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Paris, Milan ... and Beijing? Chinese Fashion Seeks Its Own Runway Flash

Dull Mao suits no longer de rigueur in new political climate

Chinese models who helped launch new collections on Beijing runways last week carried a huge but unspoken message: The haute couture of the rich is no longer a class crime.

Fashion is back in a country that until recently was forced to dress in baggy, unisex Mao suits as part of the Communist Party's mandate of Spartan, state-planned lifestyles.

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A high-tech light show, painted silk backdrops, and a multinational cast of models wearing designs by Bo Tao heralded the renaissance of fashion in a land that once prided itself on uniformity of thought, action, and dress under the party's leadership. This is just one of the many signs in China that communism as a classless social system is disappearing.

Gone are the days when Chairman Mao Zedong was China's sole model, when millions of Chinese wore his blue cotton jackets, carried his little red book of quotations, and chanted his slogans.

The two decades since the demise of Mao has seen the end of his egalitarian poverty and the country's global isolation.

China's fledgling designers are beginning to ride the crest of the waves of prosperity born of the country's economic reforms and opening to the world.

Mr. Bo, whose collection easily topped competitors in China's first-ever "Fashion Week," broke a number of taboos here with semi-transparent lace tops, pastel rainbow miniskirts, and Day-Glo orange overcoats.

Bo, along with China's fashion industry, "is moving ahead faster than a Long March rocket," says a Westerner photographer.

Bo and his counterparts sell to, and are becoming part of, China's growing class of nouveau riche.

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Although per capita income in the countryside, where four-fifths of the populace lives, was only 1,900 yuan (about $230) last year, China now has approximately 1 million millionaires.

"It's a little ironic that China's opening is allowing it to create the closed-off clique of designers, models, and rich patrons that makes up the fashion world," says Emma de Teliga, a makeup artist who lives in Hong Kong.

"There is a lot more money in China, and with it comes power, and many Chinese want to wear expensive labels to show off their heightened status," says Dominique, a Milan-based model who joined Bo's show.

"In China, the rich have begun to explore the changing laws of fashion, but most ordinary people can't afford to," says Li Xin, one of the fastest-rising stars in the Chinese fashion firmament.

She says a fascination with fashion and individual style, forcibly wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, is reappearing on the streets of Chinese cities.

Nearly every street corner newsstand carries such Chinese fashion magazines as "American" and "Beauty," and the higher-priced, imported "Elle."

China's opening has been followed by an invasion of Levis jeans, Benetton sweaters, and shops featuring designers Cerruti and Valentino.

"The resurgence of fashion here has been followed by the total abandonment of Chinese styles in favor of Western influences," says a young Chinese-American who works in Beijing.

"China used to measure a woman's beauty by the shortness of her feet," she adds, in reference to the practice of foot-binding for girls that only ended earlier this century. "Now beauty is measured by how tall and Western-looking each model is."

While Bo himself compares his success with that of "migrants who arrive in the US with nothing and grow rich," his life is in many ways a microcosm of the changes that have swept over China in the last three decades.

He was born at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao once ordered that the wife of his top rival, President Liu Shaoqi, be adorned with a string of ping pong balls, paraded through the streets, and beaten for having worn "bourgeois" pearls.

Yet by the time Bo opened his firm in 1993, the process of dismantling Mao's Soviet-model economy and rigid ideology was well under way. Sales rose 20-fold in two years to reach $10 million in 1996, with elite buyers including entrepreneurs, TV broadcasters, film stars, and pop singers.

Bo, who now drives a Mercedes Benz and throws lavish parties, says he hopes to become China's first internationally known designer and is setting up offices in Los Angeles and Paris.

Although China is the world's largest clothesmaker, most exports are produced by foreign joint ventures, rendering the country a fashion colony of the West. Bo and others in the fashion industry say they want to reverse that trend.

Some plan to use strategies pioneered by the capitalist nations to spearhead China's invasion of its one-time enemies. "Many foreigners have gotten rich by producing clothes in China and selling them in the US," he says. "There's no reason why I can't follow the same route."

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