This can’t be happening. It is just a teacup, and it is messing with my feelings. Made of eggshell porcelain, it’s pristine white and paper thin, the bottom half lovingly encased in finely woven bamboo. It is exquisite—vulnerable and brave—and as I hold it in my hand, I am helplessly moved.
Go ahead and think I’m nuts, but in my defense I will say that I’m your average material girl who doesn’t normally have near-spiritual experiences in retail stores. But Shang Xia—the Chinese brand launched last year by Hermès—is different. Its Shanghai store is a futuristic zen-like setting filled with unusually beautiful products. The clothes, jewelry, furniture and other homewares are obviously Chinese-inspired, but if you are thinking of dragons and red-and-gold brocades, think again: Everything here is muted, the lines are spare, the designs are utterly contemporary. As I leave the store, teacups in my bag, I wonder if Shang Xia is a one-off experiment or the beginning of a new era of Chinese luxury brands.
There is, indeed, a Chinese cultural revolution taking place. It’s so close to the ground that I am not sure it has registered on the radar screen of Big Luxury. It is at the let-a-hundred-flowers-blossom stage—chaotic, diverse, fledgling—but there’s a palpable energy, both from emerging designers hungry to express themselves and from a small but growing breed of consumers just as hungry to experiment. But I am jumping ahead. Let me give you the big picture first.
Along with the rest of Asia, China has carried on a torrid love affair with Western luxury brands without giving a moment’s thought to its own heritage. Venture inside Shanghai’s luxury mall Plaza 66 on a weekend and chances are you will have to line up behind velvet ropes outside Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Cartier, Hermès and other high-end brands. Burberry, meanwhile, reported a 60 percent sales jump last quarter in the Asia-Pacific region, boosted by its China expansion. The Chinese, shopping at home and abroad, are already the biggest consumers for heavy hitters like LV. According to a recent McKinsey report, the Chinese luxury market will be worth $27 billion by 2015 (up from $12 billion in 2010). Add on Chinese purchases abroad—let’s be conservative and peg it at half the home market—and you are looking at a $40 billion luxury consumption four years from now. The result: Every luxury brand of any consequence is expanding rapidly in China, and also in global destinations that Chinese tourists flock to.
The country is squarely at the show-off stage of luxury development, where the sole purpose of wearing designer labels is to say “I have money.” This isn’t going to change soon: As long as China’s economy keeps marching ahead, it will keep churning out armies of newly minted moneyed folk who will adorn themselves in luxury logo uniforms. Good for them, and even better for Big Luxury.
At the same time, there is a generation of Chinese consumers who have been accustomed to luxury brands for years—Big Luxury entered China around 1990—and by now their eye is well trained, their fashion sense evolved, their brand knowledge substantial and, importantly, their confidence high. This group has been steadily graduating to subtle luxury—a catchall of still recognizable products from Big Luxury but with scaled-down or no logos: a bag from Louis Vuitton’s Epi collection rather than the Monogram, a Birkin from Hermès, a dress from Chloé.
The logical extension of this trend is to wear something no one knows about—and that’s where emerging Chinese fashion brands are finding traction. “Buying a lesser-known label shows you have your own taste,” says fashion blogger Hart Hagerty of ShanghaiStyleFile.com. “If you buy an Uma Wang sweater, for example, it’s like joining a private club; no one knows what it is.” While Uma is one of the most successful emerging Chinese designers, the point is that her supply is limited—she has one store in Shanghai and sells through the multibrand store BNC in Beijing. (Her stuff is gorgeous—think Japanese deconstruction: hand knits, intricate weaves, unusual yarns.)
Who favors Chinese designers? As you might expect, the progressive crowd in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, often the artsy sorts, but the surprise is that even middle-aged housewives are buying into it. I ask Beijing fashion blogger Nels Frye of Stylite to estimate how many at a typical Beijing party would be wearing a Chinese designer. His take: 5 to 10 percent at a fashion party; 5 percent at a rich-people party, more if you count gown designers like Ye Mingzi. (Ye’s life, incidentally, is a comment on how far China has progressed—a granddaughter of one of Mao’s top generals, she studied fashion at London’s Central Saint Martins and then started her Studio Regal label in Beijing, which makes elaborate evening dresses for China’s elite.) Granted, 5 to 10 percent at a few top-end parties is small, but remember that this is the style-setting crowd.
From the avant-garde-deconstructed Uma to the bring-on-the-bling Ye, a diverse bunch of designers, many educated abroad, is emerging. There’s Qiu Hao, who won the 2008 Woolmark Prize, joining previous winners like Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent; Vega Wang (not Vera, mind you), whose 2008 graduating collection from Central Saint Martins was electrifying—the dresses were wired with luminescent lights—and whose subsequent collections have done extremely well; Mary Ching, who has Shanghai’s fashionistas tripping over her (impossibly high-heeled) shoes. And the controversial Xander Zhou, who insists he is not a Chinese designer, as he is “creating for the world”—meaning his designs are devoid of overtly Asian symbolism.
Homegrown nostalgia is another trend on the rise. “It is a natural reaction to press ‘pause’ on the speed of change around us,” says Nicole Fall, an expert on Asian trends and founder of Five by Fifty. Heritage is an important aspect of luxury brands anyway, and there is a slew of dusty forgotten brands that are getting a design makeover as pricey retro-hip marques. Shanghai Watch—sported by Mao and other Communist top brass—was recently relaunched as a luxury brand, with prices as high as $100,000.
Can these emerging designers and brands make it big? Is there a genius talent like Alexander McQueen hiding in their midst? Or a commercially savvy Ralph Lauren? Do they have the marathon runner’s stamina to go from their first store to a nationwide network? Or, indeed, a significant global presence?
Perhaps one way to answer these questions is to look at Chinese designer–led premium brands that have already rolled out dozens of stores. Take Ma Ke’s Exception de Mixmind, which the designer launched in 1996. She has the design smarts, for sure—in 2008 she was the first Chinese designer invited to Paris Haute Couture Week, albeit for her second brand Wuyong, thereby following in the footsteps of fashion revolutionaries Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake. She has a commercial sense, too, having grown Mixmind into 60 stores in China. Her clothes are beautiful: earthy, whimsical, excellent quality. The price is lower than luxury—I bought a pair of trousers for $300—but enough to qualify as “accessible luxury.” If Ma Ke can do it, so can other Chinese brands.
Are there supporting examples from neighboring countries? It’s a mixed bag. South Korea, for example, developed a flourishing local design community, but when Big Luxury entered in the 1990s, many, unable to compete, slowly went into decline. In recent years there is a second round of young Korean designers who are coming to the fore, but they have yet to make a significant international impact. Closer to home, Hong Kong has had some success. Shanghai Tang, now owned by Richemont, has grown to more than 40 stores worldwide, 16 of them in mainland China. Hong Kong girl Vivienne Tam moved to New York but remained faithful to a delightful Chinese aesthetic; her business has flourished. Which brings me to the phenomenon of young Asian American designers. Jason Wu of Michelle Obama–inaugural ball gown fame, along with Alexander Wang and Richard Chai, won a CFDA Swarovski Award last year. In tandem, there is a rising wave of Asian students at design schools in New York and London as well as a substantial pool of talent getting ready to follow in their footsteps.
But back to China. I ask Tim King, managing director of Asia Pacific of Dunhill—the brand is hugely successful in China—what it would take to create heavy-hitting homegrown Chinese brands. His answer says it all: “You have to make products that the Chinese can relate and aspire to.” Given that most do both with Western luxury brands already, the emerging Chinese designers are going to take a while to hit the big leagues in their own country. Jiang Qiong Er, Shang Xia’s artistic director, has a similar view. “The idea of a Chinese luxury brand itself is new, so consumers don’t believe in it,” she says. “But when they feel a real product, they will be proud of being Chinese again.” The fate of Chinese luxury brands, it seems, is like one of its exquisite teacups—vulnerable and brave.
China Address Book
Exception de Mixmind Ma Ke’s ready-to-wear line of women’s separates is sold at 60-plus locations in China. At Jianguo Men Wai Dajie 1, BB104 China World Shopping Center; 86-10/6505-2268; mixmind.com.cn.
Studio Regal Ye Mingzi creates evening and wedding gowns for China’s elite. At Jianguomenwai Ave., No. 2, Room 319; 86-10/8517-1820; studioregal.com.
Vega Zaishi Wang Wang recently debuted a special collection of colorful capes done in her signature bold edges. At Jianwai SoHo Bldg. 6, Boutique 662; 86-10/5900-2279; vegazaishiwang.com.
Wuyong Ma Ke often uses recycled objects in the construction of her couture pieces. 86-75/6338-8566; wuyonguseless.com.
Hong kong Vivienne Tam The Hong Kong native has long been an international fashion fixture, but she still has eight boutiques in her hometown. At The Landmark, Shop 309; 852/2868-2826; viviennetam.com.
Mary Ching Shoe designer Alison Mary Ching Yeung crafts Western-looking stilettos and traditional Chinese slippers. At 376 Wu-Kang Rd., Boutique 106; 86-21/5465-2335; marychingshanghai.com.
Qiu Hao Qiu’s avant-garde designs have made him one of the most celebrated figures in the Chinese fashion scene. qiuhaoqiuhao.com.
Shanghai Tang Tang has a store on New York’s Madison Avenue, but in China it’s a full lifestyle brand, complete with a café. At 15 Xintiandi N. Block, Ln. 181, Tai Cang Rd.; 86-21/6384-1601; shanghaitang.com.
Shanghai Watch Despite moving to the luxury watch market in 2008, the 56-year-old watch company still makes all its movements in China. At 158 Xinle Rd.; 86-21/5404-3808; wkshanghai.com.
Shang Xia Hermès’s year-old Chinese luxury brand uses traditional materials and designs to create heritage pieces. At 508 Jia Shan Rd., Bldg. 2; 86-21/5171-8328; shang-xia.com.
Uma Wang Wang is known for her uniquely woven creations, like chunky-knit handmade sweaters. Madang Rd., No. 245; 86-21/3331-5109; umawangcm.fatcow.com. —Shannon Adducci