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Niche Producers Prove Buoyant Amid Slowing Mainland Apparel Market

Although it was acknowledged that China's clothing sector was going through a lean period, exhibitors at the China International Fashion Fair (CHIC) were confident that super-serving particular markets would see them through.

Photo: Fashionable and functional: Stylish face masks from Seoul’s LeMaska.
Fashionable and functional: Stylish face masks from Seoul's LeMaska.
Photo: Fashionable and functional: Stylish face masks from Seoul’s LeMaska.
Fashionable and functional: Stylish face masks from Seoul's LeMaska.

Despite something of an overall slowdown in the garment sector, many exhibitors at the recent China International Fashion Fair (CHIC) seemed to be weathering the storm rather well. Typically, this was down to them finding and exploiting a particular niche, although experiences varied widely among old hands at the event and several relative newcomers to the Shanghai-based show.

A regular exhibitor at the event, Guangzhou Openg Garments specialises in denim clothing, which it sells under its own Openg brand, while also working for several western fashion houses, including Esprit, Lee Cooper and Caterpillar. Assessing the changing profile of CHIC, Amy Cai, the company's Purchasing Supervisor, said: "This year's show is an improvement on the 2016 event and we have already met several potential customers.

"While the Canton Trade Fair is better for us overall, it is aimed more at international buyers. This show is better for the domestic market, although it is also becoming noticeably more global."

One company with a notably international focus of its own was Shanghai-headquartered Eutropic. Established in 2001, its entire range of down coats for the women's market is designed in Paris – where the company also maintains an office/showroom – then manufactured in Zhejiang, one of China's eastern coastal provinces. At present, 90% of its output is exported to Europe, where it counts Monnari, Robert Verino and Camomilla among its client base.

Assessing the current state of the industry, Wang Lili, the company's Assistant General Manager, said: "Overall, the market is treating us well. Our customers are staying loyal and we have a steady stream of new designs coming through.

"In general, though, the clothing sector is pretty much down all round, largely as a result of prevailing economic factors. With that in mind, it's important for us to be here so that we can meet up with buyers we haven't worked with before."

One of the key ways in which many garment manufacturers have looked to insulate themselves against any recessionary undercurrents is to identify and exploit a distinct niche. In the case of Jiangsu-based Eton Kidd, a subsidiary of Sumec, one of China's leading engineering/manufacturing conglomerates, it has set out to super-service the school-uniform sector. According to Arthur Chan, a Brand Representative with the company, one of the primary elements in its success has been its longstanding partnership with Trutex, one of the UK's leading schoolwear suppliers.

Outlining Eton Kidd's onward strategy, Chan said: "In China, school uniforms typically consist of little more than a 1980s-style tracksuit. It is our mission to change that as we believe that school clothing should more accurately reflect the overall educational culture."

Currently, the company supplies uniforms to 1,100 primary and secondary schools across China, including the junior branches of the Fudan and Tsinghua universities and the Nanjing Foreign Language School. Pitching itself as the mainland's leading supplier of more formal, British-style school uniforms, the company also has its own China-based design team. This resource, Chan says, allows it to customise its range of uniforms to the individual demands of clients, including the addition of a particular school crest if required.

In the case of Shaheen Garments and Textiles, it found its niche in the sporting-apparel sector. Based in Shaoxing in eastern China, the company was founded by an Iraqi businessman, with its manufacturing initially handled out of Indonesia. For 2017, the company is focusing on its Canary Sports brand, which it already exports to the Middle East, Indonesia and several African countries.

Explaining the evolution of the business, General Manager Ahmed Alkubaisi said: "Although our first factory was in Indonesia, we have now been operating out of China for 15 years and see this as our primary location.

"In China, the local authorities are keen to incentivise overseas businesses with advantageous land and credit deals, as well as with an initial five-year tax holiday. Compared with Indonesia, there is also less corruption and business dealings tend to be more transparent.

"Although this is the second time we have attended this particular show, we still see the Canton Trade Fair as being a better fit for us, largely because the majority of the buyers at this event are from trading companies. We need to make new contacts as the garments business is not doing so well at the moment on account of the depressed oil prices. When oil is in the $70-80-a-barrel range, it is much better for us, while much lower or much higher is always a problem."

India-based Asiya, however, seemed to find the show a little more to its liking. A supplier of Kashmiri-made items to the Chinese market, this year marked the company's fourth appearance at the event. Explaining its loyalty to the expo, Sales Representative Imran Rah said: "We always do well here, although we have found that the spring show is better for us in terms of the number of customers and wholesalers who attend."

Asiya has been selling into the Chinese market for nine years and set up a dedicated sales office in Hangzhou in 2014. Again something of niche player, the bulk of its mainland business comes from the import of handmade scarves from the Kashmir region.

Outlining its current trading position, Rah said: "While we have our own boutiques in Australia and Nepal, our mainland business is primarily on a B2B basis. Thankfully, to date, the current tension between China and India has yet to impact on our sales."

While for veterans of the event, such as Asiya, the show was clearly delivering, for some debuting companies – notably Marianna Casciello, a Naples-based women's fashion brand – the event provided a less-than-impressive introduction to the mainland market. Clearly dissatisfied, Elena Barboni, the company's Sales and Marketing Director, said: "Overall, the show is not very professional. There are few industry buyers and people are coming up to our stand and trying to buy individual items of clothing.

"Actually, we have had a similar experience at other events in China, where there seems to be little proper vetting of attendees or exhibitors. Here, we have even seen children attending, despite the event's organisers officially declaring that no one below the age of 18 would be admitted. There are also a number of exhibitors – such as those selling precious stones – that really don't have anything to do with the garment business."

While Marianna Casciello has been producing items for third-party brands for a considerable time, it has only recently begun manufacturing under its own label. Already well-established in Italy, it is now looking to make serious inroads into the Chinese and Russian markets.

Explaining its proposition, Barboni said: "All of our clothes are designed and made in Italy. For us, attention to detail is hugely important and we find we can only get that in Italy. In terms of China, we have already registered our brand here and we are in the process of opening our first shop."

Photo: The Openg denim range.
The Openg denim range.
Photo: The Openg denim range.
The Openg denim range.
Photo: Deerskin handbags from Monika Paulinyova.
Deerskin handbags from Monika Paulinyova.
Photo: Deerskin handbags from Monika Paulinyova.
Deerskin handbags from Monika Paulinyova.

Faring far better on its first foray into the world of mainland trade shows was Monika Paulinyova, a relatively recently established New Zealand accessories label. True to its "Cashmere of Leather" tagline, the company has most recently launched a deerskin handbag range.

Introducing this singular collection, Monika Paulinyova, the company's Founder and Creative Director, said: "In New Zealand, deer have no natural predators and we also take care to keep the males apart to stop any scuffles. As a result, their skins are large and free from any scarring. In quality terms, they are the best by a long way.

"In terms of events, this is only the second show we have attended. Our first experience was at the IFF Magic show in Tokyo, which was fairly poorly attended. By contrast, this one is far better and we have already had had a lot of expressions of interest.

"Until fairly recently, the luxury market in China was all about brand recognition. People now, though, seem to be less keen on mass-produced items, which is great news for us. Our bags are very niche and of a very high quality. With this range, it's all about touch – love at first touch, in fact."

This year, one of the most unusual stands at the show came courtesy of LeMaska, a Seoul-based supplier of face masks for the fashion-conscious. Prior to its official launch in 2015, the company spent three years developing its range, as it looked to create face masks that were stylish without having their functionality compromised.

Most recently, the company's high-end Star Lord Collection has proved its biggest success. The range is said to have developed something of cult following among Korean and non-Korean celebrities, with Marilyn Manson, the controversial US rock singer, said to be its most high-profile proponent.

Expanding on the company's core mission statement, Director Michelle Lee said: "We want people to wear our masks as they would any other fashionable clothing item. To that end, this year we launched our more mainstream Edge Collection, which is available in a wide variety of colours and patterns.

"We also pride ourselves on the fit of our masks. We are the first in the world to create a sizing system for masks that is based on a detailed analysis of people's faces."

At present, the company is primarily targeting China and Japan, countries where mask wearing is relatively common. It is also looking to move into India and several countries across Southeast Asia.

Photo: CHIC Autumn 2017: Nuanced niches and a shortage of overseas buyers.
CHIC Autumn 2017: Nuanced niches and a shortage of overseas buyers.
Photo: CHIC Autumn 2017: Nuanced niches and a shortage of overseas buyers.
CHIC Autumn 2017: Nuanced niches and a shortage of overseas buyers.

The Autumn 2017 edition of the China International Fashion Fair (CHIC) was held from 11-13 October at Shanghai's National Exhibition and Convention Center.

Chen Rong, Special Correspondent, Shanghai

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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