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A 'Flying Leap' in Chinese branding

The world's second-largest economy has often struggled to gain prestige abroad. That looks as if it could finally change, Nathan VanderKlippe writes, with names such as Feiyue, a Shanghai shoe brand that went from humble beginnings to global success, breaking the mould

Feiyue shoes, a decades-old brand, has seen a revival in China after being imitated by a French company.

Feiyue shoes began their long journey to an Orlando Bloom accoutrement as military footwear made by a tire factory at the time of China's Communist Revolution – green in colour, utilitarian in nature.

In the decades that followed, they switched colours to white, added a stylish blue-and-red double chevron and picked up a list of devoted customers: first a generation of northern Chinese, then the country's famed Shaolin monks and, finally, a fashion-loving Frenchman.

In the process, Feiyue became what remains, at least for now, a rarity: a Chinese product that has found success overseas – and rarer still, one that accuses foreigners of stealing its design.

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It's not bad for a humble pair of sneakers that once sold for the modern equivalent of 94 cents. Even today, the cheapest pairs go for under $10.

But Feiyue – the name means "Flying Leap" – might just be pointing the way to something new for a country that, in its rapid ascent toward the world's second-largest economy, has gained financial power but often struggled to build prestige, its companies falling flat in their efforts to build products, services and brands that win global loyalty and acclaim.

Designer Amy Li prepares Feiyue sneakers for sale in Shanghai.

While China now boasts 15 of the top 100 most valuable brands in the world, as judged by Millward Brown and WPP, most of that strength is domestic. In Interbrand's ranking of truly global brands with at least 30 per cent of revenue from outside their home region, only two Chinese companies appear near the bottom of the top 100: Huawei and Lenovo.

Still, there are signs Chinese companies are beginning to succeed globally on their own terms. Take Shenzhen-based drone-maker DJI, the undisputed champion of flying gizmos for photographers and filmmakers.

Meanwhile, the list of champions at home has grown much longer – and may provide a glimpse of the future.

A decade ago, the three top-selling companies in most Chinese consumer product categories were foreign. "Now, in literally every category a domestic company is in the top three," said Chris Reitermann, the current CEO of Ogilvy & Mather China.

In a decade or two, those will become better-known names, he said.

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"Most people just say, 'Oh, there's no Chinese brands in the U.S. and very few in Europe, so there's no Chinese global brands.' There will be."

The roots of Feiyue sneakers lie in the Da Fu Rubber Product Factory, a tire maker founded in 1931. It began making rubber-soled shoes for military use in 1948, followed by street shoes a decade later.

The desire for international success has come from the highest levels of the Chinese government, which has set overseas market-share targets as part of an ambitious Made in China 2025 program to invigorate its own companies.

"Pushing companies to succeed in export markets forces them to strengthen their competitiveness and build their own capacity to innovate," said Lance Noble, lead author of a lengthy report on the program for the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. The Chamber has argued that Beijing's policy underscores the need for other countries to demand reciprocal access to the Chinese market.

Mr. Reitermann, however, is betting that Chinese companies will succeed in building a new reputation abroad. "Might be hard to believe," but in the future, Chinese brands are likely to conjure "innovation," he said. "I'm pretty sure that China in the next 10 years will be a world leader in electric cars, for example."

And, maybe, footwear.

The roots of Feiyue sneakers lie in the Da Fu Rubber Product Factory, a tire maker founded in 1931. It began making rubber-soled shoes for military use in 1948, followed by street a decade later. It eventually branded the sneakers Feiyue, whose "Flying Leap" name had particular resonance in 1958, at the outset of Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward.

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"The primary characteristic of Feiyue shoes was that they were comfortable to wear, with good cushioning and grip," said Liu Wangsheng, a general manager with the sneaker brand in Shanghai. "At that time, they were mostly worn by people learning kung fu or who loved sports, like running."

The advent of China's planned economy ensured their spread far and wide. At one point, Mr. Liu estimates, one in 10 people north of the Yangtze River wore Feiyue shoes. For a time, Rubber Shoe No. 1 Factory was the biggest in Southeast Asia. They became, and remain, the shoes worn by the famed martial-arts-focused Shaolin monks.

A warrior monk of the Shaolin Temple displays his Kung Fu skills while wearing Feiyue shoes at the Songshan Mountain.

It was a rich history that appealed to Patrice Bastian, a fashion-loving Frenchman who discovered Feiyue in travels through Asia.

In 2006, he ordered 3,000 pairs of the sneakers and began selling them abroad. At the time, they "were really not fashionable shoes at all," Mr. Bastian said. But he went about building a company, taking the original silhouette and mixing it with gold, pink and other fresh designs. Feiyues once sold for pennies in China. The version Mr. Bastian created sells for upward of $80, has been photographed on celebrities and has had particular success in South Korea, whose consumers have become global trendsetters.

Over the past decade, Mr. Bastian said, the world has become "much more open to the Chinese arts when it comes to painting, sculpture, fashion and clothing and stuff like that."

How he got the shoes, however, has been contested for years. He paid for the overseas rights to the shoes, he said, and registered the design outside China. "The Chinese think that we stole the brand. This is not true," Mr. Bastian said. "They sold the brand to us."

"He didn't buy the rights. He didn't buy them at all," Mr. Liu responds. The Shuang Qian Group, which hold the Feiyue rights in China, took the case to a French court, spending $200,000 on the lawsuit. It lost. Mr. Liu has nonetheless called Mr. Bastian a "robber."

Whatever the case, Mr. Bastian did something few Chinese companies have accomplished. He popularized something distinctly Chinese. Websites and magazines published photos of actor Orlando Bloom and model Poppy Delevingne wearing the brand.

In 2010 alone, Mr. Bastian's company sold a million Feiyue pairs, before selling the brand in 2014 to BBC International LLC, a major footwear design and production company that works with marquee brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Teva, Cole Haan and Disney.

A group of men warm up for a game of soccer wearing Feiyue brand shoes at a field in Beijing.

All of the foreign attention has been good for business at the China Feiyue, too, whose sales are up 50 per cent this year. Chinese consumers are themselves increasingly willing to ditch foreign names for their domestic brands.

"Chinese people – they always in their heart will come back to something that belongs to themselves," said Jerry Tian, founder of Culture Matters, a company that has designed new lines of Feiyue shoes for Chinese consumers; the brand now has dozens of different sneakers. "People now think, 'Oh, maybe the quality has improved.' So we can try."

In May, Culture Matters opened a store in Xintiandi, a glitzy shopping mall in Shanghai, where on a recent day a woman who gave her surname as Xu bought a Feiyue pair for herself and another for her husband.

She had seen pictures of celebrities wearing the sneakers, but also liked the idea of getting something distinctly Chinese.

On a recent trip to Australia, she wore Chinese sneakers to a shopping mall, only to be "stopped and asked what I was wearing – and not only once. I was so surprised," she said. Buying Feiyue, she added, "does feel a bit like supporting our own national brand."

At another store in Shanghai, Italian graduate student Duccio Tripoli was buying his own pair. "It's cheap, it's comfortable, it's cool for the summer," he said.

Plus, it's a sneaker with a story.

In China, "they fake literally everything. And now something Chinese is being faked in Europe," Mr. Tripoli says. "It's kind of a nice revenge."

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