A parade of unknowns on the catwalks of Beijing Fashion Week highlights the challenges facing Chinese designers trying to break into an industry dominated by foreign brands: high production costs, excessive retail prices, and customers who still favour Western labels. Not a single international fashion house exhibited at the show, much of which took place in a former factory building in the suburbs of the Chinese capital, far from the spotlights of Paris, New York or London.
Instead the event was opened by a group of young Chinese designers, some of them still students, who won a competition for the privilege. Among them was Liang Xiudong, from Xian, who presented a mixture of black capes, silver epaulettes and oversized sleeves. His watching father -- dressed in a cheap grey-beige jacket -- said proudly: "It's good, very good, I see a great future for him." But Liang was more sanguine. "I know the biggest difficulties are still ahead of me," he said. Another winner, Liang Diyun, 22, opened his Beijing studio last year but his brand has yet to get off the ground. "The Chinese public's taste is significantly less advanced" than in Western countries, he lamented.
A few Chinese labels that have appeared in the last 15 years -- such as Zuczug or JNBY -- have managed to establish themselves and now have hundreds of shops, but international experts say Chinese designers have yet to find their identity. "Honestly, I see a lot of pretty things in China, but nothing I could call 'modern Chinese style' has emerged yet", Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, said on a visit in January. China will drive almost half of global growth in the beauty and women's ready-to-wear luxury markets in the next 10 years, according to consultancy McKinsey.
Many would-be Chinese dressmakers head to elite Western fashion schools to learn, and some are returning to the country in an effort to capture that potential. But the Asian giant's wealthiest customers remain captive to foreign brands. At the same time, multi-brand shops in which they can exhibit their wares are a new concept in the country, leaving few retail outlets accessible to individual designers.
Lacking 'space to grow'
Zeng Yanjie recently returned from Milan to try to set up a label, only to find out that, in her view, "independent Chinese designers do not have a lot of space in which to grow". "Beijing Fashion Week only has around 10 independent designers and it doesn't attract individual buyers," she added.
Most Chinese associate fashion with expensive foreign labels, but young designers often ask equally high prices in an effort to build their brand reputation -- leaving them offering poor value. "The problem is that many of them have luxury prices for Taobao-style products," complained fashion commentator Hung Huang, referring to China's giant online equivalent of e-Bay. "You can't price it as luxury and sell something (whose) quality is not worth it."
Designers defend themselves, saying the problem is driven by high production costs and an inflexible textile industry, and Hung acknowledged that for a production run of, say a mere 500 shirts, "you need totally different equipment" than that required for larger orders. "No one is willing to supply you, they just hang up the phone on you. The costs are too prohibitive," she said.
Alice McInerney, a fashion journalist and consultant based in Beijing, added: "Factories have specific minimum order quantities that can be extremely high for a young emerging designer. So price points get pushed higher and higher. "This can be a hard sell for a customer when comparing a more established international brand having the same price point as a Chinese designer they have never heard of." But Manix Wong, a Hong Kong designer who is helping several Chinese labels try to make a name in Europe, held out hope for a future in which he believes disdain for vulgar nouveau riche displays of wealth will create new opportunities. "Not many Chinese customers appreciate unknown independent designers," he said. "But people are (becoming) more educated and sophisticated in fashion. They start to get bored of Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton -- and also too many rich people using the same bag and wearing the same clothes." (AFP)
By Julien Girault