Joanne Ooi, creative director of Shanghai Tang, arrives for our interview with kung fu swords in one hand and her six- ('going on 20-') year-old son in the other. Unpretentiously dressed in weekend sportswear, only her watch and ring refer to the brand. It's Saturday morning and Ooi has already spent two hours studying Putonghua. Afterwards, she'll head to the office to prepare the Spring/Summer 2006 design brief, before paying a visit to her kung fu sifu (instructor) for some sword play. All that before most people have finished lunch. 'I'm an efficient chick,' she laughs. 'How do you think we did this in three years?' 'This' is the transformation of Shanghai Tang from a single store selling Chinese kitsch to a world-wide brand with 17 stores in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok, New York, Honolulu, London and Paris, and more in the works. The tall, fast-talking New Yorker chats openly and enthusiastically about her job, sometimes pausing to say, 'but that's off the record'. However, she is uncharacteristically tight-lipped about numbers, revealing only that top-line revenue worldwide is up more than 50 per cent from last year. Part of that success can be attributed to the growing fascination with all things Chinese. With many luxury goods brands, such as Armani and Prada, actively trying to penetrate the Chinese market and coming away with new design inspirations, Shanghai Tang has had the opportunity to raise its profile and correct misconceptions in the process. 'The tide has turned on the brand perception, and sales of our women's apparel and accessories have grown phenomenally,' says Ooi. 'The whole pie is bigger.' When the Year of China in France was launched in late 2003, Shanghai Tang was there to open its first Paris store. Now, as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing draw closer, the company has finalised plans to open its first shop in the capital. In the past two years, Shanghai Tang has doubled the number of its stores. Founded in 1994 by entrepreneur and art collector David Tang, the company delighted customers with products inspired by 1930s Shanghai, cleverly updated with modern details and colours. Soon, Tang's jet-et celebrity pals were being photographed in signature items, spreading the word to major capitals across the globe. Poised for growth, it would take the synergies offered by a luxury conglomerate to move to the next level. In 1997, Swiss group Richemont, which counts under its umbrella jewellers Cartier and Piaget, saw that potential and took a majority stake in the company. But, by the time executive chairman Raphael le Masne de Chermont and Ooi had joined the company in November, 2001, Shanghai Tang had become synonymous with kitsch Chinese tchotchkes popular with tourists. In the public's mind, the original mission - 'to create the first global Chinese lifestyle brand by revitalising Chinese designs' - had come to mean Chinese jackets and cheongsams modernised with neon coloured linings, many of which were quickly copied in Shenzhen. 'It soon ran into a brick wall. The brand had the image of a high-end Chinese emporium and we needed to transform it into an international fashion brand,' says Ooi. The idea met with scepticism. Although it was a new direction for the company, there was no map to show them how to get there. 'The last thing we wanted to do was abandon the original DNA of the brand, or contradict its origins,' says Ooi. 'We wanted to innovate and move forward.' The quickest and most obvious solution, they determined, would be to focus on the women's ready-to-wear collection. 'The company didn't sell clothing according to the customs and expectations of the fashion industry, which was to create seasonal collections that were completely different from one another. Our first task was to acknowledge and address that immediately.' In the first year, they simply tried to improve the collection. 'It was actually on the verge of being shipped, which as you can imagine was extremely stressful. The first year at our jobs was crazy. I was at the office at 7.30am every morning for almost eight months. I didn't check my mail for about two months.' Instead of abandoning previous big sellers, they segmented their product offering and refined their marketing message. The original collection was preserved and branded 'The Authentics', but advertising eventually focused exclusively on the ready-to-wear collection. 'We learned that the brand is strongest if we have a universal message that we transmit on all fronts, including Europe and the United States,' says Ooi. In each market, the apparel offering is 70 to 80 per cent the same. 'Where we differ is when a store cannot carry the home collection because of physical constraints,' Ooi explains. Full tailoring services are also limited to certain stores. 'Tailoring is a very customer service intensive business,' she says. 'Unless we can thoroughly inculcate the staff, we will only be paying lip service to the concept of custom-made clothing.' Women's apparel remains their strongest category. This has allowed Ooi to focus on the accessories business which has 'doubled or trebled' in the past year. 'We seem to have got women's ready-to-wear on the right track, accessories are going in the same direction and home is the next big project,' says Ooi. 'It was slow going at the beginning because neither Raphael nor I had ever done anything like this.' Le Masne de Chermont had been a luxury goods executive for many years. Ooi's professional background was much more unconventional. She went to law school but chose not to practice. After moving to Hong Kong 12 years ago, she worked in a garment-buying office, represented French shoe designer Stephane Kelian for a few years and ran her own retail business. More surprisingly, the company that proudly prints 'Made by Chinese' on its labels had hired a Chinese woman who did not speak Chinese to spread its message. 'I've come full circle thanks to this job. I was one of those typical self-hating Chinese-American kids growing up in a small town in the United States,' she says. Two years ago, facing a four-hour car ride to an embroidery workshop in China, Ooi decided to change that. 'Being a completely compulsive, industrious, time-conscious person, I said, 'Teach me Chinese.' Now, she studies the language every day, trains in kung fu and spends her free time reading about China. 'I have no life whatsoever,' she claims somewhat unconvincingly. 'My life is structured around my job and Chinese. I'm extremely immersed in all aspects of Chinese culture.' Every season, Ooi conducts extensive research on themes from Chinese opera to calligraphy, then issues a brief to the team of in-house designers and freelance consultants around the world. 'I think it's very important in this modern age to draw on the strengths of different people as the need presents itself. It is a revolving cast of characters with a core based in Hong Kong.' Collaborations have included shoes with Puma and hats with Philip Treacy. The response was so positive, Philip Treacy has asked them to design the uniforms for his new hotel, and a new Shanghai Tang Puma shoe is set to launch this summer. Ooi even recruited a Shaolin kung fu master and a calligrapher to help create their first 'Kung Fu' line of clothing, due out in April. Wouldn't it be easier to hire a full-time celebrity designer like all major fashion houses? 'That is not an ironclad recipe for success. Most brands are driven by the identity of a human being and the personality of the designer. We don't need that,' says Ooi. 'This brand is informed by a culture. It is its own type of personality, which is analogous to the Chloe personality or a John Galliano [who designs for Dior].' Still, the media needs somebody to associate with the brand. 'Yes,' she concedes, 'but very few designers fit the bill, and fewer have proved themselves reliable in the long term. Rather than precariously ally ourselves with an individual, we think the brand's DNA and how it's marketed are more important. The company's mission is not about the ID of an individual.' Ooi is equally disdainful of buying celebrity endorsements, another common practice in the fashion industry. 'This is not a typical fashion brand that is going to appeal to people because I'm going to pay Jennifer Lopez to wear the product in my ad campaign,' says Ooi. 'There are celebrities who buy our stuff, and that's how we want them to come to us.' The role of founder Tang, the highest profile individual ever to be associated with the brand, is confusing. He appeared, for example, at the Paris store opening in 2003 and is often quoted in the press. In reality, although he sits on the board of Shanghai Tang, he is not involved in the day-to-day management of the company. 'David is a great benefit to the brand,' Ooi says diplomatically, 'We're lucky that we're still able to capitalise on that.' Ooi's fingerprints are everywhere, yet she remains unwilling to claim fame as the custodian of the brand. 'The brand presents itself through a filter. I guess you could say I get everyone rowing in the same direction, then we edit everything as a product committee to make sure they're cohesive and have commercial appeal. The product committee consists of directors, and Raphael and me. This is very important,' she stresses. 'Without Raphael, I wouldn't be here. We're a great team and really trust each other. He curbs my idealistic excesses and has allowed me to shine.' Each season, fashion houses introduce new themes to their collections. The sustainability of a brand that repeatedly draws on China as its sole inspiration seems limited. Ooi disagrees. 'We have as much flexibility as any other brand. I don't think I'll ever be able to exhaust the incredible reservoir of creativity, culture and history of China. That's not a problem itself. The key to making a successful brand is: can you make relevant products which are compelling and unique? We are creating our own idiom.' At times, their attempts to both join the fashion elite and remain uniquely Chinese appear to clash. While most new collections are presented in Europe and New York, Shanghai Tang insists on staging marketing exercises off the beaten track in Shanghai. Shooting an ad campaign in China once a year might reinforce their image as the arbiter of Chinese style, but doing fashion shows there must make it harder to regularly attract the fashion editors. 'They are much more surprised and wowed by that; we think it can be very comp- elling. The main point is the design, innovation and quality must be on par with any European brand.' Quality is not usually associated with 'Made in China', a label more frequently associated with cheap, mass-produced goods. Overcoming this stigma and selling the 'Made by Chinese' concept has been a challenge. 'People think of China as the factory of the world, but it has an artisanal foundation which dates back thousands of years and still exists. It's incumbent on us to push the envelope and cultivate new techniques in factories, and to bring back Chinese artisanal traditions to a much more exalted position. The quality of the lacquer work we're doing, even in the interior decoration of our boutiques, testifies to the possibilities of craftsmanship in China.' China's notorious tendency to create fakes has not yet hurt their business. 'It's a type of flattery and it's not so bad it's eroding our business. It's not like Louis Vuitton copies.' One has to wonder if that's an indication of brand perception, or lack thereof, on the mainland, a major target for expansion. 'We expect that our brand will flourish in China. There are going to be two kinds of business: the tourists and the local shopper. The local shopper finds the current direction of our women's wear and brand image very appealing. We landed running. We opened those stores in the last three years so we never had to look back or rejig the brand in China.' Asia is Shanghai Tang's largest market and continues to grow. The brand was initially popular with tourists, but Ooi says Hong Kong Chinese people were the toughest nut to crack. 'Now we're starting to see a big change. More Hong Kong people, including young people and celebrities, are buying our brand.' 'Am I talking too much?' asks Ooi. 'I'm in my groove.' It's clear she loves what she does and doesn't mind the demands of the job. When I call a few days later, she is teaching her son Chinese while cooking gumbo. 'I won't reveal the topic for Spring 2006,' she says coyly, 'but I'll now have to research exhaustively and immerse myself entirely in that.' It's not a complaint. 'For me, the greatest joy in life is still learning.'