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China's first lady dresses to impress

Popular singer Peng Liyuan showcases China's emerging fashion industry, stealing the spotligtht from her husband.

Last Modified: 28 Mar 2013 12:59
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Hong Kong - Along Kowloon’s Canton Road, in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district, shoppers from Mainland China easily outnumber the city’s native Cantonese residents. 

They come here in increasing numbers and with increasing amounts of new-found wealth to spend on luxury brands from the West. Chanel, Gucci, YSL, the list is endless. So, it seems, are the queues of shoppers prepared to wait in line at peak times just for a turn to enter some of the most popular boutiques.

“You can always trust the western brands for quality,” one waiting shopper explained, echoing the reason why millions of his fellow consumers consistently turn away from domestic goods, in favour of glamorous offerings from abroad.

With a few jaunty descents down aircraft steps and a couple of well composed red carpet walks, China’s new first lady, may have done more to reverse that trend than a million model-made outings on fashion show cat walks.

Mention Madame Peng Liyuan to the shoppers and their eyes light up.

“She has both inner and outer beauty,” one man beamed. “She showcases the beauty of China.”

Eastern icon

During the BRICS summit in South Africa, her first official foreign trip with her husband, President Xi Jingping, she has   conspicuously showcased China's fashion industry.

The Chinese label "Exceptio"’ would draw blank stares on London’s Saville Row or in Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district. Even most of the Chinese shoppers on Canton Road would have been hard pressed to tell you anything about it until a few days ago. But since being identified as the brand preferred by the country’s first lady, the company has been besieged with orders forcing the crash of its website.

For observers, one of the most remarkable aspects of Peng’s sartorial taste, is its relative modesty. With some of her outfits estimated to cost barely the equivalent of $100, they are within the range of China’s growing middle class.

Chinese presidents are carefully groomed through years of planned elevations through the ranks, so by the time they are engineered into their positions of power, they are completely known quantities. Their wives on the other hand?


It is a common touch which appears to have been well orchestrated, striking a cord in a country that is hurting from a widening wealth gap, and known for extravagant displays of opulence from its leaders, much to the disgust of the have not’s.

So, if the plan was to follow the Obamas and create the equivalent of a Chinese Michelle, then Peng is winning full marks on the streets of Hong Kong. But in a country where control of power is as paramount as the leaders who wield it, then the planners would be excused for having a tiny niggling concern about just what they have created.

China is used to relatively wooden Communist Party time-servers running their lives, so the breath of fresh air that breezes in behind a genuinely likeable first lady, is as welcome as a Princess Diana to Britain’s royals or a Carla Bruni to France's former president Sarkozy.

The Chinese people, if that is who is represented by the internet community, have spoken. They like it and want to see more.

Therein lies the dilemma.

Cultural revolution

Ever since the tyrannical reign of Chairman Mao Zedong’s wife, and Gang of Four leader, Jiang Qing, during the bloody chaos of the Cultural Revolution, China has gone distinctly cool on the whole first lady thing and you could forgive it for doing so.

Chinese presidents are carefully groomed through years of planned elevations through the ranks, so by the time they are engineered into their positions of power, they are completely known quantities. Their wives on the other hand?

How much power will she wield or be allowed to wield? How much does her popularity support her husband’s position, or at what point does it impinge upon it? What does the boss, Xi Jingping, make of all this and what is he likely to say to the people who carefully planned this first lady creation when he returns to Beijing?

The questions are endless, as surely those planners are now finding as the country enters the relatively unchartered territory of "First Lady-ship".

Peng Liyuan already had a popular following for her role as well-known singer, and a familiarity with the limelight which has helped her slip into her new role with graceful ease compared to the frumpiness of her predecessors. Her natural charm has received obvious comparisons with another Chinese first lady, Soong Mei-Ling, probably better known as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, wife of the General himself and Communist China’s avowed enemy. It is at that point that gushing comparisons become very awkward for already uneasy planners.

Amid all this uncertainty, what is known for sure is that when she returns to China, an already likeable first lady, will be liked many more times over, than when she left. If all that can happen in a few days, if Peng can change a whole clothing industry with a simple change of frock, what else might not she be capable of?

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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