Maoren leaves panties behind with new fashion line

Chinese marketer hopes to create global fashion empire with Miiow

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SHANGHAI--Maoren Group, a Wuhan-based apparel company, has embarked on an ambitious effort to transform its strength in underwear manufacturing into a global fashion empire.

The company’s decision to revolutionize its business stems from a dilemma that has long faced Chinese women looking for fashionable, affordable clothes. In the past decade, most of the stylish clothing churned out by Chinese factories headed right out the door to retail stores in Europe and North America.

Hong Kong-based brands with a retail presence in China like Giordano and Esprit are too basic for the sophisticated shoppers now inhabiting China’s urban centers, and Chinese women hoping to buy ready-to-wear clothes made in Europe usually have a problem wearing those clothes, because they tend to be shorter, slimmer and less curvy than western women.

“The tops are too big and the clothes drop too low. They like the designs, but they don’t buy the clothes because they can’t wear them,” said Viveca Chan, Hong Kong-based chairman-CEO of the independent agency, WE Worldwide Partners. Until late last year when she founded WE, Ms. Chan ran Grey Global's Greater China operation for two decades.

While Maoren built its business on mundane garments like underwear, the entry point for its new brand, “Miiow by Maoren,” is fashionable jeans and tops, namely jackets and knits. The winter collection debuted last June in Shanghai but went on sale in Chinese department stores this month. Starting in October, local fashion titles will run print ads for Miiow created by WE, which is helping Maoren develop Miiow’s identity, marketing communications and retail shop design.

Maoren is already showing off Miiow designs to fashion editors at global fashion titles like Harper's Bazaar, in hopes of getting early publicity for an international soft launch. When the brand does eventually reach western markets, Maoren hopes Miiow can compete against brands such as Zara, H&M, Miss Sixty and Mango.

The new value-for-money brand is an evolution of the company’s existing feline persona: the word Maoren means “cat people” in Chinese, and “Miiow” is a sharper, hipper extension of the parent name. However, Miiow’s logo, a white “M” on a luminous red background, is a crisp departure from Maoren’s childlike logo of a cat face.

The group did stick with Maoren’s cat associations to leverage the existing brand’s equity, said Ms. Chan, “and because cats are sexy, arrogant, fussy, unpredictable and have a strong personality, just like the new brand’s consumers.”

Miiow was created “as an international fashion brand that is proud to be Chinese,” said Ms. Chan, but not as a Chinese brand.

At home, meanwhile, Miiow is aimed at sophisticated 24-to-35- year-old middle class shoppers, who cannot afford designer labels but seek stylish, affordable quality clothes.

“Chinese fashion sense is changing quickly,” Ms. Chan said. “Most brands are not catching up with consumers, who want to catch up with the latest fashion and don’t want to be left behind. However, they don’t want to pay Louis Vuitton prices for everything either.”

Maoren’s desire to create a global fashion empire with Miiow overseas reflects a transformation taking place in many parts of China, where bold manufacturers of computers, electronics, cars and now clothes are starting to develop homegrown brands to compete against former partners.

Lenovo Group has taken over IBM’s PC business, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., which has joint ventures with Volkswagen Group and General Motors Corp., is now building its own cars with technology it acquired from Rover, and the Chinese TV maker TCL Corp. has acquired the TV manufacturing business of Thomson, a French media services and equipment group that owns the RCA brand, as well as Alcatel’s handset production division.

Maoren, which has been manufacturing garments for companies like DuPont ‘s Lycra division since 1998, generates clothing sales worth $100 million with its own brand and has attracted Chinese celebrities like actresses Shu Qi and Zheng Yijian as brand spokeswomen. (For Miiow, however, Maoren is staying away from celebrities and putting cat imagery front and center instead.)

The company is an example of “new internationalism,” said Ms. Chan, “as a brand owned by Chinese using international resources.”

Miiow clothes were developed with help from the French design house Nelly Rodi, for instance, and marketed with ads shot by a German fashion photographer in the U.K. But production is based in China and Maoren plays a key role in developing new designs.

Besides the challenge of developing patterns that reflect the size and shape of Chinese women, pure European styles and fabrics are usually too earthy and rustic for Chinese consumers, who prefer bold colors. Once the women’s line is established, Maoren plans to expand into menswear and accessories.

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