"China is now open to the world," says Susan Shen, president of the fashion label Nisiss, "and our design principles celebrate freedom and peacefulness." Fittingly then, Nisiss clothing is elegant but easy to move in. "Our main fabric is silk, but not used in a traditional way," she says, gesturing at racks of crinkled loose blouses and creatively cut skirts and trousers at one of her stores.
Nisiss's business similarly embraces distinction. Based in Guangzhou, China's third-largest city, Shen has boldly sought out opportunities for growth in "second-tier cities," where McKinsey estimates 45% of China's middle-class and high-income earners will live by 2022. In 2013, Shen opened two new stores in Chengdu, a western boomtown; this year, she plans to expand into Qingdao, Dalian, and Suzhou, a trio of cities in Eastern China with a combined population of more than seven million people.
Shen, a petite, woman, favors cool colors—blues, grays, greens, and earthy browns—paired with bright-red lipstick. She doesn't advertise. She cultivates word of mouth for Nisiss through a VIP program, inviting professional women to attend private fashion shows for the chance to buy limited-edition designs, such as a $900 cocktail dress.