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From Rags to Stitches

Once considered bourgeois frippery, the fancy bra has become an indicator of China's boom. Lace takes the place of plain cloth.

January 15, 2004|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

Even the idea of shopping for underwear turned most women off. Simple as they were, bras were usually stocked like all other consumer goods, from soy sauce to socks, under glass counters guarded by sales clerks who cared little about service. There was no reliable sizing system and no way to try the garments on.

Sometimes women ran into uncomfortable situations when clerks tried to be helpful. One store in Shanghai allowed sales ladies to grab the customer's breast to help determine size. A more discreet shop might hire an elderly woman to sit behind velvet curtains to feel the customer before suggesting a purchase.

Today, Aimer produces 500 million undergarments a year with at least 200 seasonal styles and color variations based on an international size chart. Its products fill entire floors in department stores across the country. Women can try them on in private fitting rooms without unwanted touching.

Zhuang Fei has never seen a Victoria's Secret catalog or opened a newspaper filled with Maidenform ads. For most of her life, the worker at the Qingdao Nannan factory here on China's bustling east coast had no idea that the cloth covering a woman's chest could come in so many sizes, styles and colors. Now, thousands of brassieres go through her hands every week before they are shipped out of the country and sold overseas.

"We've made push-up bras with thick padding good for women with very small busts and we've made extra-large ones that are bigger than my head. It's really very funny," said Zhuang, 23, looking up from a heap of pink seamless Maidenforms. "Before I started working here I rarely paid attention to these things. Now, when I go bra shopping, I always try to find the most colorful ones and something that looks like what we make here."

Chances are, she won't be able to find the same ones. The top brands at her factory, where she inspects products for stitching irregularities, are Maidenform, Victoria's Secret and Target brands. They are much more likely to end up on supermodel Tyra Banks than on a Chinese seamstress who makes about $3 a day.

Top-of-the-line bras sold in China cost more than many people in this largely rural country make in a year.

"Nobody I know can afford this kind of quality," said Zhang Feng, 21, another assembly-line worker at Qingdao Nannan, as she zipped through a pile of apple-green bras with her sewing machine. "Anything that looks like this would cost at least $2.50 each. What I buy costs me only 60 cents."

Most of her co-workers are peasants' daughters. For them, the job at the bra factory not only brings more money than their parents could ever make, but it also opens a window into the world of beauty they never suspected existed, a world the trade battles have jeopardized.

After the Bush administration in November limited the import of Chinese bras, dressing gowns and knit fabric, Qingdao Nannan laid off 350 people, or about 17% of its staff. The company had planned on hiring 300 more people for a much-anticipated expansion, and that also was scrapped. More workers may have to leave if things don't improve, said Christopher Moon, chairman of the South Korea-based company.

Moon has already moved most of his Victoria's Secret production to Indonesia. If his other U.S.-bound orders dry up, he may start producing his popular South Korean brand in Qingdao for the Chinese market.

"This would be something we've been thinking about for the last three years," Moon said from his office in Qingdao. "Korean culture is very popular in China now. China could soon become the second-strongest economy in the world. You'd be crazy not to do business with China."

That would, of course, mean more competition for Chinese-owned bra makers.

"There's already a mad dash into the market with thousands of brands out there," said Song of Aimer. "But our style is more suitable to the Chinese taste. We have conducted special research and we know what our customers want. They have gone from no-function bras to function mania. If the bra doesn't improve their look, they will simply not buy it."

Studies show Chinese women still buy far less fancy underwear than their Western counterparts. For them, the most likely occasions for purchasing a new bra are their wedding day and their special birthdays that come once every 12 years on the Chinese calendar. Both days are celebrated by wearing red undergarments for good luck. Chinese women today are more likely to splurge on visible items such as cosmetics or a coat.

"When I go to the sauna or the spa, I am often embarrassed to see women with beautiful clothes undress to reveal raggedy and ill-fitting underwear more appropriate for an older housewife," said Sun, the department store executive. "They don't realize that to look good and feel confident, the quality of what goes on the inside has to be just as good as what goes on the outside."

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