BEIJING - What do vendors of underwear actually sell? It's not just lingerie, according to Yang Shibin, leader of the China Knitting Industrial Association.
"No, they are not selling the products but a culture and a lifestyle," he insisted.
As the result of the economic development of the country, the so-called intimate apparel industry is growing bigger and has been attracting large numbers of investors in recent years as demand rises.
Chinese women are no longer satisfied with merely comfortable bras, knickers or nightwear. They want attractive styles and a sense of luxury in wearing them. Companies are working hard to meet the changing demands and make profits by creating new trends.
According to statistics from cloth.hc360.com, one of the biggest business websites in the clothing industry in the country, the total revenue of China's intimate apparel market in 2010 was 3 billion euros ($3.9 billion). It is experiencing an annual growth rate of 10 percent.
Among the potential consumers of about 525 million for intimate apparel in China, 21 percent of them are aged 15 to 24 and 41 percent are aged 25 to 44. The latter has more purchasing power than the former.
The statistics show that about 140 million Chinese people prefer high-end intimate apparel and their annual budget for clothes including underwear is 300 euros a person.
Dong Li, 51, who owns a small private company in Shanxi province, said she usually spends 300 yuan ($47.62) to 450 yuan on a foreign-branded bra.
"I like the simple design and the high quality of the materials of foreign brands," she said, adding she also likes buying nightwear and homewear in various colors and styles.
"I believe that choosing many items of homewear in different styles is a new fashion which can help the family feel clean, warm and interesting at home," she said.
However, not all women prefer foreign-branded bras.
Wang Qi, 25, an office worker at an IT company in Beijing, said the prices of foreign brands are expensive and they often don't fit the size of Asian women.
"I like push-up bras which have padding inside the cups' linings because it makes me appear to have larger breasts and I can show a beautiful cleavage sometimes in summer," she said. "But most foreign brands don't have such a design. They are more natural in design, color and style."
The growing demand and promising future of the industry has attracted many youngsters to study design, production and marketing for underwear.
Xi'an Polytechnic University set up a department of intimate clothing at its clothing and art design college in 2008. It is the first department specializing in the underwear industry in China.
Liu Chi, who majored in clothing engineering at a United Kingdom college, was appointed the director of the new department after she returned to China.
She said the intimate apparel industry in the United States and Europe has a longer history and their producers have better materials, knitting skills and technology than domestic ones. However, Chinese companies have been rapidly narrowing the gap in recent years.
"The rapid growth of the industry is the result of soaring market demand, especially for high-end products," she said. "In China, many film stars and businesswomen require private custom-made bras for attending important occasions. The average price for these kind of bras can be more than 10,000 yuan each."
The 7th China International Intimate Apparel Culture Week as well as the Shenzhen Lingerie Fair, supported by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, will be held in Shenzhen on May 7 this year. Representatives of both domestic and foreign brands will attend the fair to exhibit their products including bras, home and nightwear, men's underwear and swimming costumes and trunks.
In 2011, the annual event had a turnover of 2.35 billion yuan, according to the organizer.
"The fair will help domestic companies to learn experience from their foreign counterparts and also create a chance for customers to get in touch with the latest fashion trends," Liu said.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China has more than 3,000 companies producing lingerie, of which only 13 percent make a profit, leaving the majority of the market share to be cornered by overseas brands.