BEIJING — New Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan's choice of attire has sparked a flurry of excitement over an independent homegrown label, an unusual phenomenon in a country where political figures are more frumpy than fashionable and wives usually shy away from the spotlight.
Images of Peng, 50, stepping off a plane arm-in-arm with her husband President Xi Jinping in Moscow on Friday have circulated widely on the Chinese Internet, prompting praise of her style as understated and sophisticated.
Eagle-eyed fashion-savvy bloggers identified the leather handbag she carried and smart, double-breasted black trench coat she wore as items designed by Guangzhou-based label Exception. The brand has been described as one of China's leading independent labels whose simple but unique designs stand out in an industry dominated by Western copycats.
"First ladies are ambassadors of the culture and the design and of the soft power of a country. I'm glad that she chose to wear Chinese and take up that role of spokesperson for Chinese design here," said Hong Huang, publisher of the fashion magazine iLook and one of the most popular microbloggers in China.
Hong said it was too early to tell if Peng's high-profile public appearance signaled that she would be playing a more significant role in Chinese politics than her predecessors, who – unlike many of their Western counterparts – have been largely unseen. "It's good that finally China has a very pretty, very beautiful first lady and she can hopefully speak up for a lot more and complement whatever Xi wants to say, in a way, like all first ladies do."
Online retailers have sought to associate their products with what news portals are terming the "Peng Liyuan style," with searches for those key words resulting in lists of handbags and trench coats, many of which did not even resemble the items she wore. Heavy online traffic to Exception's website has caused it to crash since Friday, with it loading only sporadically on Monday.
The impact Peng, a celebrated performer on state television, is having on fashion bears some similarity to trends sparked by Britain's duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, who helped bring Brazilian-born designer Issa to the world's attention before her marriage to Prince William. American first lady Michelle Obama has also lent cachet to designer Jason Wu by wearing a gown he custom-made to last month's inauguration.
For its part, Exception appears to be gauging its next move. Chinese politics is a traditionally secretive world and the company risks sparking a backlash by associating itself too publicly with the wife of the head of state.
Some of the more conservative among the Communist Party might frown upon the commercialization of the first lady's image or criticize such attention as being reflective of an excessively materialistic society.
Exception was founded in the mid-nineties by a couple who shared a love of design and the rock band The Ramones, according to Hong. Chief executive Mao Jihong, one of the co-founders, could not be reached on his cellphone. The label has expanded to become a high-end brand with nearly 100 stores and retail counters in China.
Company spokeswoman Tan Yijia, reached in the company's Guangzhou headquarters, said she could not immediately confirm that the pieces Peng wore on the trip were made by the label. The city's quality supervision bureau, however, said on its official microblog site that it has confirmed that Peng's outfit was made by Exception.
Despite Exception's public silence, commentators in China's fashion world are celebrating the attention on the label and, more significantly, the rise of the profile of a popular first lady.
"It's the first time that China's first lady appears like a modern woman. I think she dressed very well, with taste and confidence," said Zhang Yu, editor of China's Vogue magazine. "After so many years, we finally have a first lady who can represent us so appropriately. I think it is a landmark event."
Associated Press researcher Flora Ji contributed to this report.