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March 14, 2012

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Brand-new reality for new designers

SHANGHAI is filled with small fashion boutiques, studios, collectives and corners of stores where young design school graduates try to make it with their own brands. Nie Xin reports.

Each year several thousand fashion design majors graduate from institutes in Shanghai, and most join the fashion industry, hoping to someday make a name for themselves.

Some join big fashion design companies, starting at the bottom and working their way up; some start their own business by launching a small design store of their own or displaying their designs in the corner of a fashion store. Some take other directions.

But most share the same dream: to become a renowned designer showing fashions on the world's glamorous catwalks.

The road is definitely bumpy but many try to create their own brand and create exposure.

Every year around 1,000 students graduate from Raffles Design Institute, a major training school in Shanghai. Two-thirds enter the design field, according to Mia Wei, supervisor of the Student Entrepreneurship Center from the institute.

To help young designers gain more exposure, the institute helped to launch RafflesPrivato, a fashion shop, a year ago in Xintiandi Style Mall. It is the first store gathering young local designers from Raffles Design Institute. Currently it sells designs of six graduates.

Although the mall showcases many local designer brands, business is not ideal because most visitors to crowded Xintiandi head to restaurants, bars, karaoke and cinema.

Designer Qin Xu (Niki) graduated a year ago from Raffles and so far she is doing well, displaying and selling her own brand Moodbox at RafflesPrivato. By contrast, many of her peers are starting at entry level for big-name fashion brands and some are struggling to make ends meet in their own small shops.

Qin, a former dance teacher, arrived in Shanghai from Sichuan Province five years ago and enrolled in Raffles Design Institute. She graduated last March.

With an outstanding performance in the last Shanghai Fashion Week and the TV fashion competition on CCTV-6, Qin established her brand Moodbox, featuring stylish, casual and comfortable designs.

While young designers in Shanghai are talented and creative, they face the judgment of the market, according to supervisor Wei.

"Young designers should know that they are not artists. They need to be humble and keep an open mind. Staying close to the customer, paying attention to sales and making designs marketable is the key to advancement for young designers," Wei advises.

Qin is definitely making progress. She launched a studio to produce clothes and opened her first shop NK Design on Jianguo Road early this year. She is preparing a second venue, which will be a fashion salon and cafe.

Local designer Zhou Lanfan, known as Saya, has taken a different, more ambitious approach.

Zhou, a graduate from Donghua University, a leading textile and fashion university in Shanghai, launched her own studio Movous in a three-story house on Shaoxing Road. There she tailor-makes dresses and suits, as well as handbags and shoes.

Customers tell her what they need for a certain event or situation, give her a design and then she makes it.

"At first I tended to insist on my own creation and fashion sense when I disagreed with a client. But now, though I still argue for my own taste, I am more respectful of clients and their wishes," says the Fujian Province native. "Customers are the gods, and we accept it now."

Movous has also added a ready-to-wear section in the studio. The average price for a tailor-made little evening dress is around 3,000 yuan (US$435) at Movous; trousers cost around 1,000 yuan. And it takes around 10 days.

"The price is higher than that of dresses in ordinary fashion stores, but much lower than real top-of-the-line brands such as Prada or Chanel," says 29-year-old Joyce Huang, a local Shanghainese. She is having Zhou design a dress that she will wear as matron of honor at her cousin's wedding later this year.

After deciding on the design details, Zhou measures Huang in a luxurious fitting room and selects colors and fabric, which they discuss. The room is like a private room at a home, with a big mirror, crystal lights, velour-covered sofa, cushions and carpet. While she waits or talks with the design, a private bar on the second floor provides wine and champagne.

"All of this makes me feel like a VIP," Huang says.

But what most attracts Huang is Zhou's design. Several months ago Zhou designed an evening dress for Huang's 29th birthday party. "It's a lovely black dress made of beads, all handmade," Huang says.

For three years Zhou studied design at Donghua University and then spent other two years in Japan. After graduating in 2009, she built her own brand Movous with her partner Xie Anyuan (known as Ang), also a local designer.

The first Movous studio was opened in an apartment on Caoxi Road, and a year ago they moved to Shaoxing Road.

"Now we have more than 70 regular customers like Huang. Most of them come for special-event dresses and around 20 percent have their daily wear tailor-made," Ding, the marketing manager says.

Ding attributes the booming business of tailoring to people's increasing demand to be exclusive, chic and elegant at important events where they will be noticed.

This trend has inspired designers to build their own studios.

For many other newly minted designers, a more practical way to test the market is to display and sell their designs at small fashion stores.

Jiang Wei, 36, opened her fashion store Donna's five years ago on Nanchang Road, selling dresses for high-income women aged from 20 to 40.

Around three years ago Donna's displayed various garments by a local designer, who went on to build her own brand, opening a studio and stores. She declined to identify the young local who graduated from a Canadian design school and was taking part in a local TV program about designing.

Jiang, a Shanghainese, was attracted by her creativity and decided to display her works in Donna's.

The feedback was excellent for the series called Lily Flower, featuring coats, skirts and trousers made of fabric printed with a lily pattern.

Garments in the series ranged in price from 400 yuan to 1,200 yuan, a little higher than other clothes in Donna's at the time. But prices are higher today since Donna's is now a tailoring studio and items are priced at a minimum of 2,000 yuan.

It is difficult for new designers to supply sufficient quantities or popular garments. The Lily Flower collaboration lasted around six months; when most of the garments were sold, others could not form an ensemble, Jiang says.

"However, I think local designers need time and opportunity to make progress, become mature in their creativity and become known in the market," Jiang says.

Before launching a brand and opening a store, young designers should consider displaying their works in other stores with regular customers, she says.

"This helps them get to know the customers, the market and themselves. The reality is always distant from their ideal," she says.

Jiang says she is open to displaying other designers' work because that's a good way to advance the level of the shop.


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