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ChinaFile: Chinese Designers in a Down Economy

Chinese manufacturers during this economic downturn are turning to local designers to fill the capacity in their factories.

BEIJING — Last fall, Zuczug’s Wang Yiyang sent his young design team to the vegetable and fish market in Shanghai. Armed with cameras, the young designers took pictures of their favorite foods — shrimp, sausages, bok choy, whatever. Then they went back to the studio and used the photos to make psychedelic kaleidoscope patterns.

“We had fun doing it,” said Wang over dinner, “but we had no idea how the market would react to such a crazy idea.” As it turned out, the vegetable market series was a major hit for the brand. There were bok choy dresses, fish shirts, etc. Even the familiar orange plastic bag was stylized for the series.

Very few Chinese designers experiment with prints. The Chinese brand Exception works closely with Woolmark and the U.S. Cotton Council to develop new materials for their respective lines. And this past spring, Liu Qingyang of Chictopia did a special print for her Circus line.

RELATED STORY: Click Here for Last Week's 'ChinaFile' Column >>

Most Chinese designers still struggle with their fabric sourcing. Local suppliers traditionally shun small orders and refuse to supply them. And buying fabric at retail makes the designers’ products too costly. So quite a few designers turn to the overseas market for fabric. Uma Wang, for example, uses exclusively Italian-made fabric.

“It’s very costly,” said Uma, “but my customers can feel the quality difference compared with local fabrics. It’s just the whole importing process makes me cry.”

The Chinese importing system requires a huge amount of paperwork and the taxation on imported fabric at 17 percent is prohibitively high.

But with export orders dropping, Chinese manufacturers are now turning to local designers to fill the capacity in their factories.

“We find Chinese printers and fabric suppliers are more ready to work with local designers in this economic downturn,” said Wang of Zuczug. “I think what we ordered was a substantial order for the factory and they were happy.

“It’s a good thing,” Wang added. “We can get more creative with fabrics without increasing our cost. Now we know we can have fun with print and there is a local printer who will do a good job.”

Wang was pleasantly surprised that the market reacted very well to the vegetable market series. He said it was a shot in the dark, but its success will lead to more interesting prints from Zuczug.

Perhaps this slowdown in growth is not so bad after all.

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