Chinese Take-out

Workers at Union Fashion Dress Co., Ltd. which was established in 1998 in Zhongshan City. Their market network covers the main cities in mainland of China, and more than 10 other countries.

The wedding dress business has tied the United States intimately with China. My niece Diane is a doctor doing her residency in Baltimore. She is super busy, so my sister Susan is doing the spade work for her upcoming wedding.

I was fascinated when I heard about the process of buying a wedding dress.

It turns out that a large percentage of the world’s wedding dresses are produced in the city of Suzhou, near Shanghai. (Suzhou is also home to thousands of machining companies.)

The industry has been rapidly moving online with precious little attention paid to the intellectual property of the designers like Vera Wang who sell the $10,000 dresses in bridal salons. One can buy knockoff dresses direct on eBay from a raft of Internet stores. I gather this is a highly risky endeavor. For $150 you can order a dress online, hope for the best on the fit and then spend $50 with a local dressmaker to make it look presentable. Another option is to shop at a storefront with Chinese made dresses to try on, but often there’s just one size of various dresses, so you better be a size 6–also risky.

This is an evolving business model. Because the Chinese have access to cheap sewing talent and have scaled their silk and lace products they have an enormous advantage in the marketplace, but lead times for dresses are three to four months.

Dress on selling for $147.04.
Free shipping to U.S. in 3 to 7 days.

I am intrigued by this model because of the parallels to the machined parts world. The high labor demands of a custom dress gives China a big edge. The economies of scale enable specialization and cheaper access to materials.

The Internet brings in customers from around the world and the ease of ripping off designer fashion enables a lot of styles for consumers to choose from.

The proliferation of storefronts in American cities where Chinese firms can develop connections with buyers is a refinement of the bricks and Web approach.

I think there is an opportunity for a mid-priced bridal dressmaker to develop a “Made in America” dress, based on service and delivery, by keeping a stock of fabric here and developing a local workforce. The magic of wedding dresses is the aura of specialness provided at the point of the transaction. If that magic can be enhanced by local production of the gown, the locally made bridal dress could make a comeback.

In the machining world, the cost differential with China seems to be steadily closing. In China it is becoming harder to find enough blue collar workers with skills, so wage increases of 30 percent are common, year on year. Chinese companies are aggressively seeking skilled people for their factories in Europe and North America. Unlike silk, metals are competitively priced here.

Today, China is the place to purchase a wedding dress, but in a world marketplace, that could change overnight.

Question: Is it possible to protect intellectual property today?

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6 thoughts on “Chinese Take-out

  1. John Bressoud

    Lloyd, obviously you have never bought a wedding dress. I have bought three (for my three daughters). Yes, there are people who want the cheapest price and will buy on-line and hope it fits(also hope they have a good return policy). But there is a lot to be said for the personal touch given by the local bridal shop. The amount of time it takes for the transaction seems ridiculous (how many fittings is this going to take?). But it is all part of the process. Once you have the local retail outlet, I don’t think it matters where the dress is made. And when you think about the cost in dollar per hour of use, this is some of the most expensive clothing you will ever buy. But that misses the point.
    Its my daughters wedding.

  2. matt

    pretty funny question when you put a big ad that you need an Acme rebuilder….nice way to troll for employees after you get the trust of people and sashay right into their shops…..your magazine, but pirateing employees from the very people you sell to is not really cool in my book

  3. arpad

    It’s beginning to look more and more like intellectual property is going to be a thing of the past.

    And I can certainly understand why people who are dependent on intellectual property law aren’t looking forward to that day and will move heaven and earth to prevent that day from arriving. They may succeed but I’m ever more doubtful they will and I think that’s a good thing.

    Stripped of the camoflage afforded by the term “intellectual property” it’s just another monopoly and all monopolies end up abusing the customer. It could be argued that the point of a monopoly is to have the power to abuse the customer.

    Free trade, by virtue of the competition of the market, prevents abuse from getting out of hand. You still get abuses of course but over time the abusers get squeezed out of the market by competitors who, via the magic of free enterprise, monetize decency.

  4. DEMojica

    If you think IP situation is bad now, wait until you’re able to have a metal laser production 3D system in your garage. That when the lawyers will move heaven and earth to stop it.

  5. arpad

    Where ya been? Intellectual property owners, the recording labels and movie studios mostly, have been moving heaven and earth to stop the encroachment of technology on their sweet deal for a couple of decades.

    Used to be that copyright was for some decent interval. Now it’s effectively forever.

    Those guys got all sorts of other law passed criminalizing all sorts of minor infringements. They tried to get librarians enlisted as copyright cops while simultaneously trying to put an end to fair use without which the existance of libraries is questionable.

    But I’m an optimist. Once it becomes inescapably clear that the expansion of intellectual property law serves no one but the intellectual property owners damaging society in the process they’ll start to lose their political influence.

  6. Val Zanchuk

    IP protection in the areas of the world where the rule of law is loosely observed is nearly impossible. The economic value of the invention has to be pretty high to justify the expense of defending IP. Even in the more legally structured parts of the world, defense can be prohibitively expensive. I think trade secrets can be more powerful tools for many products. The know-how involved in how to make something can be a more daunting technology than the IP protected in the patent.

    If you introduce a product that’s popular, expect it to be copied. Product life cycles are short. Effective marketing and quick product introductions can be more powerful than patents in keeping you at the forefront of your technology.

    As far as wedding dresses go, I think many people will take the IKEA approach to the process – looks good on the surface, cheap, throw away – as the economy erodes the emotional appeal of an article of clothing you use once.


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