While strolling around Taiyuan, an up-and-coming and coal-rich second-tier city, I was amused to find an entire street of identical looking sportswear stores. Each brands’ logo bore resemblance to Nike’s Swoosh, differentiated themselves by either being upside down, back to front or having an extra kink etc. sticking out.
I never expected Taiyuan to have the fashion diversity or range of brands present in Beijing or Shanghai, yet I was still dismayed at the lack of branding originality and product differentiation available for fashion.
While foreign brands in China are doing an excellent job at catering to increased demands for well designed goods and ‘branded’ shopping experiences, Chinese fashion labels still struggle to come up with unique value and brand propositions, opting instead to copy other peoples designs and marketing strategies.
Why is this? Why do Chinese copy so much and why aren’t they creative?
A lot of it has to with education system that promotes copying and doesn’t encourage creativity at all. This has consequences for everything design related and largely explains why Chinese prefer to copy rather than create original work.
Education in China is based on the Confucian learning system that has gone unchanged for thousands of years. In feudal China, the best way to get ahead in life was to pass the grueling Imperial Examination system to become a Mandarin (bureaucrat). To pass, students needed to memorize thousands of Chinese characters and The Five Classics, by rote learning and writing and rewriting them over and over again.
To this day, education in China follows this rote learning philosophy. Children are taught to copy and nothing else. There is only one correct way to write a Chinese character and students never get grades for creative design or inventing their own fonts.
Thus, while in the West, many fashion brands are born out of their founder’s creative talents and/or craftsmanship, in China, fashion apparel brands tend to be started by business people who are motivated by profit alone and don’t care about creating something original. Moreover, the notion of intellectual property rights and that copying is unethical doesn’t register in the minds’ of most Chinese. Therefore, the quickest way to profit becomes copying the success of others. Why invest in reinventing the wheel, when the current wheel is selling like hotcakes?
There is a phenomenal amount of fake merchandise in China and the line between what is actually real and fake becomes completely blurred. As I covered in this post on Retailing Fake Fashion and Luxury in China, with fake shoes, bags, jackets and even entire fake stores, fashion is a stand-out category for counterfeiting.
Yet copying happens wherever there is money to be made and occurs with every product in every industry all across China. Bars sell fake brand name alcohol, fake government car license plates allow people to circumvent road rules, fake taxi receipts allow employees to file inflated expense claims and even fake shopping bags allow people to appear as if they just stepped out of a luxury brand store.
Sometimes you have to wonder who is it designing these counterfeit products. Is it a budding fashion designer volunteering to do design as a way to get experience? No way! Chances are it’s just someone tucked away on a computer in a smoky factory basement. With internet access and some Photoshop skills anyone can copy and paste, mix and match and tweak a pre-existing design and turn it into their own product.
Is China capable of a creative revolution and move away from counterfeiting?
Enhanced enforcement of IP laws is not likely to happen anytime soon, nor is educational reform on the agenda.
More likely, change will originate from the young generations like the ba-ling hou or jiu-ling hou (after eight zero/nine zero – meaning people born after 1980 or 1990). Although still subjected to rote learning, these people never experienced the Mao suit era and display their own freedom of thought and self-expression that embraces creativity.
In China the future fashion entrepreneurs will be young designers and creative people like She Guang Hu or those that competed in the recent Woolmark Prize. They will create their own labels and be ‘designers’ rather than just garment factory owners, who with the flick of a switch can produce thousands of garments with any logo you like embedded on them.
Chinese cool is on the rise and creativity definitely exists, but its still relatively underground and only just starting to emerge which is also what makes it exciting. Thankfully shops like Brand New China and CHIC’s Young Bloods trade show are forging new ground by giving emerging Chinese designers a platform to attract attention and sell their collections.
To see more great examples of Chinese design check out the this month’s Beijing Design Week, and Neocha Edge - a website that promotes Chinese creativity and connects Chinese designers with international brands for collaborations.