Techwear – An Observation


January 4, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

"I think it's best that you give me less work. This way I will be happier making clothes for you."


The clock has just ticked over to six am. I have been awake for two hours, barely getting four hours of sleep yet feeling wide awake. Having given up on it, I put on Ryuichi Sakamoto and decided to pen down my thoughts that I have not had the chance to do in the longest time. My usual reading and writing morning routine has been usurped by work, or fatigue, whichever one is more pressing. In the week leading up to Christmas, I could barely sleep more than a few hours. Any time I wake up in the middle of the night, my mind is immediately tuned in to work. The last few months have been devoted to ROSEN-X, from designing, sampling, testing, shooting, and launching the collection. While all that was a normal process, I did not anticipate the level of demand that I received within the first two weeks alone (thank you for all your generous support). So much so that my primary "broker" - so-called that because this Jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none doesn't sew, he has a network of tailors he works with, compared to my second tailor who actually can do everything from pattern-drafting to sewing - complained of the amount of work I'm giving him, how complicated each piece was, and how overwhelmed with stress he has been. This was unprecedented.

ROSEN-X 2.0

ROSEN-X 2.0 Collection

ROSEN-X 2.0 is undoubtedly more complex and substantial than the first collection. The trip to Guangzhou's textile market has proven useful. I now have access to interesting synthetics and treatments in unusual colours, some of which I have put to good use in this collection. Making clothes for colder months allowed me to use heavier membranes with added water-resistant properties. With that said, I have come to realise that stretch fabric is so much more comfortable to wear than heavy duty water resistant stiff fabrics. With all the fad for giant neon Gore-Tex logo slapped on every other streetwear brands, one wonders when the bubble will burst. Most people who wear these clothes need them for urban commute. A polyester membrane with 10,000mm hydrostatic head is quite an overkill for what we need in our daily use. For reference, a tropical rainforest receives an average of 2000 to 10,920mm of rain ANNUALLY. The UK Ministry of Defence considers 800mm to be waterproof. Moderate water-resistance against the rain, breathability, range of motion, and insulation in winters, would be more applicable for city dwellers.

What I've noticed is that the crowd who wear technical clothing tends to fall into four categories. Those who wear them purely for utility, those who are obsessed with technical features but frankly don't need most of them, those who wear for the appearance of utility, and those who want clothing that bridges fashion and utility. In its purest sense, utilitarian garments are made for soldiers, construction workers, firemen etc. Within the casual context however, the ones who prioritise technically advanced clothing tend to be the outdoorsy-type like skiers, climbers, hikers and athletes. Waterproofness, stretch, breathability and durability of fabrics are extremely important to guard our fragile bags of skin, bones and liquids against forces of nature while allowing maximum range of motion. Fashion is less of a priority; the value comes from competitive pricing and advanced technical features. The North Face and Patagonia dominate this segment, and Nike for athletes. The second group loves to dork out on numbers - from water repellence to membrane pore sizes - taped seams and proprietary fabrics. Though I wouldn't consider it a bad thing, many fawn over branded textiles and overly-complicated construction without considering what one needs in one's daily lives, so much so that there is a tendency to overlook pedestrian synthetics and common cotton in favour of proprietary synthetics. Unless one is largely exposed to the elements on a frequent basis, this level of pedantry simply does not matter much when we spend most of our days traveling comfortably in climate-controlled vehicles. I call it the nerd approach. On a tangential note, the nerd approach is a buying behaviour that can be found in many other interests, be it Menswear, watches, cars.

The third group is the most prominent group on Instagram. Scroll through the "techwear" hashtag and there will be endless images of young boys and girls strapped up from head to toe in a cacophony of loud branding, unnecessary zippers, webbings, oversized pockets, overly-designed bags that are supposed to denote edginess but frankly come across as mindless consumption. They strive to look as caricaturishly aggressive as possible. The appearance of utility is more important than actual utility.

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Fig. 1. A very self-explanatory Venn diagram

These youths - and the not-so-youthful - found themselves enamoured with a trendy fashion subculture that jived with them and combined it with the desire to take part in the game of one-upmanship - or in internet lingo - to flex. Any trend could be co-opted. Yesterday was Rick Owens. Today ACG. Tomorrow who knows. I call it the hypebeast mentality, in which fashion becomes a quest for validation to boost one's self-esteem. Many exhibit the same behaviour as a sneakerhead, collecting as many 'grail' pieces as possible, with the goal of showcasing the latest purchase in a 'fit pic' rather than how the clothes can enhance one's appearance. A telltale sign of this is the lack of attention in how clothes fit one's haircut, facial features and body shape.

The fourth group may or may not have come from any of the prior three, who like the military and athletics-influenced aesthetics set in futuristic dystopia, but would like to look more presentable within their social environments. Many of them are fans of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Akira and William Gibson's novels. They take visual cues from fictions without being overly literal with their references. Clothing becomes less of a mask to hide insecurities that often manifest in consumerist one-upmanship games, and more of a tool to enrich one's existence, whether by increasing social utility, and/or reducing inconveniences. A water-resistant hooded jacket negates the need for an umbrella; a spill-resistant suit keeps one looking fresh after an accident at lunch. The clothes that infuse these technical properties are often adapted to typical everyday context, although this group may prefer a touch of aggression in its designs.

It is a pity that the prevailing image of 'techwear' is largely based on Acronym and its derivatives. The brand itself is fine, it's the lack of diversity that is worth noting, especially when there are so many different approaches that early designs have spearheaded. If we look back far enough, Massimo Osti of C.P. Company was a pioneer designer who merged fashion with utility for use in urban setting. Then came a short-lived stint by a London-based label Vexed Generation who raised the issue of constant surveillance of the City of London pre-Internet 2.0, before anyone could predict that we would freely give our personal information to corporations. More muted options with top-of-the-line technical textiles have been available pre-Internet since the 80s and 90s, from Issey Miyake, Burberry, Prada to Zegna. The difference is that they do not market themselves as techwear, and do not possess the design language that appeal to younger people. Arc'teryx Veilance and Outlier do provide a minimally-designed, office-appropriate attire. To create a cohesive look from all these different brands requires some creativity, a challenge that doesn't seem to be taken up by many #techwear enthusiasts so far.

Interest in Techwear
Fig. 2. Trendline for 'Techwear' search term over time

I suspect the reason why #techwear as we know it today has been so one-dimensional is that the current iteration is still in its infancy, as shown by the sharp rise of interest less than two years ago. Many who stumble into the sub-culture gained their first exposure from social media. When the sources of inspirations are the same, so too will the end product. Social media are focused on visual cues; the guy with the most grails garner the most attention, either that or be an attractive girl. A girl with an out of place chest rig and ill-fitting jacket is a fodder for thirsty boys. The subculture that began as a practical approach to fashion lost its meaning and became a numbers game under the guise of aesthetics. Nike and Errolson Hugh knew this all too well. It shouldn't be a surprise that they released the Nike Prestos in the most eye-catching colours imaginable. This way they can grab the most precious commodity in 21st Century - attention. They clash jarringly with the muted colours that are utilised by Acronym and Nikelab ACG (with the exception of electric yellow that they produced recently). Many have fallen into their trap of collecting these shoes like they would with Pokemon - or rich women and gaudy Birkins - without considering how the shoes would fit their existing wardrobe. I can only wonder if people would buy these shoes in droves if they were released by some other brands.

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Fig. 3. Someone said something worth pondering

I write this as someone whose life and viewpoints used to be controlled by the clothes I wore. Leather jacket in 30 degress Celcius? Check. Ignoring the blisters forming in my uncomfortable designer heels? Been there. Refusing to admit that Geobaskets make me look like a dwarf? Yep. I've done all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify my faulty purchases. That is not to say that I have stopped making faulty purchases, especially considering the Rick Owens pieces sitting in my closet that barely fit into my lifestyle. At some point after many experimentations (which I firmly believe is an important part of growing up), we need to realise that we should look at clothes as another tool in the box of life, and not derive self-worth from the brands we wear.


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Disclaimer: This post was first written on the 26th of December


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A New Stage


October 3, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

Europa-Cargos

Ever since ROSEN was created, I have always used deadstock fabrics found in the local market. This place is by no means small, it has four levels that house a few hundred sellers. Generally there is no shortage of natural fabrics. My favourite sellers bring in imported wools and linens from Japan and Italy. It's also where I discovered the joy of Chinese sandwashed silks, a fabric that's far superior than cotton in terms of comfort, softness and breathability. However as I started experimenting with synthetic garments that focuses on utilitarian aspects for ROSEN-X, from fabrication to design, the options shrink to almost zero. I am extremely picky with the fabrics that I select. Comfort - this includes stretch and breathability - and tactility always come first. Water-resistance second. Since I am not doing the traditional route of factory production, certain production techniques are off-limits, such as heat-taped seams. So I carve a little nook for ROSEN-X that balances aesthetics with the simplicity of practical clothing. Despite the lack of options, I managed to produce a capsule collection by resorting to buying fabric samples online.

However, with the growing popularity of ROSEN-X, I couldn't limit my designs to the few fabrics that I have used. So when I was invited to join a friend in Guangzhou for a trip to the fabric markets there, I thought it was a good time to head down south.

Guangzhou

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The day I arrived in Guangzhou, it rained heavily. I was here in January for a factory visit that didn't prove fruitful. This time I was determined to come back with results, though I had not much of a clue what I should be expecting. There would be a lot of walking involved due to the sheer size of the fabric mall, that much I know. On the second day, I made my way to the textile district first thing in the morning. The main mall is brightly lit, with wide walkways flanked by shops on either side. Each storey houses about a hundred shops, and there are eight storeys in this building. This is just one mall, amongst several others in the area. Outside these mall, the district becomes a maze of small, dark alleys flanked by accessories wholesalers. ⠀

Unlike the fabric market in Shanghai one does not get to walk home with the actual fabrics. The shops display their fabric samples that we can peruse and free colour swatches to take. Orders are made on the phone or on Wechat. The entire trading process is extremely informal, almost like buying from a relative. Chinese manufacturers are experimental with their linens, but from what I could tell, their main focus lies in more innovative fabrics such as viscose and tencel, that and synthetics that either mimic natural fibers, or are made into membranes. Eight hours and eighty fabric swatches later, I only managed to cover half the area, before my legs gave way.

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This is how bolts of fabric are moved around the fabrics district, from the warehouse, to the shops, to the courier stations. It was fascinating to see how different people have come up with different methods to juggle as many bolts as possible.

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And so on the third and final day - decked out in my favourite Rad Hourani vest - I had a better idea of where to go and whom to look for. Having sifted through hundreds of shops, I have my eyes on a particular synthetics producer run by a matriarchal Teochew family who knows what a three layer membrane is. It was a breath of fresh air to be able to speak to someone who is closely linked to the manufacturing side, rather than talking to young sales assistants who have been hired to man the shops without an inkling of what they were selling.

Armed with close to a hundred fabric swatches, I went home ready to tackle the next stage of ROSEN and ROSEN-X.

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The Joy and Pain of Making Clothes


September 24, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Plato suit in silk linen / Plato suit in wool

There are three different kinds of hard work. Some work is hard because it’s laborious and back-breaking. Think rice farmers, street sweepers, and construction workers. Other kind of work is mentally taxing as it requires intense concentration that may involve repetition. As a result, staying focused on the task at hand becomes an uphill battle. Every calculation has to be precise, and in the case of many types of engineering, thousands and even millions of lives are at stake. And then there is another type of hard work that is also mentally taxing in a different way. It requires one to be constantly creative and be quick on their feet. Entrepreneurs, designers and writers fall under this category. I should add that most jobs consist of these three different types of difficulty to different extent, eg. surgeons have to be accurate with their diagnosis and have creative problem solving skills when faced with unusual medical conditions, not to mention doing long shifts that can be physically demanding.

Making clothes is not rocket science. Designing clothes, especially in the early stages of building a label relative to older established brands with intricate designs like Comme des Garçons and Rick Owens, is not the most difficult part of the business. In my experience, the true difficulty lies in running the operations.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Gaussian robe / Plato shirt / Hanzo hakama

ROSEN FW2018

Planck shirt / Hanzo hakama

Being a one man show - albeit with a very supportive partner in the shadows - time is never on my side. The most exciting process for me is always designing and sampling. Once the samples are made, the tough part begins. I have to plan and shoot the editorial, organise social media and marketing communications, double up as customer service representative who answers all emails, do the legwork of relaying orders to my tailors, be the assistant who wraps parcels, deal with the logistics of outbound parcels, work as the HR manager who deals with work visa, business licenses, income and corporate taxes, while moonlighting as a bookkeeper. And then there are always fires to put out. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Yeats jacket / Oliver shirt / Yeats trousers

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Yeats jacket / Cicero shirt

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Oliver shirt in burgundy / Yeats trousers
Oliver shirt in grey

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Euclid coat / Oliver shirt / Ōe hakama

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Euclid coat / Cicero shirt / Hanzo hakama

You might wonder why I haven’t hired any help yet. It’s mostly to do with my nature that resists dealing with people. I hate networking, I have now refused to attend fashion events unless it's to show support for my friends. Most fashion people put on a vapid front, so it becomes difficult to sieve out those who truly understand the current state of the industry and the economic system we have to operate in from those who are lured in by the superficial promises of fashion. And this voluntary seclusion has reduced my network size considerably. To a lesser extent, I’ve found that being a small independent company dealing with niche aesthetics makes the search more difficult. Many dreamy-eyed fashion students and graduates seek glamour and glitz - none of which I can offer - and often their preferences are more conventional, hence not as equipped to understand my design language. And so the search continues.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Cicero shirt in black cotton / Puyi trousers
Cicero shirt in grey sandwashed silk / Ōe hakama

Hardly having the chance to take a breather for months at a time, I find myself having an overwhelming urge to escape. It doesn’t help that my living environment in central Shanghai is constantly buzzing with people and traffic. The exceptionally high decibel on the streets makes it incredibly difficult to find some peace and quiet. Even the bourgeois cafes, beautiful architectures - both old and modern - and other luxuries have failed to diminish the assault on the senses. I often find myself surrounded by Shanghainese grandmothers screeching at the top of their voice; or offended by the sight and sounds of men clearing their throats and spitting phlegm on the streets (they really should consider quitting smoking). What makes Shanghai so conducive and dynamic to run a business in can becomes an additional source of mental exhaustion from hyper vigilance. I have to be wary of speeding old women and delivery boys on their electric scooters, who constantly flout traffic rules (yellow means speed up; red means proceed as normal). At times it gets even more stressful in a car as most drivers do not observe road courtesy, and I’m not even the one driving! Sudden breaks occur frequently, and there were times when the adjacent car was two inches away from scraping the one I was in. Also why queue when you can shuffle your way in as soon as there’s a meter-wide gap? I have to applaud the fearlessness and aggression that Chinese drivers have had to develop.

And so I run away to the nearest place that allows me to seek seclusion and solitude, which happens to be the Longjing tea plantation in Hangzhou. Long time readers of my blog would know that this isn’t the first time I sing praises of this place. It is a rare green oasis in the midst of first tier cities of China on the eastern seaboard. I cannot stress how difficult it is to find solitude and peace in a region of sixty million people without having to jump on two trains and three buses. Amongst this patch of hilly greenery I find a little bit of peace to mentally recharge. Being away from home allows me to not feel guilty when I do some reading and writing, instead of having the nagging feeling that I should be answering emails and fulfilling orders. My eyes are soothed by beautiful foliage, a welcome break from steel and concrete artifice.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Turing jacket / Oliver shirt in grey

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Planck shirt / Hanzo hakama

If Shanghai is the naggy mom who means well but gets on your nerve, the tea plantation is the generous aunt who welcomes you with hugs and feasts. But as with any good things, one should avoid having too much of it lest we take them for granted. And so with my strength replenished, I headed back down to the city that has adopted me, nagged at me, and forced me to grow up. Amidst all my responsibilities, anxieties and complaints, I take pride in knowing that more than a few of my customers are enjoying the clothes that I've made for them. My gratitude goes towards everyone who has given ROSEN a chance.

ROSEN FALL/WINTER 2018

Turing Suit / Oliver shirt in burgundy

All items are available on ROSEN-STORE.COM. Feel free to contact me for custom requests.


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What I Think About When I Think About Buying Clothes


July 30, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

“Should I get it, or should I not?”

That’s the question that I often found myself grappling with. It’s certainly nothing new for most of us who have an interest in fashion.

The item in question was a The North Face (henceforth known as TNF) Summit L5 jacket. The person that I was two years ago would not give it a second look, let alone give it a long ponder, many umm and ahhs. The person I was two years ago was still deeply entrenched in the simple sportswear and intricate designer pieces. I know nothing about synthetic fabrics other than polyester a la Comme des Garçons and pleated Pleats Please. I kept myself warm in winter by wearing three to four layers of clothing - they weighed me down and tire me out within the first hour of leaving my house. If it started pouring - a frequent occurrence in Shanghai - I did not own anything in my wardrobe that let me go out without an umbrella.

The North Face Summit L5 Womens Jacket-1

Wearing: The North Face Summit L5 Jacket; ROSEN-X Minerva trousers; Salomon shoes

I first saw this jacket at a TNF outlet store in Gold Coast. I’m not quite a fan of brick and mortar shopping as I have been truly spoilt by the Internet, but outlet shopping still holds the magic of bargain hunting. My first memory of outlet shopping was in Bicester Village in Oxfordshire, known for their list of luxury brands. The year was 2010. I had scored immensely beautiful Burberry Prorsum runway coats at 70% off - from their best season too. And just like that a pleasant memory had imprinted a positive association towards outlet stores inside my head. Conversely, it is quite likely that if a terrible experience had transpired instead - like losing my passport - it would have turned me off outlet malls in a subconscious way.

It was my partner who first brought up the existence of this specific jacket and suggested that we should look for it. He admired the built quality of the garment. I trust his expertise in the field of technical clothing. But a brand’s quality of production does not necessarily kindle excitement within a consumer. For example, I know that Zegna makes good suits and fabrics, but I don’t get excited thinking about the brand. On the other hand, TNF has been collaborating with my favourite designers such as Junya Watanabe and Sacai - and the collections were done rather well, though the branding could be less blatant. The positive association towards TNF has thus been strengthened, so I entered the store with much enthusiasm.

The North Face Summit L5 Womens Jacket-2

The person I was one year ago was a little less ignorant about synthetics because I had tried to make clothes with them. I had a more in-depth understanding of their intended use, benefits and array of differences in various materials, and with that understanding comes a greater appreciation. Armed with that appreciation, I took the TNF jacket in my hands. I could feel its substantial built, it’s armour-like tactility that does not correspond to how light its weight is, and the matte texture that was neither rough nor plasticky, as if it’s been coated with very fine powder that feels good when brushed against the skin.

“Uh oh, I think I like it. What do I do?”

This TNF jacket is part of the Summit range - built for extreme weather conditions for the most prolific athletes who dare to conquer the highest peaks of the Earth. I may have been a competitive athlete in my younger years, now a religious gym goer and the casual rock climber, but none of those would qualify me as an avid mountain climber. I have done plenty of hiking, but not the sort that involves ice-picks, snow and treacherous weather conditions. For an urban dweller such as myself, most of the breadth and depth of the technical qualities of this jacket would be lost on me. This jacket is made of Gore-Tex 3-Layer membrane; absolutely waterproof yet breathable; hardy in abrasion-prone areas, but still soft and lightweight. It is meant to protect the wearer from constant pouring rain and snow in sub-zero temperature.

“But I am neither a mountain climber, nor a frequent hiker. I'm sure it will work well in the cities that I live in, but does that warrant a purchase?”

Heidegger postulated that we are products of the time, place, and culture within which one is born, lives, and dies. If he were alive right now next to me he would be telling me that wanting this jacket is a culmination of external forces such as commercial interests and positive reinforcements of my experiences and those of the person(s) whose judgments I value influencing my decision making process. I am adrift, floating as part of the herd; being inauthentic. On the other hand Sartre might argue back to him that my personal experiences have shaped me into the person I am and I have internalised them to become a part of my identity, therefore I may possibly be trying to be authentic. As my internal dialogue carried on I tenderly put the jacket back on the rack.

The North Face Summit L5 Womens Jacket-3

Photography: xeoniq

“I’m pretty sure I should get it. I don’t own anything as practical as that. No doubt I wouldn’t be hiking the Everest any time soon, but it would be a useful jacket as the weather gets cooler, protecting me from rain so I don’t have to carry an umbrella, which means my hands will be free to carry more bags.”

The mental gymnastics that I did to justify my purchase was a familiar process, but luckily one that I have not done too often these days. I have concluded that my decision buying process when it comes to clothing is part of an attempt to craft an identity; one that is built on personal background, lived-in environments, and secret fantasies. This intangible value is carefully weighed alongside its practical functions and built quality of the garment. At the end of the day though, I am a consumer. I consume. I am no saint in this Capitalist system that I partake in.

Three months later I found myself going back to the store, twice more, before I finally turned my nose up at Heidegger, and carried the wonderful jacket to the cashier.


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ROSEN-X


July 26, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

At the time of writing, the plane was flying somewhere over Australia’s Northern Territory. I have not had the opportunity to do any form of writing in the last few weeks as I had been racing against time trying to complete the latest ROSEN collection, only a couple of weeks after the previous one was released. That collection came to be known as ROSEN-X, the synthetics-heavy counterpart to ROSEN.

Editorial-Cover

From fabric selections to sampling, a capsule collection that only consisted of eight pieces - versus the usual twelve to fifteen - proved to be a challenge for my tailor and me who are used to working with natural fabrics. It didn’t help that I was pedantic about the fit of the garments, especially on what was to become my favourite trousers in the collection - the Europa cargos. In the quest for the perfect cut, I ended up making four samples of the same garment versus the typical average of one.

My design approach for ROSEN has always remained singular - to create fuss free garments that complement the clothes made by our favourite designers. I do not seek to create ornate clothes - simply because I do not have the expertise, manpower and financial resources to make intricate clothing well. I do however - with the expertise of local tailors - know how to make not-so-ornate but slightly-more-interesting clothing well. And that combination of design knowledge and tailoring expertise are brought over to make ROSEN-X pieces.

All ROSEN-X garments are available on ROSEN-STORE.COM, customised sizing available upon request.

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What Is It Like to Produce in China?


June 4, 2018

by Gracia Ventus

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And so it was that the summer collection of ROSEN was launched over two weeks ago.

In continuation from the last post about clothing production, I would like to post an answer I gave in an interview that asked me what it was like to produce in China.

“I can’t speak for the majority of the production methods that are available in China. The following information is purely from my own experiences and what I have learnt from others. Generally, Chinese producers are extremely eager to win your business, and they have can-do attitude which is highly contagious. Most aren’t afraid to consider taking up a business outside of their scope of experience. The upside is that they are willing to experiment together with you, as long as you are willing to foot the cost. When the end result works out as planned, everyone wins. The downside is that sometimes they are biting more than they can chew, and the result can be a spectacular failure. When you are working directly with tailors doing custom orders, or hiring in-house tailors and seamstresses in a private studio, this risk can be minimised but it increases costs of production per piece. Dealing with a factory in a mass production process would bring down costs per piece, but it means involving three different parties - the designers (me), the middleman (salesperson, pattern makers, pattern cutters), and the factory (factory managers, production team, factory workers). Every single stakeholder in each entity has different ways of thinking and knowledge of production, which means that there are a hundred and one ways in which the entire manufacturing process can go wrong - from sampling to final production - especially when making unconventional garments. Some design houses would spend a long time sourcing the right factories to work with by making samples. However, there are a thousand and one factories in China to choose from, each with their own middleman, hence it is necessary to put their works to the test. Very soon the overheads increase exponentially. And in order to recover these sunk costs, it is necessary for companies to either charge higher prices, or increase sales volume.

Once a relationship (commonly known as guan xi) is established, however, it is necessary to maintain it well. Loyalty is very much cherished. We cut each other some slack when mistakes are made, payment terms become more flexible, and our orders are prioritised over others. During important holidays like Lunar New Year, or coming back from an overseas trip, it’s common to bring gifts for parties you’ve established good business relationships with.”

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There were of course some things that I left out, because I didn’t want to end up writing a long essay in an interview. It was important to add that laws and regulations do little to enforce the working culture of China. Flexibility is expected when operating in a large grey area. And in many cases, businesses would take it upon themselves to push the limits, which can be good or bad, depending on the situation. For example, if one’s business relationship is good, both parties would be more willing go out of their way to accommodate each others’ requests, improve the quality of production, or do favours for us at the risk of bending the law. The tailor whom I've worked with the longest confided that the work and finishes that I demand from him have pushed him to improve his standards and exposed him to more complicated designs. Fortunately he has a good attitude that is willing to embrace such challenges. There are some other tailors who refuse work that goes beyond their comfort zone. On the flip side, shady companies might also decide to cut corners on your products to see what they can get away with in order to save costs. And I’ll tell you why.

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The entrepreneurial spirit is common amongst the Chinese, whether we are born in the mainland, or are the fifth generation born overseas. My dad is a businessman, and I’ve followed his footsteps. Many of my relatives did the same, a late uncle sold poultry in a traditional wet market in Jakarta until he died in an accident, some distant aunt has been running a noodle shop for decades - she still makes the best Indonesian beefballs I have ever had. Contrary to common practices in Western countries, Chinese businesses tend to start really small, often with borrowed capital from friends and family. It doesn’t matter the size of the business, what matters is doing it. When mainland China finally freed itself in the late 70s from the utter failure of Mao’s economic reforms, the flames of entrepreneurship were rekindled in full force. The masses were hungry for food, for wealth and for productivity. Informal businesses sprung up next to state-owned enterprises. People worked hard to earn their rice bowls. While this are all very good things, the hunger to survive also made competition much fiercer. Without proper government regulations and watchdogs in place at the beginning of the economic reforms, some unethical businesses resorted to underhanded means to increase their profits. Bear in mind that unethical business practices can occur anywhere in the world - one simply has to look at the financial collapse less than a decade ago - but how and why they manifest differ. As the government constantly tries to play catch up, Chinese business laws and regulatory framework have to be revised every so often, so much so that it becomes difficult for companies to keep up, especially when many of them are small, family-run businesses. They continue to operate within what they think would be within acceptable boundaries, until they are warned or fined not to do so.

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This is why there is a common adage in China that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. It is with this mentality in mind that flexibility can be a risky factor. Hence it is important to find business partners that have moved beyond simply trying to make money on a one-off basis and evolved into the type who are keen to develop a working relationship based on integrity and creating a win-win situation for both parties involved. Thankfully as the market is maturing, most producers are now realising that they cannot simply rip someone off because keeping long-term customers happy has been proven to be more cost-effective. Not only that, the business relationship that has been fostered often transcends to loyalty and personal friendships, which is a valuable advantage for running a business for reasons outlined in the beginning of this essay.

While the payoff can be great, not everyone can tolerate the ambiguous nature of Chinese business culture, especially not for those who are more comfortable with conformity and clear boundaries. The acceptance and ability to navigate through these cultural differences are some of the most important key factors in determining the success of a foreign business in this country.

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