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Interview with the Authors: Made in Translation by Sylvia Yanagisako and Lisa Rofel

Image credit: South China Morning Post

January 16, 2018

Prior to their talk at the University of Washington, Professors Yanagisako and Rofel generously took time to answer a few questions about their upcoming publication, Made in Translation: A Collaborative Ethnography of Italian-Chinese Global Fashion.

UW students interested in attending the talk or those fascinated by the topics of globalized fashion and cross-cultural economic ties would do well to read up on this upcoming presentation.

Professor Yanagisako, in a 2012 presentation about this project, you mentioned that a number of Italian firm owners see their Chinese counterparts as lacking fashion sense or the innate ability to create pieces that embody italianita. However, there are some globally recognized Chinese fashion designers, such as Guo Pei. How would these Italian firm owners understand her work along their spectrum of fashion sensibility?

Prof. Yanagisako: At the time we conducted our research, Guo Pei was not yet well-known among the Italian firms we studied in China, especially not among the production and distribution managers.  As she is n now an international celebrity, Italian designers would certainly be well-aware of her. But as we didn’t discuss her work with them, we don’t know what Italian firm owners would think of her designs.  Also, keep in mind that she is a haute couture designer, not someone who designs ready-to-wear clothing, and the Italian managers had in mind the Chinese managers with whom they work.

It’s not uncommon to see storefronts in China emulating the Italian style, even if their products are not actually made in Italy or by Italian designers. How much of a concern is the prevalence of counterfeits to Italian firms, especially considering that Chinese middle-class consumers that may not know the difference?

Prof. Yanagisako: Italian firms are unhappy about the prevalence of counterfeit Italian products– both the fake versions of their brands as well as brands with Italian sounding names that are actually Chinese.  On the other hand, they have to be careful about protesting the Chinese production of Italian brands, since some of their products are made in China.

Professor Rofel, your 2007 book Desiring China discusses the notion of “cosmopolitanism” in the contemporary Chinese cultural imaginary as “[guiding] them out of the ruins of Maoist socialism, beyond the reminders of China’s colonial history, and into a world of freedom.” How does this dynamic shape the interactions and construct the “changing asymmetries” between Chinese and Italian entrepreneurs?

Prof. Rofel: As I will discuss further in the talk, cosmopolitanism is the main means by which Chinese entrepreneurs insist that their labor power offers a great deal to the collaborations with Italian entrepreneurs. They also feel that sometimes their Italian counterparts do not sufficiently value these Chinese entrepreneurs’ labor value.  Cosmopolitanism includes a wide range of skills in their view: recognition of how to deal with foreign business people, recognition of the different business styles among foreigners, the ability to shepherd foreigners within China, and the ability to contribute to the design of the garments.

Thinking to the women you described in the fourth chapter of Desiring China or the various cohorts in Other Modernities, I am curious as to how Italian fashions register among different groups of women in China. To which demographic, particularly among women, do Chinese and Italian firms market? In the future, do you think that they might adjust their products to draw in different kinds of consumers?

Prof. Rofel: Italian-Chinese joint venture firms, as well as wholly owned Italian firms and Chinese firms market to an urban middle-class, professional woman. They tend to focus on different age groups, but they market mainly to young women in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties.   These are the people who are the emerging entrepreneurs themselves. In the future, they will probably adjust their garments even more to speak to the urban middle class. They already do so, combining Chinese tastes with Italian styles.

Lisa Rofel has been publishing books and articles on China for the last 30 years. Her most recent publication is the forthcoming collaboration with Sylvia Yanagisako entitled Made in Translation: A Collaborative Ethnography of Italian-Chinese Global Fashion. 
Sylvia Yanagisako’s research and publications have focused on kinship, gender and capitalism. Her book, Producing Culture and Capital: Family Firms in Italy (2002), traced the cultural and social processes through which family sentiments shaped the silk industry and the industrial district of Como, Italy. Her latest book, co-authored with Lisa Rofel, Made in Translation: A Collaborative Ethnography of Italian-Chinese Global Fashion is being published by Duke University Press.