Liu Lu displays a skirt she designed at her boutique store. Wang Ru
Twenty-seven year old Liu Lu had a good job in New York, but she quit last November to return to her native Beijing.
The aspiring fashion designer opened a boutique store in May on Nanluogu Xiang, a hutong in a trendy part of Beijing's Dongcheng district.
The area, famous for its merchants since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), is now a hip tourist area with bars, cafes, hostels and souvenir shops. She named her small boutique "Lu 12.28", after her given name and birth date.
After studying in France and working in the United States, Liu decided that China was the place where she wanted to launch her brand. "In Paris, designer boutiques are the most popular places to buy clothes, therefore young designers have the opportunity to show their talent in their own stores," says Liu. "I think it will be a trend in China in the future."
On a recent day, the slim stylish Liu was busy finishing designs for her fall and winter collections. Her designs sell for 800 yuan ($110) for a colorful skirt to 2,800 yuan for a white evening dress.
"Everyone is an artist, so am I," she says. "I want to lead a creative life-style."
In 1998, Liu's wealthy real estate developer parents, Liu Bingyan and Lu Xiaomei, sent their 17-year-old daughter to school in Switzerland. After two years, she went to study fashion design at the Parsons Paris School of Art and Design.
"I have liked drawing since childhood, and I was bored with the stiff exams at school," she explains, "so that's why I decided to study fashion design in Paris."
In her three years in France, Liu had a chance to learn at the forefront of the fashion industry. She also took some part-time jobs, including working as a waitress and an amateur model. With the support of her wealthy parents, money was not a problem for her, but Liu wanted to experience life as an ordinary overseas student.
In 2003, Liu moved to New York to continue her studies in fashion. In May 2006, she earned the annual "best design" award from the Parsons School. One of her designs was shown in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
After graduation, she got a job as an assistant to celebrity stylist GK Reid in New York. She had a chance to help design dresses for celebrities including Puff Daddy, Nelly Furtado and Rihanna.
However, what she really wanted was to start her own label. "I don't want to work for others, my dream is to have my own brand," she says.
With the support of her parents, Liu opened her designer boutique in Beijing. Yet she found that her nine years of studying abroad did not prepare her for all the challenges of running her own business. "I have my own design style and sense of fashion, but I found establishing a business totally different here."
The first problem was finding someone to produce the clothing she designed. Liu went to all the clothing factories in suburban Beijing, but most refused to take her order.
"In Paris, factories are willing to produce the designer's clothes without considering quantity, but I was turned down here because of my limited order," Liu says. The factories that would take her orders could not satisfy her standards for quality.
Finally, Liu hired 10 dressmakers to make the clothes for her. Every morning, she would check the quality.
The second obstacle was the attitude of consumers, she says. Most Chinese prefer to buy clothes in department stores or factory outlets. Designer boutiques are uncommon in China. Also, many Chinese consumers expect that an independent boutique like Liu's should offer low prices.
"Customers often haggle over price, but I won't, because every dress is my work and I have ensured a reasonable price," Liu says.
Most Chinese consumers don't trust the marked price and the quality of the product, she says.
The most valuable thing Liu thinks she learned in her 9 years abroad was how to treat customers.
"I provide the best designs and quality to my customers, and they respect my work," she says. Most of her clients are returned overseas students, foreigners and affluent young people.
However, Liu's business is still in the red. Her theory is that her current shop is too small to attract customers' attention, and so she just opened another larger boutique in Haidian, hoping to boost her sales.
"Every time I see a customer wearing my clothes and smiling in the mirror, I feel great satisfaction," she says. "This is what keep me going forward."
(China Daily 08/27/2008 page20)