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Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week opens on Sunday with a show by independent designer Wang Peiyi, whose creations have graced the Milan runway. Photos by Zhu Xingxin / China Daily
While designers like Wang Peiyi gain plaudits in the world's fashion capitals, Gan Tian and Tiffany Tan discover that the domestic market is a harder nut to crack.
While Wang Peiyi's designs are attracting plenty of attention in Europe, back home in China not many people have even heard of him.
In February Wang presented his creations at Milan Fashion Week, becoming the first mainland designer to hold a runway show at the biannual event. The collection, inspired by the northern lights, was a critical success.
"The lineup was strong on glamorous evening pieces and also included a few more urban styles, like a leather bomber jacket over a laser-cut shift dress," Women's Wear Daily reported on its website.
Italian Vogue, meanwhile, has a photo spread of Wang's couture on its website.
Yet Wang's fellow Chinese can't easily get their hands on his clothes. Despite making his European debut and starting his eponymous label in Beijing in 2004, Wang still has no boutique in China.
His experience underscores the difficult situation faced by many of China's independent fashion designers, such as Wang Yutao, Gao Yang and Xie Feng.
At a time when China wants to build its reputation as a design and innovation hub - not just a manufacturing giant - these artists are helping make a name for Chinese fashion design, but remain nameless in their own country.
The hottest example is Exception de Mixmind. Though China's first lady Peng Liyuan wore it on her diplomatic debut, only a few consumers who pursue high-quality and distinctive Chinese design know this Guangzhou-based brand.
The designer, Ma Ke, launched the label in 1996 as one of the first independent fashion houses in China.
Independent designers don't have the financial and management help they badly need. They set up studios, hire a skeleton staff and produce collections out of their own pockets. To promote their work, they have to rely on word of mouth from clients and friends.
Wang Peiyi, for one, says he always finds himself short of funds. He declined to reveal his monthly budget, but says it's so tight he has to keep an eye on how much drawing paper he uses.
"I would like to focus on my own designs, but being an independent designer means attending to a lot of other concerns," says Wang, who is in his late 30s.
Wang Yutao, who presented his collection at Berlin Fashion Week in 2012, is in the same predicament.
"Independent fashion designers do not have enough financial support," he says. "They also lack experience running fashion shows."
An additional problem is the gap between independent fashion designers and ordinary consumers.
While the designers might delight fashion critics abroad with their fresh and inspired creations, back home potential clients find the designs a bit inaccessible.
Wang Peiyi and Wang Yutao have sold their haute couture pieces to A-list actresses like Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Fan Bingbing, but many people can't afford their garments.
"Most people will not spend 1,000 yuan ($161) on a young designer's creation," fashion critic Shi Zhiqiang says. "They would rather spend the money on established labels."
On the bright side, independent designers are finally starting to receive some support.
The ongoing Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week raised its curtain on Sunday with Wang Peiyi's show. This is a landmark event as the fashion week often opens with a big Chinese label, like Cabbeen or White Collar. It has never done so with an independent designer, but winning the 2012 China Young Fashion Award couldn't have hurt Wang's chances.
Yang Jian, secretary-general of the event's organizing committee, says China Fashion Week is promoting independent designers by scheduling their runway shows at peak viewing hours, putting industry bigwigs in the audience and connecting them with sponsors.
Wang Peiyi's collection, which glittered on the Beijing catwalk, just as it did in Milan, has Swarovski to thank for its crystal accessories. Now, he needs mainland fashionistas, their mothers, sisters and friends to sit up and take notice of his designs.
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(China Daily 03/27/2013 page19)