Li-Ning: China’s Sportswear Brand that Walked the NY Fashion Show


With Li-Ning’s runway show during last NY Fashion Week, Chinese sportswear officially entered the International fashion world. Li-Ning’s marketing moves are winning the youngest consumers


Lately, in Beijing as well as in the rest of China, it is all about sports and fitness. People now want to keep fit and, as a response, many Chinese companies took the opportunity to grow in the business.

This modern interest in fitness came from China’s big plan of investments in many fields, including sports, so that government incentives led sportswear industry to reach unprecedented successes with national brands becoming more and more popular both in the domestic market and internationally.


Li-Ning - Beijing - sports - cifnews

© Unsplash. Beijing. While cities such as Beijing and Shanghai turned into new favorite fitness cities, sports industry contribution to China’s GDP is expected to grow from 1,9% in 2015 to over 3% by 2025.


Currently, the brand that represents the most national sports in China is the Beijing-based sportswear company Li-Ning 李宁.

“Our brand carries the genes of an athlete,” said the firm’s founder, Li Ning. In fact, the brand was established in Beijing in 1990 by Li Ning himself, a world-class gymnast who was able to win 106 gold medals in his career.  He was also named among the “World’s Most Excellent Athletes” of the 20th century by the World Sports Correspondent Association in 1999.
The company embodies that Olympic dream which let Li-Ning became a worldwide brand. In the beginning, Mr. Li mission was to provide local athletes with a national brand to wear during the Olympics and on the global stage.


Since Mr. Li lit the torch at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, he represents the symbol of Chinese sports excellence.


Focusing on ongoing innovation, the Li-Ning company drives perpetual researches with the goal of offering the most forward-thinking sports goods and experiences around four core products categories: training, running, basketball, and badminton.


Li-Ning - beijing Olympic opening ceremony - cifnews

© At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Li Ning ignited the cauldron at the opening ceremony while “flying”.


In 2005, in order to strengthen ties with International brands, Li-Ning engaged in a joint-venture with AIGLE – a French sports apparel company – of which the Chinese partner became the sole products’ distributor in China for 50 years. Thanks to this move, the following year, Li-Ning managed to gain $ 418 million in revenue and to reach the number of over 4,000 Li-Ning retail stores by the end of 2007, both directly owned and franchised.

After a first rebrand by the slogan “Anything is possible” in 2002, the firm finally reached the International consensus in 2010, when it established its first US headquarter and flagship store in Portland, Oregon.

Then Li-Ning released a brand-new logo by the slogan “Make the Change” and entered the partnership with the Chicago-based Acquity Group that made the Chinese company expansion in the US possible while building an international brand awareness.

Since its early years, the sportswear firm managed to use sponsorship deals in order to reach its first mission. Therefore, its history is littered with collaborations with world-class athletes as well as with Chinese national teams. Many Olympic Associations brought Li-Ning apparel to the Olympic Games year after year, consolidating its international popularity.

Although the fitness brand is not an official sponsor of the Olympic Games, it was able to associate its logo with the competition through its products supply and Mr. Li role as the most famous Chinese Olympic icon.

Even if Li-Ning was awarded the highest title of “Outstanding Contribution to Quality Standardization Award” in knitwear division at the Third National Textile Standardization Technical Committee‘s meeting, what had made the label an international style icon in the sportswear industry were all the sponsorship deals with major NBA players such as Shaquille O’Neal or Dwayne Wade who left the Jordan Brand for the Chinese deal worth $ 10 million.


Li-Ning - Dwayne Wade - the way of wade - sneakers - cifnews

© Li-Ning. Wade’s signature sneaker with Li-Ning – the Way Of Wade – was recently unveiled with the announcement of a lifetime endorsement deal.


Within China, Li-Ning has to compete with foreign sportswear brands such as Reebok, Converse, and Puma. In addition, in the domestic market, the company biggest competitor is Anta, which, although it is mostly unknown in Europe, is the number three sportswear firm in China behind Nike and Adidas. The Chinese firms both struggle to appeal to local trendsetters, especially because Western companies get better at penetrating the Dragon’s culture but Li-Ning still aims to get a further appeal to young consumers with its continuous sportswear innovations and a changing brand image.


“Make the Change” is Li-Ning’s new brand motto, which encourages consumers to embrace change and make breakthroughs.


Along with the new motto introduced lately, Li-Ning launched new high-end sports equipment for professional athletes created through a collaboration between Chinese and foreign designers.

Thanks to names like Li-Ning and Anta, the phrase “Made in China” – once used for poor quality products – is now facing a complete change. While local brands used to want to appear foreign in order to look more appealing, now being Chinese became a source of pride. Dragon’s companies are finally competing to gain brand awareness both at home and abroad.

The change is driven by a widespread Chinese identity. While manufacturing skills improved and Chinese purchasing power grew at unprecedented rates, a new love for the Middle Kingdom’s history and tradition is on the rise.

The Chinese government also bets on the sports industry. Along with the Made in China 2025 plan to upgrade China’s manufacturing industry, a recent guideline released by the State Council provides new business models of sports consumption in order to respond to the increasing demand and to promote further development of industries related to health and leisure.


Li-Ning - paris fashion show ad - cifnews

© Li-Ning. After launching internationally in January at New York Fashion Week, the 28-year-old brand has turned to the French fashion capital to continue its global push.


Li-Ning thus represents the sportswear industry’s recent evolution as its products were not seen as exclusive or fashionable until this year when it appeared on the runways at New York Fashion Week. It was the first Chinese sportswear brand to ever join the Fashion Week thus becoming the latest fitness trendsetter from the PRC.

After the Fashion Show, the label released a special shoe design that sold out within five minutes from its launch on the official Tmall online store. The sneakers’ success came from the company’s decision to embodies traditional Chinese culture. In fact, the design was launched under the name of 胭脂念 (Memories of Rouge), a name that recalls a symbol of traditional Chinese women.

This kind of historical references are far from Western brands’ marketing ideas in China, nevertheless, they precisely follow Chinese consumers’ rising sense of identity.

According to Feng Ye, the General Manager of e-commerce for Li-Ning in China, “on the highest level, you are selling a ‘spirit’ (精神), the essence and ideology of what you stand for and what values you are representing. And in the case of Li-Ning, it is redefining what it means to be ‘Made in China’.”


Li-Ning - memories of rouge - sneakers - cifnews

© Li-Ning. 胭脂念 sneakers advertisement. In Li Ning’s Tmall official store, the exclusive sports shoe design was released in January this year for over $ 120 which sold out within 5 minutes from the launch.


Therefore, consumers are now favoring “Made in China” products whose quality and forward-looking approach now exceed those of foreign counterparts. However, they also chose brands that represent them and their tradition and with whom they share values and objectives. This trend is widely shown during annual events like the recent Alibaba’s Global Shopping Festival, which helps domestic brands to grow their market worldwide.

In July, the three-time NBA champion Dwayne Wade announced to have signed a lifetime contract with the Chinese label, which he represents since 2012. The lifetime commitment of the former Jordan Brand’s ambassador is another sign of the Li-Ning’s rise in the global market as well as of the PRC growth in the International recognition.

For what concerns the growth of the sportswear industry in China, the company benefited from the growing demand for high-end products within a favorable domestic policies environment that led it to become the global style symbol whose products proudly embody Chinese features while designed for International consumers.

A new sports trend from the Middle Kingdom is going to enter the global market with products that not only match but sometimes they also exceed the quality and innovation level of Western companies. Therefore, the world now has to be ready to welcome more Chinese sportswear brands like Li-Ning.


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