Updated: 2012-03-09 08:38
By Yao Jing (China Daily European Edition)
Chinese fashion brands' presence in international shows has been increasing. Taiwanese fashion house Shiatzy Chen displays its new collection at the recent Paris Fashion Week. [Provided to China Daily]
A growing number of fashion brands and designers are gaining fame by striking it out on their own
At Paris Fashion Week recently, while Chanel and Valentino released their fall and winter collections, gazers were also fixated on what China was presenting: actresses on the red carpet in glamorous garb, the spending of a million euros by Taiwanese fashion house Shiatzy Chen to stage its latest line of clothing and young designers displaying their creativity in blending both Western and Eastern aesthetics. Though China is still a country dominated by high-end brands like Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, the French show gave a strong indication that there has been a shift in the fashion industry toward the booming country.
In the past few years, there has been a growing number of Chinese fashion designers and companies slowly gaining fame in international fashion markets. Designers such as Uma Wang, who presented her latest collection at the Milan Fashion Week last month and has boutiques in Milan, London and Italy; 30-year-old designer Masha Ma, who was invited to join Paris Fashion Week this year; and the brand Shiatzy Chen, which has stores in Paris, are not only creating more visibility for Chinese fashion, they are bringing down stereotypes that "Made in China" clothing is poor in quality.
Moreover, some designers are striking it out on their own without any reputation or foundation on the Chinese mainland.
For a country whose luxury market is forecast by McKinsey & Co to soar to $27 billion (20.6 billion euros) by 2015 (one-fifth of the world total and up from $10 billion in 2009), the potential for the fashion industry in China is massive.
"It is an interesting phenomenon for a Chinese brand to go out first without a solid foundation in China because the Western fashion world is already filled with numerous fashion brands," says Zhao Qian, a fashion consultant and board director of Fashion in Life.
At a small event on the sidelines of Paris Fashion Week, there was as much excitement about Chinese designers as there was for the well-known powerhouses of fashion. "China in Paris" brought together several young Chinese stylists to introduce them to the world's fashion capital and also display their new lines of clothing. The event was sponsored by the China National Garment Association and the Fashion InLife International Group and supported by the Federation Francaise de la Couture, the governing body of French fashion.
These designers and brands such as Shanghai Tang, founded in Hong Kong and now owned by Swiss luxury goods group Richemont, are paving the way for other young Chinese designers and brands. Many of the young designers that China Daily spoke to all blend Western and Eastern aesthetics in their designs but all have had different ways of breaking into international markets.
One such designer is Ji Pingsheng, who founded Mouse Ji and whose clothes have been sold at Paris' Galeries Lafayette, one of France's biggest department stores. Based in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, the company was created in 1993 and initially started as an original design manufacturer, designing and manufacturing clothes eventually branded under European labels for sale.
"I learned about the culture of European fashion and became familiar with the market in the process of doing business with (European labels). The experience gave me some basic knowledge of operating my own brand in Europe," says Ji, who studied ceramic art and design in China.
He launched Mouse Ji in Paris at the end of 2007 after participating in various international fashion shows. Last year, he sold more than 70,000 articles of clothing in the European market, up from 30,000 in 2008. The price of his clothes, from women's shirts, sweaters, overcoats and down jackets, ranges from 130 euros to 900 euros.
"We are not positioned as a luxury brand, but a high-end one," Ji says. "I think a real luxury brand is the product of culture and history, not price."
Ji says he did not rush into opening stores in 2007 because he thought he should focus on distributing his clothes to retailers to let them market his brand. He cooperated with buyers, distributors, agents and shops in Europe and the United States, slowly forming a sales network.
Sharon Beatty, general manager of Cocomo Ltd, Mouse Ji's agent company in the United Kingdom, says she came across the brand three years ago when a fellow agent introduced her to Mouse Ji during a trade show in London.
"I liked the simple lines and structures with fine fabrics. They were offering a product that was comparable to popular, but much more expensive lines. I thought the product had a potential market," Beatty recalls.
Like most UK agents, Beatty operates the brand from a showroom in London's West End, serving retail clients who visit twice a year to view and buy collections.
"The fashion industry has a long history in Europe and local people are more experienced in promoting, marketing," Ji says.
Mouse Ji currently has 365 sales distribution points around the world. It has launched showrooms in New York City, Paris, London and Munich.
Ji was also the first Chinese designer invited to sell clothes at Galeries Lafayette, back in 2008.
"I talked with the manager of Lafayette, and he said they were seeking items that reflect their own culture, rather than the routine European heritage or popular ones. As consumers are somewhat tired of the European fashion, it is a good chance for Chinese designers to bring them the fresh feeling of the rich spirit of Chinese history and heritage," Ji says.
He says that as the global economic crisis of 2008 took hold, the retail fashion business struggled and limited the growth of Mouse Ji in overseas markets.
"Our sales achieved a peak in Europe in 2010, with the sale of nearly 10,000 pieces. Now, in adverse economic times, we are not going to seek rapid expansion," Ji says.
Still, he says right now is the right time to build brand awareness among consumers. He opened his first exclusive shop in Moscow on Oct 1, 2011.
Zhao of Fashion in Life says many Chinese designers want to stretch out globally through frequent appearances on runways but says it is an epic adventure if they don't have enough financial support and cannot find enough buyers. She says it is always prohibitively expensive to present a show on famous international stages.
"Chinese fashion designers lack effective platforms to help promote them and give them global access to buyers, retailers and general consumers," she says.
For more mature companies that have established a stable and large market, it has been much easier to venture overseas. Shanghai Tang, for example, has 50 retail locations across the world: including three in the US and seven in Europe. The company is known for combining traditional Chinese designs and motifs with tongue-in-cheek humor.
"Richemont acquired Shanghai Tang in 1998, and this has helped with Shanghai Tang's global strategy," says Raphael le Masne de Chermont, executive chairman of Shanghai Tang.
Another mature brand, Shiatzy Chen, has 58 stores around the world, also based on its melding of Eastern and Western aesthetics. Since the company's inception in Taiwan in 1978, Shiatzy Chen has opened a boutique in 2001 in Paris. A second store in the city will open in 2013.
"We only have our boutique stores in Paris and Malaysia and we are cooperating with agents in Switzerland, Italy and Spain. At present, the revenue from overseas market accounts for 5 percent of our turnover, which is about 40 million yuan ($6.3 million, 4.8 million euros)," says Harry Wang, CEO of Shiatzy Chen International.
The average price for an item of Shiatzy Chen's women collection is 8,000 yuan. In Paris, more than half the customers are French while nearly all the buyers are locals in Italy and Switzerland, Wang says.
After spending a million euros each for the biannual Paris Fashion Week, Shiatzy Chen is hoping to gain a foothold in the international market. It is now cooperating with about 10 buyers' offices in Europe and the US. Each office reportedly brings in about 100,000 euros every year.
Wang says they will open two boutique stores in Malaysia and Singapore this year and he hopes to increase the percentage of overseas sales to 20 percent by 2020.
Although its overseas presence is small, Wang says they are sticking to Western markets to build the brand.
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