He’s one of the most famous British men in China, but no one in Britain has ever heard of him. That’s because Dominic, the man behind the Plastered8, left his home country aged seventeen to travel the world – and never came back. “I went to Africa, then South America, India, and then I arrived here in China when I was twenty. I went to see my brother who was in QingDao working for a tobacco company, then came to Beijing on my own. I only had a single ticket, and stayed because I didn’t have enough money to leave!”
When speaking his native language, Dominic has a relaxed, easy going manner and is surprisingly candid. “I never thought I would become an entrepreneur – I couldn’t even spell the word! Basically I became one by mistake. When I came here in 1992 I ended up doing all sorts of odd jobs, and one day got offered a market research gig for a large company. I saw this as an opportunity and set up my first business in 1995, which went from one employee (me) to around two hundred part timers within six months.”
Then, in 2005 he was walking down a Beijing hutong called HouYuanEnSi and saw a foreigner wearing a t-shirt about climbing the Great Wall of China. “I just thought, there must be an opportunity, because from the time I arrived in 1992 to that moment, there had been no change in Beijing t-shirts! I came home and told my wife I was going to start a business.” Since then, Plastered8 has become a successful fashion brand with a huge cult following, and Dominic now appears regularly on TV.
“I love my position here in society, I love everything about my life in Beijing. At the end of the day, it’s about my family living here, speaking the local dialect and creating artwork that celebrates my city”, he tells me.
Dominic remembers the first Chinese family he stayed with when he arrived in China. “The first morning I woke up there, they were standing in front of my bed watching me sleep – because it was so interesting to see a foreigner back then. I couldn't speak a word of Chinese, so it was tough. I played pool in GuLou, and got to know about the old parts of the city, then moved into the HuTongs and learnt some Chinese. It took me a year to start to like it, at first it was a real struggle. I was desperately poor, and didn't know anyone who didn't speak any Chinese, but then all of the sudden I got my break…”
When he later started his t-shirt brand, he worked with the community very closely. “There was a local fan dancing team, and they were dancing outside my shop wearing my t-shirts. Then the local government banned me from holding events on the street – in fact at my very first hutong catwalk show, they called the Police and I got arrested! I told them I was going do it no matter what, because I had already invited the media and my friends. Actually it turned out alright. I think that when dealing with local government, it's not about getting a ‘yes’, it's about not getting a ‘no’, because they don't want to take responsibility. It’s a very Chinese thing – all the authorities were there, looking in the other direction! But they did see that I could actually bring some value to the street – and so later I went to them with a plan to do a culture festival, and this finally got me accepted.”
In NanLuoGuXiang, he opened his first t-shirt shop, just thirteen square metres, and his first customer was the owner of the hotel opposite. “He felt sorry for me because no one bought any of my t-shirts, so bought one for all of his staff to wear. Then we started doing fashion shows on the street, and I came up with the idea to do the first culture festival. NanLuoGuXiang became famous among young creative people. At first, many locals told me I was never going to succeed, because ‘who would want buy my shitty t-shirts’, but they didn't understand my design concept – taking old things and celebrating them.”
Dominic says that being a foreigner in China has mostly been good. “You don’t have to get involved in all the complications of Chinese society. Foreigners often complain they’re getting ripped off by Chinese, but Chinese screw themselves much more than us! It’s complex to be a Chinese person with all the levels of Confucian values in your own family, and dealing with government. They almost feel embarrassed to give foreigners too much shit, and tend to leave you alone, especially when your business is small. I’m a very direct person, and this cuts through the bullshit. There’s plenty of bullshit in England too of course – usually we never quite get to the point, do we?”
The Chinese concept of GuanXi is something that only exists in Britain in a subconscious way, because we don’t have a name for it in English. “It’s made up of two elements – value and friendship. If you want to be friends with someone after two dinners of drinking BaiJiu (Chinese spirits), you aren’t going to become friends. Friendship in China comes about five years down the road, when they actually trust you and like you. So you have to bring some kind of value to the table, when you go into partnership with someone here…”
Some things do exasperate him living in China. “British people have an individualistic streak, and this is a real problem in Chinese society. They are terrified of it, you know. I do a lot of university lectures, and decided to do one on ‘individualism’. The authorities politely said, ‘err, right, have you got any other topics?’ They put up billboards advertising “my entrepreneur story” instead, because in China ‘individualism’ seems to be a bad word! Still, I do feel privileged to be here, where I can use my British creativity to its best effect. I’ve found that the more absurd things we do, the more they love us – as long as we don't get political. I'm not interested in upsetting politicians, but I love poking fun at society. As British people, we’re used to laughing at our own ridiculous social conventions, aren’t we?”
Another thing that Brits really notice about China is the speed of change, but Dominic says it’s not so obvious if you live inside it. “Actually, so much in life is about timing, being in the right place at the right time. I am just very fortunate to have arrived in China when I did. When I arrived in 1992, there were no tall buildings and it was pitch black at night. There was no third Ring Road, and the Police wore army outfits in those days – it was just completely different city, but I still loved it!”
Dominic tells me that he designs for himself. “I grew up in England with all the creative stuff going on around me, and I applied it to my life here and to my business. Living here for such a long time, you can see the things Chinese people take for granted. Perhaps it takes a foreigner to observe them, and love them again. Then I add a bit of colour, and a slogan here or there, and ‘plaster’ it on the t-shirt in an affectionate way – it's not cynical. Our brand promise is that we celebrate Beijing. One day, I’d love to be the British guy who takes China to Britain…”
The old English saying that, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” rings true for Plastered8. “There are fake stores all over the place, but we do things our way. When you come inside my stores there are old Beijing ladies to serve you – instead of young pretty girls – and we redecorate them every year, it's in a constant state of flux. I have two shops in Beijing, and two online stores, and now have another side business where I design for other companies like Pizza Express. It's been a hell of ride, being an entrepreneur here for so long, but I have absolutely no regrets!”