Is Beijing on the road to becoming a new fashion hub in Asia, or even a world fashion Mecca - capable of competing with Paris, New York and Milan? It would seem so, if the recent Beijing International Fashion Week is anything to go by. Silk, taffeta and brocade have dethroned the grey Mao suit of orthodoxy.
Yang Lin is one of China's top designers. He is adamant that "Western fashion norms are not the only standard". "Chinese designers have their own way of interpreting beauty," he states.
At the glittering Beijing International Fashion Week, which ended late November 2006, the audience let out an audible sigh as a model sashayed down the catwalk wearing a startling brocade and taffeta gown designed by a Chinese designer.
Model Mo Wandan said, "I just adore wearing these gowns, they are so elegant, so modern but so Asian." Mo, who has modeled for many big brands, such as Paris-based Amsler, won the "best model award" at the Beijing Fashion Week. More often than not, she said, she could not tell whether Chinese designers or their foreign counterparts had designed the dresses she modeled as both were excellent in terms of style and material.
As China's economy booms and purchasing power rises, Chinese consumers have become a key target for luxury goods manufacturers - even as the burgeoning domestic fashion industry is becoming more creative.
Fashion watchers predict there are potentially as many as 200 million luxury goods purchasers on the Chinese mainland. Scores of big-name fashion brands have descended on the country to compete for the market share. French brand Louis Vuitton, which opened its first store in Beijing in 1992, was quickly followed by international brands Giorgio Armani, Chanel, Gucci and Christian Dior. Giorgio Armani plans to set up 30 chain stores on the Chinese mainland before 2008 while Gianni Versace intends to add 16 stores.
In addition, many Chinese garment markers have Hong Kong or foreign business partners.
"About 10 years ago, when color make-up first appeared in Beijing, people were astonished or even afraid when they saw a blaze of color on the faces of models," said Wang Qing, Deputy Director, China National Garment Association and also Director-General of the Beijing International Fashion Week "But now young people dye their hair and young career women use make-up to brighten their lives," he said.
"The days when people wore the same grey or black or blue suits, shoes and hairstyle on the streets of Beijing are long gone," recalls Wang, adding that the Chinese perception of fashion as late as the early 1990s consisted of ladies wearing a cheongsam (pronounced 'chongsam').
Wang said the bi-annual international fashion week plays a key role in making Beijing more "fashionable". When the idea of holding a fashion week in Beijing was first tried in 1997, most participants were homegrown designers and the fashion shows were conducted by copying those in Paris or Milan.
Up until 1979 - the year in which French designer Pierre Cardin staged a show in Beijing's Cultural Palace of the Nationalities, with a group of 12 French models, most Beijingers had never seen a real fashion show. Cardin returned in 1985 and staged another show with 25 models, including eight Chinese women, before an audience of 15,000 in the Beijing Worker's Stadium. With acres of naked flesh on display, the audience was enthralled and embarrassed.
China's joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 saw more and more foreign designers choose to present their designs in Beijing. Famous French designer Jean-Luc Amsler told China Features that he came to Beijing to debut his new Amsler collection because "Beijing has a more and more professional approach to fashion". The 43-year-old futuristic designer said he would set up chain stores in Shanghai or Hong Kong but would definitely hold fashion shows in Beijing, which is a political and cultural centre.
Amsler presented his new collection in Beijing in November. "Expect me back with new designs," he grinned. "Beijing is a fashion city like Paris or Milan," said Amsler, adding he hopes to cooperate with talented and creative Chinese designers to integrate Chinese culture in his designs.
"As a historical and cultural centre, Beijing is a natural stage for foreign and domestic designers to present their creativity," said Wang, adding that Beijing could be a fashion-presenting centre, and the more affluent Shanghai could become a major fashion consumer.
Roberto Garcia, a photographer from the Barcelona-based fashion picture magazine, Lecturas, said Beijing could be a fashion centre for China and Asia. Garcia, who was dispatched to Beijing by his Spanish editors to cover the "new fashion center", said he likes the fantasy that Chinese designers inject into their designs.
China, the world's largest garment producer and exporter, is often thought of as merely "the world's factory" powered by cheap, low-skilled labor. Statistics show that China exported 61.6 billion yuan (US $7.7 billion) worth of garments in 2004, up 18.7 per cent from 2003. But as China - under the impetus of the latest government five-year development plan - moves from a "perspiration" to an "inspiration" economy, the focus is moving away from low-cost productivity to innovation and creativity.
Wang Yin, 21, a fashion designer who works for an Israel-based garment brand in Beijing, said his company would expand its Beijing business because, in fashion, "Beijing is the place to be". Wang has studied fashion design at "Cohim", a designer training centre located in Beijing's famous 798 Art Zone. It is the only institution in the country approved by the Ministry of Commerce to grant professional qualifications for fashion designers.
Incidentally, 798 Art Zone that houses a thriving artist community is located among the half-century-old decommissioned military factory buildings of the Chaoyang District of Beijing. Also known as 798 Art District, the art zone is often compared with New York's Greenwich Village.
Dong Yan, Director of Cohim's training courses, said most of the training is conducted by Chinese designers who have returned from overseas and understand European design concepts. To strengthen the city's fashion industry, the Beijing municipal government has outlined a development plan for Cohim and the 798 Art District.
It is less than 30 years since Deng Xiaoping announced in his Mao suit - to a nation clothed shabbily in grey-and-blue - that China was entering a period of historic reforms. Those 30 years have transformed the fashion landscape of the capital into a sea of color, texture, glitter and soft textiles.