Updated: 2011-06-17 13:53

By  Lin Jing (China Daily European Weekly)

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An elaborate headpiece worn at a fashion show at Beijing's 798 Art Zone in March. Wang Jing / China Daily

China is taking bigger strides to become a force in fashion - one step in that direction is its attempt to nurture more designers

China is in desperate need of fashion designers as the country transforms from a manufacturer to a creator. "There is a great demand for designers in the market," says Su Baoyan, secretary-general of the China Fashion Association. "Currently there are about 50,000 apparel companies in China and new brands keep popping up every year. Besides, some existing brands are also developing new lines. All of these companies need fashion designers." She, however, does not say how many designers China needs, but insists the number is big. "Every year there are only about 10,000 fresh designers graduating from design schools in China, and some of them will change to other professions, such as fashion editor, stylist or marketing assistant."

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Su says that after the 2008 global financial crisis, manufacturers in coastal areas of South China have fewer manufacturing orders from developed countries.

To stay afloat, these companies have to adjust their business models and transform from being just manufacturers.

"Designers are the key roles of the transformation from 'made-in-China' to 'designed-in-China'. Without them, it's mission impossible," Su says.

Consumer needs are evolving rapidly in China, and apparel brands are growing increasingly aware of that they have to change accordingly.

"These companies need designers to catch up with fashion trends and keep their customers. The demand for fashion designers, especially experienced ones, keeps increasing," Su says.

Lan Lan, a lecturer with the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, says that China is relatively new to the fashion world, which can be a hindrance to up-and-coming designers.

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"In China, the fashion industry does not have a long history like in the West. Foreign designers have known about, seen and even used many fashion products during their early ages, while most Chinese fashion designers may have not even heard of these fashion brands till their college years. As a result, they have to make up the gap within a short period of time."

Though there are more than 200 design schools in China, classes tend to emphasize creativity over business.

"Fashion designers are different from artists. Artists work for themselves and can let their imagination fly, while designers have to be more organized and business-orientated," Lan says.

In the industry, Lan adds, a fashion designer is in charge of the complete process, from product design to the final delivery, including fabric choices, cost control and targeting customers.

"After all, designers have to bear business and customers' needs and requirements in mind. Their designs and products are supposed to be understandable to their bosses and target clients and help increase sales."

Federick Wong, program director of the fashion design department at Raffles Design Institute in Beijing, says the most urgent issue is finding a way to nurture new designers.

"To become professional fashion designers, school training is far from enough. And young designers need a good platform to grow and mature after graduation."

Wong, a Chinese-Malaysian, says that it takes at least five years of working experience to become a professional designer. And many fresh graduates can only work as assistant designers because of the lack of experience.

Wong suggests that the government as well as design schools give young designers more chances to get hands-on experiences.

"Fashion schools could set up incubation centers for young designers to experiment with their ideas, business plans and designs. More cooperation between schools and apparel companies in real-time projects is also helpful. These projects could familiarize young designers with the industry much earlier and help enterprises select designers they need."

Wong also says that most Chinese fashion designers find it hard to promote themselves.

Fashion shows can help advertise new designers, but it can be a struggle financially to start a new business.

"The starting monthly salary for a designer is about 3,000 yuan (323 euros) to 5,000 yuan. But a one-hour fashion show costs around 1 million yuan, not including the cost of staging, lights, music and models, which is beyond the financial abilities of most young designers."

German fashion designer Katrin Reinfurt says that young Chinese fashion designers have great potential to become globally known designers, and what China needs is a fashion district.

"International fashion designers are well-known for fine marketing and big shows in fashion centers such as Paris, but it is difficult for Chinese fashion designers to hold fashion shows in Europe, because of the distance and huge cost.

"The problem in China is that it does not have a gathering place where fashion media, journalists, designers and models could come together and join the marketing process."

In recent years, many foreign designers and studios have started businesses in China, especially in big cities. Though the number of foreign designers is quite small, they are popular in local markets.

"Big apparel companies prefer foreign designers to local ones, because foreign designers can raise their products' reputation and taste. In addition, they also have advantages in grasping the fashion trends and color matching," Lan says.

Because of this trend, Western designers are very popular in emerging markets including China.

"However, when it comes to the local market, Chinese designers still have some advantages because they understand local cultures and customers' preferences much better," Lan says.

Reinfurt says that Chinese designers look too much to fashion cultures from the West and are short of originality in their own designs. In the long term, he says, Chinese designers should form their own style.

"Instead of drowning in the other trends, they (Chinese designers) should try to concentrate on their own culture, and find out their own design signatures," Reinfurt says.

"Fashion design is like a mirror of society. Designers should combine their designs with the Chinese culture, learn to express their own identities and dress codes, and reflect what is going on in society," she says.

Jacky Jin, vice-president of Trends Media Group, a fashion magazine publisher in China, says that there is still a lot of room for improvement for Chinese designers.

"In the West, fashion designers are not only designers, but also fashion icons who provide ideas and promote fashion styles, such as John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld. But in China, designers are confined to a certain role and can hardly shoulder so many roles at the same time."

Since the 1990s, some Chinese designers have chosen to study in countries known for producing great fashion, such as the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

Jin says that it is really helpful for them to see different things and open their eyes and minds.

"These Chinese designers have a thorough understanding of local markets by working or intern experiences in international apparel companies. With advanced management skills and design experiences, they have great potential world-class designers."


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