Chinese designers are now emerging more confident of their taste and contribution to the fashion world in and out of China.
After many struggles and criticism from the European fashion world, Chinese designers are making a strong, consistent appearance on the runway and in boutiques nationwide thanks to their boldness and ingenuity. China’s fast-growing fashion trend, best described as 21st-century Zen, offers a comfortable, local alternative to a population bombarded by glitzy European brands. The bellwether of this trend, hands down, is Exception, a brand that has established 90 stores across the country and can flout an annual turnover of more than 900 million yuan ($150 million). Exception recently opened an 1,800 square-meter flagship store in Canton, where the brand is headquartered.
“Exception is Chinese in its core,” says its founder and CEO, Mao Jihong. “We are all about being comfortable with ourselves and nature. We are not a show-off brand.” Almost everything in the Exception catalog screams shabby-chic, but price tags are by no means modest. A simple skirt can fetch anywhere from $500 to $800. Mao explains, “When we started, we knew we could not outdo the foreign brands in terms of glamour, it’s not our DNA. So we try to design an understated cool, a counterbalance to the glamour offered by French and Italian brands.” Mao says when he and his then wife/partner Ma Ke started Exception, they did not do any market research or consumer analysis. “We followed our instincts,” Mao says. “Chinese people like to dress comfortably; we tried to combine comfort with fashion.”
Another local Zen brand is Zuczug. Its founder, Wang Yiyang, notes that this is the first local brand to use organic cotton. Zuczug now has more than 30 stores in China and a turnover of more than 300 million yuan ($60 million). Zuczug is more sportive in design, and has attracted a strong following among Chinese in their early 30s, known as the Eighties Generation. Wang Yiyang also designs for Tea Cup, his own experimental line, which draws on Chinese design in the 70s, a uniform utilitarian look.
A newcomer to the local Zen team is Uma Wang, who was just selected as a member of the Vogue Talent team in China. “I was very much inspired by Ma Ke earlier,” Uma admits. Since Uma’s designation as a Vogue Talent, she has been globe-trotting with her new collection to Milan, Paris and New York. “It’s doing really well,” reports Uma, “I am doing something right, people like my stuff.”
The designers claim they have emotionally bonded with Chinese women by incorporating the “Literary Girl” image into their design.
The Literary Girl (Wenyi Gingnian) is the Chinese “girl next door” — quiet and obedient on the outside but dreamy and sensual inside. “It’s not a concept Westerners can understand,” says Uma. “The Literary Girl only exists in Chinese culture.”
The three designers are optimistic and plotting away at the expansion of their respective brands. Exception’s new store, which doubles as a bookstore with 90,000 titles and a café, is putting the spotlight on the Literary Girl. Asked whether he is trying to revive the image, Mao says, “Oh, it never died, there is a Literary Girl in all Chinese women. This is what we appeal to.” Mao seems to be right: the Zen brands — Exception, Zuczug, and Uma Wang — have enjoyed double-digit growth the past three years.
photo credit: exception