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Chinese Immigrant Conquers Florentine Fashion

Though thousands of Chinese immigrants work as laborers in and around Florence, Suping Liu is the first Chinese to open shop on the city's famously fashionalbe Via Tornabuoi in Florence. Hers is a story of determination and an east-meets-west eye

Shopping street scene, Florence (riddle)
Shopping street scene, Florence (riddle)
Maris Corbi

FLORENCE – Opening a shop along the fashionable Via Tornabuoni is no easy feat – especially if you're from China. Six years ago, Suping Lin arrived in Italy from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, near Shanghai, and brought with her a thirst to succeed. Today, she is the happy owner of a famous Florence leather brand, Desmo, and has just opened a store in the prestigious shopping street, the first ever owned by a Chinese immigrant.

At the opening event of the store, Suping wore a traditional Chinese dress, and her hair cropped short. She addressed the small crowd with a mix of Tuscan and Cantonese accents.

When one considers Suping's life, it is impossible not to think about all her fellow Chinese women who also arrive in Italy in search of a better life. Many end up toiling long hours, sometimes in illegal "sweatshop" conditions, just a few miles away from Florence, in the small industrial city of Prato. On the other end of the spectrum are the wealthy Chinese tourists who pound the Florentine cobblestones every day in search of designer brands.

Suping – or Sara, as some call her – fits neither bill. She is not an Italian citizen yet, but has made sure to befriend Matteo Renzi, the young mayor of Florence, who went to congratulate and hug her at the opening of the store. Suping Lin also has her own strong ideas about immigration issues. "I think that Chinese companies have to follow the rules of this country, and make their contribution to the society," she said. "But, on the other hand, Italian businessmen and women have to understand that companies like mine are an important part of Italy. Ours are ancient and similar cultures. This will help."

Daughter of textile workers

Hope and persistence are the defining elements of Suping's story. After arriving in Italy, she lived in Como where her parents worked for a textile firm. "I didn't know anyone there, I had left all my friends in China," she recalls.

"For a long time I couldn't even tell one Italian from another: they all seemed the same to me," she adds with a smile. "The same happens to you, with Chinese people."

After a few years, her hard working parents managed to open a small leather clothes firm in the Tuscan town of Empoli. Their workshop became a training ground for the young Suping. As a teenager, she would spend half her time studying and the other half working. She already had big ambitions.

At the age of 19, she got married to a fellow Chinese man. "Getting maried early on in life is a Chinese custom. It is different from what you usually see in Italy, where children stay with mom and dad for as long as they can," says Suping. "In China, when parents reach 40, their children must provide and look after them."

Sara continued to work hard even after the birth of her children, a boy and a girl. She went on to design leather garments for Tuscan firms, and in 2008 she registered her own clothing and accessories brand. She called it J&C, Jacky&Celine, for her children's names. Her brand is now sold in twenty countries around the globe, and particularly successful in Moscow and Dubai. J&C is also 100 percent "Made in Italy."

Suping Liu takes pride from her success as an Italian businesswoman. She has recently taken over Desmo, a small Tuscan luxury goods brand founded in 1976, and has designed her first collection of bags for the firm. The collection carries Suping's personal style, which is defined by the use of expensive materials, such as pink python and cavallino leather. Suping is particularly eager to underline that she uses Tuscan leather, from Santa Croce sull'Arno.

The shop in via Tornabuoni is a personal victory for Suping Liu: "This is the most important fashion street in Florence. It is internationally known," she said. The choice of the address was not random, as Suping picked it using the Feng Shui techniques. "I valued some important coincidences. Here we are in front of Ferragamo, and this seemed a good sign. Also, this was the only building in the street left untouched by the bombing during the Second World War," she said.

Suping Liu says that, by 2012, she will have already moved back to China. She wants to open her stores in Beijing and Shanghai. "Going back is really important to me," Signora Sara Suping says. It is the satisfaction of overcoming an almost impossible challenge.

Read the original article in Italian

photo - riddle

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