The glamourous first lady is nothing new, even for China. Jiang Qing, when she was still Lan Ping, comes to mind. But new president Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, comes as an established celebrity in her own right. Not only does she look the part, but is dressing it, too, giving rise to thoughts about how China could use its emerging fashion industry to project soft power, as well as propelling some of its emerging domestic fashion brands onto the global stage.
Peng, as the Internet has been abuzz, has been dressed to accompany her husband on his first foreign tour as president by Exception de Mixmind, the designer ready-to-wear fashion brand of Mao Jihong and his partner and ex-wife Ma Ke. Ma is of China’s leading independent fashion designers. Now in her early 40s, she has been gaining international recognition since the mid-2000s. Their couture line is Wuyong (“Useless”). Peng may shine just as much of a spotlight on Ma as the U.S.’s first lady, Michelle Obama, has on the New York-based Taiwanese-Canadian designer Jason Wu.
Exception, we understand, is now is a 900 million yuan ($144 million) a year retail business. It is on many lists of Chinese designer brands that could make it internationally. It made its name for using natural materials, and for its use of texture and pattern rooted in Chinese tradition—elegant rather than edgy. That all makes it a politically safe choice for Peng, as well as one in a fashion sense for a 50-year old woman, even one who is a celebrity.
As we have noted before, China’s rag trade, like many of its other industries, is moving up the value chain, from sweatshop to catwalk in its case. China has the potential to reshape the global couture and designer ready-to-wear markets, as it does all luxury markets, because its domestic market is likely to grow so fast and so far. No harm to any brand to get a little helping hand from the top—or for China potentially to be talked of by fashionistas in the same breath as Paris, Milan, London, Tokyo or New York.