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Updated: 2012-02-10 09:37

By Yan Yiqi (China Daily)

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Haining has more than 3,000 leather product manufacturers and accounts for more than 30 percent of China's leather and fur products. Provided to China Daily

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Innovation and design have brought vibrancy to the traditional fur and leather industry of Haining. Provided to China Daily

European leather designers give wings to Haining's global dreams

The dusty streets of Haining, a city in East China's Zhejiang province, may not be as grand as the glittering avenues in Paris, the fashion and brand capital of the world and the design home of the global fur and leather trade. But Haining could soon give Paris a run for its money with its own set of unique designs and brands that will not only reinforce China's standing in the global leather trade, but also help the nation shed the imitation tag.

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The leather renaissance, however, does have a French connection. Giving shape to the leather dreams are a group of designers from Paris, who have shunned big brands like Gucci or Chanel for lesser-known companies in Haining. Encompassing an area of just 700 sq km, Haining accounts for more than 30 percent of China's leather and fur products. As part of its efforts to boost the leather industry, the city has joined hands with Union Des Designers Mode & Maison, a French fashion design association, for designer exchange and education programs.

"Haining's leather manufacturing capability and China's big market potential have been the main attractions for us," says Jean-Michel Glasman, chairman of the union.

With more than 3,000 manufacturing companies and more than 70,000 employees, one leather jacket is produced every 1.3 seconds in this city. According to statistics from the China Leather Industry Association, China's leather and fur industry reported a total profit of 3.1 billion yuan ($491 million, 387.6 million euros) during the first nine months of 2011, a year-on-year growth of 24.6 percent.

"Though the city's leather and fur products can compete with international players in terms of quality and technique, it still does not have much of added value. As a result prices are still at low levels. Fashion is the best way to raise the added value of leather products. There are about 6 million leather products in Haining that are sold as fashion clothes. If we add 200 yuan to each of them, the added value can reach 1 billion yuan," says Ren Youfa, president of Haining Leather Market.

Ren says that though exports were not so rosy in the last few years due to the uncertain global market conditions, domestic demand for leather and fur products has grown considerably. This has also sparked the interests of foreign companies, he says.

"Europe is mired in its debt crisis, and its leather industry has been hit as people no longer have deep purchasing budgets. The European designers need a better and more promising platform to work on, while we need more fashion designers. So to some extent this alliance is a union made in heaven," he says.

Though the alliance is relatively new, matchmaking efforts had started much earlier. In May 2010, Union Des Designers Mode & Maison sent two senior designers to Haining to study the city's leather and fur industry and give lectures to local companies and designers.

"When you walk into a leather jacket shop in Haining Leather Market, you can find any design and pattern that you are looking for. But none of the products have their own style," Glasman says.

In October 2010, the two sides decided to form an alliance between European designers and local companies. Consequently the Haining Leather International Cooperation Center was established in the city, and is currently the working center for French designers who come to Haining for exchange programs.

Glasman says the union aims to help local industries achieve their branding strategies, improve business model, organize and assist local industries' international communication and speed up international cooperation and development.

Till date, the union has sent two rounds of top European fashion designers to Haining for consulting and communication.

"Needless to say, our designers have shown their best designs to the companies in Haining, and a lot of them are keen to team up with our designers for products," he says.

Zhejiang Xuebao Fashion Co is one of the oldest leather jacket producers in Haining. In its 28 years of existence, the company saw peak sales during the mid-1990s, and a sales downturn since the beginning of 2000.

Realizing that consumers attach great importance to leather jacket design, the company started to invest more in introducing designers, both local and international.

"Now, we have more than 40 designers located in Haining, which is one of the largest designer groups in the city. They work on thousands of different leather jackets every year," says Zhu Weixiang, general manager of Xuebao.

Despite the Haining-based designers, Xuebao also invites designers from France and Italy to provide samples every season.

"The top European designers are the closest to the original center of fashion, and they can gauge the fashion trends for the next year from experience. This is what most of our designers lack," says Zhu.

According to Zhu, Xuebao's signed European designers send sketches of their designs every season to the company, and local designers and experts discuss whether they are suitable for the Chinese market.

"The European designers really have a good sense of fashion, but sometimes, their ideas do not necessarily work in the Chinese market. That is why we also have a strong local design team to improve on their ideas," he says.

Thanks to its strong design capability, Xuebao has attracted OEM (original equipment manufacturer) orders from big brands internationally.

"OEM today is not like what it was in the past, when brands gave us the samples and we copied and produced. Today, the case is they come empty-handed, picking directly from our samples. So the better our design is, the more orders we get," says Zhu.

According to Zhu, the company has no plans to reduce the percentage of OEM orders in its sales revenue.

But the 50-odd European designers at the Union Des Designers Mode & Maison are far from enough for the almost 3,000 leather and fur companies in Haining. The Haining Leather Market, the main motivator of the industry, is also making efforts to cultivate more local designers.

Last April, a team of 26 Chinese designers visited Europe, as part of a two-week study campaign organized by the leather market and the Union Des Designers Mode & Maison. They visited a leather trade fair in Bologna, Italy, and also attended fashion seminars in Paris.

"The trip was meant to provide an opportunity for the designers to find out the features they lack in fashion design, and look for ways to improve," says Zha Jialin, deputy general manager of the leather market.

The local government has also realized the importance of the leather and fur industry and designated it as one of its pillar industries.

"We expect Haining to account for 60 percent of China's leather and fur industry by 2015. Raising the key competence through stronger and better fashion design is the key to the whole exercise," says Lin Yi, secretary of the Haining Committee of the Communist Party of China.

The French design team has also been largely supportive of the city's plans. The union has invited designers working for reputed fashion brands like Chanel and Dior to give lectures and also arranged visits to fashion institutes and colleges.

Glasman says the union will continue to organize more trips to update and improve the skill of local designers.

Zhang Sifeng, president of Haining Leather Designer Association, says that the number of designers signing up for the European trip was beyond expectations and is a reflection of the growing interest in the design sector.

"Some people and companies thought leather and fur wear are only for winter wear. After studying the European practices, more and more companies have realized that with proper design, leather products can also be used for spring, autumn, and even summer. This has helped dispel the notion that leather and fur wear are season-restrictive," says Zhang, who is a designer himself and runs a leather company in Haining.

The city's efforts to upgrade the leather and fur industry have also attracted the attention of fashion experts.

Xiao Wenling, dean of the Department of Textile and Fashion Design at the Academy of Art and Design under Tsinghua University, says innovation and design have brought vibrancy to the traditional industry of Haining.

"It is not hard to believe now that the leather and fur industry in Haining will have a major say in the global market," he says.

The department is also joining hands with the Haining Leather Market for fashion design programs.

But even as the industry chugs along, there are still bottlenecks like the acute scarcity of good designers for longer periods.

"We have just two full-time designers now, which is far from enough. Some fresh designers came here but left after two or three months as they felt that the city was too small," says Zhang Xu, general manager of Mibaidun Fur Company.

The company, which made its public debut during last year's Shanghai Fashion Week, is currently searching desperately for experienced fashion designers.

According to Haining Leather Market, the city currently has 2,000 designers, but there are more than 3,000 companies vying for their services.

"We have set up a fashion center for independent designers who are keen to settle in the city. We offer houses as workshops and if they want to establish their own brands, there are also preferential policies," says Zha from the market.

The companies are also trying to attract more fashion designers to work with them through higher salaries and performance opportunities. An increasing number of leather manufacturers in Haining are sending their designers to participate in fashion weeks and fashion competitions.

"You can see the changes of this industry from our slogans during the different periods. In the beginning, our slogan was 'Go to Haining for a leather jacket', but now, it is 'I see the world, lead the fashion'," says Zha.

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