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Year in Review II: China Chic

The new China is a source of inexpensive manufacturing for established brands -- as well as for their counterfeit counterparts.  The new Chinese consumer forms an emerging market for luxury goods -- and a market hungry for knockoffs.  China is a source of inspiration for Western designers, even as it adopts and adapts European style. 

With the official end of textile import quotas on January 1, 2005, the P.R.C. loomed even larger on the interntional clothing/textile scene.  As the months passed and U.S. imports from China showed double-digit increases over 2004, domestic manufacturers from North Carolina, high-end European manufacturers, and manufacturers in small, impoverished nations that previously benefited from quotas joined forces in seeking protection from a common threat.  Textile and clothing manufacturers also developed strategies to stay one step ahead of China by emphasizing speed, flexibility, creativity, quality, and technological advances.  Meanwhile, Western importers enjoyed lower prices and worried about possible emergency protection measures.  In the end, both Europe and the U.S. reached agreements with China -- for the time being. 

So, what's the connection between luxury goods and knockoffs, manufacturing and consuming, quotas and innovation?  All of these elements have focused global attention on China as key to the future of the clothing/textile industry, and they have raised the stakes for the establishment and enforcement of legal norms -- including those governing copying. 

China is frequently criticized as a pirate's paradise, despite the official existence of intellectual property laws.  In fact, a trade publication recently cited the estimate that 1 in 5 women on Chinese city streets is carrying what appears to be a knockoff Louis Vuitton handbag.  For years, respected academic types have attributed China's comfort with copying to Confucian cultural norms.  As the insightful and incisive law professor Peter Yu has pointed out, however, you might as well attribute illegal downloading of music in the U.S. to Judeo-Christian communitarianism.  After all, the U.S. has its own history of intellectual property piracy to live down. 

Well, if it's not a cultural thing, what is China's story with respect to IP piracy?  According to Professor Yu -- with apologies for vastly oversimplifying his research -- China is pretty much the same as everywhere else.  In other words, China will work harder to protect luxury goods and other forms of IP when it has a stake in such protection.  Which explains why China allegedly places greater penalties on the counterfeiting of Beijing 2008 Olympic merchandise than on other knockoffs. 

OK, Olympic trinkets are one thing, but as for couture, is China likely to become a stakeholder?  Well, Armani and Vuitton aren't exactly worried yet, but China did sponsor a small U.S. exhibition of current, high-end Chinese designer gowns this year.  Its location?  Not in fashion capital New York, but political capital Washington, D.C.  Message:  we're in the game.  And in China, televised fashion awards shows with the spotlight on international stars like Chinese-American Vera Wang may inspire a new generation of young designers.

China chic?  Definitely an important element in reflecting back on the Year of the Rooster.  And don't forget to check out books of the same name by both fashion historian Valerie Steele and designer Vivienne Tam