Text: Maja Von Horn
Photography: Kasia Bobula
Hong Kong-born, London-based freelance writer Zoe Suen covers fashion, beauty, and food for The Business of Fashion (BoF), Another Magazine, and South China Morning Post, among others. We talk about Chinese versus European luxury markets, celebrity culture, and whether it’s possible nowadays to be a freelance writer without social media.
Maja von Horn: What are the biggest differences between the Chinese and the European luxury markets?
Zoe Suen: China is such a digitally advanced ecosystem, and the way people approach brands is very dependent on the apps they use. For example, a bag can have its name in English, like a “cross-body” style, but in China influencers will come up with their own nickname for a product, and that nickname and product often go viral very fast. Overnight, people in China know the bag by an entirely different name. This is something that brands have already started to realise – you can put your product out on the Chinese market, but you don’t know how people are going to understand it. It might be a huge success, or it might be the opposite. Slowly but surely, the fashion industry has started to realise that China is not a monolith – it is a very big country, so you can’t generalise consumer behaviour, there are too many people to do that. People in China like buying luxury for the same reasons Europeans like buying luxury. Regardless of geopolitics and all the prejudice that shapes how we think about China as a market, it’s important to understand that it is just people on the other side of the world. At its core, luxury is something we all understand similarly, as something that is usually hard to get a hold of. What is different is the way the market works. In China there’s a big emphasis on celebrity culture, influencer culture, digital culture. There is so much value built into the celebrity ambassador, the face of a brand. You see this as well with Korean celebrities, they have huge followings, and they sell products very well. It’s the same logic as in the West, but the scale is much bigger. In the West people want a Birkin bag, and in China people also want a Birkin bag, but the way they talk about it, the way they post about it is different.
M.v.H.: When did you leave Hong Kong for London?
Z.S.: I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and left for London after high school to study law. As I was completing my one year masters program, I started apprenticing at The Business of Fashion (BoF), and then ended up working there for four years. It’s already been 9 years since I came to London, which is a bit surreal to think about.
M.v.H.: Tell us about Hong Kong and the environment you grew up in.
Z.S.: I went to an international school, which is why I have an American accent. My dad, who is a creative director and graphic designer, has always been interested in photography, art, and fashion, so I grew up surrounded by his creative influence. I started a fashion blog when I was still in high school, that’s how I began using social media. The blog became my first real job, I styled and produced my own photo shoots, and then started sharing them on Lookbook, which was one of the first social media platforms for fashion bloggers. It was a hobby, which later became a job. But I knew it wasn’t something I might want to do for the rest of my life, so it was important for me to get a university degree. I really enjoyed studying law, it’s intense, but there’s actually a lot of storytelling involved. But, again, later on I realised that I didn’t see myself working in a law environment for the rest of my life.
M.v.H.: How did you start writing for BoF?
Z.S.: I met one of their editors and she asked if I’d be interested in coming there as an apprentice. I jumped at the idea, because it was a chance to get some media experience. So I would go to university three days a week, and to the office two days a week. Eventually I started reporting stories closely related to the Asian market.
M.v.H.: After four years at BoF you decided to go freelance, was it a hard decision?
Z.S.: It was. That was the end of 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, a lot of people had lost their jobs. Most people I asked advised me against it, saying it was too risky. But I really felt that I needed a change. I learned so much at BoF, but I covered mostly Asia-related topics, and felt like I wanted to explore other subjects too, and develop new skills.
M.v.H.: Do you think it is possible at all to be a freelance writer without a huge social media following?
Z.S.: I’m sure it’s possible, but definitely more difficult. This job is just as much about networking, putting yourself out there, reaching out, searching for stories, as it is about reporting. I don’t think I would get as many opportunities as I do now if I didn’t use social media, although I’m not very active on it anymore. I’m an introvert by nature, I like to stay at home a lot, so I have to push myself to go to events, to network with people. But I do think that without social media it would be much harder for me to find ideas and people to talk to. I recently did a story on K-beauty for BoF, and a lot of people that I spoke to for this story, I found on Instagram. All the social media platforms are really useful for reporters, it’s the easiest way to contact people directly. Sometimes I tweet: “pitch me some topics you’d like to read about”, and I do receive pitches from people. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that fashion media don’t pay very well. Being an influencer not only pays the bills, but also allows you to do a lot of creative work.
M.v.H.: The number of your followers on Instagram (over 120k) comes from your blogging days?
Z.S.: Yes, the followers come from my blog. The numbers used to be bigger, but when I started writing for BoF I stopped working commercially with brands because it would have created a conflict of interests.
M.v.H.: After nine years, is London still able to surprise you?
Z.S.: It took me quite a long time to feel comfortable in London. As a student, it all felt very temporary, but in the last couple of years I started feeling at home here. I met my boyfriend, we live together in West London, we have a cat, and I have my daily routines, which are very important for me. Every little neighbourhood in London has its own character, it’s good to explore them to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the city.
M.v.H.: Has London influenced your style in any particular way?
Z.S.: Most days I work from home, so I’m just in my sweatpants, with my laptop, sitting in the kitchen. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. But when I’m out and about I love tailored trousers, a good coat – I love to steal my boyfriend’s tweed coat, very British. I try to have a pared-back wardrobe, so I’m not always buying things. When you work in the industry it’s good to remind yourself once in a while that we live in a fashion bubble and we don’t really have to buy all the new trends to stay relevant or up to date. I know what looks good on me. In the winter, for example, that’s usually a black turtleneck and jeans or trousers (not to do the whole Steve Jobs thing, but that’s really what I wear usually). There’s a wonderful beauty newsletter that I follow, called The Unpublishable. The author, Jessica DeFino, is a beauty critic who writes incredibly about the way the beauty industry functions to make us buy things. I like to have access to this type of media so I don’t get sucked into the cycle of thinking that I have to buy into certain things to feel content or satisfied.
M.v.H.: And what do you miss most about Hong Kong?
Z.S.: I miss my family, my parents, my high school friends. My sister lives in London too, so I get to see her more often. I miss the food, the atmosphere, the smells, the sounds. Having grown up there, there’s a lot of nostalgia in how I feel about the city.
M.v.H.: Speaking of food, there’s plenty of it on your Instagram…
Z.S.: I think most Asian people will agree that our lives are to a dramatic degree built around food. In Hong Kong, if we meet with a friend, it’s not even up for a discussion whether we’ll get the food together or not, it’s just the way we do things. My mom is a fantastic cook, my whole family loves eating, so when we go on a trip or on holidays, it’s always about what are we going to have for lunch, for dinner, what are we going to eat next. I started cooking when I moved to London to study, but since the pandemic I’ve really been cooking and baking a lot. I love to cook with my boyfriend, it really calms me down. It’s the way to show love to people, this is also a very Asian thing, my relationship with food is rooted in that.
Zoe's Favorite Places in London
- The Garden Cinema A gorgeous gem of a cinema tucked away in Covent Garden with an excellent programme of art house and international films and low-lit Art Deco interiors.
- Gold Mine Where I go for dim sum; it’s family-filled and always extremely busy on weekends (as dim sum spots should be!) so book ahead or brave the crowd.
- St. John Bread and Wine My go-to spot when friends visit from out of town. The potato with cods roe and freshly-baked madeleines are always on my order.
- Gelupo It’s currently very warm in London, which calls for a scoop of bitter chocolate gelato (or a seasonal granita, or both).
- Notting Hill Exchange I bring my unworn designer pieces here and always leave with a thing or two.