x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The new meaning of made in China

In the glamorous world of fashion, there is nothing like the 's' word (whisper it: sweatshop) to generate bad press.

It's a widely held misconception that the period just after a catwalk show is a good time for designers such as New York City's Alexander Wang to pop off on holiday.

In fact, the catwalk presentation and time leading up to it is just the tip of the iceberg. What comes next - the all-important business of sales, manufacturing and distributing the collection - is the busiest time of all.

Even getting a great write up, as Wang did for his most recent collection, won't guarantee an order from Bergdorf Goodman, Harvey Nichols or Boutique1. First, they must be confident the designer's production and manufacturing base is sourced and ready to spring into action, so it cannot only deliver on time but to an impeccable standard.

This might sound easy but it isn't. Failure to sort out manufacturing is the most common stumbling block for designers. This is the reason Stella McCartney works in cohesion with the clothing giant that part-owns her brand, Gucci.

Gucci pays her a wage and lets her get on with the creative side of things, leaving the firm to look after what can be the nightmare of manufacture. Italy's Aeffe group, which owns Moschino, Jean Paul Gaultier and Pollini shoes, has a similar set up.

Get manufacturing wrong and a lot more can suffer besides profit margins.

Pity poor Wang, who should be sitting somewhere with his feet up on a desk counting wads of dollar notes, not defending a US$450 million (Dh1.7bn) lawsuit triggered by a 56-year-old former employee who claims he worked 16-hour days in a windowless room in Manhattan's Chinatown producing Wang's clothes - an allegation the designer fiercely denies.

In the glamorous world of fashion, there is nothing like the "s" word (whisper it, "sweatshop") to generate bad press.

If only Wang had done the sensible thing and sorted his fashion from the Chinese takeaway, as in mainland China, as most leading international fashion brands, including French and Italian stalwarts, have done for well over a decade.

Why China? Initially, price and a (vast) workforce, and more recently, because China has evolved into a centre of excellence when it comes to quality of workmanship.

The Chinese are masters at copying. What's more, having been taught the creed of Confucius since kindergarten (to know their place in society, not to rebel, to work hard, etc), once taught, by nature of their culture, Chinese workers are perfectionists.

Recently, designers have been forced to bring manufacturing "back home" because new laws on Chinese imports - costs of raw materials and fuel, which affect deliveries - are racking up prices in China.

While it may not be factual to claim sweatshops haven't been entirely outlawed in China, many factories producing A-list designer clothes here can put those in the rest of the world to shame.

Throughout the 1990s my sister, who develops hi-tech textiles for sports brands such as Nike, fell into a role of sourcing factories for clients who were not just hot on quality control, but wanted to ensure their factories were exemplary.

I can remember her telling me about Ralph Lauren's factory in China, which ensured water used on dye plants (the textile industry is a notorious pollutant) ran crystal clear into the local supply, and the factory making Liz Hurley's swimwear range in India supplied an onsite school for the workers' children.

Just a whiff of scandal regarding sweatshops can ruin a superbrand's reputation. In contrast, a sustainable manufacturing plant can become a handy PR tool for the label.

During the recent Paris Fashion Week there appeared to be yet another shift in what "made in China" means.

Huishan Zhang (who has worked for Dior) and Marsha Ma (who sells to Spiga 2 in Milan, Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong and Istanbul and who appeared on the official PFW schedule) who both studied at Central St Martins in London, generated column inches of press.

"Ultimately, China is where I want to make it big," Zhang told the American industry news-paper, WWD.

Of course he does. But he'll have to push Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton out of the way first. And this is an intriguing thought.

There is an increasing number of Chinese high-fashion magazines and they are using Chinese stylists, designers and models over western counterparts.

Meanwhile, the Chinese continue to make their presence felt on the international scene. The model Liu Wen clocked up 53 shows during the autumn/winter 2012 season. The Chinese actresses Zhu Zhu and Zhou Xun, who will both star in the Hollywood blockbuster Cloud Atlas out early next year, sat front row at Dior and Chanel.

What if the Chinese middle classes, who have already shown an insatiable appetite for luxury fashion, shift their allegiance from western to home-grown talent?

With the world's premier manufacturing plants in their own backyard, China could even become the next fashion hotspot.

 

Julia Robson is a London-based fashion journalist, broadcaster and stylist

 

artslife@thenational.ae