'Made in China’ is finally cool

'Made in China’ is finally cool

How Chinese brands are reinventing themselves, winning huge numbers of fans in Shanghai and internationally
Shanghai brands -- Made in China - Forever C
Forever C: The bike that's putting "Made in China" back in the driver's seat.

After a decade of being hit over the head with international brands like Adidas, Vans and Converse, China is bringing it back home.

The coolhunters today are talking more and more about a Shanghai renaissance, considered China's source of all things cutting edge, led by homegrown names such as Feiyue, Shang Xia and bicycle brand Forever C.

Re-inventing classics

Much of this is a result of old brands undergoing some serious revamps to tap into their local provenance.

In Shanghai, where buying the original Feiyue sneaker has become a rite of passage for many hip locals and foreigners, a Belgian entrepreneur was moved to relaunch the classic shoe under the name Sudu (which roughly translates to “speed addiction”).

The sneakers go on sale online later this year.

In additional to the shoe's new local look, Feiyue has recently also gone international with a redesign in France, featuring a sexed-up campaign akin to American Apparel’s, which won the shoes prime placement at the new Shoe Galleries in London’s Selfridge's.

Made in China - Feiyue - inlineFeiyue sneakers are leading the revival of Chinese-made brands.

And if that’s not proof enough that the working-class Chinese shoe is making a major footprint on the world stage, there’s Huili. The time-honored brand’s classic Warrior shoe had its own makeover last year and now sells for more than RMB 300 a pair worldwide. 

But sneakers aren’t the only Chinese products enjoying a comeback.

Fall 2010 began with the opening in Xintiandi of Shang Xia, a Hermes spin-off designed by Chinese for Chinese. It ended with the launch of the Forever C flagship in Hangkou, which sells a restyled version of the vintage postman bicycle for RMB 900. (An early run of 1,000 cycles sold out on Taobao in September.)

A shift in perception

Trends tend to start on the street, so it seems apt that Shanghai’s latest -- the comeback of "Made in China" -- should start with a few choice brands of similar cachet. As trends go, however, this one seems to have some life left in it yet.

“There’s definitely been a shift in perception [of Chinese brands],” says Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group. Targeting youth, he says, is the key.

Be worried. Up-and-coming Chinese brands are no longer positioning themselves as ‘cheap but good enough.' Younger brands are impressive and ambitious and can go head to head with foreign brands on equal footing— Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group

Take China’s version of Kappa.

“Sports apparel is premium purchase for a lot of younger consumers, so they gravitate towards Kappa, whose Chinese incarnation puts the European brands to shame.”

Ditto Septwolves, the menswear brand from Fujian.

“It does very well in third- and fourth-tier cities,” says Rein. “In fact it beats the foreign companies investing out there.”

Lin Lin, co-founder of the design group Jellymon, cites Hangzhou-based fashion label JNBY as an example of the homegrown brands beating out the competition. 

“It’s an example of how good Chinese fabrication can be,” she says. “The design is quite simple, yet avant garde. They’ve made an excellent transition from manufacturer to brand builder.”

Lin is a champion of “Made in China.”

Two years ago she designed a line of watches for Shanghai Watch Co., a heritage brand in need of an update.

The limited run sold out fast -- not only at The Source, but also Kidrobot in New York and Colette in Paris. Lin has attempted similar revivals with Feige bicycles and the classic Chinese Seagull cameras. 

Still somewhat grassroots, the trend has nonetheless been noticed by blogs like www.nicelymadeinchina.com. And it’s providing fodder for case studies nationwide.

“Shanghai Tang is a clear role model,” says Elan Shou, a managing director for training at Ruder Finn PR in Shanghai.

Seagull camera - made in China As the oldest and biggest camera company in Chinese history, Seagull made its name overseas during the 1960s and is slowly returning to the modern Chinese market. “Meanwhile Huili and Feiyue were revitalized by foreigners, who have a great sense of the local market, and local brands like Forever are working hard to catch up," she says.

"With all these brands, some factors are similar -- blending the old and new to create a unique style. So far it’s still a niche market, although the fans are growing,

Look back to move forward

Nostalgia, or “the power of the golden sweet past,” as Shou calls it, has become a popular marketing tool. Indeed it’s the raison d’etre of the Time Honored Chinese Brand Shopping Mall in Pudong.

The city’s only one-stop shop for Qing Dynasty-era goose-egg powders and whitening creams opened last summer and began wooing shoppers unconvinced by expensive imported moisturizers.

“International brands do not belong to us,” says Daisy Wang a spokeswoman for the store. “Our true brands are all over China, but they’ve never been all together. Here we’ve made a building to promote them all in one place.”

So what’s the lesson for the multinationals out there looking to China to save their bottom line?

“Be worried,” says Rein.

“Up-and-coming Chinese brands are no longer positioning themselves as ‘cheap but good enough,’" he continues. "Younger brands are impressive and ambitious and can go head to head with foreign brands on equal footing.”


Ellen Himelfarb is a freelance writer based in Shanghai and London.

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