Céline sees bright future catering to more sophisticated mainland clientele

Mainland luxury shoppers are becoming more sophisticated and Céline is among a number of Western brands catering to their changing tastes, writes Xu Donghuan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 12:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 12:50am

The rush into China has been going for some time, but now the quieter, more austere luxury labels are increasingly making their presence felt.

Last week, it was the turn of French fashion house Céline. The brand staged a catwalk show of its autumn-winter 2014 collection on an abandoned oil tanker in Beijing's 751 D Park art district.

High-end shoppers have evolved into sophisticated customers

In the label's first runway event outside Paris, its creative director, Phoebe Philo, also presented several new pieces, created especially for the Beijing event, to the 550 VIP guests and celebrities such as Faye Wong and Na Ning.

"I wanted to approach the collection from the gut, for it to feel touched by human hands; wild, tender and strong," Philo says of the show, which included a series of new silk tops, scarves and handbags in special colours for Chinese customers.

The show explored Philo's signature interpretation of men's wardrobes but reinvented for women. The looks were strong, confident, with a focus on handcraft with feathered fabrics and frayed seams. Long swinging coats in interesting fabrications were a dominant feature, while bolts of colour were introduced in bright buttons, checks or gingham.

The sophisticated, cool elegance of Philo's Céline woman has been gaining traction on the mainland, where, for the most sophisticated customers, logo mania and conspicuous luxury has started to feel tired. Enter Céline, a brand that has nailed its cool, collected identity, positioning it as the go-to fashion brand for the thinking woman, embodying the opposite of fashion frivolity or the stylistic trappings of nouveau riche.

The mainland has become one of the top five markets for Céline, accounting for 10 per cent of its global sales, says CEO Marco Gobbetti as we talk in Beijing. Among its 90 stores, 20 are located in 14 cities across the mainland. The new additions are a store at the International Finance Square in Chengdu, which opened in April, and a flagship store at Plaza 66 in Shanghai, which is due to open later this year.

Gobbetti thinks high-end mainland customers' initial passion for luxury logos has given way to a desire for a more minimalist aesthetic that has done so well for Céline. The transition he sees is also becoming a concern for other luxury labels that have banked on China's continued love of logos and bling.

"The high-end shoppers in China have quickly evolved into sophisticated and discerning customers, who are not just looking for status but products that fit them and their personality. I think Céline is one of those brands," he says.

Céline is the latest of several brands to have hosted shows with celebratory aplomb in the mainland this year. In April, British luxury giant Burberry showed off its autumn-winter 2014 collection at a Shanghai shipyard with a Broadway-style musical extravaganza; singers and dancers dressed in Burberry trench coats wowing audiences. At present, Burberry has 78 stores in the mainland.

Soon after Burberry's creative show, New York-based fashion designer Michael Kors staged a jet-set-themed event at Shanghai's Hongqiao International Airport.

Then, earlier this month, Balenciaga (which has 12 stores in the mainland) held a star-studded fashion show in the capital that included its spring 2014 collection as well as a "China Edition", featuring 13 exclusive designs for the Chinese market. As part of the event, 40 designs by house founder Cristóbal Balenciaga were exhibited for the first time in China.

With so many luxury brands hoping to boost their presence, it's no surprise that the competition is fierce.

"Everybody is here," says Gobbetti. "China has quickly become a market as competitive as other places. You need to be very professional, serious and invest a lot in resources, training, recruiting and develop a close relationship with customers. That's the key."

Although Céline has far fewer mainland stores than some other labels, it does not plan to expand rapidly. "We'll just work on improving what we have. We have a good network and cover the main markets fairly well. We like to keep our distribution tight," says Gobbetti.

Globally, Céline has tripled its business in the past four years, Gobbetti says, with Japan, the US, Europe and the rest of Asia each holding a bigger market share than the mainland. Hong Kong, where Céline has eight stores, is another key market.

"Hong Kong, as a city, has a very strong market. If not number one, it's probably very close to it. The city is very important for us in terms of both business volume and image," he says, adding that Céline is planning to upgrade two of its stores at Harbour City and Ocean Terminal.

Although these stores are well patronised by mainland customers, Gobbetti says Céline's focus in Hong Kong is on local customers whom he endorses enthusiastically. "The clientele is fantastic, very educated and opinionated in the right way."

donghuan.xu @scmp.com