July 2011

Tailor made

By Casey Hall

Long known as a manufacturer of cheap goods, China has a growing number of companies that are going up-market with the Made in China label

Alison Yeung
Founder and designer, Mary Ching

Five years ago Yeung – often called "China's Jimmy Choo" – gave into her life-long shoe addiction and launched Mary Ching, establishing China's first high-end shoe brand.

"Made in China seems to carry a lot of negative connotations, including poor quality. But that's changing; the label is increasingly associated with unique design and high quality products. Obviously Chinese consumers are still aspirational. When they come into wealth they want to show labels and status by wearing head-to-toe Gucci or Prada, and they seek products that are not made here. They've been taught to appreciate Made in Italy, not Made in China. You can respect the big international brands; I call them the 'big boys.' You learn from them, but then you create your own niche and following in the market. To distinguish myself, I have made products that are a bit more outrageous, that maybe aren't so commercial. My advertising is certainly provocative and we are always remembered. This is what we've had to do to get attention and be remembered. I don't think we necessarily have to include Chinese elements to attract Chinese customers; I think customers from China and elsewhere are drawn to our products' imagery. With this brand we are empowering women.

Wang Qun  
Executive director, Shanghai VIVE

First launched in 1898, Shanghai VIVE was the top name in Chinese cosmetics prior to the formation of the People's Republic in 1949. State-owned cosmetics giant Shanghai Jahwa has revived the brand to cash in on widespread nostalgia for the city's glamorous past.

"Our customers are women who want their Chinese identities to be revealed rather than concealed, and who want Chinese culture to be reflected and blended with Western technologies. Initially, Shanghai VIVE will mainly focus on the domestic market. It needs to compete with high-end cosmetics brands domestically before entering foreign markets in three to five years time. The cosmetics industry will continue growing steadily in the future, with the high-end market growing the fastest. I am sure that more Chinese brands will pop up and compete with multinationals. But most local cosmetics companies do not have enough expertise in innovation and brand building, so they need time to develop. What sets Shanghai VIVE apart is its brand heritage and positioning, as well as Shanghai Jahwa's experience in areas such as creative design, product development, manufacturing, marketing and service delivery."

Jenny Ji  
Founder and designer, La Vie

After studying economics at university in Shanghai, Ji moved to Milan to study fashion design and then returned to her hometown to launch her own clothing line in 2002. She recently expanded La Vie to include wedding dresses and lingerie.

"It's a curious time in the education of locals in terms of their preferences for different luxury brands. Right now, many think price is the most important thing – but when they're more educated, they will start to choose what they like for themselves. I have confidence that people will like my style, which mixes Chinese and Western elements. We're not just designing clothes, we also create a concept and tell a story. I think it's difficult to convince people that Chinese products aren't cheap, but it's easier to make people believe your concept if you have your own story. Hermes and Chanel have their own histories and concepts, which makes people believe they embody the spirit of luxury. Now, after developing La Vie for so many years, people want our products because it's not only high quality; they can show off, tell the story of these pieces and feel proud of the unique things that they own. This is very important for Chinese brands who want to achieve this luxury status – they have to make clients feel proud to own their products."

Stephane Michel 
Co-founder, Iguzzini Watches

When Stephane Michel and his brother Lander first heard Frederico Iguzzini's story, they were inspired. The Italian watchmaker had made his way to Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century with a dream to create luxury watches in China. That dream seemed to have died out with Iguzzini himself, until the Michel brothers bought the brand in 2007.

"It took us two or three years to get our bearings and understand how the watch market works. We decided to specialize in limited edition watches, producing only 30-50 pieces, or 150 pieces maximum, for each model. The high-end watch sector is a small club and access is difficult. Being known as a Chinese brand is very important; it's the birthplace of our brand. The fact that Iguzzini Watches was founded by an Italian makes us a very east-meets-west company. At the beginning, people would say, 'Luxury goods based out of China? You must be crazy.' But it plays a very important part in what we do and we've basically put the 'We're from China' banner on our chests and gone to war with it. Quality is also very important; it doesn't matter how beautiful a watch is, it needs to keep ticking."