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Chinese shoemaker breaking "made-in-China" mould
2014/05/13

BEIJING, May 13 (Xinhua) -- For Liu Qiongying, her initial motivation for making shoes was simple -- to design a pair for herself.

"Being short, I was desperately in need of a pair of high heels to attend my friend's birthday party, but I searched all the stores in our town and found only disappointment," Liu recalls of her experience 20 years ago. "I told myself: if you can't find an ideal pair, then make one."

Coming home after the party that night, Liu began work on her own ideal high-heeled shoes, a project that took her six months. "I leafed through fashion magazines and picked out the merits of several shoes, and pieced them together as a whole. I brought the draft to a friend who was a patternmaker in a shoe factory, and asked him to make them for me."

The then high school girl didn't realize it at the time, but shoemaking was to become not only her passion but a career for which she has been venerated in China. In a country still struggling with its reputation as "the world's factory," Liu's Sheme shoes brand has broken the mould by becoming recognized for high-end design, rather than low-cost manufacture.

As domestic fashion houses win more plaudits and calls get louder for enterprises across the board to innovate, Sheme is one name that offers lessons.

Founding Sheme in 1998, Liu now runs a company of more than 200 people designing, manufacturing and selling shoes. Its position in the upper echelons of haute couture is hinted at by the premium addresses of its two boutiques -- World Trade Center Tower 3 in Beijing and the Bund in Shanghai.

Liu's shoes debuted at London Fashion Week last year, while a hand-made pair of Shemes was presented to Cherie Blair, wife of former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony, when she visited Chengdu in 2011. The design team's latest international commitment is preparing for a fashion show in Doha.

After China's reform and opening up in the 1970s, the country seized the opportunity of manufacturing bases' shift from the developed world to developing countries. However, lacking originality and creativity, few Chinese national brands have gained global recognition.

However, this seems to be changing -- in fashion at least.

Jiang Hui, president of the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Textiles and Apparel, points to the significance of a high-profile outing for Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, last year. "Her appearance in national-brand clothes has greatly encouraged Chinese companies to build a brand of their own," according to Peng.

"I hope Sheme is not just a brand, it should be considered a carrier of traditional Chinese culture for the world," says Liu of Sheme's increasing visibility globally.

She believes that "what makes the shoes stand out is that most of them are characterized with a strong sense of traditional Chinese culture."

Liu and her team use the flying butterfly as their motif. They mimic the simple shape of petals in the heel design of some shoes. All of these looks were inspired by classic Chinese love story The Peony Pavilion.

They also crafted a series of shoes themed around four plants: the orchid, the bamboo, the chrysanthemum and the plum blossom, which are known as the "Four Gentleman" in Chinese art.

None of this is to say that the road to establishing an international brand was easily navigated for Liu.

In 1999, she bought the shoes made by her firm to a footwear fair in Bologna, Italy, but was given the cold shoulder. She still remembers the putdown from one representative of an international brand: "You Chinese can only replicate, not create."

But Liu refused to let Sheme become an OEM (original equipment manufacturer), the destiny of many Chinese factories who leave no identifier except "Made in China" on their products. "China has such a long history and owns glorious culture achievements, so why shouldn't we establish a world-class brand of our own?" Liu asks.

While studying the strategies of famous international brands, the fashionista and her staff came to believe that the core competence of a brand was its ability in original design.

"After brainstorming with top designers from various countries, we selected 'Shu Xiu' as an important feature that could reflect traditional Chinese culture in our products," Liu explains.

Shu Xiu, also known as Sichuan embroidery, comes from areas around Chengdu and is oldest known embroidery style in China.

In 2008, Liu and her team released their first batch of six hundred pairs of shoes combining Shu Xiu and international trends. But the market didn't show much response.

Discussing with other designers and clients, Liu realized that just putting the two elements together on the shoes was far from enough. "We need to integrate Eastern and Western fashion elements rather than just piecing them together."

Sheme's chief thinks that Cherie Blair's love for the shoes is indicative of Sheme's success since that pivotal realization in 2008. "She adored them and brought two pairs for her daughter," Liu recalls.

Liu now sees little gap in the level of design and shoemaking techniques between Chinese and Western brands. But foreign brands have power in being better established.

"Compared with some famous Western brands that have been passed down for several generations, the Chinese names are just taking the first step," Liu notes.

But Sheme is ambitious. Liu's plans include expanding the brand into new markets and related products, and building a museum covering the history of Chinese shoe culture.

"I want to forge Sheme into China's Ferragamo," she says boldly.

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