BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Who says fashion is only for the catwalk? A Chinese designer is creating trendy tracksuits and elegant evening gowns for dogs, turning her passion for canines and couture into a booming business.
Hu Xi, who studied fashion design, is not China's only pet fashion designer, but she is one of the longest lasting in the niche business, with the studio she first set up at home in 2000 still going strong some nine years later.
Hu's six dogs get first pick of her tailored outfits that range from simple jackets to hand-stitched wedding dresses.
But demand from clients in China and abroad has prompted her to open a small factory in Beijing's suburbs.
"From a young age I liked making things by hand, and my mum bought me lots of Barbie dolls and I would make them all sorts of dresses and other clothes," Hu, 27, told Reuters.
"On my 10th birthday my mum gave me a little dog, and from that day on I would dress her up. It was great fun."
Pet ownership in China has ballooned in recent years, in stark contrast to the days when late Chinese leader Mao Zedong banned raising dogs as a bourgeois pastime. Keeping dogs was only made legal a few years ago as living standards rose.
Animal rights groups have also criticized China for cruelty, saying millions of animals, including cats and dogs, are raised for their pelts and inhumanely killed. China, where many people eat dog, is considering its first animal welfare law.
Most of Hu's customers come looking for outfits to keep their pets warm in the harsh Beijing winter, but many others order evening wear and outfits for special events: Hu says she once made wedding dresses for a rabbit and a chinchilla.
It takes about an hour to make a simple jacket or dress, which sells for 60 yuan ($9) while a more complex outfit can take up to three days to make and can sell for over $100, roughly half the monthly wage of a construction worker in the city.
Hu estimates that she has sold between 10,000 and 20,000 items since she opened her studio. In winter, when demand is higher, Hu makes around 10,000 yuan ($1,460) a month, an enviable wage for most Beijing residents.
But money has never been Hu's motivation. She says making dogs look -- and feel -- good is what's important.
"When my dogs go out they always wear shoes and they change clothes every day. When we go out and everyone crowds around to look at them, they feel like the most beautiful dogs and think they're too good for everyone else," Hu said.
Hu's designs are inspired by everything from traditional Chinese clothing to Western pop culture and children's cartoons. In addition to the evening wear and flowery frocks, there are police uniforms with handcuffs and superhero costumes.
And while wearing clothes may not make every dog's day, one of Hu's regular customers says it does wonders for their appeal.
"I think of them just like my own children, so of course I like to dress them up and make them look more beautiful," said Zhang Mengyi, who has bought nine outfits for her dogs. "I also want my friends to like them."
Editing by Miral Fahmy