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Brocade's legacy of high fashion nearly faded away in old China

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2015-12-07 08:15

 Brocade's legacy of high fashion nearly faded away in old China

A weaver works at Wujiang Dingsheng Silk Co. The company designed the attire for world leaders at last year's APEC meeting, in Beijing.

It's silk fit for royalty-literally.

China's "crown of brocades" was used to fashion the wedding dresses of Kate Middleton and Princess Diana.

Wujiang Dingsheng Silk Co also designed the attire for world leaders at last year's APEC meeting in Beijing. It claims it beat out 400 competitors for the work.

You can buy the wallet like the one gifted to one of US President Barack Obama's daughters at the company's China Song Brocade Culture Park's gift shop in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. The slip features pink flowers stitched over red geometric designs.

The shop also offers dresses, shirts, scarves and handbags from the company's Saint Joy brand.

But while the company that clothes and accessorizes world leaders and their families last year doubled sales to 35 million yuan ($5.5 million), and expects to double sales again in 2016, its empire is built upon a folk art that survived on life support for centuries.

Song brocade was almost forgotten during the upheavals of China's last two dynasties. It's said there were just 12 looms weaving it when New China was founded.

Listed as a national-level intangible cultural heritage in 2009, song brocade from Suzhou is characterized by bright colors, exquisite patterns and soft textures.

The culture park's centerpiece is a two-story loom with an elderly master working below and her two apprentices steering 8,000 threads into place 10 meters above her.

Zhu Yunxiu, her hands waving like a conductor's, weaves a symphony of color. She took up the trade in middle school and is delighted to have young apprentices.

"I enjoy it," she said. "It makes me happy. I'm proud to keep this tradition alive." The basic skill can be learned within three years but requires as many decades to master. There are few traditional weavers left.

It takes half a year to finish a shirt this way. The company today uses traditional weaving for only a handful of custom orders.

The company's legacy of luxury at top dollar has not simply survived, however. It is set to thrive with the Silk Road's revival. The Ministry of Culture has listed it as a component of the Belt and Road Initiative.

While exports of its raw materials are down 30 percent, the company's domestic sales of branded goods are up 70 percent. The company attributes this to the infusion of cultural elements and sleeker design. It has invited top designers from Paris, London and Italy to create new products for its branded lines.

Song brocade has always been a luxury product. The Chinese character for brocade, jin, incorporates the meaning of gold, since silk was as precious as gold in imperial times.

Ancient Suzhou brocade commanded 15 times the cost of ordinary silk. The company today seeks the same reputation, if not the same price.

(China Daily 12/07/2015 page7)

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