Posted by Chloe C

The ever expanding underwear industry in China

The lingerie industry is an intense and competitive market. Renowned global brands bank on fashion trends, quality, and style to sell their products, while independent manufacturers rely on price-friendly fashionable undergarments to market their products locally and internationally. Although world renowned brands have a somewhat stable market share, finding new markets is always an important factor for future growth. With that said, one of the biggest emerging markets to date is China, with an estimated growth rate of a little more than 8%.

The Consumers

While global lingerie designers and manufacturers try to employ serious marketing efforts to develop and maintain their brand image in this relatively new—but rapidly-expanding—industry, it is important to know that China itself is one of the major manufacturers and exporters of price-friendly apparels, including women’s lingerie, to the global market. China is home to more than 1.3 billion people. That is a huge market for any industry. This is why most global manufacturers are trying to get their hands on a piece of the pie. 

The Chinese lingerie market is a vibrant and constantly developing sector with great potential for future growth. The market atmosphere in the country, when it comes to women’s lingerie and intimate apparels, is composed of a wide range of national and international brands—the latter of which is generally unknown to the typical consumer. This is why when an international brand wants to enter the Chinese market, it has to essentially rebuild and sustain its brand image in order to capture the attention of the consumers.

Amongst the rich Chinese, there is a marked decline in their notorious (and oftentimes berated) obsession with brand logos and other flashy displays of wealth. As such, we are seeing a rise in the popularity of invisible, covert luxuries for personal satisfaction, most noticeably in lingerie offerings. This altered view on decadence has prompted the entry of well-established European lingerie brands, such as Etam, La Perla and Aubade.  While these brands present an image of sophistication and luxury in attempt to satisfy the Chinese predilection for foreign goods, the degrees of their market penetration pales in comparison to homegrown underwear brands. The superstar of these is La Miu (兰缪), which has achieved household-name status in a mere 7 years.

Mass market lingerie in China exemplifies the Japanese "kawaii" aesthetic of cute and innocent

Christened the "Victoria's Secret of China," La Miu excels, ironically where Victoria's Secret in China failed. Like the massive US chain, it targets middle class women with its mid to high end, fashion-focused lingerie. However, La Miu and other successful Chinese brands tap into Asian women's aspiration to be cute and innocent, rather than sexy. It's an aesthetic called "kawaii" that originated in Japan and now pervades throughout all of Eastern Asia. Likewise, here at Petite Cherry, this "cute-centric" ideal forms the core of our design philosophy. It's no surprise that our lingerie incorporates Japanese influences in the form of youthful colors, ruffles, ribbons and trims.

Figure shaping devices in Chinese bras

Compared to Caucasian women, Chinese women on average have more petite frames and a greater concern for slim body contour. Shaping functions like push-up and back-fat concealment are therefore priorities for her. The neglect of these functions by Western imports has been to the benefit of Chinese brands, whose designs often include ample push up padding and spandex-like architecture as standard, not premiums. We've taken that to heart at Petite Cherry. Most, if not all, of the bras from our Cute Collection incorporate removable push up "cookies" and high-stretch fabrics to create a shapely figure that flatters both under and without clothing.

The country’s intimate apparel industry is fast moving and dynamic. The lingerie market alone has an estimated value of around US$2.3 billion. China is also ranked as the 3rd largest when it comes to luxury consumption and is a major player in the fabric industry—both in manufacturing and consumption.

The Producers

China’s lingerie industry has not always been this lucrative. In the past, Hong Kong was the business capital and the manufacturing hub of the country. During the 1980s, many factories in Hong Kong began moving across the border and into the neighboring cities, such as Shenzhen and Dongguan, mainly due to the price difference. In addition to manufacturers, various companies originally based in Hong Kong also started to move their base of operations on the other side of the river delta, mainly around the cities of Zhongshan and Zhuhai, because of logistics and the higher concentration of Cantonese-speaking workers in the region. 

Lingerie Manufacturing and Production hotspots in China

Located just west of the city of Guangzhou, in the Nanhai district of Foshan City, is a large concentration of lingerie factories. Today, the areas around the Pearl River delta and the Guangdong Province region have the highest cluster of mid and high end lingerie manufacturers. This is where some of the most popular and highly regarded Chinese lingerie brands in the market are located. Petite Cherry lingerie is sourced from the Foshan area as well. =) Many of the textile factories and accessory suppliers are also found in this region, including some foreign fabric manufacturers of lace, microfiber, and other fabrics used on women’s lingerie. The cities located in southern China, specifically around the Pearl River delta, are considered to be the largest production center for women’s lingerie and intimate apparel.

A typical underwear factory in Foshan, China on the outside

Lingerie factory on the inside from Foshan, China

The city of Shantou, located in the eastern part of Guangdong Province, is another lingerie manufacturing center in China that is known for producing low end bras and panties for both the local market and for overseas importers. The average quality of the products produced in Shantou is slightly lower than those manufactured in cities like Dongguan or Zhongshan. But because of the difference in labor costs in this area, lingerie manufacturers in Shantou are able to produce exceptionally cheaper products, making the region a popular destination for low end buyers. 

Located four to five hours to the east of Shantou is the city of Quanzhou. Home to thousands of manufacturing workshops that produce cotton bras, panties, and other undergarments, as well as molded cup brassieres. Cotton fabrics are manufactured locally, so they can be purchased at very low cost. Resulting in a much lower price range when it comes to cotton underwear from the region. Prices in this locale are even lower than those produced in Shantou. Most factories in these cities and provinces do not directly conduct business with export consumers. Factories generally go through trading companies based in either Xiamen or Hong Kong

Lace of all qualities, colors and finishes at a typical fabric market in China

Although Yiwu, Zhejiang, is home to the world's largest wholesale market for small commodities, there is not much in terms of lingerie manufacturing expertise here. Some factories specialising in seamless underwear exist. Going towards the inner provinces, namely Jiangxi, Guangxi and Hunan, you'll find some newer lingerie factories attracting lower-cost labour. However, they pay a bit more to transport fabrics and materials to them.

Planning to Start Your Own Lingerie Business?

If you are looking to either manufacture or source lingerie for your own business, China should definitely be at the top of your list. Don't be misled by people who say China only has cheap, poorly made goods. Anyone experienced with China sourcing knows that there are many trustworthy, quality Chinese manufacturers if you take the time to seek them out.

Although Alibaba is now the de-facto source to look for Chinese suppliers of underwear (or any consumer good for that matter), it may not be the best option if you are just starting out. This is because they only recruit large suppliers who have dealt with an established Western brand or who pay for Alibaba to promote their company. This makes it difficult to judge the quality and reliability of suppliers. In addition, these companies often require large order minimums. The usual MOQ (minimum order quantity) for lingerie is 3000 pieces per color. With the exception of those who have funding, this quantity is unattainable by most small to medium sized businesses. You will need a highly strategised distribution network to sell that much. Now, this isn't because the Chinese suppliers are assholes. For them, it is simply not profitable to start a new production line to make anything less than 3000 pieces.

The more feasible but harder route is to find one of the underwear suppliers that's not on Alibaba. These are often small factories operating at less than 40% capacity and with a single owner/manager. Some of these are hungry for business and will accept your order even if it's a couple hundred pieces. You may even find one who is in the business of manufacturing similar products but is willing to rework production lines to make your lingerie (e.g. at Petite Cherry we converted a swimwear factory managed by a former bra maker). You will need business connections and an extremely convincing argument to make this possible. One tip I'd give is to seek factories with a 2nd-generation manager, preferably below 29 years of age. This means he's in charge of a family business whose retired owners (his parents, grandparents, uncle) used to deal with foreigners. As a young business owner, he is probably more receptive to new ideas from other entrepreneurs and therefore more willing to accept your small order quantity.

A swimsuit factory converted into a lingerie factory near Shenzhen, China

Alternatives to Chinese lingerie manufacturers include those in Thailand and Vietnam. These countries have expertise in bra manufacturing (and generally in textiles), producing for the likes of Victoria's Secret and La Senza. However, Thai and Vietnamese suppliers are fewer, more difficult to access and may require higher order minimums.

For those of you not interested in producing your own lingerie, but simply sourcing and reselling finished goods the industrial city of Dongguan, China, is the answer. Home to China's largest garment wholesale markets, Dongguan is peppered with thousands of trading companies specialising in all sorts of women's underwear; the range includes everything from maternity bras to disposable panties. You can find suppliers accepting quantities as low as a few pieces per color or style. You will need someone fluent in Mandarin to help you navigate and negotiate through the markets.

Underwear wholesale shops in Dongguan, China, can be clean, well-lit and as elaborate as this.

If you do not have the time to learn Chinese or hire a translator and fly to China in search of a lingerie supplier, Petite Cherry offers wholesale pricing for our lingerie to retail stores and resellers. Our order minimum is only 30 sets, within which you can mix sizes, colors and styles. We also have a dropshipping programme, where we handle all the warehousing and order fulfilment. Having grown up in Canada/the US, we're fluent in English and have a totally intimate knowledge of Western clients' tastes and expectations. Drop us a line if you're interested.

Petite Cherry sells sweet, cute Japanese style bras, panties and lingerie