Facekini fever

By Zhang Hongpei Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/4 18:38:40

Qingdao’s signature swimwear product attracts more and more Chinese and overseas beachgoers in niche market

Models, wearing the seventh generation of facekini swimsuits, are pictured at a beach resort in Qingdao, East China's Shandong Province. Photo: IC

The facekini, an emerging favorite among Chinese beachgoers and hot topic in social networking circles, has once again attracted the public's attention after the release of the latest generation which debuted on June 28 in Qingdao. Driven by high demand, its famous, unique appearance and practical function of sunray protection, the facekini has become a robustly growing niche segment within the overall swimwear market as China's consumption upgrades unleash more business potential for ambitious entrepreneurs.

Zhang Shifan, the 61-year-old facekini inventor who resides in Qingdao, East China's Shandong Province, has witnessed her products gradually going international over the past decade ever since she invented the highly demanded product.

Originating from Qingdao, the beachgoer face mask, also known as "the facekini" in the West, has attracted many headlines, both domestically and abroad, due to its unique appearance.

The facekini craze is sweeping across China's beaches as consumers view it as the most effective and practical way to avoid the damaging effects of sun exposure, a purpose also pointed out in media reports. 

The nylon-made product has become a hot topic within Western media reports, particularly since Reuters posted photos of middle-aged women wearing them on the beaches of Qingdao in 2012.

A Qingdao resident, surnamed Jia, bought five facekinis online for her family last year and bought two more this year.

"I find wearing the facekini comfortable due to its high elasticity and effective protection from the sun,'' Jia, who regularly visits the beach during summertime, told the Global Times on Monday.

A new trend

Last July, Li Yang, a Beijing-based white-collar worker, tried out a facekini for the first time, and found that it was indeed crucial when playing water activities in the sun during a visit to Bali, Indonesia.

"At first, I was shocked by my appearance while wearing it, but then I got used to it and realized that protecting my face from the sun was more important than the way I look," Li told the Global Times Monday.

The facekini is not only popular among domestic consumers, it is also becoming increasingly popular overseas.

The facekini can be found in Australia as well as some Southeast Asian countries, Zhang told the Global Times on Thursday, noting that "about 30,000 to 40,000 facekinis were sold both online and offline last year."

When Zhang first invented the facekini in 2004, she never foresaw its current popularity.

The invention of the facekini aimed to be an addition to the anti-jellyfish swimming suit, which was also invented by Zhang.

After becoming inspired by the demand of a Qingdao swimmer who wanted to be protected from jellyfish stings when swimming in the sea, Zhang decided to create an anti-jellyfish swimming suit to protect swimmers in her community, a business venture she also pursued in 2004 previous to the facekini.

"Given my customers' feedback on the suit, I continued my designs by creating an independent face cover with only eyes, nose and mouth exposure, which later became the first generation of 'facekini',"she said.

The seventh generation of facekini debuted on June 28 by the seaside in Qingdao as several young female models showcased its new features of blue and white porcelain and embroidery to media cameras.

"The inspiration behind the porcelain pattern came from an authentic porcelain product of the Yuan Dynasty [1279-1368], which is now exhibited in a museum in Iran. And the embroidery represents traditional Chinese craftsmanship," Zhang said, noting she wanted to express the concept of "Silk Road on the water."

Another highlight of the new generation is that the facekini is sewn into the neckline of the swimsuit.

"This improvement came from my customers' feedback because they think this feature makes it more convenient," Zhang added.

The stock of new generation facekinis is still in the process of production and is expected to be sold from mid-July onward.

Still a small business

Behind the popularity of the facekini in China shows the fact that the country's consumption is upgrading and becoming more diversified, Liu Dingding, a Beijing-based independent tech analyst, told the Global Times on Monday.

Guo Shimin, an analyst with Shanghai-based market consultancy iResearch, agrees, saying that the facekini has a niche market in China.

"To be honest, the first few generations of facekini are not very beautiful, but were more about practicality as they focused on effective functions such as sun protection and jellyfish sting prevention. The majority of its consumers tend to be middle-aged women," Guo told the Global Times on Monday.

The unique product has now attracted youth as consumers, and the reason for this, to a large extent, is because of social media, he said.

While running three stores on China's online shopping platform Taobao, Zhang's facekini sales have witnessed year-on-year growth in recent years thanks to photos of facekinis going viral. Zhang has also experienced wholesales offline for the past 13 years by running physical swimwear stores since 2004.

However, the facekini, which is only priced at around 30 yuan ($4.42) a piece, is a niche player within the entire swimwear market due to its specific target audience and function. 

"The product is seasonal attire and invites a very complicated production process due to its distinct design," said Zhang, noting that the unique product has profitability limitations.  

"One swimming product manufacturer once told me that they would prefer to make a pair of swimming shorts instead of a facekini because the making of a facekini requires harder work," Zhang said.

Despite the current overtly vertical status of the facekini market, big business opportunities are yet to come, said Liu. "Meeting the demands of specific groups of consumers - as in this case, China's middle-aged female beachgoers - should be actively encouraged among aspiring entrepreneurs so they can pursue a niche market."

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