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Europe turns to China for cheap prom dresses

This year’s summer high school proms in Europe sparkled with a touch of China, thanks to a growing trend of Western teenagers going in for Middle Kingdom fashion bargains.

An increasing number of dresses made in China adorned the dance floors of high schools worldwide this year as clothing wholesalers in the East market their Oscar-style dresses online at a fraction of the normal cost. With parents strapped for cash and a progressively Internet-savvy youth, many are turning to the English-language websites of Chinese suppliers to buy luxury items.

As designers such as Jovani and DressGoddess in the West demand prices exceeding 16,000 yuan ($2,472) for the latest fashion, hundreds of high school graduates shipped their 2011 prom dresses from China’s manufacturing heartlands for a quarter of the price.

“It’s beautiful, exactly what I wanted,” says 16-year-old Beth Morris from England, who recently purchased her prom dress at the Chinese wholesale website DHgate.com, which is geared toward Western shoppers.

The long glittering pink dress cost Morris just 900 yuan ($139), including delivery.

With a tight budget from her parents, Morris says she was nervous she would not be able to find the right dress in time for the late June dance.

“It’s important to look your best as it’s a big event, but everything was so expensive so I wasn’t sure what to do,” she says.

But a friend at school told her about buying from China and it was mentioned in Internet forums where other teens were preparing for their big night, discussing the latest dress styles and where to get them.

Logging onto a Chinese wholesaler’s English-language site, Morris found her perfect dress.

“In most of the U.K. department stores they wanted about 400 pounds ($633),” she says, adding that the only issue was the dress arriving later than planned despite paying 300 yuan extra for express delivery.

“It may be a beautiful dress, but don’t order in a hurry.”

Morris was just one of a number of the 739 students at her school in Cheshire County who turned to the East for a very Western tradition.

When showing off her new purchase, Morris discovered several other classmates had used similar sites, with one girl purchasing the same dress.

“We got our dresses much cheaper than others at our school,” she says.

Comparable with the U.S. Web merchant site eBay, businesses like DHgate.com and Dinodirect.com, offer small vendors a free platform to sell their products across international borders while collecting a transaction fee for each item sold.

DHgate, one of the most advertised wholesale sites in the prom discussion forums, links more than 970,000 small businesses in China with more than 230 countries worldwide, says its CEO Wang Shutong.

Their website advertises more than 30,000 variations of prom dresses, all going for approximately 650 yuan. The cheapest one costs just 60 yuan.

In 2010, events and wedding dress sales grossed more than 65 million yuan ($10 million), according to DHgate figures.

“The best selling clothing items on the site are prom dresses, wedding gowns, evening dresses and cocktail dresses,” Wang says.

“Custom sizing for dresses and other products provide women abroad with great quality dresses at bargain prices.”

She says while most of their business is coming from the United States and the U.K., Canada, Russia and Australia also provide ample business.

While these sites are providing dream dresses for many, several consumer watchdog sites urge users to exercise caution before using wholesale websites, warning that some sellers may try to sell low quality goods.

“Like any vendor platform, you have to be careful,” one moderator, Nyla, writes on the consumer watchdog website FraudWatchers.org.

“You’re only as protected as you make yourself, and the sites are only as legitimate as the individual sellers are honest.”

Though some may question the quality, Dhgate’s Wang says the reason they are able to provide the items at a low price is because the prices aren’t inflated from branding costs.

“After the recession, many buyers are no longer as loyal to the big brands and are looking for other options. The made-in-China items sold on DHgate.com offer a real alternative to traditional brands without losing the quality,” she says.

In addition to avoiding markups from carrying a large brand name, the site offers cheaper shipping, she says.

But quality isn’t the only question, with several of the wholesalers providing remakes of designer dresses seen on the red carpets.

One vendor on wholesale site Dinodirect.com boasts exact replicas of the Elie Saab designed dress worn by Mila Kunis at the 83rd Oscar movie awards last February for just 851 yuan, a fraction of the 9,750-yuan price tag of most Elie Saab dresses.

But consumers purchasing replica goods, such as the Elie Saab dress, risk buying objects that break international intellectual property (IP) laws.

“If a vendor is selling something that a foreign designer can prove they created, it is against the law,” says Ma Qiang, a lawyer from the Unitalen law firm and a doctorate from the Renmin University of China School of Law.

“Although the cost of the investigation can be high, I think it is worthwhile to do so.”

He says if Chinese Customs or security abroad seizes the items, the buyer may not receive their goods and, even if a formal complaint is filed, they may not receive a refund.

While the individual retailers on the website can be held liable, consumers are often not targeted for such IP cases, unless they are found reselling the counterfeit products, he says.

“They won’t necessarily get in trouble, but they may lose some money or get fined,” he says.

And although IP laws may be monitored by the authorities on both sides of the shipping lane, each site also does its own checks to make sure no customer gets a bad deal.

“On our platform, we control those untrustworthy businesses strictly,” says Wang, though she admits sometimes they can slip through the cracks.

“Because there are thousands of suppliers on our platform, we cannot identify all the unqualified products at the very beginning,” she says.

“We have a ‘Trust and Safety’ (TNS) department to supervise all of the products. If they find any unqualified ones, such as fake products and counterfeit goods, TNS will cancel the vendor.”

But for now bargain-hunting teenagers are cottoning on to something that has been a fashion industry secret for years: looking East.

By Todd Balazovic(China Daily)
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