When the milliner Elisabeth Koch wore a quirky hat made out of a motorcycle figurine to a gallery opening in Beijing's trendy 798 Art District, Chinese magazine editors swarmed and swooned.
"Before I knew it, they were asking to borrow hats for photo shoots," said Koch, who left a job with a bank to train at the rigorous Wombourne School of Millinery in England before moving to China in 2007. "I just wanted to make hats and sell them. I didn't even think of getting on covers of Vogue or wherever."
But within months of setting up her first home studio Koch's hats were featured in Harper's Bazaar. The hats have also appeared in a Chinese blockbuster film, Dutch Parliament and at racecourses in Sydney, Hong Kong and Kentucky. In December, Mario Testino photographed Koch's hat atop the head of movie star Shu Qi for the coveted cover of Chinese Vogue's 100th edition.
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With the introduction of a new, more affordable, line to compliment her bespoke hats, Koch expects her output to quintuple this year.
She's hardly alone.
The milliner has tapped into a surging demand for bespoke luxury products, as members of the Chinese elite differentiate and refine their tastes, eschewing flashy logos and big brands for more personal designs and subtly exquisite craft.
"Customers are more sophisticated now," said Ben Cavender, principle at China Market Research. "They are not just trying to be flashy anymore. They are more likely to buy products that fit their own personal sense of style. They are looking much more closely at the quality of construction craftsmanship the unique story of the brand."