Updated: 2013-01-01 07:52
By Li Xinzhu in Shanghai (China Daily)
Xu Hong's handmade leather goods. Provided to China Daily
Li Lu's Handmade ancient-style headwear. Provided to China Daily
If you want to stand out from the crowd, handmade fashion and one-off, made-to-order pieces offer the perfect solution - and a number of enterprising exponents have lost no time in marketing their wares.
How does a woman avoid the embarrassment of having the same handbag as another woman? How does one distinguish oneself from others with small budget that does not stretch to buying limited-edition fashion items?
The answer is to seek out handmade fashion and find one-off made-to-order pieces.
A search on Taobao, China's major online shopping platform, shows products marked as handmade, handicrafts and original designs are becoming increasingly popular.
Xu Hong, 29, quit her job in 2010 to take care of her family. She soon opened an online shop selling handmade bags and now earns about 10,000 yuan ($1,600) a month, a big increase on the salary at her previous job as a saleswoman in an education equipment supply company.
She first started doing craft projects to kill time. After trying cross-stitch and making fabric bags, she decided to try her hand at leather handbags.
Her first product was a leather-and-fabric tote bag, a kind of large bag with parallel handles, which took her about a week to finish.
"All the knowledge and skills I have on how to make a leather bag were obtained from books and the Internet," she said. "I spent lots of money buying unnecessary stuff at the beginning."
Xu's workshop was the 20-square-meter study in her apartment in Shanghai.
A complete set of the equipment Xu uses to make bags costs about 10,000 yuan. This includes needles, a punching device, pliers and a drill, and does not include the price of the leather.
After finishing several bags, Xu decided to sell some online via Taobao.
"I had too many bags at home. I had to sell them for more space," she said.
Xu started her business on Jan 1, 2011 with two leather handmade bags. The first one was bought by her husband's workmate, "to support me" she said.
The second bag took about a week to sell.
Stay different, stay cool
Xu Hong sews a doctor's bag at home. Provided to China Daily
Xu Hong sews a doctor's bag at home. Provided to China Daily
Five months later, Xu's shop started to become extremely popular among handmade bag lovers.
"To avoid using the same bag as others, the handmade product is a good option," said 30-year-old Dong Bo, a sales manager in a multinational cosmetics company who loves to buy handmade leather goods on the Internet. "After all, the big brands are too expensive to buy to be able to distinguish yourself from others."
"I used to buy stuff from Etsy.com, an overseas e-commerce website focusing on handmade products," she said. "Then I discovered the trend is happening in China as well."
Xu said: "My small business all began with a doctor's bag," a reference to bags modeled on Victorian-era doctors' bags.
Two years on, the doctor's bag is still a big seller.
The design, inspired by a Japanese handmade bag textbook, has earned Xu a good reputation in a short time.
Her newly completed bags now sell as soon as they are posted online. Due to the limited number of bags, buyers who hesitate might find themselves only looking at pictures of the bags, stamped with the words: "already sold".
The most expensive bag in her shop sold for 3,300 yuan.
While Xu turned her hobby into a profitable business, some people chose to sell their handcrafts online just for fun.
Yao Fangjie, 29, an event planner at a private company in Ningbo in Zhejiang province, started to sell handmade rubber seals on her online store on Taobao in October, and has so far earned about 1,000 yuan.
Yao started to carve rubber seals in September because she saw many of her peers posting their handmade seals on micro blogs.
"I have knowledge and skills in painting," she said. "To carve a seal is not difficult for me."
Because Yao has a full-time job, she can only carve the seals in her spare time.
"It is good for me to have this hobby, even better to earn money," she said.
The most expensive seal sold at Yao's store cost at 400 yuan. "It was a tailor-made seal for the Christmas season," she said.
"You only need to buy knives, brushes, a mat and tweezers," she said. "Very simple". And the tools cost less than 100 yuan.
To carve a seal, one must first pick a pattern online, adjust its size then print it out, preferably in black and white. Then, cover the pattern with translucent drawing paper and trace it, before putting the paper over the rubber to carve.
"The entire procedure sounds complicated but it is actually quite simple when you practice," Yao said.
"I love the feeling when I finish a seal, it is the perfect moment to put a seal into the inkpad," she said.
Yao has no plans to extend her business. "It is a sideline project only," she said.
Like Yao, many fans of comics and movies make handmade products inspired by their interests.
Shen Yanni, 27, who works in a medical company in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, loves making fabric bags inspired by the characters in The Avengers, a popular Hollywood superhero movie.
The fabric bag is much cheaper than the leather goods, and has more fun and creative elements.
Shen uses designs from the movie in her bags, such as Iron Man's helmet, Superman's big S and Captain America's shield.
"I have lots of fun making these bags," she said. "It is better to share than to sell."
The average price of fabric bags in her online store is around 50 to 100 yuan, and most are made based on requirements.
Hard work required
Behind the colorful handicraft are hours of cutting and sewing, which many buyers are unaware of.
Although Xu spends about seven to eight hours a day making bags, she can only finish about 30 handbags a year, along with some small accessories such as leather bells and business card holders. "I am maddeningly slow, and the entire bag is sewn by my hands only."
A doctor's bag needs at least four days to complete, and a small wallet and clutch bag required one to two days.
The technique of making handbags can be learned in six months, Xu said, but it requires a lifetime to develop the finer skills.
For seal maker Yao, the complexity of the pattern that customers order and the size of the seal determines how many hours she spends on each project.
The most complex patterns Yao carved were the four school badges from the Harry Potter movies, which took her about 15 hours to finish.
Not every handicraft item is so popular however.
Li Lu, 30, works at an Internet service company in Anhui province. She once tried to sell her handmade fabric bags at online stores and at a store run by her friends in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
"I gave up. There are too many handmade fabric bags online," she said.
Without a unique selling point, it is hard for one shop to stand out among thousands of similar online stores.
Instead, Li turned to making antique-style headwear. "Winter time is too cold to spend in a workshop knitting bags," she said. "And I believe people who love cosplay will love my works."
Li said she will not give up her job, as she does not believe there are sufficient prospects in handmade headwear or fabric bags.
Xu Hong's handmade leather handbag. Provided to China Daily
Yao Fangjie's rubber seals. The 29-year-old started to make rubber seals in September and so far has earned about 1,000 yuan ($106.2). Provided for China Daily
(China Daily 01/01/2013 page9)