Emperor’s New Brands

Clothing from Shang Xia (left) and Qeelin’s popular Wulu jewellery (right).

It’s no secret that China is a gold mine for luxury brands – a recent McKinsey & Company report estimates that the mainland will account for about 20 per cent, or 180 billion yuan (HK$219.5 billion), of global luxury sales in 2015. And while China’s love for Western brands has been well documented, the study also suggests a growing demand for tailor-made products that incorporate Chinese culture and imagery. As such, the time is now ripe for home-grown luxury brands to come to the fore.

“With the recession in America and Europe, the focus has moved to China, and it’s opened this opportunity for our brands to emerge. Historically, it makes sense. Why can’t China have its own, like Europe, especially when our heritage is just as strong?” says Alison Mary Ching Yeung, designer and founder of luxury accessories brand Mary Ching.

While this concept is not exactly new – Richemont-owned Shanghai Tang and Hong Kong label Blanc de Chine have been referencing Chinese culture for the past decade – it’s only now that the Chinese are ready to embrace a brand whose roots are firmly planted in their own culture.

“It’s all about timing. China has a brilliant culture, but for 50 years the arts were broken,” says Jiang Qiong Er, artistic director of lifestyle brand Shang Xia. “Once we recovered, it was about economical development. Now that we are becoming wealthy, the next 30 years will see China conquer the world with its culture. [The Chinese] are looking for brands that are about art, culture inspiration, poetry and quality.”

Indeed, Shang Xia, which celebrates its first anniversary this month, made headlines when French luxury brand Hermes invested in the company. The Chinese brand, however, plays down its foreign ownership, and instead focuses on its use of traditional Chinese craftsmanship and design.

“I am the mother of Shang Xia; Hermes is the father,” Jiang explains. “It’s about a love story – a passion for quality, craftsmanship, philosophy and culture. We have the same values as Hermes and use this foundation to plant the brand in another culture. We also encourage inspiration and know-how from China and its history.”

As such, the brand is about creating timeless designs that capture what Jiang calls “contemporary Chinese elegance”. Focusing on the home, the collections include furniture, decorative objects, accessories, garments and a limited-edition range of “cultural objects” made using traditional craftsmanship and embodying a modern, 21st-century aesthetic.

“We take inspiration from China’s past that is still relevant today, such as the pure and functional furniture from the Ming dynasty or porcelain from the Song dynasty. We want to retranslate this timeless beauty with contemporary materials,” she says.

While the brand has just one outpost, in Shanghai, Jiang says they hope to open stores in Beijing and Paris in the next few years.

It’s interesting that Jiang’s husband, French entrepreneur Guillaume Brochard, is pioneering a similar concept with his luxury jewellery brand, Qeelin. Often referred to as the Tiffany & Co of China, the brand was launched in 2004 by Brochard and creative director and designer Dennis Chan.

“People have always been fascinated by Chinese art, and I realised this about 15 years ago,” Hong Kong-based Chan says. “After being in London for many years, I returned to the mainland in 1997 and experienced many craftsman who were trying to imitate beautiful products from the past. My dream was to translate something that’s inspired by Chinese culture but was still contemporary.”

It took Chan seven years before he finally launched the brand in Paris. Featuring Chinese-inspired designs made using French craftsmanship, it immediately captured the attention of celebrities including Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. Today Qeelin has stores in Paris, Hong Kong and the mainland, with four more planned in cities such as Beijing and Hangzhou, Zhejiang.

“I wanted it to be international. Usually, I won’t do something specifically for a certain market. It’s very much inspired by Chinese cultural heritage, but it’s more than that. It’s not just about Chinese symbols; there’s always an emotional attachment to the design,” Chan says.

Popular collections from Qeelin have included the BoBo, a design that Chan says is a combination of a Chinese panda and Western teddy bear, and the Wulu, which is based on a popular lucky charm believed to drive away evil sprits. All have drawn fans from around world thanks to their minimalist and sleek designs; their spiritual meaning and emotional element is just an added bonus.

“From the beginning I didn’t think about Chinese not liking the brand,” he says. “That being said, doing Chinese inspired designs is like walking a thin line: if you go over the edge, it will be very clichéd, but at the same time it may be too abstract or not Chinese enough. In the end it’s about aesthetics, although it’s still very much a representation of culture. It’s about bringing the value of your design to an international audience.”

Also an old hand in the Chinese luxury market is Taiwanese brand Shiatzy Chen, which boasts flagship stores in Paris, Taipei, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Chen, an ambitious designer, launched her brand in 1978, but it’s only been in the past decade that she has gained international recognition for her East-meets-West styles.

“I started as a seamstress. Then I began to design my own clothes because my customers loved them,” Chen says. “I really love Chinese culture and, at that time, there was no other brand doing the same style. I always wanted to appeal to international audiences because I wanted to present real Chinese fashion to the world. I wanted to preserve the traditions and artistic techniques of the past and make more people realise how important they are.”

Her empire now includes womenswear, menswear, housewares and accessories made using Western craftsmanship and taking their inspiration from Eastern aesthetics, whether it’s Suzhou embroidery or Chinese brocades.

“I would say my brand is infused with a Song dynasty aesthetic and humanistic spirit, to flesh out a neo-Chinese chic. I also believe that aside from solid design concept and creativity, it is necessary to conform to an international trend and add modern fashion aesthetics to clothing, so the essence of the brand can live eternally. So my work is basically combining Chinese aesthetics with the craftsmanship of the West in a modern way,” she says.

Although Chen has had the most longevity, her rise to fame had its challenges. Like many other brands, she has had to fight off the usual stigmas associated with Chinese brands, seen as mass-produced or replicas of other designs.

“It was very hard at the beginning. We even invited the president of French Fashion Federation to come to China to visit our shop and factory to show that we have design and craftsmanship, and are unique,” Chen says. “We are now the federation’s only Chinese member. I’m happy that our effort was worth it.”

Mary Ching, the youngest member of this new generation of Chinese luxury brands, is also trying to make a difference. Founder Yeung lived in Italy and France, and studied at the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London before deciding to rediscover her roots. She moved to China in 2006 and launched her luxury accessories brand in 2008.

“I am Eurasian and I think that gives me an advantage. I have an international perspective, but I am still accepted as a Chinese designer,” Yeung says. “When I came back, I saw a real opportunity here for an accessories brand. In England it’s common, but here it was a new thing. Now I consider myself a designer brand transitioning into luxury. We are a small aspirational brand that is growing and moving.”

Drawing on her passion for shoes and her experience with designers such as Hussein Chalayan, she launched an accessories line inspired by her own eclectic aesthetic, combined with vintage fashion. Her fantastic and whimsical designs draw on Chinese traditions, as seen in her signature satin silk ballerina slippers embellished with modern Chinese erotica or graffiti. Her handbags and shoes also feature textures from feathers (inspired by the phoenix) to letter prints that allude to porcelain design.

“I do this fusion of East and West, but in a playful way that is provocative, elegant and opulent. The brand DNA is a forbidden opulence, which is a play on the Forbidden City and its treasures,” Yeung says.

Many of her pieces are featured in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to represent contemporary Chinese design. Meanwhile, she is planning her own “Chingdom” with stockists in London, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, besides her boutique in Shanghai.

“My focus is Asia-Pacific, but I want to nail it in China first. It’s relevant to have a presence outside China, but the market opportunity here is enough to sustain any business,” Yeung says.

“My big challenge is having a line branded as made in Shanghai. Most people associate China with mass, and my vision is to prove that it is unique, high design and high quality.”

As published in the South China Morning Post newspaper, September 2011

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