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Designed in China
Summary: First Lady Peng Liyuan’s fashion choices while abroad have brought attention to China’s budding custom-designed clothing industry. But the market is still maturing, between finding quality materials and educating the high-end customer base to prefer custom-made clothing.

By Wang Fang (
王芳) , Wu Weiting (吴娓婷) and Li Yu (李谕)
Issue 613, April 1, 2013
Corporation, page 25
Translated by Chi Yi
Original article:

When Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛) stepped out of the plane for the first time as China's first lady, she helped present Chinese designer clothing to the world.

It turns out that what the first lady wears can change the fate of companies, support local enterprises and stimulate the clothing sector of the domestic stock market all at the same time.

The Guangzhou-based clothing brand Exception (例外) has proven to be a favorite of Peng Liyuan on her travels – so much so that Mao Jihong (毛继鸿), the company’s founder, has decided to "disappear" for a while since he's been bombarded with attention.

Budding Industry

Sun Yafei (孙亚菲), the CEO of 5lux.com, an e-commerce platform for luxury brands in China, said that when she wanted to start her own business, she thought about high-end made to order products after a real estate entrepreneur told her about how difficult it was to find the right gift for his customers. The property developer felt that Swiss watches and LV bags had become too common and he wanted to find a high-end product that was not so familiar to most people. At the time, Sun had trouble finding anywhere in China that sold this kind of product.

Sun went to Italy and France to research. She found the real problem was the immature Chinese market. Tailored goods that have been made to order require the customer has to wait a long time between ordering and receiving the product, but there are currently no regulations or consistent standards regarding when the customer can withdraw an order.

However, some now feel it’s time for China's designers to grab a prominent position in the fashion world.

"30 years ago Japanese designers went to Paris and London and subverted the Western idea of design," said Xia Hua (夏华) founder of the EVE (依文), a high-end Chinese clothing brand. "It's China's turn now."

Xia, a former teacher at China University of Political Science and Law, decided to combine the traditional clothing industry with the service industry by providing made to order services for high-end customers. Sometimes, because its customers are so busy, EVE will even send designers to the airport to meet them and take measurements.

Tactics like this are what Xia feels are needed to get the attention of her high-end target base. In 2003, she also took a 4 million yuan gamble to impress EVE's 30,000 VIP customers on Valentine's Day by sending them all roses.

"Some of the customers were so surprised that they quietly went to the bathroom to open the envelope," Xia said.

Making China High-End

When Han Jianfei (韩剑飞), a Guangzhou-based designer, saw the first lady wearing an outfit from Exception, his first thought was, "Why didn't she call me?"

Like Exception, Han has been in the high-end customized clothing game for over 10 years. "China has a lot of talent," he says. "Chinese products aren't inferior to those world-class brands, but the public tends to neglect them."

High-end made to order clothing is a special sector. The designer needs to be recognized, not by the general public, but by a small elite circle. In fact, it's best for the designer to keep his name somewhat obscure, because being unavailable to the public is the very reason people want their designs.  
To get recognition from this exclusive circle is difficult. One has to educate their customers before they can even try to impress them. "Customers don't know customized clothing," said Han Jianfei. "They may simply choose luxury brands. Only when a special occasion comes will they start to realize they need special clothes."

Muiki (妙宴) is the only high-end women's customized clothing brand in Southern China. Its designer, Wen Miao (文妙), registered the brand in 2003 but chose to wait for the market to mature. It took eight years.

Wen says the most difficult part of being a designer in China is finding suitable materials. "Why do I have to spend 25 yuan to buy a button from a foreign country instead of buying one for 2 yuan in China," she asked. "Because we want to offer our customers party clothes that can meet international standards."

In 2011 she turned to a local clothing factory to manufacture the clothes she designed. "The quality was so low," she said. "It's sad that our companies still focus on cheap products when our customers are buying luxury brands from around the world now."
“I heard many leaders of foreign countries like the style of Exception,” Wen continued. “So do I. I hope the first lady’s choice can help the Chinese people learn more about custom-made clothing and more will want high-end products that have been made to order.”

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