Shanghai Tang teams up with Chinese designers to appeal to mainlanders
Collaboration seeks to update perception of brand
With Shanghai Fashion Week coming to an end, the appearance of Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman on the red carpet at Okura Hotel on October 22 sent a buzz through the city. Dressed impeccably in an Imperial Tailoring bespoke Shanghai Tang qipao-style gown, Kidman's appearance was a coup for the Hong Kong-born luxury brand during its 20th anniversary extravaganza.
"I met her at the last Shanghai movie festival in May and we just discussed it," says the brand's executive chairman, Raphael le Masne de Chermont. "She's a big fan of the brand."
The event was also billed as the first edition of Shanghai Tang's China Fashion Chic initiative, which is the start of many collaborations between the Hong Kong-based luxury brand and native Chinese fashion talent.
"We are doing something to give back to China, to help Chinese designers to become more well known internationally," says le Masne de Chermont, "I set up this platform to energise Chinese creativity in a modern way."
"I think it's vital to engage with younger designers," says Masha Ma, one of this year's collaborative designers, along with Beijing-based couturier Wang Peiyi.
"But when a Chinese girl looks at the branding of Shanghai Tang, they might feel a little awkward. So my purpose with this capsule line is to talk to the younger customer in China and to modernise the perception of it."
The collaborations will certainly help the brand engage with the mainland's younger generation, who avidly follow local talents like Ma and Wang. Even though half of Shanghai Tang's designers are Chinese, they are based in Hong Kong.
The runway showcased capsule collections by designers Ma and Wang, the brand's spring-summer 2015 ready-to-wear collections for menswear, womenswear and the bespoke Imperial Tailoring line.
Shanghai Tang's clientele has shifted towards a more mainland demographic, so seeking connections with this market is key.
"We have been growing our [Hong Kong] customer base, but our number one customers are mainland Chinese. They make up about 30 per cent, with the next biggest group being the Americans at 17 per cent," says le Masne de Chermont.
Chinese fashion has come a long way since David Tang Wing-cheung founded the lifestyle and fashion label, and so have the customers. Although it's notoriously hard to sell chinoiserie back to the Chinese, a recent rebooted interested in modernised Chinese detailing, as well as the appearance of more native designers, has helped boost Shanghai Tang's appeal on the mainland.
The brand has been active in many areas, including the Cathay Mansion flagship store, which comes complete with an old cinema, on Shanghai's Huaihai Lu last year.
Personnel-wise, Raffaele Borriello was appointed "Creative Consigliere" two years ago, and directly designs the Imperial collection.
Many remember the uproar when Shanghai Tang lost its Pedder Street flagship, in what le Masne de Chermont calls "a real estate war", to American import Abercrombie and Fitch.
"We decided that it was a new beginning for us. We were saying goodbye to the first stage of Shanghai Tang, which was extremely nostalgic. Our demographic had changed, and China has changed."
The Western tourist clientele had already become less relevant, so the closure of the original emporium "liberated us, and pushed us to go forward in the next chapter", he says.
As 75 per cent of women's fashion customers are Asian, Shanghai Tang has changed the iconic shopping bags, brand concept, stores design, and even the way designers fit and cut.
"The brand is not meant to be a Chinese emporium for Western people who are visiting Hong Kong any more," says le Masne de Chermont, who wants to show that Shanghai Tang is "truly an international brand, just based in Hong Kong".
"The bling era is over in China, and there are now more discerning individuals mixing and matching their wardrobe. They are not slaves of fashion anymore; they are innovators in their own right, and they are demanding their own look."
What look is the brand proposing for this customer? Spring-summer womenswear employs gushes of opulent jewel-inspired tones. Shapes are looser, and modernised with print wrap dresses cinched at the waist, clean silhouettes and separates for an urban wardrobe.
The menswear collection references "summer by the sea", with bomber jackets, playful prints, resort tailoring in wonderful hues of oceanic blues, and green inspired by the beaches of Capri. "Travel is a luxury for the modern Chinese," says le Masne de Chermont.
"I try to appeal to a more international taste. I use Italian fabrics mixed with the Chinese DNA of the brand," says Borriello, pointing out the meticulous beading of a dress.
"There is this incredible energy in this country," he says. "I'm Italian, and we are a little bit classic and traditional. Here, there is a real freedom in the way that girls dress."
It's clear that the brand's new message has two parts: it's about being in the international fashion game, and it's about making the world rethink the value of Asian design.
"Sometimes in the West there is a condescending vision of Asian fashion. They say that we are not creative, which isn't true," le Masne de Chermont says.
"It just reflects the way the fashion world is organised at the moment. It's designed and created in the West and sold in the East. We want to rebalance the spectrum a little bit, and have the creativity from the East sold globally," he says.
Fresh takes on heritage codes
The rules of engagement for Shanghai Tang's China Fashion chic are as follows: two Chinese designers of talent are handpicked each year to design capsule lines and do a catwalk with the brand. Taking the show to an international fashion week is on the agenda. "They have to be Chinese," says Shanghai Tang's executive chairman, Raphael le Masne de Chermont. "They must have experience of doing catwalk shows, preferably in the West, and they have to design the capsule, as per Shanghai Tang DNA, which is 'Modern Chinese Chic'."
Masha Ma and Wang Peiyi, both well-established Chinese designers, were selected for the first edition of Shanghai Tang's China Fashion Chic initiative. Both approached the project with enthusiasm, but also a little trepidation as they interpret Chinese heritage styles for a modern audience. This is a big task.
Opening the show, Shanghai-Paris based Ma (who is on the cusp of a huge retail expansion) seemed to have her eye on a younger clientele. She had a very modern interpretation of the Shanghai Tang aesthetic, showing 20 fresh, sporty and easy looks that provided energy and bounce.
Using a palette of apple green, mango and baby blue, copper and silver, Ma says although she appreciates the brand's culture and exoticism, "I see it as a foreigner's point of view of what China is".
"My goal was to give a younger generation a different point of view of the brand. I know the mother will wear Shanghai Tang, but now I want the daughter to wear it, too."
Ma has employed shorter hemlines, round-shouldered cropped jackets with oversized pockets, hip asymmetrical cuts, and even some suede shorts, to achieve her goal. She also wanted the price points to be affordable, and "non-threatening or intimidating to a younger generation".
Ma simplified her evening dresses, but still referenced the roots of the label. "This is a very easy, new, chilled and cool Shanghai Tang girl," she says.
Beijing-based Wang, already considered a national fashion treasure on the mainland, made his name with couture and wedding gowns, counting the likes of Zhang Ziyi, Cindy Crawford and Fan Bingbing as fans.
"When Shanghai Tang first found me, I did know the brand. But I thought it was about qipaos and traditional, culturally referenced fashions," he says. "When I researched it, I saw from their campaigns that a new Shanghai Tang had evolved. I became very interested in the project. Even though I'm Chinese, my own designs have never used that many elements of traditional Chinese design."
Wang's designs reference a modern urban lifestyle, with black cigarette pants, sleek jackets and shirts with stitched abstract Chinese motifs. A key butterfly motif "used the wing part reworked into a floral pattern", says Wang.
"I looked at how Shanghai Tang used the butterfly in the past and reinterpreted it my way. In collaborations, it's very important to have your own style and integrate it with the brand's aesthetic."
Playing to his strengths, Wang's most impressive pieces included a butterfly print jumpsuit, easily adapted for evening wear, and an ivory floor-length sequinned evening gown.