Moving from “Made in China” to “Design in China”

If you still treat China simply as a low-cost apparel manufacturing workshop or linger on those scenes in the documentary China Blue (produced in 2005), the following story may be a “shock” to you.

During my visit this summer to the Shanghai Silk Group, I was very impressed by how quickly this decades-old company has fundamentally changed its business model, moving away from manufacturing in the past to ambitiously engage in apparel design and branding functions as of today. This is what a 21st century China apparel company actually looks like:


Above: The Shanghai Silk Group displayed its indigenous brand “Lily” .


Above: A designer is working on a 3D model @ the Shanghai Silk Group.  Each year, the design department of the company will launch around 2,000 new product lines with indigenous intellectual property right.


Above: Product booklet of the Shanghai Silk Group. 2 issues/ year.


Above: To strengthen the design capability, the company purchased the digital printer which can directly print patterns on silk fabrics.


Above: Digital printing silk products of the Shanghai Silk Group


Above: The pattern making and draping team is equipped with the latest Lectra system


Above: To improve efficiency and productivity, the company also uses automatic fabric cutting machine (made in Japan)


Above: Computer-controlled knitting and weaving machines (making samples)

Besides the modern equipments & technologies, the emergence of the “design in China” phenomenon is also underpinned by the increasing supply of skilled talents in the country. Fashion design education is booming rapidly in China in recent years and improving in quality as well. Just in Shanghai alone, a dozen colleges are offering fashion design programs nowadays. For example, the Donghua University (the former China Textile University, where I graduated from) enrolls a total 255 fashion design major freshmen in fall 2013.  The enrollment size could be doubled if also counting students enrolled in a dozen other international fashion programs jointly offered by the Donghua University and its partner schools from Japan, UK, France and the United States.

In terms of the curriculum, fashion programs in China typically provide students with more focused training on design and product development compared with the textile & apparel programs in the U.S.. (however, less merchandising and marketing related courses are offered due to the lack of experienced faculty). Thanks to the sponsorship of the local apparel industry and the growing investments made by the university, students are able to learn WITH the industry-standard technologies, ranging from the CAD system, product lifecycle management software, automatic fabric cutting system to 3D body scanner.  Provided with the 21st century perspectives and skills, these future Chinese fashion designers will be globally competitive. (you may click here for pictures of students’ design work displayed at the 2013 Fashion Week hosted by the Donghua University)

Above: Chinese students are taking the draping class.

However, the changing face of China’s apparel industry is neither a surprise nor an exception.  As suggested by Dr. Gary Gereffi at the Duke University, one of the world’s most distinguished scholars studying the governance of global apparel value chain (GVC), the apparel industry in a country will gradually upgrade following the path of CMT (cut-make and trim)–OEM (the original equipment manufacturing)–ODM (the original design manufacturing)–OBM (the original brand name manufacturing).


To FASH majors: are you ready to compete with “design in China” ? What would be your advantages and disadvantages, opportunities and threats?

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