Shanghai Tang’s sale shows that chinoiserie is no match for French chic for China’s millennials

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 3:31pm

Richemont’s sale last week of Shanghai Tang underscores how China’s cultural motifs still have a hard time gaining global currency, even though the country’s explosive economic growth is increasingly turning many Chinese brands and entrepreneurs into household names the world over.

Chinoiserie is still no match for French chic, especially among China’s well heeled urban middle class and newly minted millionaires and billionaires, whose first reference points of luxury -- from bespoke tailoring, branded accessories, jewellery to motoring -- tend to still be European in most cases.

Shanghai Tang, founded in Hong Kong by Sir David Tang in 1994 and sold four years later to Richemont, specialises in the chinoiserie; a modern interpretation of the qipao as short, figure-hugging dresses featuring high mandarin collars, and motifs of dragons and auspicious signs.

“The traditional Chinese clothing has not amassed a mainstream following in Chinese society,”said Mariana Kou, head of China education and Hong Kong consumer with CLSA. “It’s different from India, where many women still wear the sari in various types of functions.”

Or Japan, where the kimono remains the formal wear of choice for women from the empress to the commoner; or Southeast Asia, where the baju kurung of Malaysia and the terno of the Philippines are still worn during formal occasions.

For many Chinese women, the qipao had gone out of fashion since the 1960s, a relic that’s better kept as an endearing memory in Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love.

British-educated Tang founded his signature brand as a haute couture tailor for his Western high-society friends, before expanding the fashion house into a lifestyle business selling accessories, household goods and even custom designed bicycles.

Richemont bought the brand four years later, further expanding its footprint into the high streets of New York and London, adding to outlets on mainland China.

For a while, the modern Chinese chic caught headlines, helped by endorsements by such A-list celebrities as Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage.

But China’s biggest spenders were still in a race to embrace the West, by travelling abroad, studying or shopping. The spending power of the Chinese middle class created the imperative for Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, Valentino and many European luxury brands to incorporate Chinese motifs into their designs to attract Chinese customers.

European custom tailors including Emenegildo Zegna and Brioni were setting up workshops in China to make their bespoke tailoring more accessible. And even Chinese tailors rose in their wake, including such brands as Saint Angelo, Youngor and Dalian Dayang Trands, the tailor of choice for Warren Buffet and former Chinese president Hu Jintao.

Amid the competition, Shanghai Tang’s novelty didn’t last, and its bags featuring Oriental motifs never were quite as beguiling as Louis Vuitton’s monograms or Gucci’s Italian tricolour.

“There have been talks on the street that Shanghai Tang has seen relatively lukewarm sales,”said Zhou Ting, a director with Fortune Character Institute.

Fashion retailer Shanghai Tang sold to Italian entrepreneur

“Since the 1980s, the traditional Chinese garment has suddenly lost its appeal in local fashionistas’ everyday life except for important social occasions such as weddings,”said Tang Xiaotang, founder of luxury retail consultancy Nofashion.

That put Shanghai Tang and other niche labels such as Shanghai-based and Hermes-backed Shang Xia, which are faithful supporters of the qipao and other Chinese vintage style apparel, in a bind.

Shanghai Tang teams up with Chinese designers to appeal to mainlanders

For Shanghai Tang, it may face a different future, now that it’s in the hands of Italian textile entrepreneur Alessandro Bastagli and Hong Kong-based private equity fund Cassia Investments, which specialises in lower middle-market consumer companies across Asia.

Some have suggested it adopt a modern fashion concept instead of sticking with its Chinese roots, to reach a broader customer base.

“But if it abandons its Chinese concept, it will lost its predominant brand positioning,” Kou said.