The Chinese Fashion Industry Cover Image

The Chinese Fashion Industry

An Ethnographic Approach


Jianhua Zhao

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Creating Fashion on the Runway, Chinese Style

Book chapter

DOI: 10.2752/9781474235297/Zhao0009
Pages: 108–131


If the Chinese fashion industry is a puzzle, then China Fashion Week (CFW) is an occasion when all the pieces of the puzzle come together. During China Fashion Week, all the major players of the fashion field, including designers, models, members of the media, potential buyers, fashionistas, and students and scholars of fashion, gather together to display and witness the latest fashion trends. It is also an important social occasion for reunions and celebrations among friends and colleagues. Toward the end of my field research in China, I had the opportunity to attend CFW in November 2004. The experience at CFW allowed me to observe first-hand how various pieces of the puzzle of the field of fashion are put together in China.

In a study of London Fashion Week (LFW), Joanne Entwistle and Agnes Rocamora (2006) make an argument that LFW is “a materialization of the field of fashion.” They base their argument on a series of observations of LFW, including the site, the access, the spatial structure of seating arrangements, and the temporal order of arrivals. According to Entwistle and Rocamora, the spatial and temporal structures of LFW render the boundary of the field of fashion visible, reflect the relational positions within the field, and by so doing, also reproduce the field of fashion and its internal structure. China Fashion Week, as a newly established institution, has apparently learned from Western models, an assertion supported by the many parallels between CFW and LFW that will be discussed in detail in this chapter. At the same time, there are important characteristics of CFW that diverge from those of LFW. For example, the two tents at LFW, which house the trade show and the catwalk shows respectively, separate the business of fashion and the art of fashion. Thus they reflect the division of commerce and art in the broader field of fashion (Entwistle and Rocamora 2006: 739). However, the two sites in the Beijing Hotel and the China World Hotel, where CFW is held, do not separate different categories of fashion. In fact, there were plenty of creative couture shows as well as many prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) shows at both sites of CFW in 2004.[1] This observation is especially striking to me because there are no couture labels and practically no couture customer base in China.[2]

To a Western observer, seeing “unwearable” clothes on the runway is perhaps not surprising. After all, there is such a notion as haute couture, and despite the business model of haute couture is being challenged by the dominance of prêt-à-porter today, the runway at major fashion weeks remain the last outlets where haute couture can be seen and appreciated in the West. But in the context of China, the fashion industry developed in a dramatically different trajectory from that of Western fashion industries. Prior to CFW, there was no haute couture in China. As we have learned in Chapters 2 and 3, the Chinese fashion industry developed out of the shadow of the Mao era, during which the fashion scene was dominated by the ubiquitous Mao-style zhongshanzhuang. China Fashion Week is an even newer phenomenon; it was only eight years old in 2004. Therefore, although the Chinese couture designs on the runway of CFW appear to be consistent with what is happening at LFW, they do not “mirror the broader field of fashion” in China as LFW does in Great Britain. The couture shows at CFW are a distinctly Chinese phenomenon that has to be understood in the Chinese context.

This chapter will address these two key questions: Why do Chinese fashion designers create and showcase “unwearable” couture clothes at CFW when the domestic consumer base of haute couture is virtually nonexistent (not just in terms of purchasing power)? What is the logic with which fashion shows at CFW operate? Chapter 5 explained the cultural and economic imperatives that underline Chinese fashion designers’ choice to resort to art and originality in the context of the emergence of the profession of fashion design and the rise of Chinese fashion designers in the global fashion industry. In this chapter, I will extend the cultural economic analysis to fashion shows at China Fashion Week. Following the example of Entwistle and Rocamora’s study of London Fashion Week, I will demonstrate how China Fashion Week becomes a materialization of the field of fashion in China. At the same time, I will also examine how and why CFW diverges from LFW, and thus highlight the distinctive characteristics of CFW and the Chinese field of fashion.

This chapter is primarily based on my field research of the Eighth China Fashion Week, which was held in Beijing in November 2004. During CFW, I attended twenty-five out of the thirty fashion shows, the opening ceremony, the fashion forum, two design contests, and a number of press conferences. In addition to my observation of CFW, I interviewed fashion journalists, designers, and officials of the China Fashion Association. My observations of CFW are also informed by my experience at two Shanghai Fashion Weeks in 2004. Foreign designers also participated in CFW Fall 2004,[3] but I limit my discussion in this chapter to those shows by Chinese fashion designers. In particular, I will focus on my experience of the finale show by Mark Cheung, one of the most sought-after shows at CFW. However, one cannot fully appreciate Mark Cheung’s show or any other shows at CFW without an understanding of the recent history of fashion shows and modeling in China.

Fashion Shows and Modeling in China

The first Chinese fashion show, according to Kunrou Pan (2003), a retired fashion commentator in Beijing, was conducted in Shanghai in 1909, and modeled after U.S. fashion shows.[4] Western historians also recorded a variety of events that involved fashion shows organized by Chinese nationalists to promote national products (guohuo) during the 1920s and 1930s (Finnane 1996: 118; Gerth 2003: 203–4). At Ningbo Garment Museum, I also found photographic evidence of an early fashion show in Shanghai that dated back to the 1930s (Figure 6.1).

However, these early fashion shows in China were interrupted by the anti-Japanese war and the civil war in the 1940s. The very first fashion show the Chinese witnessed after the founding of the People’s Republic of China was in 1979 when French designer Pierre Cardin brought French models to China to showcase his collections. Although Pierre Cardin’s first fashion show was restricted to a professional audience (zhuanye renshi) and cadres in the textile industry, it was so well received that he was authorized by the Chinese central government to do another show for a general audience at the Beijing Hotel in 1981. Pierre Cardin’s fashion shows were an eye-opener for the Chinese because they not only displayed Western fashions that were completely new to the Chinese at the time,[5] they also re-introduced the format of fashion shows and modeling to China. As one industry expert who attended Cardin’s show in 1979 suggested to me, her excitement at seeing Cardin’s collection was tempered by an embarrassment that a country as large as China did not have any fashion models.

Figure 6.1

An early fashion show in Shanghai. Courtesy of Ningbo Garment Museum.

In 1980, China’s very first team of fashion models was formed in Shanghai, named “Shanghai Fashion Performance Team” (Shanghai shizhuang biaoyan dui), and the models were called “fashion actresses” (shizhuang yanyuan). According to Professor Liu Xiaogang at Donghua University, the early “fashion actresses” worked only part-time, and when they were not participating in fashion shows they returned to work in state-owned garment factories (personal interview, 2004). One of the main missions of the team was to foster cultural exchange, which meant to work with foreign designers when needed. Due to the limited scope of their activities, these part-time “fashion actresses” were not at all in regular demand. Nevertheless, this team was an ice-breaker and certainly had its heyday. In 1983, they were “invited” to perform at Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese central government (Pan 2003). In 1985, twelve of them were chosen by Pierre Cardin to work for his fashion shows in France, the first time for Chinese fashion models to work overseas.

The success of the Shanghai team soon inspired many other cities, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing, and Dalian, to follow suit and set up their own “fashion performance teams.” Like the Shanghai team, these teams were all part of the primarily socialist planned economy or command economy (see Chapter 2). The internal organizations of the teams were not in the form of a modeling agency, but a worker-cadre relationship (Bao 1999: 19). The work and leaders of the teams were assigned by the government. In addition, as indicated by their names, the early fashion models in the PRC were considered “actresses” and fashion shows seen as “performances,” which suggested their closer kinship to other cultural performances (such as Peking Opera) than an activity that aims at commercial promotion. In addition, these names partly reflected the overall conservative attitude toward clothing and the body in Chinese society at the time. Calling the models “actresses” euphemistically suggested an attempt to elevate them from accusations of their “bad morality” in showing their body for money. Clearly, these names also indicated that commerce was not developed in China back then. As the textile and apparel industries shifted from a planned economy to a market-driven economy in the late 1980s, reforming the “fashion performance teams” became imminent.

In 1992, a “fashion performance team” that had been established a few years before in Beijing became China’s first modeling agency, named Xinsilu. The new agency was based on a contractual model-agent relationship rather than the previous actress-cadre relationship (Pan 2003: 30). That is to say, the modeling industry in China started to shift from a command model to a market-based one in 1992. In 2000, the first national organization of fashion models, China Professional Fashion Models Committee, was formed within the China Fashion Association, which marked the professionalization and institutionalization of the fashion modeling industry.

Today, fashion modeling has become a distinct profession in China, and fashion shows have become a major and popular means to promote fashion products, brands, trends, and designers. There are fashion shows at fashion companies’ wholesale buyers’ fairs, in shopping malls, at trade fairs and exhibitions, and during city or national-level fashion weeks. Each year, there are about 200 fashion related trade fairs, exhibitions, festivals, and fashion weeks nationwide (Ding 2003: 13).[6] Along with the popularity of fashion shows, modeling contests and beauty pageants have also become very popular in China since the late 1990s (Brownell 2001).[7] In contrast to the early fashion shows in the PRC, fashion shows today are called shizhuang xiu rather than “fashion performances,” and the models are called mote instead of “actresses.” The new terms of xiu and mote are transliterations from the English terms of “show” and “model” respectively. These new terms indicate that the Chinese modeling industry is eager to learn from the West and to forge a new identity that diverges from previous perceptions of fashion shows as “performances” and models as “actresses,” an outlook that carries vestiges of the planned economic system. Today, a full-fledged market-based modeling industry is thriving in China.

Although fashion shows are commonplace in China today, those at CFW are considered the most professional and widely reported. According to a press release by the China Fashion Association, the organizer of CFW, there were a total of 500 domestic and international fashion journalists registered for CFW in 2004. As a gala of fashion shows, CFW has become the biggest fashion event in China. Looking at CFW today, it is hard to believe that the very first CFW was held as recently as 1997.

China Fashion Week and its Mission

One of the key arguments of this book is that the state has played a major role in the rapid growth of the Chinese fashion industry. It undertook dramatic measures to boost the growth of the Chinese textile industry (Chapter 2), and it also removed the political baggage of clothing from the radical socialist period and encouraged diversification in clothing styles in the reform era (Chapter 3). In fact, the Chinese state did more than just facilitate the growth of the fashion industry; it played a leading role in forming the China Fashion Association.

The CFA was formed in 1993, to assist and regulate the Chinese fashion industry, as a branch organization of the China National Textile Industry Council. Although the CFA was established as a voluntary organization, its parent organization CNTIC—also a “voluntary” organization—had close ties to the central government. As discussed in Chapter 2, the CNTIC descended from the Ministry of the Textile Industry, and its Chairman, Mr. Du Yuzhou, was the former Minister of the Ministry of the Textile Industry, who also served as the first and second President of the CFA until the end of 1998. Moreover, the CFA and CNTIC inherited a large number of personnel and an office building from the former Textile Ministry of the central government. The personnel inherited from the former Textile Ministry are still on the state’s payroll.[8] The building is prominently located on Chang’an Street, only a few blocks away from Tian’anmen Square. In 1998, when Mr. Du Yuzhou resigned from his post as President of the CFA, his resignation had to be approved by the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council (CFA official website), which further revealed the CFA’s close connection to the state. By partially funding the CFA, the state has a clear interest in CFW, a major event that the CFA organizes in order to jumpstart the Chinese fashion industry.

For the CFA, the immediate purpose of China Fashion Week is to provide a stage for both domestic and international brands and fashion designers to “showcase new products and display characteristics of new designs,” and subsequently promote the growth of the Chinese fashion industry (CFA official website). In addition to fashion shows, CFW provides the stage for the CFA to give out awards to fashion companies, brands, designers, models, and journalists. These awards are direct measures for the CFA to carry out Mr. Du Yuzhou’s “famed designers project” (mingshi gongcheng) and “name brands project” (mingpai gongcheng), which are designed to quickly build recognition of Chinese fashion designers and brands respectively (CFA internal documents).

In order to effectively execute Du’s “famed designers project,” the CFA established an elaborate structure of awards to be presented to fashion designers at CFW. The awards are hierarchically set up into a three-tier pyramid, each with varying degrees of prestige. At the very top is the most prestigious Golden Award (jinding jiang), which is awarded once a year to one highly accomplished Chinese fashion designer. In the middle are the “Top Ten Fashion Designers Awards” (shijia shejishi, or Top Ten for short), which are also awarded annually but are less prestigious than the Golden Award. At the bottom of the pyramid is the least prestigious but even more numerous “New Designers Award” (xinren jiang). The first two awards are given to practicing designers, but the third-tier awards are given to the designers-to-be, i.e., college students majoring in fashion design. According to the CFA rules, to be qualified for a higher-level award, one has to first win a less prestigious award one tier below (CFA internal documents).[9] Because of this rule, the award system actually took quite some time to be fully established at CFW.

When the first CFW was held in 1997, the first Golden Award was granted to Mark Cheung (also known as Zhang Zhaoda). According the CFA rules, he had to be a former winner of the “Top Ten Designers Award.” Indeed he was. This only became possible because two classes of “Top Ten Designers Award” and three classes of “New Designers Award” had already been awarded before the first CFW.[10] That is to say, the first two classes of “Top Ten Fashion Designers” (and the first three classes of “New Designers Award”) were selected based on criteria other than the designers’ fashion show performances. A university professor, who was an early winner of the “Top Ten Fashion Designers award,” confirmed to me that those early awardees were selected based on tests (including theoretical questions) and a few sample designs. Nowadays, however, the “Top Ten” are chosen mainly on the basis of their fashion shows. The rules for selecting the Golden Award have changed as well. The earlier Golden Awards were chosen internally by the CFA,[11] but since 2001 the Golden Award has been decided by more transparent procedures. First, a committee of judges, composed of college professors, renowned fashion designers, foreign experts, fashion journalists, and executives from the retail sector (a recent addition), would nominate qualified candidates based on their fashion shows, and then the CFA members attending the annual CFA meeting during the CFW would vote to determine the final winner (CFA internal documents). Because of all the necessary preparations, including forming various committees, training fashion journalists,[12] and hosting design contests in order to cultivate both the experience and “credentials” of the fashion designers, it took the CFA four years to launch the first CFW in December 1997, with nine fashion shows being performed that year. In 1998, more fashion designers participated in CFW and all three types of awards began to be synchronized and awarded together at CFW in the fall. Since then, the three-tier pyramid of awards has become a mainstay at China Fashion Week.

In the early years of CFW, there was only one CFW a year. Since 2003, CFW has been held twice a year: once in the spring (in March or April), introducing Fall and Winter fashions of the same year, and once in the fall (in November or December), showing the following year’s Spring and Summer fashions. Historically, there have been fewer designers who participate in the spring event, and CFW in the fall is typically larger in scale than the one in the spring. Also, all the important fashion awards are given only at CFW in the fall. Consequently, the CFW in November or December is much more sought-after by domestic and international media as well as by the general audience than the CFW in the spring. The seasonal cycle and pattern of CFW today is similar to that of LFW and major fashion weeks in the West. However, based on my experience at CFW Fall 2004 below, the similarities between CFW and LFW extend far beyond the seasonal cycles.

CFW: A Manifestation of the Chinese Field of Fashion

The Eighth China Fashion Week, formally known as “CFW 2005 Spring/Summer Collections,” was held between November 19 and 25, 2004, at the China World Hotel and the Beijing Hotel,[13] which have been the conventional sites for CFW. The only exception was fashion designer Ma Ke, who chose a third site for her show, a move interpreted by observers as designed to capture more media attention. Ma clearly also played the double pun of showing her line of clothes, called “Exception” (Liwai), at the unusual site, which was clearly an exception to the rule. In addition, the site is called Kaichang, which was transformed from an old plant that used to make electrical switches, but the term can also mean the very first show. The very first show of CFW (as well as the very last show) is usually highly privileged and she probably would not have gotten it if she had chosen to stay at the CFW sites designated by the China Fashion Association. By moving outside the conventional sites, Ma Ke was able to determine the time of her show, which was ahead of everyone else’s, but also maintain control of access to the show independent of the CFA. Indeed, Ma Ke’s show turned out to be one of the most strictly access-controlled shows at the CFW. I managed to get into the show by getting a staff pass and was escorted by the producer through the back door, whereas many of my contacts in the media were denied access.[14] Evidently, Ma Ke’s moves succeeded in capturing more media buzz, as so many members of the media were talking about how difficult it was to get a ticket to the show. Ma Ke’s case suggests that the site of the show matters, but not in the sense of differentiating distinctive types of fashion as the two tents do at London Fashion Week.

Like Ma Ke’s show, all the shows and events at CFW had access control of varying degrees. Depending on the level of exclusivity, a show could have one to three layers of access control. The least exclusive shows or other events would only require a ticket, which was issued by the China Fashion Association and checked by the security guards of the hotels. These events included the design contests and shows by lesser-known designers or brands, and a little more than half of the events at CFW used this type of access control. The more exclusive shows would require a ticket and invitation, with the ticket being issued by the CFA and the invitation by the host designer, and the gate-keepers would include both security guards of the hotels and the staff of the host designer, who would check the tickets and invitations respectively. Clearly, the invitations and additional gatekeepers were meant to be an added layer of access control by the host designer on top of what was provided by the CFA. This was perhaps not due to the designer’s distrust of the CFA, which tended to issue more tickets than the room capacity, but an intention to ensure his or her (VIP) guests would have seats. About a dozen well-established designers chose this type of access control. The most exclusive shows and events would require not only a ticket (from CFA) and an invitation (from the designer), but also have police instead of security guards monitoring access. Only a few shows and events chose this highly restrictive access at CFW. The final show by Mark Cheung was one of them.

Common to all the shows and events at the two sites of CFW was that they required tickets issued by the CFA, which would be checked by gatekeepers at the entrance. The tickets were not for sale, but distributed by both the CFA and the host designer. The CFA would send the tickets ahead of time to its members, the registered media, and fashion institutions in Beijing (who would in turn distribute the tickets to their students). Similar to Entwistle and Rocamora’s (2006: 740) observations of LFW, the tickets and gatekeepers at CFW literally marked the boundary of the Chinese field of fashion—those who have access to the shows are the “insiders” of the field, as opposed to the “outsiders” who have no access. As a foreign researcher, I was not a member of the Chinese field of fashion, so I could not get tickets directly from the CFA.[15] However, during the course of my field research in China, I was able to establish connections with many “insiders” of the field, including fashion designers, journalists, and fashion show producers. Through these connections, I was able to personally obtain tickets and invitations to most of the fashion shows and events at CFW. My ability to gain access to the shows without the official approval of the CFA illustrates perfectly my “insider-outsider” position relative to the Chinese field of fashion; a similar sense is also shared by Entwistle and Rocamora at LFW. While there are parallels between CFW and LFW with respect to access control, there are key differences as well, chief among which was the presence of the police as gatekeepers in some shows at the CFW. To the best of my knowledge, the police, which are an evident instrument of the power of the state, were not there at the request of the host designers, but to provide added security for government officials and dignitaries who graced the shows.

While tickets and invitations allowed “equal” entry to the shows, once inside the show theater space, the seating was hierarchically ordered. At the center of the rectangular show theater (at both sites) of the CFW was a “T-shaped” runway, which was surrounded by seats on three sides. Due to close proximity to the runway, the front-row seats commanded better views and thus were considered privileged seats. In fact, the seats in the front rows on the two opposing sides of the runway were marked as “VIP” seats (stated as such in red letters on the back of the chairs). There were also seats placed at the bottom of the “T” stage, right in front of the media stage, which was marked by a few dozen tripods and cameras. These seats were considered best of the best, as they enjoyed the most commanding view of the show and were marked as guibinxi, meaning seats reserved for distinguished guests. The remaining seats in the back rows were not marked by any distinction and were open to the general audience admitted into the show. The front-row guibinxi seats and VIP seats are privileged not only because they enjoy better views of the show, but also because they can be easily spotted by others in the audience. As Entwistle and Rocamora put it, the front row seats enjoy the advantage of both “seeing and being seen” (2006: 742–5).[16] They argue that by occupying the front-row seats, the occupants reaffirm their distinguished positions in the field of fashion, which consequently reproduces the field of fashion (and its internal hierarchical structure). In other words, the hierarchical structure of the seating in the show theater and the hierarchical structure of the field positions in the fashion industry reify each other during the fashion week. That much is common between CFW and LFW.

However, the occupants of the front-row seats at LFW vary from those at CFW. The front-row seats at LFW are typically taken by celebrities, fashion icons, renowned journalists and designers, and so on. Based on my own field research of CFW, the front-row seats include the guibinxi seats and VIP seats. For most shows, the guibinxi seats are reserved by the CFA for its own officials, officials of the National Textile Industry Council, judges, and other distinguished guests such as government officials, distinguished foreign guests, officials of major media, and corporate sponsors. Should these seats not be filled, they, along with the reserved VIP seats on the two sides of the runway, would be taken by the invited guests of the host designer, including his or her friends, fellow designers, and VIP customers. Compared to LFW, there is a clear lack of participation of celebrities and fashion icons at CFW. Therefore, although CFW and LFW are similar in that the seating arrangements in the theater map out and thus reproduce the hierarchy within the field of fashion, CFW is also very different from LFW because political power, represented by government and industry council officials, is literally front and center at CFW, and by extension, in the Chinese field of fashion.

In addition to the spatial display of distinctions inside the theater space, Entwistle and Rocamora point out that the temporal structure of fashion shows at LFW also suggests hierarchy, in the sense that those who enjoy the highest status in the fashion field tend to be fashionably late for the show (2006: 742). Once again, CFW differs from LFW. As my experience of Mark Cheung’s show described below indicates, the ones who tend to be late at CFW are not necessarily those who are fashionable, but those who are in power (in fact, the show would not start without them).

In sum, by looking at the controlled access, the spatial arrangement inside the show theater, and the temporal structure of the fashion show, Entwistle and Rocamora (2006) argue that LFW is a materialization of the British field of fashion, which is an internally hierarchical, but externally autonomous space, hence independent of the field of politics. Similar to LFW, there are also controlled access and hierarchical spatial and temporal arrangements at CFW. It is in this sense that I make a parallel argument that CFW is a manifestation of the Chinese field of fashion. But unlike LFW, the profile of a fashion show at CFW is not raised by celebrities or fashion icons, but by high-level government officials, who consequently require even more strictly controlled access to the show. The importance and high visibility of government officials at CFW thus render CFW and, by extension, the Chinese field of fashion a structured but not completely autonomous space.

In what follows, I will present a portion of my field notes of the final show of CFW by Mark Cheung in Fall 2004, which is reproduced in past tense and then followed by an analysis of the show and my general observations of CFW.

The Finale of CFW Fall 2004: Mark Cheung’s Fashion Show—Jiangnan

Although CFW only has a short history of eight years, it has become a tradition that Mr. Mark Cheung, the first Golden Award winner, would be the host of the final show at CFW. According to journalists, Mr. Cheung wants to encourage younger designers to create new designs by example; the subtext is that even an accomplished designer like him works hard and churns out something new every year, so younger designers should not have any excuse not to do the same.

The finale show from the master (dashi) was perhaps the most anticipated show of CFW, conforming to the idea of saving the best for last (the concept in Chinese is called yazhouxi). Tickets to the show were in high demand. In fact, unlike many other shows, the tickets to Mr. Cheung’s show were not distributed by the CFA, but by his team to ensure exclusivity of the audience. But for my acquaintance with a senior executive on Mr. Cheung’s team, I would not have been able to get an invitation letter and a ticket to the show.

The show theater was in the Banquet Hall (yanhuiting) at the Beijing Hotel on the evening of November 24. I arrived at the Banquet Hall about thirty minutes in advance of the scheduled show time. Most of the seats, except the first three rows, were already taken. The theater was not as big as the other site of the CFW (the China World Hotel theater), housing probably about 500 to 600 seats, which surrounded the T-stage on three sides. Facing the T was the media stage camped with tripods and cameras. In front of the media stage, there were a few rows of empty seats prominently reserved by the CFA for the distinguished guests. From previous experience, I knew that the distinguished guests would generally include CFA officials, Textile Industry Council officials, corporate sponsors, distinguished foreign guests, judges, and sometimes government officials. The first few rows of seats on the two sides of the runway were the VIP seats. Experience from previous shows told me that those VIP seats were reserved for people with invitation letters, including friends and VIP customers of the designer. Behind the VIP seats were seats for the general audience.

Feeling emboldened with an invitation in hand, I walked directly toward the front rows on one side of the runway. But before I got there, I was stopped by a policeman, not regular staff of the designer or security guards of the hotel (who would typically maintain order at the entrance) as in other shows. I showed him my invitation, but he did not even look at it, only told me in a cold voice, “Those are not for you.” In puzzlement, I looked around for an empty seat further back and I located one in the fourth row on the opposite side. When I was about to make my way directly through the opening between the T-stage and the mostly empty seats for the distinguished guests, I was stopped once again by the policeman, who told me that I should take other “detours” but was too busy to explain to me where those “detours” were or why I could not use the pathway. In fact, I was familiar with the setting of the theater from watching previous shows and knew there were no real “detours.” So, I had to elbow through the media stage, and on the way I found out from the journalists that the Mayor of Beijing was on his way to the show and that was why there was a heavy presence of police and so many front-row seats were reserved on very short notice—apparently the Mayor was not coming alone.

I finally sat down and took a good look at the setup of the stage. The backdrop of the T-stage was composed of three huge panels of watercolor painting, which stood out in the dimly-lit theater hall. The painting looked like a typical small rural town in South China (jiangnan, or south of the Yangtze River), characterized by three iconic jiangnan objects: a little bridge (xiaoqiao), a small river (liushui), and rows of houses (renjia). The bluish watercolor and dim light dramatized the romantic aura of a smoky jiangnan town fading into the distance. For a brief moment, my thoughts meandered: Were the people living in the houses cooking? Was it a drizzling day or was it getting dark? They all looked so familiar yet distant to me, as if coming out of a nearly faded memory. As someone who grew up in South China, I knew where this memory came from: not exactly from what I remembered of my hometown, but from a “collective memory” of the yanyu (smoky and drizzling) jiangnan passed down by generations of Chinese poets and artists. While the image of the rustic, romantic, and mystic jiangnan drew my thoughts away, the stage extended from the backdrop brought me back to the show theater. The runway carried the same motif as the painting; it looked like a little bridge, guarded by wood posts linked by ropes (Figure 6.2).

Figure 6.2

Backdrop of Mark Cheung 2005 Haute Couture Fashion Show. Courtesy of Jianhua Zhao.

Figure 6.3

Invitation to Mark Cheung’s fashion show.

The setting reminded me that the name of the show, Jiangnan, was on the invitation. The invitation was placed in a beautiful envelope. On it was the title, Jiangnan, and the subtitle “Mark Cheung 2005 Haute Couture Fashion Show,” written in beautiful Chinese brush calligraphy, with signatures (one in Chinese and one in English) and seals of Mr. Cheung arranged in a traditional manner. The invitation was a tri-fold (Figure 6.3). On the front was the image of the tiles on the roof of a typical jiangnan house, and the edge of the front fold was cut off in the shape of the end of the roof (the top left image of Figure 6.3). On the second fold was a traditional-style Chinese painting of a watery jiangnan scene (the bottom left of Figure 6.3). With the tri-fold fully open, from right to left (as in the traditional Chinese way) were the name of the show and then a poem by a famous poet Xu Zhimo, beautifully illustrating the scenery of jiangnan. To the end of the poem, Mr. Cheung added, “… My only choice is to let the silk thread take me back to [my] dream of the jiangnan.” Below the poem was an image of a traditional scholar sailing on a small boat, and further below was a picture of Mr. Cheung and his impressive resume written in both Chinese and English. With a combination of calligraphy, painting, and poetry, Mr. Cheung’s invitation presented the reader with a total aesthetic experience.

The room quickly filled up, even the seats for the prestigious guests. Right in the center of the front row, I saw Mr. Du Yuzhou, Chairman of the National Textile and Apparel Industry Council and former minister of the Ministry of the Textile Industry. In front of him was a large long-lens camera supported by a tripod. In the rear of all three sides, people were standing and squeezing into whatever room they could find. No standing tickets were issued at CFW (unlike LFW), so presumably, those people standing had their seats bumped by the late-arriving distinguished guests who did not need any tickets to get in. I turned to my two neighbors and quickly found out that both were college students majoring in fashion design. But before I could have a longer chat with them, the music was turned up, smoke came out of the runway, and the show began.

Figure 6.4

A sketch of day wear by Mark Cheung. Courtesy of Mark Cheung.

Figure 6.5

A sketch of evening wear by Mark Cheung. Courtesy of Mark Cheung.

The show lasted about thirty-five minutes, and a total of sixty to seventy ensembles were displayed, which were divided into two sets—day wear and evening wear (as most shows did). Ruffles and layering were two dominant features of the entire collection (these are also clear in his sketches, see Figures 6.4 and 6.5), perhaps inspired by rows of roof tiles on those jiangnan houses or perhaps the waves of the river (as one journalist pointed out in her report). The overall darker tones of blue, black, and burgundy of the entire collection were clearly taken from typical jiangnan scenes. The colors of the clothes and the painting in the background were strikingly harmonious. For the most part, clothes in the first set were wearable, cheery, and youthful, represented by blue bell bottoms, embellished with ruffles (Figure 6.6). The second set of the collection shifted dramatically to evening gowns (Figures 6.7 and 6.8), accompanied by sudden shifts of music from solo flute to a dramatic and loud ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments. If it were not for the consistency in colors, ruffles, and layering (as well as the traditional Chinese music), the two sets of clothes would have appeared to be two completely separate shows. The styles of the gowns were mostly European style ball gowns, and many of them were truly elegant and sophisticated, but too busy in details and layering to be contemporary. Indeed, quite a few gowns resembled the eighteenth-century Rococo style. It was hard for me to picture an occasion for which those gowns could be worn in China other than on the runway.

Figure 6.6

Mark Cheung 2005 Haute Couture fashion show. Photo by Jianhua Zhao. Courtesy of Mark Cheung.

Figure 6.7

Mark Cheung 2005 Haute Couture fashion show. Photo by Jianhua Zhao. Courtesy of Mark Cheung.

The Cultural Economy of China Fashion Week

I enjoyed Mark Cheung’s show enormously.[17] Everything, including the invitation, the setup of the stage, the music, and the show, was meticulously put together, and all linked to the central theme of the Jiangnan. The entire show conveyed a rustic, romantic, and nostalgic aura. The theme of the show was so coherent that the clothes, which were supposed to be the centerpiece of the show, became subsumed by the whole artistic aura. If it were not for the heavy presence of the media and the frequent flashes of the cameras, it would have been easy to mistake the show for a theatrical performance. Indeed, the theatrical aspects of fashion shows have led scholars to ponder about the connections between fashion shows and theater performances (e.g., Kondo 1997; Troy 2003). But at the same time, fashion shows mean business: lots of money would have to be spent[18] and many people would have to work for a long time to make them happen; they are meant for spectacular commercial promotions. Mark Cheung, as a seasoned designer who oversees five prêtà-porter lines,[19] of course knows the economic interests at stake. However, none of the styles from his five brands were displayed during his show. The names of his five prêt-à-porter lines were not even on the huge backdrop painting or the invitation. In fact, he calls his show an haute couture show (both on the backdrop and the invitation). The disparities between the collection he showed at the CFW and his prêt-à-porter lines that he sells on the market are striking. I couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t show the clothes he was selling or sell the clothes he put on the show. From previous media reports and video recordings, I learned that haute couture shows have consistently been Mark Cheung’s style at CFW. Evidently, he was not alone in doing couture shows at the CFW I attended either. In fact, as a “master” designer and the first Golden Award winner, his style of shows (or strategy of “position-taking”) is emulated by many Chinese fashion designers. As a senior fashion designer of the same generation as Ye Li and Yuan Xing, Mark Cheung’s emphasis on art supports my findings in Chapter 5 that Chinese fashion designers need to resort to art in order to set themselves apart from the negative stereotypes of being imitators of Western fashion and the traditional label of their trade as caifeng. However, it is hard to believe that the expensive couture shows at CFW are all about a “professional image.” After all, both Ye Li and Yuan Xing, discussed in Chapter 5, have their own businesses. What is the economic logic of the couture shows when there are no couture labels in China? I discussed my observation about the disconnection between the couture shows at CFW and Chinese fashion businesses with fashion journalists and designers who attended CFW, among whom was Ms. Wang Mei.

Figure 6.8

Mark Cheung 2005 Haute Couture fashion show. Photo by Jianhua Zhao. Courtesy of Mark Cheung.

Wang Mei is a veteran fashion journalist working for a major Chinese fashion newspaper, whom I befriended during Shanghai Fashion Week a month before CFW.[20] She accepted my interview in a café inside a bookstore after CFW. She responded to my question about inconsistencies between clothes on the runway and those on the market by explaining the differences between CFW and Paris Fashion Week:

China Fashion Week does not make distinctions between different types of fashion shows and subsequently you see both haute couture and prêt-à-porter collections at CFW. By contrast, the two types of collections were shown separately at two different fashion weeks in Paris.

Wang Mei’s point is clearly valid, but I was not concerned about whether Chinese fashion designers or CFA were confused about the distinctions between haute couture and prêt-à-porter; instead I was interested in finding out why Chinese fashion designers and others put so much emphasis on haute couture on the runway even while no couture brands or market existed in China. So I sharpened my question and raised it again to Wang Mei. “That’s because the artistically oriented haute couture catches the attention of the media, and there was no cheaper but more effective way to spread your name than doing a successful fashion show during CFW,” she replied.

Wang Mei’s answer points to the role of the media. During CFW, nearly all the Chinese fashion related media, some entertainment-related media, and some international media would congregate in Beijing and cover the event. This means that fashion designers, brands, and sponsors would get a week of free advertising on TV, in newspapers and magazines, at both national and local levels (as well as some international exposure). In the case of the major Chinese trade papers, such as China Fashion Weekly and Fashion Times, the free advertising could last a couple of months. The hype would start way ahead of the event, covering the latest news of the designers, the models, and others who would participate at the upcoming CFW and speculating who would win the top awards. During the CFW, live coverage of the events by the media would be going on at the sites. It was in fact an odd experience for me during CFW that I would bump into friends and acquaintances who were speaking to a microphone or in front of a camera almost every few steps in the hallways at the two sites. I had to learn not to say hi but only nod and smile when I walked past them. Weeks after CFW, there would still be photographs of the shows, fashion commentaries and analyses written by experts and editors. Of all the media coverage, the ones that receive the most attention are the award winners at CFW, especially the Golden Award winner. In this context, it is understandable that fashion designers would gravitate toward couture shows that would more likely win them an award, because success at CFW, especially winning an award, would lead to immediate national fame and visibility for the designer (as well as others such as the models). The award and the fame (“symbolic capital”) that comes with it in turn could be converted into economic gains (“economic capital”) by the designer in numerous other ways, such as landing a better-paying job, winning financial backing to start a new line, and/or getting more customers. The successful careers of earlier award winners, such as Mark Cheung and Yuan Xing (in Chapter 5), powerfully validates this approach to fashion shows at CFW. Compared to the potential gains, the cost of producing a fashion show appears to be less a concern for the designer, especially when the cost may not be borne by the designer himself or herself alone.

Therefore, although the couture fashion shows at CFW appeared to be economically irrational at first, they become reasonable once we add the awards by the CFA and the media into consideration. The designers’ quest for quick fame through couture shows is a logic of consecration that can only be sustained by their repeated conversions of symbolic capital gained through consecration into economic capital (Bourdieu 1986). The economic logic of couture shows is thus indirectly inherent. For designers, doing couture shows at CFW represents a viable strategy to jumpstart a career (or to stay at the top) in the Chinese fashion industry. Evidently, this strategy is also sanctioned by the state (via the CFA), as it is consistent with the state’s effort to jumpstart China’s fashion industry by instituting a complex competition and award system on the stage of CFW as outlined previously. This leads to another question: Why would other parties involved in the fashion shows, including the media and financial backers, be on board with the fashion designers and the CFA?

The media are fixated on the awards at CFW, not because they are ordered by the state, but because the media have an interest in doing so. Several Chinese fashion journalists confirmed to me that the issues of their newspapers or magazines that cover the Fall CFW reach the highest circulation in the entire year. Covering the awards at CFW is a win-win situation for the media, the designers, and the CFA. In fact, not just the media benefit financially from heavy coverage of CFW and the awards; the CFA also profits from it by attracting more participants (thus more registration fees) and more corporate sponsors. For example, two large Chinese fashion companies sponsored the “New Designers Awards” at CFW Fall 2004, and the CFA was able to attract a corporate sponsor of the closing ceremony just a few days before the event, according to two journalists who were familiar with the situation. Therefore, the cultural economy of the awards at CFW involves the fashion designers, the media, corporate sponsors, and the CFA; the collaboration among all the parties involved makes it possible for the CFA to fulfill its mission of creating more “famed designers” and “name brands” that Mr. Du envisioned. The cultural and economic logics of the awards are central to sustaining the couture shows at CFW.

However, fashion shows at CFW are not all couture shows; some shows at CFW Fall 2004 displayed ready-to-wear collections exclusively. In addition, while there were obvious corporate sponsors for some events, such as the design competition and the closing ceremony (with the names of the corporations attached to the events), it was not always apparent who the sponsor was for the fashion shows. I was curious what companies would sponsor a fashion show that merely promoted the designer, but not the company or its lines. My serendipitous encounter with Zheng Yifan helped me understand the dynamic between fashion companies and designers.

Zheng Yifan is Chief Designer of a women’s wear company based in Dalian, and she was a winner of the “Top Ten Fashion Designers” award a few years before (I learned of her award through the CFA documents because she only mentioned that she had done fashion shows at CFW before). I met Yifan by accident during the 2004 CFW. We both went to a small restaurant in the lower level of the International Trade Center, which is adjacent to the China World Hotel, a major site of CFW. Since it was busy lunch hour and perhaps too many customers were there because of CFW, the waiter asked the customers to share tables, and I happened to share a table with Yifan. Through some courteous exchange of words, I found out that she was a fashion designer. I introduced myself as a researcher on China’s fashion industry and asked if she would accept an interview with me. She agreed. I joined her two days later in her interview with a group of fashion models at the Starbucks inside the building of the China World Hotel. Yifan did not do a show that year, and she went to CFW mainly to interview and select models for photo shoots to be used in the coming season’s advertisements and to reunite with her fellow designers.

She told me that when she showed her prêt-à-porter collection at CFW a few years earlier, there were not that many designers showing them, but it became increasingly a trend that the designers would show prêt-à-porter (which they sell on the market) rather than unmarketable haute couture collections. I asked her why the designers changed their approach. She said it was because the companies that financially supported the fashion designers realized that their actual lines on the market had not gotten any exposure in the previous years’ fashion weeks; instead their support only helped the designers to achieve personal fame. Then, the designers might end up leaving the company for better jobs or might be tempted to start their own businesses on the side. I turned the subject to her personal experience and asked whether she felt the same constraint from her company when she showed her prêt-à-porter collection at the CFW. She said that she had a very good and stable working relationship with her boss, whom I later found out to be her elder sister and that she also owns a share of her company.[21]

During the interview, Zheng Yifan made it clear to me that the interest of the financial backers (fashion companies) is not always aligned with that of the fashion designers, and that the current state of fashion shows at CFW increasingly displaying ready-to-wear collections may be attributable to the clash of interests between fashion designers and their companies. Yifan’s own example is also very interesting. Her interest is aligned with her financial backer (her sister), and she chose to showcase the ready-to-wear lines of her company. Evidently, she was not in the business of advancing her own career at the expense of her company by doing a couture show at CFW.

Therefore, the cultural economy of CFW that centers on the awards seems to be complicated by the fashion companies that are interested in promoting their marketable prêt-à-porte r collections rather than the designers to whom they provide financial support. As a result, the current trend seems to be that there are increasingly more prêt-à-porter shows and fewer haute couture shows during CFW. This trend is also supported by fashion designers who own or partially own their prêt-à-porter lines as Zheng Yifan does. At the same time, as long as the awards remain as the center of attention of the media, fashion designers, and the CFA, couture shows like Mark Cheung’s show described previously will continue to be highly conspicuous and prized at CFW. This pattern of CFW is different from London Fashion Week, which only shows prêt-à-porter collections, and its logic is also different from Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week because there are no haute couture lines in China. This pattern of CFW and its internal logic reflect the distinctive characteristics of the Chinese field of fashion, the logic of which has to be understood in the Chinese context.


In this chapter, I examined Chinese fashion shows and China Fashion Week, a major event that brings together various important players in the field of fashion in China. As an imported institution, China Fashion Week maintains many similarities to major fashion weeks in the West. Building on Entwistle and Rocamora’s insights about London Fashion Week, I argue that China Fashion Week is a manifestation of the Chinese field of fashion, in the sense that various positions in the field are rendered visible through temporal and spatial arrangements at China Fashion Week. The structure of the field positions are also reified and reproduced by the same arrangements. However, China Fashion Week is also localized in significant ways; there are major differences between China Fashion Week and London Fashion Week.

One of the key differences between CFW and LFW is the position of political power in the field of fashion. As Entwistle and Rocamora observe, the boundaries set up at London Fashion Week indicate that the British field of fashion is an autonomous space that is independent of politics. By contrast, the Chinese fashion field as rendered visible by China Fashion Week reserves privileged positions for governmental and semi-governmental officials. The prominent presence of government officials at China Fashion Week not only indicates the connections between the state and the China Fashion Association, but also reflects the broader condition of the field of fashion and Chinese society in general, which are always permeated by the power of the state to a certain degree.

Another major difference lies in the elaborate award structure of CFW, which was set up by the CFA to jumpstart China’s fashion industry. The awards at CFW lead Chinese fashion designers toward showing artistically oriented haute couture designs rather than showing their prêt-à-porter collections that are sold on the market. The divergence between the clothes on the runway and the clothes on the market is caused by the designers’ belief that unique and artistic designs are better positioned to win awards at CFW, which could lead to instant national fame, and which in turn could lead to faster or greater economic gains. This approach to fashion shows at CFW has been proven to be a viable shortcut to success demonstrated by the career trajectories of many successful designers who were earlier award winners. In addition to the fashion designers, the CFA and the media also have an interest in seeing and reporting the eye-catching couture shows at CFW. This alignment of interests ensures the participation of all the major parties, which underscores the success of an award-centered CFW.

However, the recent increase in prêt-à-porter shows on the stages of CFW signals a potential clash of interest between fashion designers and their financial sponsors, i.e., the fashion companies. The interest of the fashion companies is evidently better served by showing their prêt-à-porter lines rather than the designers’ couture designs at CFW. The trend toward more prêt-à-porter shows at CFW is supported by participation of designers like Zheng Yifan who own or partially own their company; subsequently their interest is aligned with that of their company. While this trend seems to be gaining momentum, couture shows will likely remain highly visible and coveted at CFW as long as there are powerful coordinated interests behind the awards.

The Chinese characteristics of fashion shows and fashion week suggest that fashion shows, particularly those during CFW, are not just commercial means to promote fashion, but also “localized” strategies for the designers and other players to obtain better positions in the field of fashion. Through examining the major parties involved at CFW, this chapter shows that a fashion designer’s creative show is not just a shortcut for him or her to advance his or her career, but also a shortcut for China to jumpstart its fashion industry. Because of the “local characteristics” of China Fashion Week, an ethnographic approach is needed to unravel the cultural economy of China Fashion Week, and subsequently the Chinese field of fashion.

In the next chapter, I will explore the global connections of the Chinese apparel industry. I will examine how Chinese manufacturers and traders are connected to corporate buyers in the United States in an attempt to offer a clothing perspective on globalization.