Last month, Hermès delivered its new baby: Shang Xia, the world’s first Chinese luxury brand fathered by an iconic Western brand. Shang Xia, which means “up down” in Mandarin, draws on deep-rooted Chinese traditions—Ming dynasty chairs, for example, made from rare hundreds of years old zitan wood, or delicate teapots made from eggshell porcelain encased in finely woven bamboo—and translates them for a modern sensibility. The result is a back-to-the-future experience: spare clean lines, familiar Chinese objects peeled and polished till their inner beauty glows, innovative design twists that make you gasp with pleasure, a futuristic Zen-like setting (Shanghai store designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma) showcasing centuries-old artisanal techniques. You try on one of their Han dynasty-inspired cashmere shawl-cum-jackets, a design masterpiece that makes you time-travel back and forth: You feel like a princess in a Chinese court, and at the same time, you feel utterly trendy and with-it.
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For the past few decades Asia’s luxury-hungry shoppers have been gobbling up Western brands, embracing Western traditions of dress and decoration, and in the process systematically dismantling their own. The same is beginning to happen in India—Bollywood hotties, who shape the stylistic taste buds of the nation, are increasingly donning Western dresses rather than saris (the poor salwar-suit is fading into fashion’s last season bin). The long-term implication of this trend is that Asia’s craft heritage is dying a slow death, and in some cases it is as endangered as the tiger. Who do you make exquisite kimonos for when the entire Japanese female population is dressed in skirts or pants? Or try buying a real gold zari Banarasi sari like your grandma might have worn—they aren’t made in ample numbers any more.
The launch: Shang Xia’s artistic director Jiang Qiong Er (left). Philippe Lopez/AFP
But if a hundred Shang Xia’s bloom, Asia’s fast-evaporating artisanal heritage will not only get a second lease of life, it will be raised to a whole new level. At their core, luxury brands are cultural products, their heritage coded and reinterpreted for contemporary times. Western norms of dress are so universally accepted that we do not stop to think or question, but the reality is that when you buy an Hermès scarf, a Louis Vuitton bag, or a Cartier necklace, you are buying a piece of French culture. And now with Shang Xia, one of Asia’s cultures gets the same chance: to be coded and reinterpreted by an experienced hand like Hermès, to be moulded into a luxury brand of global stature (the next Shang Xia store is planned for Paris).
To be a protégé of Hermès is to hit the luxury jackpot. There are few brands that understand the art and science of luxury like Hermès does—this is the brand that has women the world over waiting for months, some for years, to get their hands on its Birkin and Kelly bags, happily shelling out nearly $10,000 (around Rs 4.55 lakh) for one of the basic models (multiply that by three for special leathers)—and now that same expertise is being applied to Shang Xia. Heritage, innovation, quality, service, the basic building blocks of a luxury brand have been expertly aligned. The service is top-notch—very attentive and knowledgeable, the saleslady both able and willing to spend time explaining the nuances of each product line, bringing alive its heritage. Ditto for quality— impeccable across the entire range of products. The brand itself is so sharply focused— Chinese heritage, contemporary rendition—and that comes through faithfully on all fronts, from the logo reminiscent of a Chinese seal, the products’ minimalist design aesthetic, the choice of materials (zitan wood, bamboo, porcelain, jade), the white cave-like store that makes an emphatic ultra-modern design statement.
(Comparisons with Shanghai Tang and Vivienne Tam are inevitable, both are brands channelling Chinese culture, but Shang Xia is positioned differently. Shanghai Tang is suffused in colour—rich, deep, vibrant—whereas Shang Xia is muted and subtle, even the reds are blunted. At the Shanghai Tang store you rewind into old world charm, whereas at Shang Xia you fast forward into 21st century minimalism. Vivacious colour and delightful whimsy are trademarks of Vivienne Tam’s clothes—it is lush-and-plush compared to Shang Xia’s less-is-more).
So far there has been a theory that a luxury brand can’t be created from scratch, it has to have its own long heritage to be truly successful—Hermès itself goes back to 1837, Louis Vuitton to 1854, Cartier to 1847. Designers may come and even be commercially successful, but it will take them a lifetime to accumulate the heritage needed to be a true-blue luxury brand. Shang Xia attempts to sidestep this theory and demonstrate that you can borrow the heritage of a country, and with imaginative design (Jiang Qiong Er is Shang Xia’s talented artistic director) and experienced leadership, you can create a luxury brand from the ground up.
What does the birth of Shang Xia mean for India? Our cultural heritage is so rich and so diverse with hundreds of traditional arts and crafts. Imagine if we did a Shang Xia on them, coding and reinterpreting our heritage for modern times. Fabindia and Anokhi are examples of brands that have achieved that at lower price ranges. Up that game, add a sturdy Hermès-like luxury framework, and you could be creating a dozen Indian luxury brands for the global market. Any takers?
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury.
Write to Radha at firstname.lastname@example.org