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Paris of the East - Again
With the declaration of this year's Champion of the Shanghai International Fashion Model Contest, the curtain closed on the city's 20-day annual fashion festival.

But what upset the media and the audiences was that some of the most keenly anticipated fashion showings, from among the 42 original programmed, were absent. Shows by world-class brands such as Givenchy from France, Vivienne Tam from the United States, Vivienne Westwood from Britain and Ferragamo from Italy were cancelled, apparently postponed until later in the year.

An official source said the cancellations were due to "certain special reason" - widely believed to be the outbreak of "atypical pneumonia" which is causing anxiety around the world.

"The cancelled shows were often the most interesting ones, now we have almost nothing to say," said a reporter from local media, who asked to remain anonymous. "I think Shanghai still has some distance to travel in becoming an international fashion centre."

Government plan

Just as the reporter said, Shanghai does have a dream, or "a goal" according to the government, to build itself into the world's sixth fashion centre, alongside London, Paris, New York, Milan and Tokyo. The "goal" was announced by the city government in 2000.

On October 15, 2000, the Shanghai International Fashion Centre was opened in a building located at the east section of the upscale Huaihai Zhonglu, dubbed as Shanghai's open-air T-stage. In the vicinity are ritzy bars and restaurants in the Xintiandi and Lane Crawford arcade where white-collar workers and super models work or enjoy entertainment everyday.

The former city mayor Xu Kuangdi planned to use the decade 2001-2010 to build Shanghai into a fashion centre. This goal is listed among the 10 biggest planning objectives of the city government for the decade.

Celebrities such as Chen Yifei, painter, fashion businessman and publisher, Bao Mingxin, professor from Donghua University and a well-known fashion expert, and Wang Xinyuan, a designer who held a fashion show on the Great Wall, were all appointed as consultants.

Competitors at home

"Actually, Shanghai is not the only Chinese city which has the ambition to be a world fashion centre. Cities such as Beijing, Dalian, Hangzhou and Ningbo all have similar aims," said Bian Xiangyang, associate professor from the Fashion Institute of Donghua University.

"But whether a city is a fashion centre or not is not judged by itself but by the public and professionals," he joked.

During the 1930s, Shanghai was called the "Paris of the East ", which accurately described its position in the fashion world of the time.

Before the 1970s, Shanghai was definitely the "Dragon Head" of the fashion business in the country. It paid its way to a leading position during the 1980s. But with the fashion business booming in many other cities, the city lost its prominent position in the country according to Bian, not to mention in the world.

"According to my knowledge, though local designers try hard to regain the world's attention, they haven't had much success so far," said Bao Mingxin. "Their achievements are still overshadowed by those of the old 1930s Shanghai."

"In fact, I don't think Shanghai lacks designers. The so-called 'famous' designers are even more numerous than in France," Bian said. "But how to transfer their creative ideas and concepts to tangible products is still a problem. Currently, no organization is really working to realize this."

Building brand names

"China is a big exporter of garments to the world but it is not a giant in the field," Zheng Yonggang, the president of Firs Group, a giant garment producer, told local media.

"Our production is not inferior to other competitors but we are short of original name brands. That's the key," said Zheng.

His words were echoed by Bian who specializes in researching local garment history. "I found many name brands originating in Shanghai had disappeared in recent years," he said.

Since 1994, China's output and export of garments has been listed as No. 1 in the world. Output and exports from China are much greater than those of Italy and France. But another obvious fact is that China has few big fashion brands, a limitation restraining the advance of the country's fashion business.

The country currently has about 4,800 garment producers, but only 8 per cent have registered brands. This means most producers process garments for others, or work as copycats.

To be a fashion centre, it is necessary to have unique features, according to most experts. It is well known that we can identify the style of Paris with elegance, Milan with exquisite fashion handcrafting, London with experimental fashion and creativity, New York with metropolitan sophistication. But what does Shanghai have? Mere scale of production doesn't suffice to make the city a fashion centre, Bian said.

Support needed

Just like any woman, the fashion industry needs a lot of care to keep up her energy.

"Of course, we can't say Shanghai has no hope at all, but it will take time," Bian said.

An encouraging example is that Tokyo took less than 10 years to make a figure in the fashion world.

"With economic power, talent and culture, Shanghai has the potential to be a fashion centre if we work hard," Bian said. "But we still need more supportive policies."

The construction of an international fashion centre is still on the agenda, though the media is less excited about it than one or two years ago. Plans such as setting up an original garment culture centre, a name brand retailing centre, a fashion release centre, a technology trade centre and a new concept creation centre are said to be still in process.

However, no one is in a position to ensure success. Whether Shanghai is to regain its beautiful title as the "Paris of the East" or not depends on many factors, not least good fortune.

(Shanghai Star April 11, 2003)

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