China’s leadership sees realpolitik advantages in the runway and is taking active measures to promote homegrown fashion houses often passed over for foreign luxury brands, fashion industry experts say.
"High end fashion is seen as a way to capture the more lucrative end of the market, as well as a way to exhibit its own aesthetic and cultural histories to the rest of the world," said Thuy Linh Tu, a New York University professor of cultural studies and author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion.
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"Cultural power has become central to, and in some ways as important as, economic and military power," says Tu.
Tu says leaders are opening numerous fashion schools, coordinating several fashion shows, and pouring money into revitalizing high-end manufacturing design stores. A new fashion school in Shenzhen Province is set to open in March 2014 and just this week, Guangdong and Shandong Province both wrapped up their own fashion weeks.
"Chinese consumers are also encouraged to buy and are actively supporting homegrown Chinese designers as a matter of national pride and economic competition," said Minh-Ha Pham, an expert on fashion studies at Cornell University.
The face of the movement is Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, whom Vanity Fair recently included on its "International Best-Dressed List" for her support of Exception de Mixmind, a Guangzhou-based haute-couture line.
Other emerging Chinese talent includes Qing Qing Wu, Masha Ma, Uma Wang, Bao Bao Wan, and Huishan Zhang, stylists who have started to attract international industry attention for their minimalist designs and subtle incorporation of traditional Chinese design elements such as silk and embroidery.
"The fashion choices of China's First Lady Peng Liyuan, much like Michelle Obama, are carefully watched by the Chinese fashion public," said Pham. "Peng has been a compelling figure in the ‘Designed in China’ movement."
Mao and early Chinese Communist Party leaders espoused utilitarian, gender- and class-neutral attire during the Cultural Revolution. Xi Jinping’s initiatives to promote China’s cultural and economic prowess at home and abroad—a campaign colloquially referred to as "China Dream"—is behind the CCP’s departure from previous condemnation of high fashion as a proletarian evil.
Interest in fashion has exploded in China as economic reforms have created an upper class and growing middle class. The appetite of this nouveau riche caste for handbags, heels, and watches have transformed China from "the world’s sweatshop" to the world’s largest consumers of luxury goods, a December 2012 McKinsey & Co. study showed.
"There is a very strong effort to distance themselves from the image of the Cultural Revolution and fashion is a means to do this," said Daniel James Cole, fashion historian and faculty at NYU. "It’s a new, moneyed class that wants to educate their children and fashion plays a part in that."
"It is a new Cultural Revolution of another sort," said Cole.
Although China purchased 25 percent of the world’s luxury goods in 2012, the majority of this spending was and continues to be directed at foreign brands such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, and Chanel. A Bain Consulting study released in December 2012 reported that Chinese consumers made 60 percent of their luxury purchases abroad.
"Europe and the U.S. are perceived by the Chinese as the symbolic symbols of fashion despite increasing prevalence of domestic Chinese brands," said Pham, noting economic and cultural competition as crucial element of the Party’s interest in high fashion.
"A Gucci handbag, for example, is still a highly desirable product because it has a lot of prestige value and global currency."
Chinese state-run media has frequently commented on the role that China’s design industry and its first lady have played in wrestling some of the prestige value and global currency away from Milan, New York, Paris, and London.
"Peng's use of domestic brands has swiftly created an impact to promote Chinese designs and costume culture, perhaps inadvertently," said the People’s Daily syndicate Global Times, a state-run media organization in a March 2013 article. "Her style, character, and radiance happily promote China's cultural image abroad."
According to Meredith Busey, a New York-based costume historian, it is not the first time that politicians have leveraged the industry.
"Fashion has the ability to both overtly and subtly communicate political messages and values," she said.
"It can be something as apparent as the armbands of a revolution or the choice of a first lady to only wear clothes by American designers."
It is also not the first time that a first lady was placed on the "International Best Dressed List" for promoting traditional Chinese fashion. Madame Chiang-Kai Shek—the wife of Chiang-Kai Shek, Mao’s political and military rival and founder of the Republic of China in Taiwan—made the list in 1943.
Despite political support, industry experts see several hurdles for Chinese designers, including China’s reputation for mass-produced "fast-fashion" in sub-par labor conditions, its school system, and the CCP itself.
"A domestic fashion scene goes a long way to reinstating the unique culture that was almost eradicated by the pervasive Mao suit," said fashion historian Elizabeth Way.
Additionally, President Xi recently announced an austerity campaign to crack down on corruption amongst party leaders, a campaign which has already cooled down China’s luxury spending. The Wall Street Journal reported after Peng Liyuan’s first diplomatic trip abroad in March that references to the prices of her Chinese-designed couture were blacked out from media outlets.
"As a communist country that holds the maintenance of a classless society as one of its core ideological precepts, conspicuous consumption presents a serious image problem," says Pham.
On the other hand, experts also see notable potential for Chinese design.
"So many of our hot designers in the United States are young Asians. … When you have this presence it can only help open the door for more acceptance of Asian product," said Cole mentioning the success of Jason Wu, Derek Lam, Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, and Anna Sui, in the New York market.
"China has a long tradition of fine craftsmanship especially in textiles (weaving, embroidery, etc.)," said Way. "Revitalizing these industries and marketing them as couture workshops could go a long way to re-orient the way the world views Chinese labor as well as rescue these craft-people's fine skills from extinction."