More Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni? Peng Liyuan is breaking new ground in Chinese political life. It's also another chance for retailers to practice the fine art of imitation.
BEIJING — Peng Liyuan, the wife of new Chinese President Xi Jiping, is the first Chinese first lady whose style has even become a topic of discussion.
Not only are there hundreds of thousands of comments praising her style on Chinese micro-blogging sites, but online retailers have wasted no time offering "first-lady style" clothes.
Two weeks ago, Peng accompanied her husband on a state visit to Russia. Half an hour after her photo was in the news, dozens of online retailers were already selling the navy blue coat Peng was wearing, and the black handbag she was carrying — both by a Chinese designer — online.
To put it bluntly, "first lady style" is another way to say "copy." This is a magic word for Chinese retailers, which guarantees an explosion of orders.
Before Peng became the Chinese public's new model for style, American first lady Michelle Obama was the number one trendsetter for Chinese online retailers. The "value for money" J. Crew styles were much in favor with these retailers.
Another foreign icon whose style Chinese women love to imitate is Princess Kate. Copies of British brand REISS or U.S. fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg always trigger staggering quantities of sales for the numerous small e-sellers of Taobao.com, China's online shopping equivalent of eBay and Amazon.
However not every political or royal figure possesses such fashion appeal. While the interest in the clothes Peng wears is partly due to the fact that she brings style and freshness to the role of Chinese first lady, and copying the royal Kate evokes a modern Cinderella story, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, for instance never became a style icon in China. Although Bruni-Sarkozy had that touch of French elegance, her clothes were never copied by Taobao sellers.
The reason is that although the Chinese public likes to closely follow certain celebrities' styles, it is mostly looking for clothes that can be copied and that will look good on them. Not clothes worn by top models like Bruni-Sarkozy, with perfect figures — clothes that will make them as stylish as their icons. In a country where fashion is still a relatively new concept, and where people's income is not yet very high, imitation makes the most sense.
This also explains why Chinese actresses/singers Zhou Xun, Fan Bingbing and Wang Fei are the most imitated stars on Taobao. Zhou has the typical small and delicate features of the vast majority of Chinese women. And Chinese women who wear the same clothing as Fan know that although they'll never be as beautiful as her, they can at least learn from her how to hide bulging thighs and wide shoulders.
In brief, only the clothes worn by stars with imperfect bodies are likely to cause frenzy among Chinese shoppers. The name Lin Chi-ling, the Taiwanese model an actress might be a popular search item on Taobao, but her name is followed by the phrase "inflatable doll," which is another subject all together.
Top notch knock-offs
Obviously the Internet plays an important role in promoting the sought-after celebrity styles. Yet, even before there was such a thing as e-commerce, many wholesale stores in China specialized in selling fakes or factory rejects from luxury brands.
In one such store near Beijing's Sanyuan Bridge, many outfits are on display with a photo of a star pinned on them, to show customers who had worn what. There, you can buy a white lace dress by Italian design label Valentino for a mere 268 Yuan ($40). Needless to say, a real Valentino dress costs much more.
The storeowner explains that these cheap copies are not for the "knowledgeable" clients, although she says they sell extremely well online. She recommends buying the more elaborate counterfeits. Not only are these versions made of the same material as the originals; the patterns are also much more refined. And most important of all, these copies still only cost about one tenth of the real price, in general around 1000 Yuan ($160).
Good quality counterfeits takes a lot of effort, the storeowner explains. She shows us a Burberry dress as an example: First, a client came into the shop with a photo from a magazine to ask if they had any for sale. The storeowner then made inquiries to see if the dress was manufactured in a Chinese factory. The answer was no. But after a number of regular clients asked her for the dress, she decided to buy the real thing for 20,000 Yuan ($3220) to have it copied herself. Fortunately, though the Chinese fashion world is not yet known for its creativity, its counterfeiting skills is undeniably top notch.
It took her and the manufacturer nearly two months just to find the material. Then it took ten attempts for the pattern-making division to achieve a 1:1 stimulation of the original dress. After that, came the little details such as the buttons on the cuffs. The finished high-end knockoff was priced at 2,000 Yuan ($320).
It's more or less the same process for copying a handbag. Very often, and "by chance," some factories happen to obtain rejected bags. The bags will then be studied inside out. If necessary even the buckle will be imported from abroad. Chanel, Pradaâ€¦ take your pick.
Wearing the same thing as a celebrity is a shortcut. It's the easiest way to be at the vanguard of a trend. You can't go wrong — fashionwise — because a star wore it before. And for the same reason it is highly recognizable.
For the vast majority of Chinese women, paying thousands of dollars for an original is still an unaffordable luxury. Until then, wearing the same kind of style will do.
The big question is the copyright. When blatant intellectual property infringements are walking on every street corner of every city in China who is to blame? Is it the counterfeiters or the greedy customers?