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November 12, 2010

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Made in Italy, adored in China

NOTHING suggests luxury like high-end Italian products, so it's no wonder that designer goods from the southern European country are so popular in China. Michelle Zhang finds out why the Chinese market is of great importance for Italian fashion houses.

On a usual working day, Vivian Shen makes herself a cup of espresso before she leaves for work. The 30-year-old public relations specialist carries a Gucci handbag, wears a pair of Ferragamo shoes and polishes her look with a pair of Fendi sunglasses. On her way to work, she grabs the latest Chinese edition of Grazia, a women's fashion and entertainment magazine originated in Italy.

From time to time, she goes to Da Marco, one of her favorite Italian eateries in town, for "real pizza" and pastas. The sophisticated young lady also enjoys having a glass of wine before she goes to bed every night.

Shen is not alone. Nowadays, more and more Chinese young people have begun to embrace such kind of refined "Italian lifestyle."

The Italian lifestyle has always held fascination for Chinese people, says Beniamino Quintieri, the commissioner general of Italy for the 2010 World Expo Shanghai which closed last month.

In the past six months, hundreds of thousands of visitors swarmed into the Italy Pavilion, where cult objects such as a Ferrari car and high-fashion clothing and accessories, a symphony orchestra wall and reconstructions of architecture masterpieces were displayed.

"The Chinese love to touch things and take lots of pictures, and they were able to do so in our pavilion," he says. "From a cultural point of view, Italy is the only country which the Chinese acknowledge to have a history comparable to their own. The Chinese also like Italian-made luxury goods."

To many, the label "made in Italy" simply speaks everything. It stands for luxury, quality and supreme craftsmanship. Shanghai native Shen admits that she sometimes buys clothes and shoes of unknown brands as long as she was told they are imported from Italy.

The Italy Pavilion was one of the busiest venues in the Expo park with lots of happenings every day. Exhibitions, fashion shows, wine tasting and product launch events were held on a regular basis.

It offered Italian companies, especially those small and middle-sized ones, a golden opportunity to introduce themselves to the lucrative Chinese market.

Many events were organized outside the Expo park by Italian companies and regional governments, too.

Last month, the region of Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy hosted a gala fashion show of 12 brands at Shanghai's Museum of Contemporary Art. The region of Tuscany launched Technobohemian, a menswear brand designed by American actor John Malkovich and manufactured in Tuscany, during the Shanghai Fashion Week. Malkovich was invited to Shanghai as the spokesperson for the region.

"Launching the clothing line in Shanghai is a great opportunity for Tuscany, an opportunity to get the high quality of our fashion business known," says Silvia Burzagli, vice director of Toscana Promozione. "It helps to promote Tuscan fashion on the Chinese market."

She adds that the imports of Tuscan fashion goods to China have grown by 15 percent over the past year.

Statistics show that after a slight setback in 2009, Italian imports to China have begun to grow again with double-digit figures. From January to August, the clothing business grew 46.6 percent and the footwear part grew 41.72 percent year on year.

"This year, we have organized numerous and diversified events in China which contributed to strengthening the Italian product image in this important market," comments Umberto Vattani, president of the Italian Trade Commission.

On October 30, Salvatore Ferragamo launched its new flagship store - the largest of its kind in Asia - in Shanghai's newest luxury landmark IFC Mall. A week earlier in Beijing, Tod's hosted a star-studded party celebrating the premiere of "An Italian Dream," a short film it created together with the renowned Italian theater Teatro alla Scala. The film by Matthias Zentner exemplifies the best of what Italy has to offer: film, dance and fashion.

Besides these influential brands, some family-owned Italian companies have also started to invest in China. For example, this year, both Canali, a fine menswear label from Sovico, a city near Milan, and Roberto Botticelli, a top men's footwear company based in Marche, have opened stores in the Peninsula Hotel Shanghai.

"Today, the Chinese market is of huge importance for Italian fashion houses," says Franco Ciciola, design director at Oriental Max Group, a Guangdong-based company that designs, manufactures and distributes popular women's shoe brands such as Miss Sixty, Ash and JC Collezione. The veteran Italian shoe designer relocated to China about seven years ago.

"Many brands that were 'dead' in Europe have re-found lives here in China because to Chinese people, everything is new and fresh.

"They have been competing with each other in America and Europe for decades, and some of them have lost the battle over there," he continues. "But they don't want to give up? and here comes the exciting new place where they could continue the battle."

Ciciola leads a team of designers of diversified backgrounds, and they are all based in China. The factory produces more than 5 million pairs of shoes every year which are distributed to the world. Some of them are doing very well in the overseas market.

Brands such as Ash, United Nude and Miss Sixty can be found in high-end shopping malls and boutiques in New York, London and Paris.

Ciciola points out that Chinese people's pursuit and desire for the "made in Italy" label is naturally understandable but it will change.

"It happened everywhere else in the world when people suddenly have access to more money, but it's only just happened in China," he says. "Forty years ago, people in America wanted the same.

"In some countries, it (made in Italy) doesn't mean as much anymore," he says. "In America, for example, people would pay US$400 for a pair of shoes made in China as long as they are beautifully designed and well made. They don't care about it anymore. They have changed, and so will the Chinese people."


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