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ChinaFile: Tale of Two Cities

Right on the heels of Mercedes-Benz China International Fashion Week (CHIC), which ended in Beijing on April 2, Shanghai Fashion Week is about to kick off.

Right on the heels of CHIC (Mercedes-Benz China International Fashion Week), which ended in Beijing on April 2, Shanghai Fashion Week is taking place from April 11 to 17.

Both events are organized by the Chinese government, neither are attended by buyers and neither CHIC nor Shanghai can organize more than 50 fashion shows for the entire week. So why not combine the events?

Never.

First of all, CHIC is organized by the China National Textile and Apparel Council, the market economy avatar of the former Ministry of Textiles. Shanghai Fashion Week is organized by SHANGTEX, a listed holding company of state-owned textile mills and garment factories in Shanghai. Beijing feels it’s still the boss of Shanghai, while Shanghai feels Beijing is totally TUBAOZI (“dirt dumplings”), meaning dorky and unsophisticated.

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Brands showing at CHIC in Beijing are major-league Chinese manufacturers, guys who started with one sweatshop 20 years ago. Now they are big bosses and own factories plus several hundred retail shops selling brands with names that are unpronounceable in English. To differentiate itself from Beijing, Shanghai claims to focus on independent designers. This year Shanghai will feature 37 designers, most of them based locally. The events are nothing like their counterparts in Milan, Paris and New York, although both aspire to be major-league fashion weeks.

Shanghai’s event had a roaring start, with visiting shows by Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier in 2003. Then it languished and, at one point, even vanished. Recently, it is making a comeback, trying to assert its rightful place as the industry event in China’s fashion capital. And Vivienne Westwood made another comeback show last year. Compared with Beijing, Shanghai Fashion Week is more international and sophisticated, definitely closer in appearance to international fashion weeks than its counterpart in Beijing.

The show to watch this year is ZUCZUG, by the Chinese designer Wang Yiyang. The brand has taken off in major cities in China. Its easygoing cut and bright colors appeal to a young, creative crowd. Another show to watch is Seven Days, a boutique selling mostly Chinese designer fashion, which will take to the runway in the coming week.

The real reason that Beijing and Shanghai will never merge is that both organizers are making too much money on their own. Both receive a considerable amount of funding from central and local government. Since 2010, “creative industry” is quite the buzz to get government funding. The central government has instigated a series of policies to build China’s soft power. The subsidies rarely reach designers and their tiny studios; instead, the funds are divided by major state-run enterprises or government agencies to organize fashion weeks and other events.

For foreign brands that are looking for a local partner in retail, Beijing is the better event. The big money in fashion is in Beijing. But the talents are in Shanghai. Getting the two together seems to be an impossible task so far.

If Shanghai Fashion Week does not live up to your expectations, you can always try the small, succulent crabmeat dumplings at Dingtaifeng. They are to die for.