FENGQIAO, China — At Chic 2013, one of the leading “prêt-à-porter” fairs in China, this reporter first met Mr Lei He, the young design director of Busen Green, a mid-market domestic fashion brand targeting young Chinese men. He Lei and his assistant Gong Yaming stood at the entrance of the showroom in the slim jeans and tight-fitting club blazers that are the unmistakable uniform of Chinese hipsters. Both of them were smiling behind thick, retro-style Bakelite frames. Gong's frames had no lenses, reflecting a persistent fashion craze in this part of the world.
Hometown of Chinese Premium Shirts
With 40 stores in China, Busen Green is the latest venture of the Busen Group. The group's founder, Mrs Caifeng Shou, started as a tailor in Fengqiao in the Zhejiang Province in Southern China with 24 sewing machines and minimal capital. In the mid-1980s, the tailors of Fengqiao overwhelmingly focused on shirt manufacturing and 15 years later, the local industry had grown to comprise 138 shirt factories, producing 85 million shirts per year for China and beyond. Fengqiao even won the national title of “Hometown of Chinese Premium Shirts,” beating out 46 other contenders.
In 1986, Shou realised that creating her own brand would be more profitable than focusing on low cost manufacturing. And soon after, the Busen Group was born. By 2012, the group had grown to employ over 3500 people and was generating a turnover of 651 million RMB (about $106 million at current exchange rates), with a net profit of 42 million RMB. From the early 1990s to the financial crisis of 2008, the company’s annual growth rate fluctuated between 20 percent and 30 percent. And after the global financial crisis of 2008, when many export-driven companies struggled to survive, Busen's forward momentum slowed only slightly. Profits declined due to increasing retail rents, rising wages and larger levels of unsold inventory, yet the group maintained a growth rate that hovered between 5 percent and 10 percent and successfully IPOed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in April 2011.
Compared to most Chinese garment companies, Busen believes in design innovation. Indeed, the company invests around 1.17 percent of its turnover in design, which it perceives as a long-term competitive advantage. And, in line with this corporate vision, Mr He, chief designer of Busen Green, is progressively implementing a novel creative process that combines “intelligent copying” with direct sourcing from external design studios and manufacturers. With a small team of only four designers, Busen Green designs 20 percent of its collection in-house. Fifty percent comes from external Chinese design studios, while the rest is directly purchased from garment manufacturers.
In contrast, at most Chinese brands, there is no proper in-house design at all and these companies end up copying a bit of everything from leading international designers, often creating a questionable mélange of aesthetics. For the majority of Chinese designers, the idea that a collection shall express, season after season, the identity of a brand and communicate a distinctive stylistic point if view is relatively new. Thus, when copying the collections of international designers, they find it hard to even select the themes and trends that match their own target audience with any cohesion.
A sensible imitator, Mr He carefully catalogues the brands that inspire him. For Busen Green’s main casual line, Undercover, Kenzo and Junya Watanabe guide his choices. For its second line, focused on formalwear, he follows Costume National, 3.1 Philip Lim and Jil Sander. By deliberately limiting his sources of inspiration, He’s collections for Busen Green maintain a certain degree of consistency.
Once the selection of inspiration is done, the company's design team chooses fabrics, creates sketches and makes prototypes. Usually, these steps are full of pitfalls, as many young Chinese designers still underestimate the caliber of materials and craftsmanship required to produce a garment that looks at all like the fashion they admire. But Mr He smooths these difficulties away by simplifying the design of products as much as possible, making his garments easier to reproduce by an average pattern maker.
Growing Menswear Competition
The Chinese menswear market has grown steadily in recent years. Statistics from leading Chinese department stores reveal that since 2009, men’s fashion retail revenues have grown faster than those of womenswear. And according to a forecast by Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm, at a growth rate of 15.8 percent per year, China's menswear market will reach 540 billion RMB ($88 billion) in 2013.
Indeed, Chinese men are avid fashion consumers and many of them are willing to spend a large part of their income buying clothes and accessories. But with over 800 menswear brands now operating in China (around 600 Chinese domestic brands and 200 foreign brands) competition for share of wallet is growing fiercer and fiercer, demanding more mature, upgraded design processes from Chinese labels.
In this context, Busen Green's adoption of copying with constraints is a savvy move along a progression of brand differentiation and articulation, from basic copying to original creation, that's likely to score points.
No doubt, Busen Green will soon attract imitators of its own.
Genevieve Flaven is CEO of Style-Vision Asia, a trend agency based in Shanghai.