Up Close & Personal With Nancy Zhang, China's Youngest Female Billionaire
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, LVMH-owned 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 JD.com's 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 in-house, 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.
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“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 high-end 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 Studios 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 in 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 that 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 interest her most. “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. Now, she’s leading the development of the first direct-purchase online donation platform in mainland China.
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“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.