Sep 19, 2007
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China's top models strut Paris catwalks as quotas near end

Sep 19, 2007

PARIS, Sept 19, 2007 (AFP) - With textile quotas about to expire, dozens of Chinese fashion firms are strutting their stuff jointly for the first time on Paris catwalks this week as Beijing attacks the high-end European market.

Models present creations of Chinese company Lapargay during the China Textile And Apparel Trade Fair (Texworld), on September 17th, in Le Bourget - Photo : Pierre Verdy/AFP

Making a debut appearance in the world's fashion capital, 82 clothes-makers from China descended on Paris for a four-day stint at a top trade fair, bringing their top models, including Miss Chinas 2003 and 2006, as well as the country's "most handsome man several years running", Zhang Xinghe.

From titillating G-string underwear to body-hugging evening gowns and trendy urban gear, 11 up-market labels paraded the catwalk at the Texworld fabrics trade fair while dozens more showed cashmeres, fine silks and sports-wear to 18,000 visiting buyers, some from France, the majority from across the continent.

"We must get to know each other better and reduce trade frictions," said Du Yu Zhou, the onetime national textile supremo who now heads the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC)."

Last October, China's Jefen fashion brand opened the march at the Paris women's ready-to-wear shows with a teen line of micro-bloomers and baby-doll dresses.

Speaking to reporters this week, Du said the country's fashion industry was putting the accent on producing high-end fashion apparel -- not the cheap-labour mass-produced gear generally associated with made-in-China goods.

"We are going up-market, seeking not quantity but quality and innovation," he said. "We are looking at technological progress and creating labels. This will help encourage our companies to export."

The European Union, whose quotas on Chinese textiles are finally to be dismantled at the end of the year, soaks up 15 percent of China's textile exports. The country's 20 million textile workers produce 400 billion euros turnover annually, a quarter for the export market.

"Textiles are of huge importance for our economy and for our export sector," Du said.

Star attraction at the fair, held on the eve of the Paris ready-to-wear shows, was what the Chinese call "Soft Gold" -- or cashmere.

"Our cashmere is the best in the world," proudly proclaimed Hei Liangjie, head of trade in the remote northern region of Ningxia bordering Mongolia, near the Gobi desert, whose six million people are mostly Muslim.

When cashmere prices rose steeply in the 1980s the region leapt in to consolidate its own raw material with raw cashmere purchased in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia, buying and selling at first before then realising huge profits were to be made by also processing and producing cashmere goods.

Over time it has become the top producer of cashmere products in China, which itself accounts for 70 percent of global production. Of the 20 million cashmere garments produced in Ningxia this year, 10 million were exported. One firm alone, Lingwu St Edenweiss, raises 350,000 goats a year.

"We are trying to develop our own labels aimed at the top-end market," Hei said. "The European market will be our biggest in the future."

Like cashmere, many of the Western-style brands paraded on the catwalk this week boast plus-size sales and production statistics.

Meters/bonwe, a late teens urban brand sporting skinny-jeans and leather jackets, has 1,800 speciality stores in China. Smart Garments, which paraded evening furs and glittery get-up, produces more than a million pieces a year.

White Collar's smart evening wear reportedly receives 5,000 customers a day, and a flowing designer brand based on oriental trends called Exception de Mixmind has 60 outlets across China.

No wonder that the EU opted to extend textile quotas in 2005 -- exports of some items of Chinese clothing surged more than 500 percent when international quotas expired on January 1, 2005.

"The levels of China textile exports following that liberalisation were so great that EU companies did not have reasonable expectations of adjusting, hence the extension," a European Commission spokesman said.

"They will expire at the end of this year and they will not be replaced. We don't have the legal basis to replace them. The temporary extension was possible because when China entered the WTO in 2001 there was a clause in its agreement which enabled people to unilaterally re-impose quotas up until 2008.

"In the end we didn't do it unilaterally, we negotiated it with China.

"But... I don't imagine the Chinese are interested in renegotiating quotas and we are about to lose the main basis for unilaterally imposing quotas," he said.

By Claire Rosemberg

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