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China to Strike a Fashion Pose

China is set to make the jump from garment center to fashion capital, according to designers featured in an exhibition at the Kennedy Center.

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.

“For young designers in New York, it is very difficult. You have to look for everything you want,” said Chow.

Moving against the grain, Chinese retailer Blanc de Chine is bringing high-end Chinese goods to wealthy Americans. “The timing of this exhibition is perfect for us,” said Jack Drapacz, vice president and general manager, North America. As reported, Blanc de Chine is preparing to open a Russell Groves-designed 2,400-square-foot store in Manhattan next month.

The company, which opened in Hong Kong in 1993, is looking to open in Beijing, Shanghai, Paris and Los Angeles in the future. As for Manhattan, Drapacz, who previously worked as the vice president of financial and strategic planning at Polo Ralph Lauren, said: “We want to start conservatively, say, with [sales of] $1,200 to $1,500 a square foot in two years, and to be around for a long time.”

Of all the designers, one uncontested star at the gathering was Vivienne Tam, who paved the way when China’s consumer movement was still recovering from the aftershock of the Cultural Revolution.

“When I opened my store in Hong Kong 12 years ago, they wanted to cut the labels out that said Made in China,” recalled Tam. “I said, ‘No, I want to promote Made in China as quality.’ Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Armani’s clothes all have the Made in China label.”

Tam, who currently sells to Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue along with 200 specialty stores, has outlets in Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai. “I want to open 10 more [stores] in China in the next two years,” she said.

Tam conceded manufacturing in China has had its problems. Remembering the early days in the southern province of Santo, where she does all her embroidery work, she said: “They wanted to embroider only on cotton and silk, but I wanted them to do embroidery on stretch fabrics. In the past, they would always say, ‘Not possible.’ Now everything is possible.”

Not all designers have had an easy road back to the mainland, though.

“Now I’m so proud of being Chinese, but it wasn’t always like today,” said Han Feng, who designs pleated scarves and accessories for Neiman’s and Barneys New York. “I’m a Cultural Revolution child. I was born in China. My father committed suicide. Almost all my family died. Twenty years ago, when I left China, I thought I would never go back.”

Two years ago, still reeling from the aftermath of 9/11, Han Feng closed her New York showroom. Now she has moved all her production to Shanghai. She plans to be back in New York in February, after designing all the costumes for Anthony Minghella’s London production of “Madam Butterfly,” which opens Nov. 5 in London, coming to the Metropolitan Opera House next fall (see story below).

One designer with no plans to manufacture in China is Yeohlee Teng, whose work also is featured in the exhibition. “I am staying in New York City,” said Teng. “I have to be able to walk to the cutting table and see how the design is laid out.”

But she added, “Asia is definitely on my horizon. I’d like to open in Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and Osaka beginning within the next year, opening something new every six months.”

The show, which features the works of Vera Wang, Amy Chan, Peter Som and others, also displayed an example of the problems of getting goods to the U.S. market. Designer Shanghai Tang was represented by three naked mannequins. “His clothes are stuck in Customs,” explained show designer Adrien Gardere, who used four miles of red silk-like rope tied with ancient Chinese knots as a dramatic backdrop for the exhibit. Cheng also had a tie-up with Customs, but one of his couture clients stepped in to lend her gowns.