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Chinese fashion designers are slowly winning global acclaim

Updated: 2012-03-10 07:58

By Yao Jing (China Daily)

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Chinese fashion designers are slowly winning global acclaim

The Taiwanese fashion house Shiatzy Chen displays its new collection at the recent Paris Fashion Week. [Photo / Provided to China Daily]

Chinese fashion designers are slowly winning global acclaim

At Paris Fashion Week recently, while Chanel and Valentino released their fall and winter collections, observers were also keen to see what China presented: actresses on the red carpet in glamorous garb, the spending of 1 million euros ($1.3 million) by the Taiwanese fashion house Shiatzy Chen to stage its latest line of clothing and young designers displaying their creativity in blending aesthetics from the East and West.

Although China is still a country dominated by high-end brands such as Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, the French show gave a strong indication that there has been a shift in the fashion industry toward the country.

In the past few years, a growing number of Chinese fashion designers and companies have slowly gained recognition in the international fashion markets. Designers such as Uma Wang, who presented her latest collection at Milan Fashion Week; the 30-year-old designer Masha Ma, who was invited to join Paris Fashion Week this year; and the Shiatzy Chen brand, which has stores in Paris, are not only making Chinese fashion more visible, but also bucking the stereotype that "Made in China" clothing is low quality.

For a country whose luxury market is forecast by McKinsey & Co to soar to $27 billion by 2015 (one-fifth of the global total and up from $10 billion in 2009), the potential for the Chinese fashion industry is massive.

"It is an interesting phenomenon for a Chinese brand to go abroad without a solid foundation in China because the Western fashion world is already filled with numerous brands," said Zhao Qian, a fashion consultant and board director of the Fashion In Life International Group, which promotes Chinese designers.

At a small event on the sidelines of Paris Fashion Week, there was as much excitement about Chinese designers as for the well-known powerhouses of fashion. "China in Paris" brought together several young Chinese stylists to introduce them to the world's fashion capital and also display their new lines. The event was sponsored by the China National Garment Association and Fashion In Life and supported by the Federation Francaise de la Couture, the governing body of the French fashion industry.

Designers and brands such as Shanghai Tang, founded in Hong Kong and now owned by Swiss luxury-goods group Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA , are paving the way for other young Chinese designers and brands. Many of the young designers that China Daily spoke to blend Western and Eastern aesthetics but have employed different methods to break into the international market.

One such designer is Ji Pingsheng, who founded the Mouse Ji brand and whose clothes have been sold at Galeries Lafayette, one of the biggest department stores in France. Based in Nanjing in Jiangsu province, the company was established in 1993 and started as an original design manufacturer, designing and manufacturing clothes eventually branded under European labels for sale.

"I learned about the culture of European fashion and became familiar with the market in the process of doing business with (European labels). The experience gave me some basic knowledge of operating my own brand in Europe," said Ji, who studied ceramic art and design in China.

He launched Mouse Ji in Paris at the end of 2007 after participating in various international fashion shows. Last year, he sold more than 70,000 articles in the European market, up from 30,000 in 2008. The price of his clothes, from blouses, sweaters, overcoats and down jackets, ranges from 130 euros to 900 euros.

"We are not positioned as a luxury brand, but a high-end one," Ji said. "I think a real luxury brand is the product of culture and history, not price."

Sharon Beatty, general manager of Cocomo Ltd, Mouse Ji's agent company in Britain, says she came across the brand three years ago when a fellow agent introduced her to Mouse Ji during a trade show in London.

"I liked the simple lines and structures with fine fabrics. They were offering a product that was comparable with other popular, but much more expensive, lines," Beatty recalled

Like most UK agents, Beatty operates the brand from a showroom in London's West End, serving retail clients who visit twice a year to view and buy collections.

"The fashion industry has a long history in Europe and local people are more experienced in promotion and marketing," Ji said.

Mouse Ji currently has 365 sales distribution points around the world and has launched showrooms in New York, Paris, London and Munich.

Ji was also the first Chinese designer to be invited to sell clothes at Galeries Lafayette, back in 2008.

"I talked with the manager of Lafayette, and he said they were seeking items that reflected their own culture, rather than the routine European heritage or popular ones. As consumers are somewhat tired of European fashion, it is a good opportunity for Chinese designers to bring them the fresh feeling of the rich spirit of Chinese history and heritage," Ji said.

Zhao of Fashion in Life said that many Chinese designers want to expand globally through frequent appearances on runways but warned that it's an epic adventure if they don't have enough financial support and cannot find enough buyers.

"Chinese fashion designers lack effective platforms to help promote them and give them global access to buyers, retailers and general consumers," she said.

For more mature companies with an established, stable and large market, it has been much easier to venture overseas. The Shanghai Tang brand, for example, has 50 retail locations across the world: including three in the US and seven in Europe. The company is known for combining traditional Chinese designs and motifs with tongue-in-cheek humor.

"Richemont acquired Shanghai Tang in 1998, and this has helped with our global strategy," said Raphael le Masne de Chermont, executive chairman of Shanghai Tang.

Another mature brand, Shiatzy Chen, has 58 stores around the world, also based on its melding of Eastern and Western aesthetics. Founded in Taiwan in 1978, the brand opened a boutique in Paris in 2001. A second store in the city will open in 2013.

"We only have our boutique stores in Paris and Malaysia and we are cooperating with agents in Switzerland, Italy and Spain. At present, the revenue from the overseas market accounts for 5 percent of our turnover, which is about 40 million yuan ($6.3 million)," said Harry Wang, CEO of Shiatzy Chen International.

The average price for an item of Shiatzy Chen's women's collection is 8,000 yuan. In Paris, more than half of the customers are French, while nearly all the buyers are from Italy and Switzerland, Wang said.

Although its overseas presence is small, Wang says the company will stick to Western markets to build the brand.