Uphill battle awaits China's domestic fashion labels despite 'first lady effect'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 1:50pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 7:08pm

First lady Peng Liyuan’s landmark endorsement of home-grown Chinese fashion label Exception de Mixmind, or "liwai" in Chinese, has spurred a sudden and renewed interest in domestic brands.

“The fact that the first lady is wearing [Exception] is a good thing for Chinese designers,” said renowned culture and fashion writer, Hong Huang, in a recent editorial published on the New York Times’ Chinese website.

“Last month, I gave a piece of designer merchandise to a government official as a gift. She called me and said it was not appropriate to receive gifts but after she looked inside the box and determined it was ‘not worth a lot’ she decided to accept it…I think in the future, she won’t describe a piece by a Chinese designer like that anymore,” Hong wrote.

But despite all the recent hype, Chinese brands face an uphill battle. Before the weekend, most mainland consumers were still indifferent to homegrown fashion labels, let alone Exception.

In an interview with China Daily, Wang Peiyi, another Chinese designer said independent fashion designers still lacked adequate financial backing to promote themselves.

"Independent fashion designers do not have enough financial support," he told the newspaper. "They also lack experience running fashion shows."

Wang’s collections have been presented at the prestigous Milan Fashion Week, a first for a mainland designer, but back home, his brand remains largely unheard of.

Exception went viral on social media after Peng, accompanying husband and President Xi Jinping on a trailblazing diplomatic visit to Russia over the weekend, was seen wearing a number of Chinese designer labels in public.

Across Shanghai, stores in districts such as Xinitiandi, Jiuguang and at the Super Brand Mall in Pudong saw a spike in visitor numbers over the week. The brand’s stores in Xiamen also reported brisk increases in store visitors over the last few days.

Price points for the brand’s products are significantly higher than the average western designer brand. An Exception handbag retails for about 2,500 yuan (HK$3,100).

Stocks of mainland high-end clothing firms rallied at the start of the week on the expectation that "the first-lady effect" would boost performance of the domestic fashion sector.

Women's wear firm Lancy Company and suits brand Trands both rose 10 per cent in Shenzhen and Shanghai trading respectively, while leather goods maker Kaiser increased more than 3 per cent in Shenzhen.

The brand, started by Jilin-born designer Ma Ke in 1996, has been described as one of China's leading independent labels whose simple designs combining “Chinese elements” stand out in an industry long dominated by counterfeits, copycats and an obsession with western brand names.

Fashion and brand experts believe Peng's status will help generate more international awareness for budding domestic fashion brands which have been marred by a bad reputation.

“Local brands are realising that the mainland consumer is increasingly more sophisticated…they will not settle for just any brand with a western name,” said Franklin Yao, chief executive of SmithStreetSolutions, a corporate strategy consultancy which focuses on China.

"Western designer brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci must also try to differentiate themselves in the China market and evolve their brands.”