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'Made in China' strives for a fashionable cachet

A customer looks at outfits at a Zara shop in Shanghai.


Amid the blond wood, the softly draped fabrics and the dramatic display racks, not even the name of the JNBY clothing store – aimed at China's upwardly mobile middle class – gives away its homegrown origins.

The retailer says the initials stand for Just Naturally Be Yourself, though more likely they're drawn from the parent company's original name, Jiangnan Buyi Garment Co.

The women's fashion chain is one of a small but growing number of brands that are not only made in China but designed here as well, in an attempt to take on the Western labels that are popular with China's up-and-coming teens and twentysomethings.

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"There's certainly some [Chinese fashion retailers]having a go at it. That sector of the market is among the fastest growing," noted Paul French, chief China analyst at retail consultancy Access Asia. "We're just waiting to see who emerges as China's Zara," he added, referring to the Spanish-based global fashion giant.

Last month alone, China's retail sales grew 17.1 per cent from the previous year, to 1.36 trillion yuan ($209-billion). Analysts say the "fast fashion" industry – clothing for the mere mortals who can't afford luxury brands – is among the most promising category in retail, because Chinese consumers are increasingly able to buy what they want, not simply what they need.

"Consumption based on emotional rather than practical needs is increasing rapidly," said Wang Gao, a marketing professor at the China-Europe International Business School. "The percentage spent on emotional consumption keeps increasing, and this portion now dominates total spending among the middle class."

European retail names such as Zara, Vero Moda and H&M have caught the attention of China's younger generation, and are reaping the profits. Inditex, Zara's parent company, which also operates clothing retailers Bershka and Pull and Bear, saw a 32-per-cent rise in profit in 2010, largely attributed to its China sales. It opened 75 new stores under all its brands in China in 2010 alone and plans to expand to 42 cities from 30 this year.

Chinese brands have struggled to overcome their reputations for poor quality and match that international cachet. But Chinese brands including JNBY, Ochirly, Meters/bonwe and Youngor, which focuses on men's wear, are beginning to challenge their foreign competitors at home.

"More and more people are starting to notice that China can produce our own fashion brands. For a long time, 'Made in China' represented cheap and low-quality products, but in recent years, 'Made in China' is beginning to represent a good ratio of quality and price," said Liesl Li, a spokeswoman for Meters/bonwe. The company had annual sales of 7.5 billion yuan in China last year, she said.

One major obstacle for Chinese brands, marketing experts say, is that very few of them have managed to establish a strong reputation for a distinctive fashion. "The opportunity is huge," Prof. Wang noted. "The question is whether they can really build their theme – a consumer style that can attract Chinese consumers. It's not going to depend on one design or one set of clothes. It's got to be a whole brand … It seems they're not there yet."

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JNBY, for one, is working on such a theme. Founded in Hangzhou in 1994, and often portrayed as an art-school-graduate project that took off, the company now boasts a location in Vancouver, another in Toronto and a handful scattered across the United States, Europe and Japan.

"Before 1994, [JNBY]was a regular clothing shop, selling products bought from clothes markets," Zhang Bin, a Hangzhou-based spokesman for the company. "But the owner gradually grew dissatisfied because the clothes weren't expressing his design ideas. So we started to sell self-designed and self-produced clothing, and some young designers started joining us. They are still working in JNBY as our core staff," he added

"Our target market is middle-income women between 25 and 35, with a certain level of education, who don't blindly follow others. They are knowledgeable. They have an attitude," said Mr. Zhang, who said the company's sales last year exceeded two billion yuan.

Still, the domestic retail brands may have some way to go to win over young Chinese women who are tuned in to global fashion trends.

"We love European and American style," explained Yang Chunxue, a 22-year-old university student as she browsed the racks at a Zara store in central Beijing with several friends. "They're fashionable, more stylish. We see their clothing advertised on TV and in movies."

The only problem, complained her 22-year-old friend Hu Kaili, is the sizes: "Sometimes they're too big."

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