The new face of China fashion

Updated: 2013-04-03 05:32

By Tiffany Tan and Gan Tian (China Daily)

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During the recently concluded China Fashion Week, the hottest looks didn't appear on any of the runway shows. They weren't even unveiled in China. They emerged from an airplane door, down metal steps, on to Russian and Tanzanian soil.

One look was a navy blue, double-breasted coat paired with a light blue silk scarf and a black leather tote bag. The other was a suit and skirt ensemble in white brocade, worn with another blue scarf.

"It really was huge good news," says Cao Ping, a menswear designer who participated in the fashion week.

Cao and his fellow fashion executives and designers didn't mind that their biannual fashion showcase was overshadowed. After all, the looks were debuted by Peng Liyuan, a showbiz celebrity and China's new first lady, on her first official trip overseas.

Besides bringing instant fame to the independent label she wore, the Guangzhou-based Exception de Mixmind, Peng also shone a spotlight on Chinese design talent and craftsmanship.

Her most widely publicized attire on the trip included a brown Qing-style robe with a mandarin collar and loop frog buttons, draped around the neck with an embroidered purple shawl.

"All eyes were on her and she might have been expected to wear renowned luxury or designer brands," says Armance Rotceig, creative director of her namesake French fashion brand.

"Instead she detached herself from Western styles and presented a vision of contemporary Chinese fashion, with a desire to bring Chinese designers to the world stage."

The new face of China fashion

Her clothes show the world the new face of China's fashion industry - not just a manufacturer but a center of creativity and innovation, says Serge Carreira, a lecturer on fashion and luxury at the SciencesPo university in Paris.

Fashion watchers have drawn parallels between Peng, 50, and the United States' first lady Michelle Obama, 49, who has promoted American designers and labels like Isabel Toledo, Jason Wu and J Crew. Others compare Peng with France's former first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who became an international icon of elegance, garbed in her favorite Christian Dior, Chanel and John Galliano.

Peng has been called "China's Carla" in the French press for months, says Rotceig, because of the women's similarities as singers and fashionable first ladies.

Peng, a native of the eastern province of Shandong, joined the People's Liberation Army at 18 and gained fame as a performer of patriotic and military songs.

At a time when China's appetite for foreign luxury goods continues to grow - and Peng's husband is calling on government officials to live more simply - her recent fashion choices appear to say that elegance need not be imported.

In December, Chinese on the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao surpassed US consumers as the world's top luxury buyers, making a quarter of purchases in this segment, according to a study by Bain & Company.

The first lady's double-breasted coat and her black leather handbag aren't available at any of Exception's shops, though copied versions popped up in the Chinese market overnight.

Considering China's austerity campaign, does Peng's support for domestic products mean foreign luxury brands should be worried?

"I certainly do not see this as a threat to today's foreign brands," says Angelito Tan, founding partner of Robert, Tan & Gao Consulting, a luxury consultancy with offices in Beijing and Shanghai. "It is an opportunity to introduce brand lifestyles - foreign and domestic - to potentially a whole new segment."

Might Peng's turn as first lady, then, bring fashion consciousness and taste to a new level in China?

That's a difficult question to answer right now, says Yang Jian, secretary-general of the China Fashion Week's organizing committee. But one thing is clear and that is the first lady has made both her fellow Chinese and foreigners rethink their notions of Chinese design.

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(China Daily 04/03/2013 page18)