.”
Naturally, all social engagements are out the window. Cheung says in normal times, she tends to hang out with non-fashion people – “Just because I like to catch up with people you don’t usually see in the working day.”
“But what I’m finding is, you end up speaking more to your friends than normal. You’re usually so busy with work but now you reconnect with them. You’ve always cared about these people, but now you want to show it. You feel a lot of compassion for people. At the same I’ve realised, do we really need all this socialising? We were out all the time before. Maybe it’s good to take things at a slower pace?”
It wasn’t as if Cheung had nothing to do except phone friends. She and her team were having to work out how to produce at least the next two issues of the magazine from home. “Obviously, no one could go out to physically conduct interviews in person, or carry out photoshoots, so we had to work around that. In the beginning we were doing shoots overseas but now, ironically, overseas people are asking if they can organise shoots in China because they can’t travel anywhere. So it all comes around.”
There was also the question of the appropriate tone for the magazines and social media. “The mood was so sombre. People were all-consumed by worry – the virus was all they were talking about. And when people were looking for masks and gloves and disinfectant, handbags and jewellery were probably a little bit beyond their immediate need,” Cheung says.
Instead of trying aggressively to flog such products, the team devoted a large part of its lockdown to preparing new, future initiatives – even if Zoom calls were sometimes interrupted by the sound of screaming children.
“It means we’ve ended up busier than ever, because we’re dealing with what we deal with every day and we’re making these internal adjustments. And because you’re at home, the shift never ends. When the market bounces back to normal – which I’m sure it will, because it’s human nature to want a better quality of life – then we’ll be prepared for it.”
Cheung has used this time to reflect on her industry, not least the devastation it has wreaked on the planet. Previously, she’s been cautious discussing this, saying sustainability would only become an issue for Chinese consumers “when society has become generally affluent – when people want to live longer, and for their children to live longer”.
“When the market bounces back to normal – which I’m sure it will, because it’s human nature to want a better quality of life – then we’ll be prepared for it.”
Yet now, it seems, the second of those conditions has been fulfilled. “Caring about nature is about caring about ourselves. And I hope, through all this, more and more people will realise that.”
This isn’t just about the behaviour of Chinese consumers but more about the fashion industry with, until now, its nonstop roster of international travel.
“I’m not perfect but, like everybody, this unfortunate experience has really made me think about what’s important. I miss all the fashion people. It’s the first time in 20 years that I haven’t seen them for several months – usually I see them all the time. But all this has made me realise we do not need to travel as much as we used to. It’s too much. We basically spend half the year going round the world – Milan, Paris, London, catching these shows – and it’s not good for the environment. Now they’ve shown the air quality in China is better because no one is flying. So maybe we should adjust our lifestyles and the way we do business. Of course we need to connect with people face to face, but we also don’t need to fly around the world just to see a 20-minute show – it’s a waste of resources and time. Nobody wins.”
Cheung has always had a wider perspective than your average fashionista. She was born in Beijing, where her father was a diplomat who – having been branded an intellectual – was sent to the countryside for “re-education”. He died when Cheung was nine. Three years later, her brother, who was born with a heart defect, also died. Cheung became the sole focus of her teacher mother’s efforts to give her the best possible prospects.
Her grandmother was a tailor, so she grew up with a passion for clothes. Yet she rarely dared express this, after her schoolmates whispered “bourgeoisie” when she turned up at school in a pair of homemade checked trousers. “That was a very bad label, and that was it, I never dared wear them again.”
At university, she studied law and English, then, with an MBA under her belt, moved to Hong Kong where she used her flawless English to become a journalist (meeting her husband, who was editing a weekend newspaper supplement). She rose via several publications, including Marie Claire Hong Kong, to become director of Chinese Elle, before Condé Nast called. She launched Vogue in 2005 in Shanghai, moving to Beijing a year later.
Many were sceptical about the timing, unsure the Chinese were ready for this paean to capitalism. But Vogue’s debut issue sold 300,000 copies and was reprinted twice. In those early days Cheung had constantly to correct western designers’ and creatives’ outdated impressions about her country.
“The world didn’t know China much and vice versa, so the only understanding really came from a few movies about traditional China. Western photographers coming here would always have the same reaction: ‘Oh, it’s a lot more modern than I thought.’ Some people made mistakes promoting their brands. A lot of the time, they probably meant well, but their messages didn’t speak to the Chinese or were even received negatively.”
Fifteen years have brought vast changes: today there are three Vogue titles: the main title, Vogue Me for millennials and Vogue Film, which combines entertainment with fashion. This means that Cheung oversees 20 issues a year, as well as plenty of accompanying digital content.
“China is no longer a myth. Everywhere on social media you see modern Chinese young men and women, how they dress, how they live. But it still takes a lot of effort and time to understand the subtleties of differences, to appreciate Chinese culture on a more sophisticated level.”
If anyone’s equipped to bridge gaps between cultures it’s Cheung who, thanks to her husband’s roots, is a huge fan of Yorkshire. This she has sold wholeheartedly to her six million-plus followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter, with snaps of her holding a pint of Theakston’s outside a pub, leading to her being named a patron of the tourism body Welcome To Yorkshire.
“China is no longer a myth. Everywhere on social media you see modern Chinese young men and women, how they dress, how they live.”
“I love the Dales especially,” she says. “I find it very soothing to be there, even though it rains constantly, to have a cottage with friends and family in the hills.”
Hayley, she says, “is very proud of her Yorkshire roots”, and is a huge fan of the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield. “She can do a spot-on South Yorkshire accent, with all the right inflections and slang. ‘Y’all right, luv?’ is her favourite.”
One day, you hope, Cheung will return to Yorkshire. For now, as with everyone, the outcome of the next day, let alone the next few months, is uncertain. I’m hoping her story will give me some sense of a timetable as to how long the chaos will last. After all, Beijing is supposed gradually to be lifting restrictions. Cheung’s plan is to return to the office within days (“but in a mask and gloves”).
Yet travel outside China is effectively impossible – since on return, you face a compulsory 14 days’ quarantine in a hotel. There are no announcements about schools re-opening. “Parents have mixed feelings about that. You really want children to be back at school – it’s a complication when you have to go to work yourself – but on the other hand you do feel you’d like to wait until it’s really safe.”
Sad to report, no one has the faintest idea when that will be. “We’re really worried about possible repeat cases and imported cases, including some from Britain,” Cheung says.
Every day, on waking, she checks infection figures across the world. “I’m still replying to emails and texts from friends and contacts all over the world – they were asking how I was, which meant a lot. Of course, now I am asking how they are. I was talking to Emanuele Farneti, the Italian Vogue editor. He was very, very worried.
“You’d think it would be, ‘Oh great, we’re over this. It’s under control,’ but just as we let those thoughts in, you started to see panic everywhere else. It shows that the planet is a really small place. We’re all so connected that really we’ve become one community. And then you think, ‘Oh God, this is going to last much longer than we thought.’ Until the world is safe, nobody can be safe alone.”