By Christine Tsui.
In 2012, the Chinese president Xi Jinping initiated an anti-corruption campaign. Although there is no explicit evidence that this was an intentional outcome at which Xi aimed, the fact is that the campaign eventually led to a big decrease in the sale of luxury brands. Because in the past luxury brands were mostly purchased by rich businessmen as gifts to government officers, tycoon brands such as Louis Vuitton, Armani, Gucci and Chanel all suffered as a result of the anti-corruption campaign. At the same time, sales of local high fashion brands increased; couture made-to-measure brand Grace Chen is one such example. Its designer Grace Chen, who has worked for American fashion brands in the United States since the mid-1990s, opened her design studio in 2009 and now is one of the most well-known designers in China. Attributing to her sumptuous fabrics and exquisite craftsmanship, she has secured a group of loyal prestigious clients, including many top names in the state government.
Today, for senior political officers and their wives, wearing world-class luxury brands could easily cause unwanted attention from the general public. Many governmental officers were found to be corrupt because their outfits or watches, or anything else they were using in daily life from a luxury brand, arose suspicion; the cost of these brands are not proportional to a civil servant’s wages. Switching from international brands to local designers therefore reduced the risk of controversial exposure in the media for these political officers, since the logos and designs of Chinese high fashion brands are less recognisable than the top international luxury brands, and at the same time still offer quality and prestige.
On March 22, 2013, when the first lady of China, Peng Liyuan, stepped out of the plane with her husband President Xi Jinping – her debut on the international political stage – her stunning elegance caused a wave of media buzz in both the Chinese and international media. The neatly cut dark blue knee-length wool coat she was wearing was instantly named ‘Liyuan style’ by the Chinese media. Although she was not the first First Lady accompanying a PRC president overseas, she was the first to bring fashion onto the political scene in PRC. Peng’s outfit subsequently introduced the designer who made the outfit, Ma Ke, to the Chinese general public.
Previously, most non-fashionistas were unaware that China had its own esteemed designer. Ma Ke, as one of the co-founders of the first contemporary Chinese designer’s label Exception de Mixmind, and the first (mainland) Chinese designer to parade in Paris’ Haute Couture Week in 2008, has widely been regarded as one of the most influential fashion designers in the Chinese fashion field. But she is certainly not the first designer to design clothing for Chinese leaders. In fact, most of the political leaders and their wives in China have designers and tailors on retainer. Peng was the first political leader, however, who promoted a Chinese designer and expanded the designer’s fame from the fashion field to the general public through a political event.
At the 2014 APEC Summit in Beijing, all political leaders of the 21 member countries wore outfits uniformly designed and made by Chinese designers and in Chinese factories. The outfits were named ‘neo-Chinese-dress (xin zhongzhuang)’ by the state government. When Shanghai hosted the 2001 APEC Summit, the name of the dress for the guests was called ‘Chinese-dress (Tangzhuang),’ which was a typical Chinese jacket originating from the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912). To differentiate the 2014 ‘neo’ Chinese dress from the traditional Chinese dress, the state government initiated a design campaign for the 2014 summit. The design campaign started nearly 12 months prior to the summit and invited 71 enterprises, 259 designers and 18 fashion schools to contribute to the event. Ultimately the campaign received 455 design pieces from 136 invitees, including many top fashion designers from China. The ‘neo-Chinese-dress’ submissions represented “the highest level of Chinese design”. The 2014 version created a new form, based on the traditional Chinese costume.
These political events are just three of many that the Chinese government has utilised for promoting for the concept ‘Designed in China’. China has typically been seen as a manufacturing centre for cheap merchandise, and Chinese people and companies regarded as ‘good at copying.’ In actuality, from 1992, the Chinese government has gradually moved from a strategy of being a manufacturing centre towards being an innovation centre. Words like innovation, design, creativity and their synonyms are becoming the most frequently used key-words appearing in Chinese presidential reports. To support the national strategic plan of becoming an innovation centre, the China Textile Association – the former Ministry of Textiles – launched the ‘Famous Brands, Famous Designers’ campaign in 1996, aiming to promote fashion designers and their partnerships / clothing enterprises. The openness of the Chinese economy and policy in supporting design has helped to expand opportunities for the development of China’s fashion design sectors.
Although Chinese fashion designers still remain relatively unknown internationally, domestically, they are playing an increasingly important role in the Chinese fashion market. PRC started its first Fashion Design higher education program in 1980. Since then, Chinese fashion designers have dreamt of establishing their own labels and becoming celebrity designers like Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Many designers started their business in the 1980s, but eventually failed because of the general immaturity of the trading system and insufficient consumption power for designers’ brands. Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of opening the economic market has proven to be the engine that has been driving the rapid development of China’s economy and, as a result, Chinese fashion brands have seen a dramatic boom over the past 20 years (the aforementioned designer Ma Ke co-founded brand Exception de Mixmind with Mao Jihong in 1996). Exception set a milestone for Chinese fashion because it was the first Chinese fashion brand to carry a strong designer’s signature and generate a long-sustained profitable revenue. Brand Tangy, co-founded by Huang Zhihua and Liangzi, rejuvenates an ancient Chinese silk fabric called liangchou, a type of luxury silk that can only be made in a small town in Canton province because of its special demands for clay and its dependency on precise weather conditions. Canton officials chose Tangy’s products as the gift to the Swedish king and queen when the royals visited Guangzhou on July 18, 2006, for the East Indiaman Gotheborg replica sail event.
Other successful Chinese designers’ brands include Jefen by Frankie Xie, who was the first (mainland) Chinese designer presented at Paris Fashion Week in 2006; Uma Wang, who is likely to become the first international commercially successful (mainland) Chinese designer. Unlike her Chinese precedents, who all started their businesses in China, Uma targeted international boutique markets when launching her eponymous label in 2009, and her label now sells in more than 50 boutiques across 20 countries. Now, PRC designers can be found in all big four fashion weeks: London, Milan, New York and Paris. It is no surprise that they are becoming a considerable force in the international design community. Chinese political power has been a driving force in helping them to achieve their success.
Christine Tsui is a Fulbright scholar at Parsons the New School for Design and a PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong majored in Modern China. She was a visiting lecturer in the Shanghai Institute of China Academy of Arts and worked in clothing industry in China for nearly 15 years. Image Credit: CC by Hao Luo/Flickr.