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ChinaFile: The Problems With China Design

The Chinese fashion industry is still focused on manufacturing, so the challenges facing Chinese designers start not with education but execution.

A week ago, the local competition for the Woolmark Award China candidate was concluded. China’s fashion world came out to cheer the winner, and many editorial pages were devoted to the prospects of a great future for Chinese design.

I hate to be a party pooper, but I was at the party several years ago when the Chinese designer Qiu Hao won the prestigious Woolmark Award. There was a lot of talk and much editorial speculation on the great future of Chinese design.

The truth of the matter is, the Woolmark Award will need to do so much more in order to launch a new designer in China. Despite all the noise in the press, the Chinese fashion industry is still focused on manufacturing, not designing.

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

The challenges facing Chinese designers start not with education but execution. Local products are geared toward bulk buying, and small orders are simply left unfilled. Buying leftovers from a bulk order might be cost effective but is problematic when it comes to adding production or reordering for a particular design. So often, Chinese designers can only produce fewer than five pieces of a single design. Not really easy to sell.

Another problem relates to sizing. In practice, there is no practical Chinese sizing standard. There is one, but it is very complicated and many designers simply adopt the European or Japanese system of sizing. And with limited fabric, most designers simply end up using themselves as the ideal-size mannequin. Perfectly shaped women executives complain to me that Chinese designer sizes “feel bad,” often turning them from an S to an M.

Patternmaking is another problem, as the young designers are more keen on conceptualizing clothes. Unlike Europe and America, experienced patternmakers in China are older and more accustomed to making anything from a Mao suit to a business suit — but not fashion. So it is rare for a young designer to find a good partner who’s also a patternmaker.

Last but not least comes the retail challenge: Boutiques for Chinese designers are coming out of the woodwork. But designers are not experienced commercially. I just visited a designer boutique in the city of Changsha, capital of Hunan Province. Changsha is the host city of the most popular national television network, and a thriving media industry there is providing healthy business to local shop owners. I found that prices for Chinese designers in Changsha are at least 20 percent more expensive than Beijing.

So if you are a consumer interested in Chinese designer fashion, these are very likely scenarios for your shopping experience:

• You found the dress, but you cannot find your size.

• You found your size, but it does not fit.

• You order the dress to be made and pay a premium but are told two weeks later the designer cannot find the same fabric anymore.

• You found your size and your color (miracle!), except you found out it was 10 percent cheaper in a different boutique.

So, awards and all aside, we have a long way to go before we have a real fashion industry.

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