Made in China: China’s Evolution From Mass Production to Home Grown Design
Made in China: China’s Evolution From Mass Production to Home Grown Design
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date September 6, 2017
For roughly the last thirty years, China has been known as the epicenter of cheap, mass-produced goods. And, although there is still truth to this perception, the country has made major strides over the past 10 years to transform itself into a significant player within the global fashion marketplace as both a high-end producer and an up-and-coming locus of design. China may not have Japan’s reputation for avant-garde designers or Italy’s history as a hub for hand-made goods, but the number of boutique brands—such as Visvim, FEIT and FFIXXED STUDIOS—that now produce in the country, as well as a rising crop of Chinese designed and/or made brands—such as Uma Wang, Xander Zhou and Feng Chen Wang—are indicative of China’s continuing ascent within the luxury fashion industry.
China’s current climb is not easy to explain, but it appears to be the result of three main interrelated factors: the dominance of Chinese factories and their ongoing transition from cheap to specialized labor; the rise of China’s per capita income over the past few decades, which has produced the Post-’90’s generation that has grown up with the economic privilege to develop international tastes through travel and education abroad; and the resulting rise of young Chinese designers that reflect and cater to these tastes.
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According to a 2016 article by Chinese economist Yi Wen, China “produces nearly 50 percent of the world's major industrial goods, including crude steel (800 percent of the U.S. level and 50 percent of global supply), cement (60 percent of the world’s production), coal (50 percent of the world’s production), vehicles (more than 25 percent of global supply) and industrial patent applications (about 150 percent of the U.S. level),” as well as a huge percentage of the world’s consumer goods, including 60 percent of its shoes. However, as some of the factories that make these products have become more established over the past three decades, they’ve begun to focus on specialized goods in order stand out against their many competitors.
An example of this is KTC, a producer of premium sportswear based in Heshan, a small city outside of Guangzhou, China. For many years, KTC produced apparel for brands like adidas, which often placed orders for millions of garments at a time. Recently, however, KTC has reimagined itself as a boutique manufacturer. “Being premium payers in this industry is helping us…” KTC’s managing director, Gerhard Flatz, told Business of Fashion last year. “By paying more, our people are more efficient, because they’re more motivated. And because of this, a lot of the talent stays longer, and the longer they stay the more efficient they get.” KTC now makes garments for smaller brands like Yang Li, which enlists the factory to produce a capsule collection that is sold by Barneys New York and L’Eclaireur in Paris, among others.
KTC is not alone. While mass market brands like adidas and Nike now source much of their production outside of China—according to a September 2015 special report in The Economist, Nike has seen the majority of its suppliers relocate to countries like Vietnam—brands like Visvim, FEIT, and FFIXXED STUDIOS have sought out Chinese factories to make naturally produced (and/or) hand-made products. FEIT—known for its Goodyear welted, eco-friendly footwear—has spent the past twelve years assembling and training a team of a hundred hand-sewers who craft its goods in a small town in southern China. Kain Picken and Fiona Lau, the Australian designers behind FFIXXED STUDIOS, relocated their brand to Shenzhen, China in 2010, where they conceptualize, design, and produce the majority of their sustainably made collections in their multipurpose space at the foot of Wutong Mountain. In 2015, the brand won Yoox’s inaugural Asian Sustainable Fashion award.
By 2020, China is predicted to be the world’s second fashion market, with sales expected to rise to RMB 1.3 trillion ($200 billion), more than triple what they were in 2010. These numbers are representative of the continued rise of the Chinese consumer, but they don’t tell the full story. Whereas ten to fifteen years ago, shoppers were drawn to heavily branded luxury accessories from labels like Louis Vuitton and Coach as an expression of new wealth, more and more Chinese are gravitating to minimally branded, locally designed products. In a 2016 interview with The New York Times, Dr. Tina Zhou of Shanghai-based Fortune Character Institute, which does luxury research consulting, confirmed this trend: “Our research found that 39 percent of wealthy Chinese think the logo is no longer the priority,” Dr. Zhou told The Times. “Niche high-end brands as well as bespoke products, as a result, are becoming new drivers of luxury consumption.”
As members of China’s Post-’90’s generation have traveled abroad on vacation, attended university overseas, or settled permanently in places like Vancouver, London and New York City, their tastes have shifted to reflect these experiences alongside new perspectives toward home. And although these developing tastes have resulted in luxury spending in places like Japan, South Korea, and Europe, they also appear to be driving China’s own fashion industry. American consulting firm Bain & Company has predicted six to eight percent growth in luxury spending in Mainland China this year; last year, the firm’s research indicated that exclusive and original designs were more likely to attract Chinese consumers.
Unsurprisingly, new retailers are emerging and old ones are shifting their buying habits to cater to consumers’ increasing desire for Chinese designed and made products. Global luxury retailer, Lane Crawford, which was founded over 160 years ago and maintains eight stores between Hong Kong and Mainland China, has launched, mentored, and featured “Made in China” brands, such as Comme Moi and Ms Min since 2013; Lane Crawford’s more avant-garde outfit, JOYCE, also stocks Chinese designers, and the two shops boast more than twenty made-in-China brands in tandem.
Founded in Beijing in 2010, Chinese online fashion retailer Shangpin.com is making an increasing effort to stock made-in-China brands. According to a 2016 Op-Ed written by the company’s chief executive officer, David Zhao and published by Business of Fashion: “Made-in-China designers […] have become increasingly popular with Chinese fashion-savvy consumers and industry insiders, as they often seek standout pieces that attract attention and help position them as leaders and first-adopters.” Although Shangpin.com carries mostly high-end European designers, Zhao estimates that approximately 10 percent of its brands are Chinese and he foresees this number growing.
Triple Major—a creative studio and series of concept stores in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu—is characteristic of the current conversation between young Chinese consumers, designers, and retailers. The shops carry a mix of Chinese and foreign brands, while the studio produces its own collections, the first of which debuted in 2013 and was inspired by classic video games, such as Street Fighter and Super Mario. The company has collaborated with labels including FFIXXED STUDIOS, shows in-house exhibitions, and curates “Nomad Store” projects that brings brands represented by Triple Major, along with its in-house collections, to different cities around the world, including Hong Kong, Shanghai, Los Angeles, London and Milan.
Triple Major’s international, multifaceted approach toward retail and design is quickly becoming the norm for Chinese designers as well. Although many up-and-coming designers produce their collections in China, it is rare to find one who doesn’t straddle at least two continents. Because many designers have been educated in, or keep studios in places like London and New York, they are able to design and market their brands with global perspectives that feel innovative to Chinese and global consumers alike.
For example, Designer Feng Chen Wang was born in China and graduated with her Master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art. Wang established her menswear collection in 2015, made her runway debut for SS16 through VFILES’ show at New York Fashion Week, has been nominated for the LVMH Prize, and now shows at London Fashion Week. The designer’s clothes are stocked in both the US—by VFILES and H. Lorenzo—and in China by Lane Crawford and 10 Corso Como, among others. Wang’s Spring/Summer 2018 menswear collection paired workwear shapes (in red, khaki, indigo, and salmon) with tops emblazoned with “Made in China” in block print. In a 2016 interview, Wang told i-D: “My inspiration consists of modern interpretation of my worldview and contemporary culture in their various forms,” and her most recent collection is a commentary on the ever-expanding aesthetics of Chinese designers; by juxtaposing non-traditional Chinese-made garments with the “Made in China” slogan, Wang’s clothes declare that just because they’re produced China does not make them beholden to traditional details or silhouettes.
Much like Wang, designer Xander Zhou was born and raised in China but studied fashion design abroad (in the Netherlands). Zhou launched his eponymous menswear label in 2007, is based out of Beijing, shows at London Fashion Week and counts stores like Opening Ceremony among his many stockists. Although he designs and produces his garments in China, Zhou doesn’t want to be labeled as a “made-in-China” brand. The designer uses tags on his garments that read, “Made on Another Planet,” and, in a 2010 interview, told Forbes Asia: “I’m a designer, but not a Chinese designer. I think designers shouldn’t have nationality. Design is an international thing. You should create something for the whole world. I think one day I will use Chinese details because I want to use them, not because I’m Chinese. A lot of Chinese people think my design is too Western. But I think it’s just my own.” Zhou’s desire to court a global audience while pulling from inspirations both near and far seems to be the prevailing perspective for a growing number of Chinese designers, which makes sense considering many of them belong to the Post-’90’s generation that has also produced Chinese consumers drawn to international fashion.
Although many of the current group of young acclaimed Chinese designers have been educated outside of China and show their collection abroad as well, that may soon change. The Country’s biggest cities are already home to fashion schools, designers, and shows that are only increasing in caliber. Beijing plays host to roughly thirty designers, including world-renowned couturier Guo Pei, the trade show CHIC, two fashion weeks—China Fashion Week and FashionNow—and fashion schools ESMOD and the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Shanghai boasts China’s top fashion schools, Donghua and Fudan, over fifty designers—including Uma Wang and Masha Ma—and its own fashion week (where FFIXXED STUDIOS shows); in addition, The New School opened Parsons Shanghai in 2014 in the city’s International Fashion Education Center and, in 2015, Condé Nast opened its Center of Fashion & Design, which offers numerous fashion courses and recently launched a capsule collection with Gap and three young Chinese designers.
China’s fashion industry is not without its growing pains. Some of the country’s newly specialized factories are still learning how to stay competitive while paying their employees’ rising salaries and the country’s fashion weeks receive a fraction of the press given to those in London, Paris, and even New York, but, overall, the future is bright. Along with the aforementioned schools, shows, and designers driving the industry within the country, Chinese fashion is receiving an increasing amount of international attention, especially from global retailers. Opening Ceremony declared 2016 “The Year of China,” and subsequently featured collections from Angel Chen, Decoster, Hiuman, Huishan Zhang, Edition10, MO&Co., Ms MIN, Poesia, Xander Zhou and Ximon Lee. For Fall/Winter 2017, H. Lorenzo is stocking men’s clothing and accessories from Percy Lee, Ximon Lee, Uma Wang and Ziggy Chen. 10 years ago it would have been nearly unthinkable for two of America’s foremost global fashion retailers to place so much focus on Chinese designers, but these days it seems to be only the beginning. As designers continue to look outward for influence and home for production, China’s fashion industry seems poised to complete its ascent.