Every month, fashion executives in Milan and Paris wait eagerly for Mr Bags, a Chinese KOL (key opinion leader) and authority on handbags, to release his rankings of the 30 most popular bags in China.
Mr Bags, whose real name is Tao Liang, has been posting this chart for about a year and a half, and it has become the ultimate barometer of which bags are hot in China, which – according to various studies – is expected to be the largest luxury market in the world by 2025.
While Tao started the rankings for his followers – he posts them on China’s Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo, lifestyle platform Red and Instagram – they have become so influential that luxury CEOs are now paying attention, which speaks to the clout that Chinese influencers and consumers have in the luxury industry.
“In China, people love rankings,” says Tao in an interview after the Louis Vuitton show on the last day of Paris Fashion Week in 2022. “A lot of our followers are fashion lovers and they know a lot about bags, but there are still fans who are not super into fashion and want to buy expensive designer bags. “To see a ranking is the easiest thing for them to understand – to educate them, step by step.”
Tao says that, not long after he started posting the rankings, fashion insiders started to tell him that they closely analyse the list every month – not just to get a sense of what is going on in the market but also to find inspiration for their own purchases.
“These rankings are very fair and based on statistics and objective, so they’re also a source for the brand to see what’s strong in the market and what other brands are doing, and which of their bags are very strong in China,” he says.
“I also use these rankings a lot myself. You can see which trends are hot, like this month [October] hobos are everywhere and big bags are really coming back.”
Tao breaks down the methodology behind the rankings, which is relatively simple. Thirty per cent comes from his followers: he and his team comb through comments, and chat to his fans about their most recent purchases and the bags that they find more desirable.
“I always say that I’m a bridge between brands and consumers,” says Tao. “I always talk to consumers and read their comments and I use that first-hand information.”
Another 30 per cent comes from Chinese celebrities and international celebrities who are popular in China – Tao names K-pop group Blackpink and US model Kendall Jenner as examples of the latter.
A further 30 per cent is the impact of influencers and Chinese KOLs. This also includes street style photos from fashion weeks. Tao does not get the last word but his opinion counts for the final 10 per cent of the overall score.
“I do a lot of consulting for brands and many brands ask me about the rankings. I keep it very strict and tell them that they can’t affect them, and I won’t change anything for them,” he says. “Consumers are very smart and they can tell if it’s fake.”
The chart only features bags that have been out for fewer than six years to avoid including hugely popular bags like the Chanel 2.55 or the Hermès Birkin that would otherwise dominate the rankings.
His advice for brands trying to make it into the coveted top 30 or gain a spot among the honorary mentions? “Promote your bags in the best way and make them popular and work with more influential celebrities and KOLs,” he says. “Encourage them to wear them on a daily basis, in their daily lives, like at the airport.”
He also suggests that brands name their bags – some labels often neglect to do so, which can impact the popularity of those bags in China.
“We find that bags with Chinese nicknames are usually the most popular,” he explains. “If the name is created by the people then it’s organic and natural and people relate to that, but brands should always name their bags.”
Tao adds that fashion executives are often surprised to discover that a bag that they did not promote much initially ends up in the rankings, but then they look at their numbers and see that it is actually doing very well in China.
“They’re shocked and ask, ‘How did you know that that bag was popular?’” he says. “We’re often two months ahead of brands, so if they see a bag that’s in the rankings but they haven’t pushed it much they should know that it will do well soon.”
In a little over a decade, Tao has turned his influencer gig into a real business and shows no signs of slowing down. His success is testament to the importance of handbags in the luxury industry.
No matter what trends come and go, handbags are still the driving force of most fashion brands, accounting for most of their sales and dwarfing categories such as ready-to-wear and shoes.
“Bags are real fashion pieces,” says Tao. “If you have a piece of jewellery, it’s very tasteful but it’s not out there. Bags are statement pieces and investment pieces. Buying luxury bags is like playing a game these days.”