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    Unzipping China’s Lingerie Capital

    Undergarment industry pads pockets in Guanyun County, but sex still a taboo topic for rural residents.

    JIANGSU, East China — Even though all four of Lei Congrui’s lingerie warehouses were flooded when a typhoon hit Guanyun County in August of 2012, he has one fond memory of that time: After the storm, he enlisted villagers to help him launder his drenched stock with their washing machines. They then laid the seductive garments out to dry on clothes lines strung above their corn stalks, turning their fields into a kaleidoscope of corsets, chemises, and camisoles.

    “I climbed onto the roof of my warehouse and looked out over the countryside,” Lei, now 27, tells Sixth Tone. “There was lingerie as far as the eye could see. I felt like it was my kingdom.”

    By then, Lei had already made a name for himself. He had pioneered lingerie production and e-commerce sales in Guanyun — a lucrative business that grew from practically nothing about a decade ago to 1 billion yuan ($150 million) in sales for the whole county in 2016. Guanyun has become China’s largest lingerie production base, according to local government figures that claim 60 percent market share. Lei himself owns the county’s largest business, employing some 200 people — many of them from farming families — in around 20 workshops that churn out sexy tops and bottoms around the clock.

    One worker is 64-year-old Liu Yonglan, a retired public servant. One afternoon in December, she gently runs her hands over a leopard-print corset trimmed in black lace, snips off the loose threads, pairs it with a matching G-string, and carefully folds them into a bag to be shipped to a bedroom in China or abroad. “It’s hilarious,” Liu says, somewhat befuddled. “Wearing this lingerie, you might as well be wearing nothing, because every part of the body can be seen so clearly.” Even though hundreds of similar garments pass through her fingers every day, Liu finds it hard to imagine who would buy what she considers impossibly small articles of clothing. “They are definitely indecent people,” says Liu, the mother of two adult women. “My daughters would never wear that.”

    Despite their bemusement, Liu and her 20 or so colleagues — all women treadling sewing machines to produce baskets full of lace kimonos, sheer bralettes, and strappy bodysuits — are glad for the work. Lingerie production staff earn about 3,000 to 4,000 yuan per month, making it a more lucrative profession than county residents’ traditional livelihood of growing wheat or rice. Rural residents’ annual per capita disposable income in Guanyun was just over 5,000 yuan in 2008, according to government figures. In 2016, this number had risen to 13,000 yuan.

    More than a decade ago, few people in Guanyun had heard of lingerie or e-commerce. In 2006, Lei, the factory owner, suggested his mother try online retail after her children’s clothing store shut down. Together, they sold everything from clothes and cosmetics to condoms. But Lei grew suspicious that his suppliers were selling him fakes, so they decided to make their own products. Lei had learned that lingerie was easy to produce and even easier to sell. Business went smoothly, and Lei opened his own factory in 2009. The then-law student was just 17, and while his classmates were talking about their dream careers — becoming lawyers, prosecutors, judges — he had other ambitions: “I told them, ‘I want to make 1 million yuan before I turn 25,’” he says. Just a few months later, he had achieved his goal.

    Guanyun now has more than 400 lingerie manufacturers that together employ some 20,000 workers and have spawned a host of related businesses to provide fabric, labels, and delivery. “This industry is thriving and has brought great monetary benefits to the local people,” deputy county head Chen Xinhong tells Sixth Tone. The farmland is now dotted with workshops — the luxury cars of their young millionaire owners parked out front beside old tractors — and everyone has friends or relatives working in lingerie. During a regular meeting between businesspeople and local officials, Lei breezily greets most of the lingerie bosses, who are his neighbors, friends, and uncles. “Even my high school teacher called me, asking whether I could give his wife a discount for wholesale,” Lei says.

    In the early years, Lei and other manufacturers stuck to a simple design ethos — one material, one color, one size — so they could keep prices under 10 yuan per piece. Lei’s most successful item was a black chemise, of which he sold some 10 million pieces in three years. As Lei tells it, the garment was easy to make: Take 1 square meter of black lace and cut a hole in the middle, sew on two shoulder straps, and you’re done. “The rest of the [cut out] material is still enough to make two G-strings,” Lei says.

    Guanyun workshops operate their own online stores in addition to producing wholesale stock for other brands. They are increasingly looking to sell overseas, which now only accounts for about a tenth of the county’s yearly output. But understanding the preferences of foreign customers remains an obstacle, according to Lei. “There’s a huge gap in the aesthetics of different countries,” he explains. Sexy cop costumes are popular in Brazil, which Lei says is because Brazilians don’t like the police; French maid costumes don’t sell well in Poland because, he theorizes, the two countries don’t have a good relationship; and Japanese customers love any and all seductive outfits. The lingerie tastes of most European countries — except France and Italy — are still riddles to him. “Every collection that we deliberately designed has failed in their markets,” Lei says. “Germany borders France, right? But their taste is the most difficult thing for me to figure out.”

    In China, the lingerie industry has had to overcome taboos and ignorance. For people in Guanyun, sex is still something to be ashamed of. An 18-year-old employee at Lei’s factory who produces countless G-strings on a daily basis is too shy to talk about her work. Sitting next to her is 38-year-old Meng Xia, who rescues her from Sixth Tone’s questions. She explains that unmarried women such as her young colleague prefer to avoid sex-related topics. “I also felt ashamed to say I produced lingerie at first; instead, I would just say I made garments,” Meng says. “It’s a new thing to farmers — some old people even asked me whether a G-string was a mask.” Chen, the county official, says that when he first saw a piece of lingerie in a workshop, it was smaller than he had imagined: “How could there be so little fabric?” he recalls wondering.

    Official attitudes toward sex-related content and products have also shifted over the years. In the 1980s, the Chinese government regarded selling and producing sex-related items as criminal behavior. Though the official stance has softened as Chinese people have become more open-minded, authorities still occasionally crack down on sex-related businesses. In 1993, China’s first known sex shop opened in Beijing — but a year later, a supplier of erotic products in the eastern province of Zhejiang was investigated for allegedly disseminating obscene goods.

    Sex shops and suppliers of sex toys, erotic attire, and related items are now commonplace in China, but they still operate in a legal gray area. In 2010, Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce website, was told to reform its “adult products” category after being accused of spreading “vulgar” information. The nation’s advertising law also puts limits on promoting sex-related products, and on Taobao, sellers are now discouraged from using the Chinese term for lingerie — qingqu neiyi — to describe their wares.

    Lingerie manufacturers had a bad year in 2014, when a huge anti-vice campaign was launched in Dongguan — then China’s unofficial capital of paid sex — in southern China’s Guangdong province. Lingerie sales to sex workers, valued in the billions of yuan, disappeared practically overnight. Lei was hit hard, too; he still has outstanding payments of about 400,000 yuan today. Yet the crackdown also had a silver lining, Lei says, because the substantial media attention introduced the concept of sex products to the Chinese public.

    People in Guanyun aren’t too worried about the occasional bouts of disapproval from the government. “Certainly, the government used to have misgivings about promoting this industry,” deputy county head Chen says, “but objectively speaking, when I talk to people from the big city, they think lingerie is something very normal that doesn’t have to be concealed.” Guanyun officials like Chen are in full support of lingerie businesses and plan to invite lingerie design and business management experts to visit the county. A lingerie-themed tourist town is under construction near the site of a planned high-speed train station. “In this town, we will have a museum-like exhibition center to show the history of lingerie,” Chen says. “We will also develop a main street with various sex shops and love hotels.” The government is even planning regular Victoria’s Secret-like fashion shows to attract tourists. For the county’s inaugural fashion show in July 2017, a dozen models — including four foreigners — were invited to walk the runway in lingerie produced at local workshops.

    Lingerie production in the county has been so successful that there is currently a labor shortage, but Chen is confident that Guanyun natives working out of town — of which there are thousands — will soon be drawn back. “In a few years, there will be another 20,000 people who will join the lingerie industry,” Chen estimates. Sun Yubai, 40, left her job at a state-owned company to work in one of Lei’s workshops. She firmly believes in the future of lingerie: “Compared with making traditional clothing, this new trend that young people are willing to spend on will give us much more stable incomes in the long term,” she says.

    Despite the county’s shift toward a new form of labor, residents haven’t given up their traditional rural livelihoods. Several times a year during planting and harvesting seasons, many employees leave the factories to work on their families’ farmland. Even though everyone knows that farmwork is less profitable, taking care of the land they have depended on for generations is a habit that seems hard to shake.

    Even Sun, who says she learned how to sew clothes to avoid facing the harsh wind and rain while working in the fields, tells Sixth Tone that she leaves her job at the lingerie workshop for several weeks each year to help her family with planting and harvesting crops. She can’t refuse her relatives: “The older generation here believes that they should harvest their own food from their own farmland,” Sun says. “We should never betray that.”

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: Local lingerie workshop employees pose for a photo in a field in Guanyun County, Jiangsu province, Dec. 28, 2017. Though lingerie has proven lucrative for the county, residents still work the fields they have depended on for generations. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)