Why Prada’s partnership with Women’s Football in China is game-changing

How to receive hundreds of millions views on social media over night, build a foundation for sustained commercial success, and, more importantly, send a positive message of equity, diversity, and excellence to society? Prada might have just found an elegant solution, in China.

Queens Wear Prada

The Women’s Football World Cup will kick off in Australia and New Zealand in July. When the Chinese national team, a major contender and a former Olympic silver medalist, landed in the airport of Adelaide, the entire team, from the head coach, a former football star in China herself, to the players, showed up in tailored white shirts, dark suits and dress shoes. Everyone looked elegant, dashing, confident, comfortable, professional, successful and fashionable, very different from the traditional image all dressed in function-oriented sportswear. Millions of fans in China saw the images on social media and were deeply impressed.

Shortly after, the team announced the partnership with Prada, the Italian luxury fashion house. Immediately, accolades poured in online.

One said: “It’s Prada: that’s why”!

“Queens wear Prada!” says another.

Steel Roses

Steel Roses” is the nickname of the women’s football players in China. Women’s football has earned the highest respect, prestige and admiration in China. In the 1996 Summer Olympics in the US and the 1999 Women’s World Cup, still a nascent tournament at the time, also hosted in the US, the Chinese national team won silver medals. During these games, together with women’s teams from all over the world, the players showed the equally impressive power, creativity and elegance that matched one of the golden ages in men’s football that brought us players such as Ronaldo and Baggio. If you have watched these two tournaments at the time, you will never forget the absolutely amazing games and players.

China itself has a long history with women’s football. The first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup, was hosted in China in 1991. Despite the great performance, worldwide, women’s football however has been traditionally underfunded and under-sponsored by major brands. In China, the players persisted and played under hardship. Their years’ diligence and sacrifice, and love for the game, allowed them to overcome enormous challenges. For these qualities, women’s football has also earned deepest respect and love among fans in China.

Respect and love are intangible but powerful. Gradually, businesses started sponsoring and promoting the sport. For example, in 2019, the technology giant Alibaba decided to invest US$145 million in women’s football in China. Many other Chinese brands also followed. Fast forward to today, the national team’s sponsors already include a list of major Chinese companies.

Prada is the only global fashion house on the list. In retrospect, it all makes sense. The team’s prestige echoes and mutually-reinforces Prada pedigree. For Prada’s business, the sponsorship has proven an excellent vehicle to strengthen the brand image and broaden the appeal in China. Today China is the world’s second largest luxury market and Asia Pacific is Prada’s largest source of revenue. For the team, the halo effect of Prada could bring additional attention and sponsorship from different brands and industries.

Found in Translation

Lost in translation, the title of famous film written and directed by Sofia Coppola could summarize the dilemma of many Western luxury brands in other parts of the world, including China. For many luxury brands that rushed to China, the question of how to translate or reinterpret the brands’ philosophies and narratives in a way that resonates with the local consumers, and, hopefully, makes a positive impact on the local society, has been challenging. For some brands, as long as the products can sell, the question can wait.

Prada’s approach here in China has been refreshing. There was trial and error, as well as setbacks, but gradually and steadily, over the years, the company seemed to have built a clear and positive identity. For example, during the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Prada partnered with three Chinese female athletes, shot putter Gong Lijiao, long-distance runner Li Zhixuan, and water polo player Xiong Dunhan, for a public campaign which celebrates the many faces and forms of beauty. The campaign was widely acclaimed in China.

Rong Zhai

Since 2011, Prada has been renting Rong Zhai (meaning Rong Residence), a historic landmark in the city of Shanghai. The building was renovated to reflect Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli’s respect and admiration for Chinese cultural heritage in Shanghai and Chinese aesthetics. After the multiyear renovation, the venue was used by Prada for events and public exhibitions, including many promoting fashion, art, design, and science. For example, a recent exhibition focused on the awareness of neurodegenerative diseases.

For Prada, it seems the fashion house has found the right medium, and message, when navigating across different cultures and societies.

Fashion, football and the future 

In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit New York Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, opened in concert with that year’s Met Gala. From the simulated dialogue between two of the greatest minds in fashion, I remember a quote from Miuccia Prada vividly. Prada said in her design philosophy, she wanted women to move, travel, lead, and change the world: therefore, to her why shoes on the feet are a most important part of fashion. Reflecting on what Muccia Prada said, I think women’s football is a most fitting ambassador.

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