It's the better part of value
Dolce & Gabbana sparked local outrage in January, when a shop guard stopped Hongkongers from snapping photos of the Tsim Sha Tsui storefront. Online chat rooms were filled with speculation that the store was protecting the identities of the predominantly mainland clientele inside, on the view that D&G's powerful patrons did not want to be photographed spending lavishly on luxury goods.
At the height of the episode, when 1,000 protesters surrounded D&G's flagship store, thus shutting it down, columnist Chip Tsao offered a solution. 'Our mainland government officials can spend money at D&G as usual, so long as D&G can give them a paper bag to cover their head ... This way all these 'paper bag men' can continue to go gaga on shopping while Hong Kong people can photograph from outside. No one would care any more if you take a million pictures,' the former BBC journalist quipped.
The episode opened an intriguing query: what to get a government official with a taste for luxury but with a political need to keep a low profile (read: not spending excessively)?
The answer, say some, is spectacles from the German firm Lotos, whose basic - albeit solid gold - frames start at 100,000 yuan (HK$123,000). A diamond-encrusted version costs five million yuan, but those looking for a little slice of Lotos on the cheap can buy a single platinum screw for several hundred yuan.
This is seriously expensive eyewear. But because Lotos' creations carry no logo, they are not instantly recognisable as a designer product to the untrained eye. For that reason, the brand has a reputation for being favoured by mainland officials. The assumption is that some in government do not want to draw attention to their wealth, but still crave luxury.
The unbranded Lotos strikes just the right balance between status and discretion, says Ouyang Kun, head of the Beijing office of the World Luxury Association, a research group.
'Government officials like Lotos' non-branded look,' says Ouyang. 'The lack of logo means no one can tell the brand of the product. But the fact that the glasses are so expensive makes the officials feel secretly proud and happy.'
In January, the World Luxury Association named Lotos as one of the world's most valuable luxury brands. Even Xinhua Net, a spin-off news portal produced by the official news agency Xinhua, has noted Lotos' popularity among officials, of whom it says, 'Unlike show-offy nouveau riche and celebrities, [government officials] are the most discreet big spenders.'
Yang Zhaohui, jewellery marketing executive from the mainland, also says Lotos frames appeal to government officials with a preference for low-key luxury.
But it's not just about personal consumption. In a culture that puts a premium on gift giving, logo-less luxury products like Lotos are a hot pick for those seeking to build a little guanxi within mainland officialdom, says Yang.
Mainlanders increasingly perceive the straight offer of money to officials as 'tacky', according to Yang. He says that gift-giving is the preferred way to win favour with such authorities, and that Lotos spectacles are a popular present.
Torsten Stocker, a Hong Kong-based partner at management consulting firm Monitor Group, says that the offer of gifts to powerful figures is a long-standing Chinese cultural practice; it is just that the types of gifts have changed.
Stocker says that 10 years ago, popular gifts to give mainland officials included Chinese medicine, pu'er tea and Panda cigarettes (a brand of tobacco favoured by Deng Xiaoping).
'In recent years, there's a slight shift from the overtly conspicuous to the slightly more hidden, such as leather belts or these [Lotos] glasses ... As there's much more publicity now about conspicuous display of wealth, there is a much higher degree of sensitivity for government officials,' Stocker says.
Lotos quietly entered the mainland market in 2004 when its German owner, Stephan Schmidt, travelled to Beijing with dozens of pairs of glasses, which he offered for sale on consignment at a high-end eyewear shop in the capital.
At the time, the spectacles were already popular with officials in Japan, where the eyeglasses served as a discreet signifier of those belonging to the official power stratum.
Lotos' spokeswoman Angela Rehm in Germany would not comment on who bought Lotos glasses on the mainland, saying only, 'We imagine that officials are among our customers.'
Sales are taking off on the mainland, and Rehm says revenue in the market has far exceeded expectations. Lotos established its Asian headquarters in Hong Kong two years ago to help its sales in the region. All of which suggests that, when selling luxury on the mainland, a little discretion can go a long way.