An important fashion issue was raised during the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was not about the style and design of the athletes' uniforms (although fashion pundits had a field day with them). It was about how the American public and US Congress reacted to the Ralph Lauren-designed but China-manufactured Team USA uniforms. Why they were up in arms was not just because of the lost revenue for the already struggling American textile and apparel industry; it was also because the uniforms these American athletes wore on their backs were symbolic--it was a show of patriotism and wearing something non- American was deemed as something of a betrayal. The thing is, the U.S. Olympic team is privately funded and relies on generous sponsors. Ralph Lauren is one of those sponsors and it was not the designer's first time to provide uniforms for the athletes. And Ralph Lauren does outsource some of its merchandise production in China.
While that issue was later resolved with Ralph Lauren agreeing to manufacture Team USA uniforms within the U.S. come 2014 (Rio Olympic Games), I cannot help but take the situation further--the idea of having American and European designer merchandise outsourced for production in China and the consumer prejudice associated with it. This manufacturing practice is actually not new to consumers anymore-- almost everything from toys to electronics to clothes, jewellery, and bags are made in China these days. And while we are more open to purchasing electronic products that are China- made, many of us are still resistant to paying top dollars for a designer bag or a dress that's manufactured there (as opposed to home countries of these fashion houses). Admit it, there is hesitation. So, why the prejudice?
China has sadly bore the brunt of fashion consumers' ire because of the continued reports of designer merchandise counterfeiting, unscrupulous business practices, substandard finished product quality, and poor labor conditions that stem from factories situated within their borders. But big names in the fashion industry have been outsourcing because China does have significantly lower labor costs, thereby allowing them to price their merchandise better. Lower costs equals better bottom lines for them and more reasonable prices for consumers. Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Coach, Longchamp, Kate Spade, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and yes, Prada (some of their nylon products) are among a few of the fashion houses that have made no secret of this. Products they sell that were manufactured in China carry such label. I admit that early on in my discovery, I too was surprised that these fashion houses no longer manufactured merchandise in their brand's country of origin (whatever happened to "brand heritage").
There are a lot of economics involved in their decisions to do so, and I won't be surprised if more labels shift their production work to China in the near future. It takes a lot of trust for major fashion houses to outsource luxury merchandise manufacturing versus in-house production. There is no fail- safe guarantee of quality control for everything manufactured in China. It is a risk, especially because of the reputation of China to many a luxury consumer. This is why a number of fashion houses still refuse to acknowledge that they manufacture some of their products there. Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, officially brought this startling discovery to light about how certain well- known brands secretly manufacture products in China but deny that information to their customers. But even before Thomas' declaration, consumers had already become suspicious of such activity--presumably (and mainly) because they saw the change in merchandise quality.
Interestingly though, the Hermes group, a company steeped in French tradition, took one step further in proving the promise they see in China by cementing Euro-Asian relations with the country when they invested in and co-founded a fashion and lifestyle brand called Shang Xia with renowned designer Jiang Qiong Er back in 2008. Hermes continues to operate separately from Shang Xia and vice versa. But the mere fact that a very prestigious French company with a net worth in the hundreds of millions of Euros, was willing to create a Chinese homegrown brand speaks volumes in terms of their trust not just in manufacturing but also in the design field from China.
As a consumer, I'd like to be told the plain truth--don't bother with the sugarcoating because as consumers, we now have access to a plethora of information that would eventually lead us to the truth--ugly as that truth may be. I have a lot of respect for fashion houses that openly disclose China as their merchandise manufacture origin. Design and price are still my overall deciding factors on whether I make a bag purchase or not. If wanting to maintain lower production costs is the main reason why a fashion house has merchandise manufactured in China, I'd be expecting to see price points commensurate to lowered costs. Better labor conditions for the workers as well as good quality control are also deciding factors--taint the brand with labor lawsuits and stories about poor working conditions of the laborers and you immediately lose me as a customer.
Shortly after that Team USA uniform controversy, Larry Popeika of Bloomberg Businessweek noted that, "most of the value from the apparel industry comes from design, technology, sales, marketing, and distribution--not manufacturing." I like to apply that statement not just to apparel but to luxury goods as well. The merchandise execution (manufacturing) is integral, but just as paramount if not more is the design. The idea of China- made European/ American luxury goods takes a lot of getting used to. But worry not about the brand's heritage getting lost just because the item is not made in the brand's country of origin. Put it this way-- if the Hermes group can put their trust in China, perhaps it's time we as consumers learn to be more accepting of China- manufactured luxury goods too. If not right away, at least in due time.
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