ChinaFile: Everyone Wants China's First Lady

In principle, Peng Liyuan is promoting Chinese fashion by wearing it. But getting her to support a program is an entirely different matter.

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Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan

Photo By EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan

Photo By Stringer/China/Reuters/Corbis

Given both history and circumstances, you would be extra, extra careful if you were the first lady of China. Peng Liyuan was a household name before her husband was known to the Chinese public. As a popular singer, she was seen and heard every year on the Chinese New Year’s Eve Gala, a TV spectacle produced by CCTV, the national broadcaster, and the most viewed program in China. She is definitely beautiful and knows how to make an entrance. All the more reason why she has to be more careful: Both her husband’s political career and her own well-being are on the line. Beauty and Politics never mixed well in China.

So how did Exception de Mixmind steal the show this time? How did they manage to get the first lady to wear their brand, generate all that amazing buzz and remain unscathed?

The answer is, they did it the Chinese way. First of all, Mao Jihong, chairman and founder of Exception, has always been more political than other Chinese designers. He is a member of the China National Garment Association and also acts as its vice chairman. This will offer him opportunities to mingle with high-ranking officials and their wives. It is an automatic stamp of approval that he is not only in the system but also very much vetted. Eventually, someone will need an outfit and they will go to him. My guess is, given Mao’s sensitivity to Chinese politics, he will tailor-make the outfits, rather than offering them prêt-à-porter. Even if he offers them items off the rack, he will take off the labels so that there is no suspicion of commercial interest in his offer. The fact that the first lady actually wore Exception and allowed the publicity to continue for the brand shows that Exception has paid its dues.

Despite its long association as the couturier for the first lady, Exception was very low key about its role in dressing her. There are all sorts of rumors: One claimed that when the first lady stepped out of the plane in Russia, Exception’s Web site actually claimed to have made the navy blue coat, but this was soon deleted by the Web site. The news really spread when, an Internet-based fashion industry news site, reported that the outfit was made by Exception.

Once the news broke, both domestic and international media went crazy, with everyone looking for the story, a comment, some kind of angle to write this story. A reporter from another newspaper told me that Mao Jihong refused to do interview or even admit that Exception actually made the outfit. Interestingly, he also said that he couldn’t confirm anything until it was officially confirmed. This probably means he was waiting for an official nod from the first lady’s office to go public about the outfit. The guess work continued with the media and the public. There was so much interest in the fashion that the Exception Web site crashed and was only restored after a three day blackout. There were rumors that it was not Exception but Useless, the upscale brand by Exception and currently managed by Mao’s ex-wife, Ma Ke, a very elusive Chinese designer. Despite the lack of public acknowledgement, the buzz was tremendous.

Almost a week after the Chinese first lady stepped out of the plane, Exception finally came out with an official notice which simply read that some of the first lady’s clothes were custom designed and handmade by the team at Exception and Useless. And none of it would be available at Exception stores around China, the note hastened to add, I assume to deflect any suspicion of using the first lady as a sales tool in this case. On weibo, immediately forwarded the announcement and proclaimed it to be the worst public relations job ever. The domestic media reports faded after the first week. The overseas Chinese Web site reported that some “old comrades” were unhappy about the quantity and quality of reports about the first lady, claiming that she has eclipsed her husband and Chinese policy. I guess you will not hear any Chinese leader identify himself as “the man who came with his wife” anytime soon.

So what are the chances of Vogue getting an interview with the first lady and splashing her on the cover, like American Vogue did with Michelle Obama. Realistically, there are several obstacles. First, Vogue does not have a long personal relationship with the first lady. More likely, Fay Wang and younger, more westernized singers are more to the taste of Vogue. But more importantly, Vogue is generally seen as a fashion magazine that promotes Western luxury goods. Is this a good association for the first lady during an anticorruption campaign? All in all, it seems to be a long shot.


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