China’s first lady effect

Peng Liyuan, a well-known singer, performing at a gala in Beijing in 2009

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This weekend marks the next step in the extraordinary ascent of the Chinese first lady on to the world stage. Accompanying her husband President Xi Jinping, Peng Liyuan, a glamorous former folk singer, has been making her debut visit to the US. The style set are watching.

Since Peng appeared with President Xi on his tour of Russia last spring, the Chinese media and people appear to have been enraptured by her. “Finally, we have a first lady we can be proud of,” said one typical post on Weibo, the Twitter-like microblogging service.

Peng, like many Chinese first ladies before her, has made a patriotic point of wearing Chinese-made outfits, raising hopes that the country’s fashion brands could receive a boost from her support. Most of the clothes she wore on last year’s trip, such as a white silk brocade suit with a Mandarin collar and turquoise scarf, were designed by Ma Ke, a Guangzhou-based designer behind the Exception de Mixmind label, and the Wuyong brand which showed in Paris in 2008. Ma is known for combining Chinese and modern style elements. At one occasion, for example, Peng wore a slim silk brocade coat in blue and green tones made from a fabric with very traditional patterns but a modern cut.

Since then, copies of Peng’s clothes and accessories – such as the navy blue woollen coat and matching handbag she carried when disembarking in Moscow on Xi’s arm – have become instant hits on Taobao, China’s leading online retail marketplace. One seller, from Monifen, says he sold 1,533 replica “first lady bags”; Zhao Yao Clothing, a small clothing factory that also sells on Taobao, made an imitation of the coat immediately after the visit. “We sold 300 pieces right away,” says owner Cheng Huazhao.

Peng with her husband, President Xi Jinping, in Beijing in April

Still, authorities have cracked down on attempts to take advantage of the Peng Liyuan craze. Taobao banned Cheng from advertising his coat with the words “first lady coat”, arguing it was politically sensitive; Cheng suggested changing the name to “Mother of the Nation coat” but this was censored too. The model is now called “lady coat”.

When Angelica Cheung, editor of Chinese Vogue, applied for an interview with Peng, believing that it could have an impact similar to that Michelle Obama made when she appeared on the cover of US Vogue in 2009, the answer was no: China’s ruling Communist party was not ready to have its leader’s wife, who has traditionally not held any visible role, step so far into the limelight.

“There is no place for a first lady in our party’s culture,” explains Zhang Lifan, a Chinese historian. The wives of Mao Zedong, China’s late leader, and Liu Shaoqi, a later state president, were even persecuted and jailed after they sought centre stage.

But fashion experts think China’s first lady will, nevertheless, have a big impact on China’s style and fashion, beyond retailers’ efforts to make a quick buck. “China’s luxury consumers are maturing fast; they are evolving from buyers of Louis Vuitton bags to proper, savvy fashion customers who have a view,” says Federico Marchetti, chief executive of the online fashion and luxury retailer Yoox, which has a Chinese site. “The first lady is another force driving this trend.”

One reason is Peng Liyuan’s authenticity and dignity. Peng has been wearing clothes designed for her by Ma Ke for several years – not just since she became first lady. “We know it’s her style and it’s definitely true,” says Marchetti.

Both Peng and her designer Ma are careful not to exploit their relationship, or to have it seen as a commercial arrangement. Ma has responded to the designs’ popularity with only a low-key statement, saying the clothes were made for Peng personally, and are not for sale.

“It’s not that the way she dresses is particularly fashionable,” says Vogue’s Cheung. “But the Chinese collectively want to feel proud and, finally, here is a first lady who makes them look good.”

Kathrin Hille is the FT’s Beijing correspondent

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