It used to be trendy for Chinese to dress in clothes of foreign brands, but now China is helping shape the latest trends in the fabric and apparel world.
At first glance, the blue and gray sportswear in the showroom of this fabric and garment maker in east China's Longkou City doesn't appear to be anything special. However, its advantage lies in its cloth, which is made from fine wool.
The process of turning wool into wind- and water-proof fabric comes from Nanshan Zhishang SCI-TECH Co., Ltd., the world's only supplier of such fabric for global sportswear giants.
The company is a rags-to-riches story. It was started by business-minded villagers to produce cheap towels shortly after China launched its reform and opening up drive in 1978.
By constantly changing its designs according to market research, the company's towels, pillowcases and other products sold so well that it became one of China's largest fabric mills in the late 1990s.
Market-sensitive Nanshan took one bold move in 1996. It decided to venture into the spinning and high-end garment business. The company saw huge market potential as increasingly affluent Chinese wanted to wear better, more stylish clothing.
After about two decades of expansion, the company is now famous for its fine wool suits. The company controls the whole value chain, from the sheep's back to the finished suits.
Nanshan started to buy farms for producing superfine wool in Australia in 2009 to ensure high-quality raw materials. The wool is shipped to China where Nanshan combs, dyes and weaves it into fine cloth. It is then made into suits and other items with the help of global designers using the latest German, U.S. and Japanese processing equipment.
The company has launched a wool innovation center in partnership with the International Wool Secretariat, and has offices in Milan and New York. Now about half of Nanshan's products are exported overseas and some of them go to global apparel brands.
Nanshan's transformation from making cheap towels to producing high-end wool suits is the story of modern China, whose success was made possible by the reform and opening of the past 40 years.
"We used to copy from the market in the beginning, but after years of development, we now manage to lead the market with our own technological innovations," said Liu Gangzhong, chief engineer of the company's fabric business. Liu has worked for the company for 16 years.
Nanshan now plans to invest in high added-value products by upgrading its production technology, and it is considering building factories in Indonesia as well as investing in global clothing brands to further promote its name overseas, according to Zhao Liang, board chairman with the company.
China aims to shift its textile industry to focus more on quality, rather than quantity, with high-tech and green products, according to the industry's development plan for 2016 to 2020.