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EDITOR’S NOTE: Huang Hung is a prominent China-based journalist in print, television and digital media. Launching today, ChinaFile is a weekly column she will write for each Wednesday’s WWD and for WWD.COM.
BEIJING — Ever since Louis Vuitton opened its first store in China in 1992, China has been logo mania on steroids. As China is set to become the biggest luxury market this year, a counterculture to bling seems to have gained some headway on the fashion scene here.
The trend, best described as a 21st-century Zen, is a local antidote to glam. At the forefront of this trend is a brand called Exception. The brand has established 90 stores across China and has a annual turnover of more than 900 million yuan ($150 million). It recently opened a 1,800-square-meter flagship store in a glitzy mall alongside international brands, in the Southern city of Canton, where it is headquartered.
“Exception is Chinese in its core,” says its founder and ceo, Mao Jihong. “We are all about being comfortable with ourselves and nature. We are not a show-off brand.” Indeed, most of the fashion sold in Exception stores has a vagabond-chic baggy look, but its price tag is by no means modest, at $500 to $800 for a skirt. Asked about Exception’s target market, Mao explains, “When we started, we knew we could not outdo the foreign brands in terms of glamour, it’s not our DNA. So we try to design an understated cool, a counterbalance to the glamour offered by French and Italian brands.” Mao says when he and his then wife/partner Ma Ke started Exception, they did not do any market research or consumer analysis. “We followed our instincts,” Mao says. “Chinese people like to dress comfortably; we tried to combine comfort with fashion.”
Exception was founded 15 years ago. Mao and Ma Ke met at a dance party and realized they both liked the Ramones. From there on, the designing duo started to design and live together. Their first notoriety came when they won the Brother’s Cup, a government-sponsored award for local fashion design students. They were awarded 150,000 yuan ($25,000). “Which was a lot of money back in 1994,” Mao points out.
The two designed their first line of 40 pieces and sold it on consignment in a gift shop opposite Garden Hotel, one of the few five-star hotels in Canton back then.
The collection sold out within two weeks, and they knew they were onto something. The couple immediately went to work and started to sell their collection by finding licensing partners in different cities in China.
“We knew what we wanted,” Mao says. “We could have made a lot more money if we ran sweatshops or knocked off western designs. People who did that have much bigger companies than us, but they don’t have a brand. Now, they are coming to us to find out how to build a brand. It’s very strange.”
Mao gives much credit to Ma Ke. “Ma Ke was very stubborn, but she was very good with her hands. If I told her what I see as a trend in the street, she can play with it and make it into her creation.” Now that the couple is divorced, Ma Ke is still creative consultant and has an important say in the direction of each season.
Other than Exception, another local Zen brand is Zuczug. Its founder, Wang Yiyang, notes that this is the first local brand to use organic cotton. Zuczug has more than 30 stores now in China and a turnover of more than 300 million yuan ($60 million). Zuczug is more sportive in design, and has attracted a strong following among Chinese in their early 30s, known as the Eighties Generation. Wang Yiyang also designs for Tea Cup, his own experimental line, which draws on Chinese design in the 70s, a uniform utilitarian look.
A newcomer to the local Zen team is Uma Wang, who was just selected as a member of the Vogue Talent team in China. “I was very much inspired by Ma Ke earlier,” Uma admits. Since Uma’s designation as a Vogue Talent, she has been globe-trotting with her new collection to Milan, Paris and New York. “It’s doing really well,” reports Uma, “I am doing something right, people like my stuff.” Uma says being a Vogue Talent will give her a chance to work in New York with the best, like Michael Kors. “I can learn the business side of fashion.”
When asked whether they are competing with the bling-bling international brands, all three designers seem to shrug off the question. They hasten to point out that China is still a growing fashion market. In fact, all three brands — Exception, Zuczug and Uma Wang — enjoyed double-digit growth in the last three years.
The designers claim they have emotionally bonded with Chinese women by incorporating the “Literary Girl” image into their design.
The Literary Girl (Wenyi Gingnian) is the Chinese “girl next door” — quiet and obedient on the outside but dreamy and sensual inside. “It’s not a concept Westerners can understand,” says Uma. “The Literary Girl only exists in Chinese culture.”
The three designers are optimistic and plotting away at the expansion of their respective brands. Exception’s new store, which doubles as a bookstore with 90,000 titles and a café, is putting the spotlight on the Literary Girl. Asked whether he is trying to revive the image, Mao says, “Oh, it never died, there is a Literary Girl in all Chinese women. This is what we appeal to.”
Fashion and books might be the best news for Chinese book publishers, but as a fashion concept, it still has to prove itself. Nevertheless, the Zen is with you.