Army-Style Clothing Mothballed

Army-Style Clothing Mothballed

With the Mao suit a mothballed distant memory for the middle-aged, Chinese fashion has undergone a big revolution.

Today's adults can still remember the drab blue army-style clothing that dominated fashion only 20 years ago, in most cases because that was all the clothes shops had in stock.

Now, the vast army of "blue ants" that struck foreign visitors in those days has virtually disappeared, replaced by some of the most fashion-conscious consumers in the world; Chinese cities, especially in the summer, are ablaze with colors and styles straight off the catwalk, with instantly-recognizable brand names from Europe, America and Japan.

When French Fashion Federation Chairman Jacques Mouclier first visited China in 1992, he thought the mainland's garment industry was "about 100 years behind the outside world." On a second visit, only two years later, he revised this estimate down to 50 years. On a third visit in 1996, he noted that the gap was no more than 20 years. Today, it's even closer.

While foreign brands are still in, domestic fashion designers are beginning to make their mark. China had no garment designers 20 years ago. The country's tailors did nothing but follow tradition and convention. There was no garment design major at any Chinese college or university until the late 1980s, and garment makers hardly thought of having their own designers, recalls Song Wenwen with the Chinese Association of Garment Designers.

Now, association statistics show, there are 6,000-7,000 registered professional and amateur designers. Last year, the Firs Group in Ningbo gave two designers each an annual design fund of 3 million yuan (US$361,000), and invested 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) to establish a dress-design center with first-class equipment--the first industry-designer co-operation in the country.

"The combination of well-performing enterprises and outstanding designers is the fastest way to create Chinese brand names for the world market," said Wang Xinyuan, noting that more than 100 garment research centers have been established and more than 40 colleges and universities have set up a garment designing degree course.

Besides the tremendous growth in quantity, the structure and quality of China's garment production have also achieved remarkable improvements, claims an official with the State Textile Industry Bureau.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, China's exported garments mainly found their way to the middle- and low-grade markets of foreign countries; now, increasing numbers of franchised stores selling Chinese garments are emerging on the fashionable streets of Western countries.

But China's garment design sector is still at a fledgling stage, despite an urgent need from the manufacturers. "One of the most important reasons for the absence of world-famous Chinese brands is the lack of influential designing masters so far," explains Tan An, director of the China Garment Research and Design Center.

A key factor, he believes, will be the continued strength of the export market. He encourages domestic manufacturers to upgrade and go for higher added value in their clothing products in order to gain international recognition, which, in turn, will help them domestically.

Exports began growing during the latter half of 1999 with help from a stronger international export market and governmental policy support, according to a senior official with the State Textile Bureau.

"Textile companies have enhanced their competitiveness by doing away with surplus production capacity and by laying off redundant workers," he added. The domestic market, meanwhile, has also been transformed. The China Textile Economic Research Center predicts clothing will account for about 15 percent of total consumer spending, and will be at least 12 times higher than 1978.

From a concern with warmth and durability 20 years ago, Chinese consumers are now shifting more and more emphasis onto the ornamental function of clothes.For example, many fashion-conscious young women have thrown away their dark down coats, thick woven trousers, and woolen pants in favor of miniskirts, slinky latticed trousers, and tight-fitting velvet T-shirts, even in the depths of winter.

"Skirts have been selling extremely well in the past few winters," said a saleswoman from the Theme Shop in downtown Beijing. "It seems that many consumers put beauty above everything else, including warmth."

More and more people are stressing individuality when dressing themselves. "I want to distinguish myself against the gloom of winter by wearing lighter make-up and fewer clothes," explained Li Ning, marketing manager of a big multinational.

To build on the current promising position, the textile industry, having completed the government-promoted program to eliminate surplus production capacity, will now focus on technical modifications. A total of 20 billion Yuan (US$2.4 b) is expected to be appropriated to upgrading textile technologies during 2000, according to the State Textile Bureau. More than 200 well-to-do firms in the textile industry will be picked to lead the way in technical upgrading.

In addition to government funding, these firms are expected to have access to 14 billion yuan (US$1.7 billion) in bank loans, a senior bureau official said.The money will be spent on ensuring that the firms have the most modern equipment capable of producing textiles and clothing that meet the most advanced international stan-dards, he added.

from Beijing Review

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