By  on October 11, 2005

WASHINGTON — China is poised to make the jump from garment center to fashion capital within the next five years, according to a handful of designers whose work is featured in "The New China Chic: Eastern Designers, Global Fashions," a new exhibition at the John F. Kennedy Center here.

To be ready for that shift, designers said they are working hard to centralize their businesses, even if it means pulling out of the American market to build a sounder launching pad. All of the 16 designers featured in the exhibition, which runs through Oct. 16 and was curated by Karen Taylor, are of Chinese ancestry.

Barney Cheng, who flew in from his Hong Kong offices for the event, is among the most ambitious. Cheng used to design for Saks Fifth Avenue's private label program and sell his own collection to retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. He pulled out of the U.S. ready-to-wear market three years ago to concentrate on his Asian couture business.

And with some success. His designs have been worn by Chinese leader Deng Xiao Peng's daughter, Dang Feng, as well as Chinese movie stars such as Michele Yeoh of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (he designed her outfit for the Academy Awards and for the poster for the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies"). Now he is preparing to reenter the American rtw market in 2007 with a fully vertically integrated design company.

"We are building three factories," said Cheng, who uses fabrics from Italy and France and goes to Mumbai, India, for his beading, where he says he uses the same company that does work for Valentino. "My backers want me to become the Armani of Hong Kong."

Cheng, whose couture line starts at $3,000 and sells through Hong Kong retailer Lane Crawford, plans to open flagships in Hong Kong and Shanghai before returning to show in Paris. "The problem with being based in Hong Kong is that we are on the garment map, but not on the fashion map," he said.

Jeffrey Chow, who launched his own label in 2003, also is preparing for a major new look. After showing at 7th on Sixth for three years, he held back this season to relocate his production from New York to Italy, just outside Florence, to a full-service manufacturer that does work for Prada, Iceberg and Ante Prima. Under the new setup, he is determined to expand his young couture designs to include sportswear.

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