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A fashion designer’s tribulations in China (part 1)

🗺️📍Or why we chose to produce locally

This summer, I’ve decided to stay a few more hours in front of my laptop in order to tell you about my job as a shoe designer, which I have been doing for the past 8 years. More exactly, I’ll be writing about the places where my line of work has taken me, which have ultimately led me to want to produce the GURU’s shoes locally. Without further ado, here's your two-part summer soap!

One of the things I like the most in my job are on-site visits, where I can meet the shoe production teams. In addition to the relational and human aspects, these are key moments to share our know-hows and compare our ideas, as well as instances where the shoe shapes bloom from the modelmaker's hands.

The goal of these trips is to hasten the shoe’s release date by designing and developing models directly within the factories. It’s also an opportunity to select new workshops, materials and accessories. However, there are trips unlike any others. This has been the case every time I’ve been to China.

Fish market - Hong Kong May 2010

Let me tell you

It all starts with a flat 10h long flight. Then, you must quickly put aside your habits and hand yourself over to your guide/agent, who will likely be one of the few people you will talk to. Well, at least for me, who only knows 3 sentences in cantonese: "hello", "thank you" and "goodbye", which I try to pronounce correctly without much success.

Our destination lies between Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou, at the north of Hong-Kong. A megalopolis of over 65 million inhabitants. My guide for this trip is Jayson, Sun's –our agent’s– assistant. He is tall and has shoulder length curly hair. He is also very young, being only 18 years old. He pays all of our purchases by scanning QR codes with his phone, and brilliantly drives a classic black SUV.

When traveling, there’s always a day devoted to the visit of materials markets. If, like me, you imagine a big covered market, you couldn’t be more wrong! Rather, they are gigantic shopping malls filled with stalls or small shops. Or even better, large districts full of bungalow showrooms. Super easy to get lost in! Inside these mazes, there’s no real organisation by type of product. Often, each store offers exactly the same models as the others. You have to search while keeping an eye on your guide, who, on his side, is trying to make his way to the next restaurant as quickly as possible! After hours of searching, I only have a meager loot, with not a single idea of the origin nor the composition of my articles.

I especially remember the visit to a small loafer factory. I reached the place by going through a real food market, by taking an elevator between a fish stall and a fruit one. One floor higher, the boss was waiting for us behind his huge lacquered desk along with his wife and two other members of his family. And there began a marathon paced by countless mini cups of very bitter hot tea. The whole ritual was performed by the woman. The five of them rarely spoke to me and conversed together in Cantonese. For two hours I tried to divert their attention from the tea to the subject of my visit before finally receiving permission to visit the factory. I controlled the quality of our material, which was good. Then, I tried to explain my expectations about the development of our model to the boss. I could see he wasn’t following me, so I insisted. He then called in a technician who seemed to be the only employee present. We could only talk to each other by signs and showing each other measures, but he seemed to understand me. He wrote down some notes and disappeared. He came back, about twenty minutes later, with a corrected sample he‘d prepared. And it was so much better! if only I could have spent my morning with him!

The Pearl River Delta’s megalopolis also offers ultra-modern landscapes. Huge brand new and very chic neighborhoods, as well as bright showrooms with young employees who are perfectly bilingual in English. But also very large shopping centers of recent construction, whose shops offer semi-luxury brands that were unaffordable for me. Jayson was sympathetic and offered me a detour through the “copy market” so that I could do my personal shopping. I declined. My guide was disappointed and explained that some copies come out of the same production lines as the "real" models: the factory produces a little more, without the brand’s accord, and resells it, or sells all the information (materials, patterns, accessories) to a third party. The latter can then make copies that are just as "true" as the originals; some are even sold with certificates of authenticity to avoid customs clearance issues!

Hong Kong harbour • May 2010

I also happened to visit a perfectly clean factory, free of dust, with no workers around, a bit like a movie set one. I was told that it was an active one. During the vast majority of my visits I didn’t see any workers actually working. Sometimes they hung around outside, cooking, smoking, chatting among the drying laundry, or generally making themselves busy as if they lived there. Sometimes they were completely absent. The machines were silent and the factories deserted.

I’ve just introduced you to some of my surprising professional encounters with Chinese culture. Despite what many people believe, quality isn’t an issue, as long as you agree to pay the right price. The hard part comes when trying to obtain sourcing information, and above all, when trying to communicate with the locals, as we don’t share the same standards of comfort nor beauty.

See you next month so I can tell you about other Chinese adventures, including what happens outside of work. Until then, enjoy July’s sunlight and have a look at our shoes, all made in Europe!


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