Do you know what happens to the Zara dresses, J. Crew sweaters, and other garments you’ve tired of and parted ways with thanks to Goodwill or the large donation containers strewn across cities in the U.S.? More often than not, these wares are exported out of the country in bulk to far-flung locales, including Africa, India, Pakistan, and until the 1990’s, China.
Certain African countries have recently made headlines for halting the import of such secondhand wares. In doing so, they are following in the footsteps of China, which banned imports of pre-owned clothing in the 1990s. The move was part of a larger effort by the Chinese government to encourage domestic consumption of the large volume of apparel that was already being manufactured in the country. Since then, not only has China developed a significant foundation for the development of a native fashion industry, one that goes beyond cheap fast fashion garments, it has enacted an even larger plan to transform the country into a hi-tech powerhouse.
That plan is called “Made in China 2025" and it centers most fundamentally on the development of advanced industries like robotics, information technology, aviation, and new energy vehicles.
While fashion does not neatly fit within this sphere, China Daily notes that “as Chinese manufacturers try to move up the value chain as part of the country's Made in China 2025 plan, fashion designers in China are working to reinvent themselves as innovators,” as opposed to continuing to fall into the traditional stereotype of native Chinese businesses as merely being imitators of Western innovators.
Their efforts to do so are multifaceted and can be seen in everything from the advancement of manufacturing capabilities to a growing emphasis on design education.
"Almost every fashion center in the world has advanced manufacturing capability and support resources," Zhang Qinghui, president of the China Fashion Association, told China Daily. China is no exception. In fact, unlike the U.S., where high end garment manufacturing is at a low – in large part due to the mass outsourcing of production in the 1990’s and the subsequent drop-out in individuals seeking specialized manufacturing-specific training – Chinese manufacturers have become particularly proficient.
Since manufacturing was first outsourced en masse to China by the West in the 1990’s, the landscape in mainland China has changed significantly. For one thing, manufacturing of the cheapest goods, such as truly mass-market and fast fashion garments and accessories, has shifted out of China to other countries, such Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, and India, where labor costs are lower and import restrictions imposed upon garment manufacturing/exporting countries for goods coming into the U.S. are less stringent.
As a result, factories located in China have been increasingly tasked with producing more up-market wares, including those for brands as high-end as Prada, Phillip Lim, and Balenciaga.
With that in mind, the nation has come to maintain the machinery needed to make a wide variety of more technically demanding fashion products. This is important, says Qinghui, as "it seems that fashion is a just showcase of design capability, but it also represents the manufacturing power of a country."
All the while, no shortage of the country’s manufacturers have become much more proficient at manufacturing in the realm of progressively more upscale fashion, boasting not only the machinery but the individuals needed to oversee such projects, and thereby proving an advantage to the Chinese economy and its prospect of being a bona fide fashion capital.
While China was known for its ability to churn out low-cost, low-quality wares, nowadays, its "advantage lies less in low wages than in state-of-the-art equipment and expertise,” columnist Virginia Postrel aptly stated, writing for Bloomberg. And, of course, she notes, “China also has a vast domestic market, as well as potential customers in the region, where the quick-turnaround advantages of more automation would be relevant.”
Aside from manufacturing prowess, China has made strides in recent years, in particular, to bolster its design curriculum in order to train up-and-coming young talents and compete on an intentional scale. According to SCMP, “With few fashion schools in the region [that are as reputable as say, Central Saint Martins or Parsons School of Design], would-be designers from Asia flocked to top institutions in the West to learn their trade.” Seeing this demand, “schools have opened branches in Asian countries, including China.”
Parsons The New School for Design in New York, the Savannah College of Art and Design, the Istituto Marangoni in Milan, and École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode in Paris are among the pool of schools looking to cater to the Far East by way of specialist design training hubs on location.
This training is meaningful for many Chinese students, who intend to work in China after graduation. China, after all, does represent a huge and relatively untapped market for home-grown high fashion and luxury talent. To date, Chinese natives have largely looked to the West for such goods, but that is slowly changing, with consumers looking to local brands, including Guo Pei, Christopher Bu, Lan Yu, Zhang Na, and Haizhen Wang, for high quality products.
Add to this the fact that unlike, in France or Italy, for instance, where the national fashion industry significantly pre-dated the digital era, “China's fashion industry took off around the same time as the development of the Internet, which has made it easier for industry insiders to have an ‘Internet mindset’ and computer skills,” experts told China Daily.
With a large-scale push towards innovation, the shoring up of manufacturing capabilities, an influx of design training programs, and a willingness amongst Chinese natives to entertain the idea of shopping for luxury goods locally, and considering that by the end of the decade, China is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s largest apparel market, the Far East nation is swiftly on its way to becoming a fashion force to reckon with.
* This article is part of a larger series focusing on the state of manufacturing, innovation, and consumer behavior in China.