Online retailer hopes to change how the world perceives 'Made in China'

Shanghai-based e-tailer, with its growing ensemble of talent, is on a mission to change perceptions of mainland products

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2013, 3:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2013, 4:42am

There's just a small note of irony in the tag line for new Shanghai-based e-tailer, which proudly states: "Made in China is dead, designed in China killed it".

What the people behind the thriving months-old design entity are trying to convey is that China is not just a place that turns out merchandise designed in other countries but that, more and more, it's turning into a genuine hot spot of design.

Stephany Zoo, US born and raised but with family links in  China, including Hong Kong, wanted to live and work in Shanghai doing something that appealed to her love of branding and marketing.

"I started to think about where Chinese design was, did the culture of it exist, and what can we do for it?" says Zoo, the company's marketing director.

She teamed up with Diana Tsai, the CEO of Bundshop (, and raised funding through a couple of angel investors in Shanghai and the US and, late last year, began an e-commerce site that specialises in  premium Chinese designed and produced objects for the home.

Runaway sellers so far include vintage wine bottles sourced locally and turned into lamps, and sandalwood fans whose silhouette evoke the Shanghai skyline. While the design aesthetic throughout is rooted in Chinese tradition, the designers who are part of the Bundshop fold lend a sophisticated gloss: the Double Happiness cups used in Chinese wedding ceremonies are here rendered from fine white clay from the mountains of Jingdezhen - known for being the centre for Chinese porcelain - in Jiangxi province, the character for Double Happiness stamp-carved in red glaze on cups presented on a sleek tray.

So far, Zoo says, Bundshop's e-tail performance is exceeding expectations. Because the company ships worldwide, and for between US$10 and US$20 each shipment (free within China),  much of the company's business has been overseas-driven. The bulk of orders currently coming in are from expats in China sending gifts home, as well as from  overseas-born Chinese consumers in the US, Australia and Canada, and design buffs in Germany and the Netherlands.

"Bundshop is the first online platform in the world to export products and stories of independent designers and brands of China," Tsai says. "Every day we wake up with one thought in our minds: how to change the way the world perceives 'Made in China'. Because when we see China, we don't see factories and copycats. We see rising stars, the new creative generation of product and fashion designers daring to break free of conventions with their own independent brands."

Designers, after all, are the pulse of Bundshop and Zoo says that before the company was launched, she and her team "sourced designers like crazy".

"We networked in all industries - product design, industrial design - and we asked them all what it was they needed. The first answer was that 99 per cent of their ideas were not yet realised, all in their heads, in their sketchbooks. They told us how risky it was to produce a product, whether it would ever sell."

Designers also lamented a lack of sales avenues: there were platforms like Ebay or Etsy, but they were unsure about setting up and promoting websites in markets where they had no connections.

"Many of these designers were doing pretty well in China," Zoo says. She adds that while Etsy and Amazon are potential resources for designers to get the work out to the wider world, the first has a reputation for proffering arts-and-crafty, handmade or vintage one-off items, while Amazon is so big that a small independent designer would get lost in it.

"They are not really luxury platforms  targeted to people with an appreciation for design who are willing to pay a premium for excellence," Zoo says.

As a result of the international access that Bundshop offers, right now 14 designers with some 50 products to offer are gaining a name in the rest of the world. In mid-February there will be 50 designers whose work will be on the site. These include John Meng, who has upcycled wine bottles that retail for up to US$154, Zhang Junjie, whose brand Sozen makes intriguing vases from ceramic and bamboo woven in the villages of Zhejiang and that retail for up to US$162; David Jia, co-founder of design brand Sansa, which offers a dramatic US$320 incense burner base made from rare black stone, with a curved gold-plated lotus on its smooth surface, and Jonas Merian, whose Kettle Lamp  is among many items he has made from reclaimed materials and old Chinese furniture. The products give little hint of Merian's previous job as a maker of prosthetic limbs.

Current designers on the site are from Xiamen, Beijing, Shanghai, Ningbo, Hangzhou and Taiwan. There are two Hong Kong designers, Latitude 22N, which makes blue and white porcelain tea cups with flourishes of gold, and RI by Carrie, a maker of artsy, printed leggings. "What's really important is not just the fact we're selling a product, but we're also sharing a story," Zoo says.

The site - clear-cut, crisply written, easy to navigate - has a short description of each product, and  a brief presentation of the designer, how  the price came to be  and the creative process behind it.

"Anybody can sell products," she says. "But we're much more about selling a story, something we can pass on to other people that is at the base of what we are trying to stand for. We hope to rebrand China. We see an amazing generation of creatives, emerging and struggling, but it's what pushes them to do what they do." Still, the products are certainly getting attention. "One person bought 14 of the Shanghai fans by Carl Liu," Zoo says. "They cost US$48. Somebody told us you can get sandalwood fans for a few dollars on other sites, but these ones are not from some copycat. They have a point of view, and we know we are on the right track."

Zoo says the range of offerings is "really loose"; products right now run from cashmere scarves to lamps and even a couple of coats, although accessories for the home dominate.

Zhang Zhoujie, whose strikingly futuristic mirrored chairs sold out in 20 minutes at the 2011 100 Per Cent Design show in London, will be designing a capsule collection of stools and vessels exclusively for Bundshop in spring. "We never stop sourcing," Zoo says.  "New products go up as soon as we get them."

Interestingly, the market that these designers are finding hardest to crack at  Bundshop's prices is their own. Zoo concedes that in a consumer culture that values imported products to domestic, Bundshop has its work cut out.

"This is why these designers are looking to expand in the West, because they can say they made it in Germany or wherever, and are now an international brand. It's sad in a way. But we think it's just a matter of time before the Chinese see how amazing their own homegrown designers are."