HONG KONG – Steve Jobs had Issey Miyake black turtlenecks. Warren Buffett has Trands suits.
Earlier this week, the American investor may have confessed that he’s “baffled by retail” but there was a time when he actually thought of venturing into the fashion business.
A long-standing love affair with suits made by Chinese company Dalian Dayang Trands had the Berkshire Hathaway chairman and chief executive officer “thinking of opening up a men’s clothing store.”
In a segment that aired on CNBC earlier this week, the 86-year-old businessman fielded a question from a viewer: “How many suits do you have at home?” The viewer estimated that the famously frugal investor, who still lives in his original Omaha, Nebraska home, had about five in his closet.
“He would be right except for the fact that I met a woman in Dalian, China many years ago, Madam Li,” Buffett answered.
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He went on to describe his 2007 encounter with Li during a visit to the northeastern Chinese city. Li sent her staff to surprise Buffett at his hotel and to take his measurements so that she could gift him some suits. The move worked and he’s been a fan ever since, even getting fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Charles Munger on board.
“I have probably close to 20, but they were all made by Madam Li for me,” Buffett said, adding that Li is now a regular at his company’s annual meeting.
Who exactly is Madam Li? Her full name is Li Guilian, and she started her manufacturing firm in 1979 with a classic rags-to-riches tale. According to Buffett, she started out with a single sewing machine, but now employs around 15,000 workers.
Her company has been a contractor for many western brands, even producing the Ralph Lauren-designed U.S. athletes’ uniforms for the Beijing 2012 Olympics. Her company manufactures up to 6 million suits a year.
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In 1995 Li made the move into retail, creating her own men’s wear brand Trands. While the name in English may look like a typo, its Chinese name means “creating worlds” and is pronounced “chuang-shi,” which when spoken fast sounds similar to “Trands.”
The group now has several in-house labels: Yousoku, a younger, more affordable line with suits going for about 1,000 renminbi, or $150 at current exchange, and the children’s wear label, Keyyman Kids. Chinese political elite such as the former president Hu Jintao have also been seen wearing suits from Trands.
Presumably, they got to know each other during Li’s four terms serving in the National People’s Congress.
The love affair with Buffett works both ways. Trands plays up the endorsement by the “Oracle of Omaha,” prominently displaying Buffett’s quote, “I love wearing Trands,” on its website. In 2009, Buffett recorded a video for Trands’ 30th anniversary saying he’d thrown all the other designer suits out of his wardrobe.