Handmade Chinese wedding gowns are displayed in a factory in Lu'an, Anhui province, in May. [YUAN JIE/CHINA DAILY]
One day in early May, Sun Xiaolong and his fiancee walked into a wedding dress shop in a township in the city of Lu'an in East China's Anhui province.
About two hours later, the young couple walked out with three bridal gowns of Western as well as traditional Chinese styles.
"The dresses cost merely 1,500 yuan ($223), while renting from a wedding service company would require much more," said Sun.
With thousands of wedding dress factories and shops, the township of Dingji is one of the largest manufacturing and sales hubs in China.
Lu'an generally sells about 25,000 wedding dresses and other costumes each day, according to Yang Xuejun, president of Yu'an district's wedding dress industry association. He said most of the dresses are produced in Dingji township.
The export value of the township's wedding clothes industry reached $40 million in 2019, according to one local official.
Xu Changying, a businessman, said his products have always been available in overseas markets, especially in the United States and Europe.
"But it was very hard to know the trade volume, as the export business has been mostly done by intermediary companies from cities like Suzhou and Guangzhou," said Xu.
Suzhou, in neighboring Jiangsu province, is the largest trade center in China for wedding dresses, with a domestic market share of about 70 percent. But Xu estimated that 60 percent of the products sold by Suzhou-based traders are made in Lu'an.
"About 70 percent of businessmen and workers in Suzhou are from Lu'an. In recent years, an increasing number of plants have moved from Suzhou to Dingji" as more industry activity shifted there, said Xu, who moved back to Dingji in 2010.
Xu, a Dingji native, migrated to Suzhou in 1992 to work as a bridal gown factory worker. After accumulating production and sales skills, he invested more than 50,000 yuan in establishing a workshop in Suzhou in 1994, when the country's annual average per capita income for urban residents was merely 3,179 yuan.
"By 2010, my plant had nearly 50 workers, in contrast to the seven at the beginning," said Xu. "In around 2010, the monthly salary for a worker had climbed to about 7,000 yuan, while back in my hometown it would be less than 5,000 yuan."
Xu later returned to Dingji and established the town's first wedding clothes plant. And just as Xu had brought many fellow townspeople to work in Suzhou decades ago, they have followed Xu once again.
Employees make wedding dresses at a workshop of a factory in Lu'an. [YUAN JIE/CHINA DAILY]
In 2018, Suzhou launched strict fire control regulations in the area known as Street of Wedding Dresses. As a result, many businesses had to move out of the densely placed, owner-constructed buildings. The move pushed many business owners back to Dingji.
The township currently has nearly 2,000 plants and shops related to the wedding clothes industry, which has attracted thousands of workers from other regions.
"Now half of the township's 54,000 people are engaged in the wedding clothing business, either in Suzhou or locally," said Zong Qiyan, deputy Party secretary of Dingji.
The wedding clothes industry in Lu'an reported an annual output value of more than 3 billion yuan in 2021, with Dingji accounting for more than 2 billion of that.
The local government has been building a specific zone for the industry, a project that will require a gross investment of 2.1 billion yuan.
Now about 5,600 people have moved from Suzhou to the zone. After the zone's completion in three to five years, the local government expects it could provide 50,000 jobs, with annual output value reaching 10 billion yuan.
"Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales have dropped significantly in the past two years, while we remain bullish on future growth," said Xu.
He kept an outlet for sales in Suzhou for his son to manage and set up a team of three designers in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.
In both the domestic and overseas markets, "designs with traditional Chinese elements such as mandarin collar and embroidery have been increasingly popular", he said.
Xu said his company produces mainly middle-and top-grade wedding dresses, priced at about 1,000 yuan each for wholesale.
"Nowadays, more and more young couples prefer to buy rather than rent their wedding dresses so that they can keep the dress," he said.
Wang Jifeng, owner of the shop that Sun and his fiancee visited, switched from selling regular clothes to exclusively wedding dresses in March. She said Western and Chinese styles are equally popular.
While Wang runs only a bricks-and-mortar store, the Yu'an wedding dress industry association said about 80 percent of local companies operate solely online.
Zheng Xianjun, a local businessman, said, "E-commerce can reach more people, so as a result, location in a small inland city like Lu'an is no longer an obstacle."
Local people said the industry has changed their lives.
"Before the emergence of the industry, the elderly would usually gather to play cards, but now they would rather work from home to make embroidery for wedding dresses," said Zhang Wenwu, vice-mayor of Dingji township.