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UPDATED: February 7, 2013 NO. 7 FEBRUARY 14, 2013
Kitsch & Kaboodle
Chinese designers fit their crafty ideas back in the box
By Yuan Yuan

MAODOU SAYS HI: Wu Yang presents a plush likeness of his cartoon character, a green pig named Maodou, in 2005 (COURTESY OF FENGGUO)

The success invited many imitators. Quite a few "box" shops emerged in 2008 and 2009 in Beijing, including U-Box, Sugar Box, all located in shopping areas in Beijing's downtown, such as Wangfujing Pedestrian Street and the Gulou (Drum Tower) area. But so far, none of these shops has developed as fast as Fengguo.

"The box is just the format. We have a big pool of designers to back up our business, which I think is the essential advantage of Fengguo," said Song Jian, a system analyst at Fengguo.com.cn. "More than 50,000 designers have registered on Fengguo's website and more than 10,000 update their design products regularly."

Customers can visit the website and give feedback on the products by clicking "like," "dislike" or "comment" buttons. "The website offers more opportunities for registered designers to contact customers directly, as well as share how they get their inspiration," Song said. "It is also through the Internet that we found out there are many talented designers in different cities. This is why Fengguo decided to expand its presence outside Beijing."

Till January 2013, Fengguo has held idea-Mart flea markets in more than 20 cities around China and opened box shops in cities including Shijiazhuang in northern Hebei Province and Wuhan in central Hubei Province.

On January 19 and 20, Fengguo held a big idea-Mart flea market in Hefei, capital city of east China's Anhui Province, as it opened a box shop attracting hundreds of local designers to join in. "We are so happy to have Fengguo here and it is exciting for us not to have to go to Beijing, but also have such a good platform to show our knickknacks," said local designer Xiao Yu. "Beijing is of course a Mecca for designers, but the cost of living there is very high, which is a big concern for us young graduates."

"We are proud to say that a couple of thousand designers now can make a living through the boxes in Fengguo," Li said.

As original boxes already proved too small to meet the needs of some designers, Fengguo opened Fengguo Street, a mini-mall for stylish indie brands, in the Zhongguancun Plaza in November 2012. Designers can rent shops each with a floor space of about 10 square meters for about 900 yuan ($145) a month. More than 40 designers have settled in.

Here we are

Wu Yang's cooperation with Fengguo dates back to 2007 with the opening of the first Fengguo Box shop in the Zhongguancun Plaza. In 2005, Wu created his own cartoon image—a green pig shaped like a soybean. Wu named it Maodou and developed a series of accessories featuring the pig. "The Maodou image had been known online by some people, who suggested I start a business selling my works," Wu said.

Fengguo's business model attracted Wu. "They help us sell the products and deliver the customers' suggestions to me," Wu said. "This is exactly what I want. I just want to stay at home, drawing cartoons without caring that much about business issues."

Now, Wu is the owner and proprietor of Maodou products. As for his new shop on Fengguo Street, Wu said that it is still in its initial stage, but he believes business will pick up soon.

Wang Lailai started selling handbags emblazoned with her original cartoon panda design in the Fengguo Box Shop in Joy City in Beijing's Xidan in May 2008. Her handbags soon ranked among the shop's top 10 bestsellers. "It is better than I expected," said Wang Lailai, who admitted she did not think that much about making money from the small box before. "As the rent is so low, why not give it a try?"

"This is the common idea of many designers," Li said. "It is a surprise when they finally find out the money they make here is even more than their salaries."

Dong Yan, though, is more serious with her business at Fengguo. Working in a clothing factory in Beijing's suburb, Dong once saw a small mushroom made of knitted wool and taught herself how to make that and similar hand-crafted products. Last October, hearing about the pending opening of Fengguo Street, Dong quit her job and now knits and teaches knitting in her shop full-time.

"I do not think that much about how to make money from it and I plan to stay here as long as my savings allow," Dong said. "Even though visitor traffic in Fengguo Street is not huge, the sales volume already makes my ends meet. I had not been downtown frequently before, but now that I can have my own business in the expensive shopping area and become neighbors with so many wonderful designers, I cannot be happier."

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