The Bees Knees – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

The Bees Knees 

AFR | December 2011

by Marion Hume 

Cor blimey, I should have turned up in a “Pearly Queen” outfit, because I seem to have walked in to Old London Town. Fish and chips? Served in twists of newspaper by waiters in bowler hats.  A nip of gin? Coming right up. Red-jacketed Queen’s guards? Yes, but unlike those standing sentry outside Buckingham Palace, these lads are sporting Extra Wow Lash mascara under their towering bearskins.

The venue is an iconic London landmark, the Battersea Power Station that is truthfully too far from the steeple of Bow Bells for anyone to claim to be cockney. But that’s not going to stop supermodel “mockney” Kate Moss from arriving in style. Pump up London Calling by The Clash and look! That’s Kate’s chopper overhead!  It touches down and the ultimate London girl then runs down a red carpet in a little red dress to match her Lasting Finish shade #1 red lips.

That certainly gets the party started to celebrate her 10-year association with Rimmel London, (which used to be called just plain ‘Rimmel’ and was actually founded by a Frenchman). This birthday bash has been going on all day. Earlier, it was red, white and blue cupcakes and an English tea party at Claridge’s hotel, where fashion’s famous sphinx, (again sporting Lasting Finish shade #1) picked up a microphone and actually spoke, albeit briefly.

Interviewer: “What was it like filming the latest commercial?”

Kate: “It was so much fun.”

Interviewer: “What was the best bit?”

Kate: “The last shot was good, thank you for coming everyone.”

Come they have. The beauty press have been flown in from all corners of the globe to try New Lasting Finish 25 Hour Foundation and Vinyl Max Gloss. Me? While I admit I’ve grabbed a Scandaleyes mascara and Traffic Stopping eyeshadow in Over the Limit #001, I’m here to talk to the boss, Bernd Beetz, (and yes, it does sound like Burned Bees).

Beetz helms Coty Inc. (which has Rimmel London along with Calvin Klein fragrance and Sally Hansen nail varnish and Lancaster skincare and JOOP! body splash, etcetera, etcetera, in a vast portfolio). While Moss’s 10 years with Rimmel have seen her jumping off double decker buses and roaring past Big Ben on a motorbike  and going from “nought to Sexy in seconds”, Beetz has been the puppeteer, dramatically repositioning a ragtag of mass-market fragrances and toiletries as well as marshaling new launches and snapping up acquisitions to create a global beauty behemoth with revenues of more than $3.5 billion in 2010. A word on those acquisitions. In just two months this year, Coty snapped up four major beauty companies, Dr. Scheller Cosmetics, Philosophy inc, The nail line, OPI and TJoy, the latter a Chinese skincare brand.

Australia has a role to play in all this.  Talking just Rimmel alone, we rank fourth among key markets and are also viewed as a territory with the maximum upswing (which translates as “they could sell even more here and they’re certainly going to try”). Already successful is Rimmel’s value priced (cheap), self-serve (grab your own,) accessible (teenage), make-up, although even after HRH’s recent, well received visit to Queensland and beyond, you wouldn’t be betting on how many Union Jack eyeshadows in Royal Blue and Purple Reign will be sold on these shores.

By now Bernd Beetz (61 year old, wearing a suit, no tie he commutes between Coty’s Paris and New York HGs and is almost always in transit), is posing for the paps with Kate Moss and his close lieutenant Steve Mormoris, the Senior Vice-President, Global Marketing for Coty Beauty. Coty has two main divisions; Coty Prestige, which encompasses perfume and cosmetics for such brands as Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Balenciaga; and the somewhat more “masstige”Coty Beauty, with labels such as Kylie Minogue, Beyonce Knowles, David and Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss, also has a Coty perfume range that sells in supermarkets.

Moss has good reason to be hugging Beetz and Mormoris, considering these businessmen stuck by her when she was mired in an alleged cocaine scandal that saw much edgier fashion brands judge her too hot to handle. While Mormoris decided not to ditch her,  ultimate veto lay with Beetz. That he did not let Moss go is among a series of sometimes surprising decisions that made him the subject of a Harvard Business School paper; Bernd Beetz: Creating the New Coty by Professor Geoffrey Jones and Senior Researcher David Kiron.

“Is this an average day for you?” I ask Beetz, (and given the scene, what would you have tried as an opening gambit?) Beetz is German. He considers the question and replies with care. “It is not so average. After this, I go on to…normal business. This event is particular because it marks the 10 year anniversary of me taking over Coty. It is 10 years since working here with Steve and I took Kate Moss as the key spokesperson for Rimmel, which was my first big decision.”

And you’ve stuck with her. “Basically there were two things. She was loyal to us, so we were loyal to her. We are not people that dump a loyal supporter and we were also lucky because we are a private company. So even if our business would have gone down, it is something we could have afforded. Secondly, everything is not sugar-coated and straight-forward in life, so it seemed not be a bad idea to stick with her and show that life has difficulties. I think that in hindsight, it was a good idea.”Other businessmen might agree, especially if it were to lead to them partying with one of the most famous beauties on earth in the roped-off VIP area.

Bernd Beetz  comes from Heidelberg, was educated in Mannheim and is the son of an engineer who built power plants. He speaks English, French, Italian and Turkish fluently (“with conversational Spanish”). For 20 years, he worked across Europe for P&G ( the leading consumer product company, Procter & Gamble), then at LVMH, where he was president and CEO of Dior and is credited with the blockbuster success of J’Adore fragrance.

Securing the top job at Coty was not an inviting prospect in 2001. While the name dates back to 1904 and Francois Coty, a French perfumer who was much admired by Coco Chanel, Coty had been sold and amalgamated and downgraded to little more than a tattered umbrella over a bunch of brands with competing agendas and unimpressive market share. By 2001, Coty had been spun off from a chemicals conglomerate called Benckiser, privately-owned by the Reimann family and run by Peter Harf. However, Harf  did have to wisdom to realise that success flogging household cleaning products did not give him the skill set required to build an upscale beauty portfolio on the side.  For that, he had Beetz in his sights.

Back then, Beetz was the man-of-the-moment. He had doubled profits in two and a half years at Dior and earned a reputation as an inspired marketer. He was living in a luxury Paris apartment (complete with personal chef and chauffeur). Looking back now, he recalls the experience of working for LVMH boss Bernard Arnault as transforming, citing the luxury goods titan’s mastery at translating concepts into products  “He taught me a new aspect on how to approach a luxury brand”.  Beetz was surprised to find his old business acquaintance Peter Harf standing in the street outside his door one morning in 2001. Harf approached with an offer he could not refuse. If, after two years, he couldn’t fix Coty, he would be free to go with a big fat bonus. If he could, the company would be his to run as he liked.

Beetz said yes and by the way, he would make Coty one of the world’s top beauty companies within a decade as well. (At the time, Coty ranked 32nd). Today? It’s number 12 according to Women’s Wear Daily’s Top 100 Beauty listing after Kao Group, Johnson & Johnson, Chanel, and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.  Coty now comprises more than 40 well-known brands available in over 90 markets worldwide.

Beetz has achieved the turnaround first pulling everyone into line and then setting them free. (The Harvard study dubbed this a “Faster, Further, Freer” corporate culture). But setting people free surely carries risk that they are free to fail? “It’s not luck,” is Beetz reply on that. “We didn’t have a major failure. I’m not afraid to admit that we have been by and large very successful.”  Part of that success has been wise acquisitions. An US$800 million acquisition of Unilever’s fragrance division, including the Calvin Klein fragrance license along with the romantic scents of Vera Wang and the fashion-forward Chloe made Coty the world’s largest fragrance company. But what of deals that got away? “I know but I’m not going to answer,” says Beetz.

Elsewhere in the beauty business where both the profits – and the losses – are potentially enormous – (for example, 90% of new perfume launches fail within a year) , it is not unusual for big decisions to be made by consensus. Senior executives might be polled on what a teenage fragrance should smell like (mostly just like an earlier success), how the bottle should be shaped (like one that exists)  – in other words, companies can be hampered by highly accomplished staffers being part of decisions that have little to do with what they are good at. One of Beetz’ skills has been to let the people best placed to make creative decisions do so. In this, it helps that the company is private. “I don’t think we could have accomplished what we did in the last ten years without the strong support of the family of the mother company,” Beetz says.

“Actually we have the best of both worlds. We have the support of the family which is part of the 7th generation. But they are not involved in the management so we have a clear meritocracy. This entitled me to the job and I have been successful ever since. Nobody in the family works here, not even on the board.”

There are 3 key product pillars of Coty inc:- There’s colour cosmetics, anchored by the storming success of  Rimmel, which legitimately earned its “London” tag in 1834 after Eugene Rimmel set up shop away from his native France, then his British-born sons developed the first non toxic mascara. But Rimmel was barely known outside of Britain ten years ago. The strategy since then has been to invest in R&D, to align the brand closely with the vibrant street style of urban tribes, to pump up the image while pushing down the price (its lipsticks sell  for as much as 20% less than close competitors).

Next come the sun and skincare lines, which range from Lancaster, which traces its heritage to the jet-set of 1950s Monte Carlo, to TJoy. This has provided a foothold into China through TJoy’s existing distribution channels as well as a platform for expansion. But there’s a challenge inherent here.

Coty’s biggest product category by far, (62% of total revenues) is fragrance. In much of Asia, dabbing on perfume is neither a tradition nor is it popular.  Give it time; for Asian markets, Coty now create “flankers”, softer versions of star scents, hence Calvin Klein Euphoria becomes the lighter, entry-level Calvin Klein Euphoria Blossom. Cracking China is the goal of many western beauty conglomerates and here, Coty is far from the front runner. “We are the challenger in that game and we only have a very low presence,” concedes Beetz.  “We started off in Europe and then we conquered America and we were a bit behind in China. We acquired TJoy to develop a meaningful presence.” With a bridge to Beijing, will Rimmel be roaring into town? How well is Kate Moss known in China? “She’s known,” says Beetz gnomically.

At the turn of the millennium, you might have described Jennifer Lopez more as notorious; given her relationship with rap mogul, Sean “P Diddy/Puff Daddy” Combs and an incident involving a gun in a New York nightclub. So although J.Lo’s “people” were shopping around the notion that the Latina bombshell might front a fragrance, not surprisingly, there were not a lot of takers. In any case, the category was moribund.

In the 1990s, Elizabeth Taylor had become almost as well known for the fragrance White Diamonds as her role as Cleopatra but, with her notable exception, over the next decade, celebrity scent had diminished to dime store sales for cable TV stars.

Yet against this backdrop, Beetz’ gut told him a celebrity scent was exactly what was needed to power out his re-energised Coty. He let “his people” talk to J Lo’s “people”. He proved willing to sign the cheques that allowed an executive to hang out with Lopez, to learn what she was really like (far sweeter than her reputation, apparently) and then to encapsulate that in a flacon based on her body (a trick first tried in the 1930s when Mae West posed for a bottle based on her Hollywood curves).

It could have been a tacky disaster story. Instead, a range of JLo fragrances – which still sell, despite most fragrances having somewhat short “lives”  – has generated cumulative revenues topping US$1 billion. The launch of Lopez’ first fragrance with Coty, J.Lo Glow is often attributed with reinvigorating the entire celebrity fragrance category.

The rumour back then was that Beetz identified J Lo or Madonna as his ideal collaborators. On the day Beetz and I meet there’s a faint rumour going around that Madonna is, at last, entering the scent scene. So who is the diva’s industry partner and how do you bottle Madge? “What are you talking about?” Beetz shoots back (It has since been announced that Coty’s Truth or Dare by Madonna, with topnotes of gardenias and tuberose, will launch at Macy’s New York on March 26 followed by an international roll out in May. “She was always on my list,” Beetz told fashion industry paper, WWD.)

Anyway, next up, for sure, are new launches from the Beckhams, plus Tim McGraw and Faith Hill recently announced the launch of a new Soul2Soul fragrance at their home in Nashville, Tennessee. And Lady Gaga will be gearing up to conquer perfume counters. For if you can sell 13 million plus albums worldwide and garner more than a billion views online and with 6.9million followers on Twitter, why wouldn’t you bottle it?

But it may come as a surprise to discover Coty does not do that. The world’s leading fragrance company does not make scent. Instead, it comes up with a concept then shops it out to the likes of Givaudan, Firmenich or IFF  (none of these are household names) to create the liquid in the bottle, or in industry parlance, “the juice”.

Once the juice is right, whether floral, spicy, mossy, citrus, chypre or fougere (the latter perfume term translates as “fern”), Coty bottles it, packages it, promotes it and hopes that we buy it labelled Kate Moss or Playboy or Adidas or – coming soon – four Elite Model fragrances: Paris Baby, London Queen, New York Muse, Rio Glam Girl –  tapping into the zeitgeist of Next Top Model TV shows.  At the prestige end of the spectrum, there’s Bottega Veneta, Cerruti, Davidoff, Jil Sander, and a new scent by Roberto Cavalli. Coty has also developed scents with Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Heidi Klum, Gwen Stefani, Renée Fleming and Celine Dion.

Flagged up in the Beetz Harvard study is a warning that the amount of travel endured by senior staffers threatens life/work balance; although, as the Rimmel London party ramps up, Beetz shows no sign of weariness. “I don’t force myself to be fit for the job, I just like it. I like the lifestyle. I like the rhythm of it. So I don’t know if I keep fit for the job or if the job is just shaped in the way I live,” he tells me. As to keeping everything spinning, he replies, “I think I balance it very well. I’m basically working around the clock. Work is life.” Let’s drink to that.

It’s a Powerland,* darling – Sunday Times

It’s a Powerland,* darling 

 

Sunday Times Stella | 04 December 2011

 

By Marion Hume 

 

*That’s Powerland, the Chinese answer to Prada. Never heard of it? You soon will have, along with a host of other super-brands now being hatched in the world’s emerging economies. Report by MARION HUME 

 

At the Paris shows in October, the hot rumour was of a meeting between Anna and Uma. While ‘Anna’ does indeed refer to the editor of American Vogue, the Uma in question is a Shanghainese designer who fashion insiders believe is on target to achieve international acclaim.

Uma Wang’s creations are sophisticated and chic; in style more Belgian than any cliché of what one might consider Chinese. As word circulated that ‘Vogue is doing a piece,’ everyone checked out the buzz. ‘Thanks for the tip off!’ one retailer texted me after I directed her to Wang’s tiny, temporary showroom. ‘Love it. Brought it. Uma is a star!!!!!!’

Just as Western luxury brands colonise and coin it in China, it is inevitable that Chinese companies will want to do the same right back. While some might currently be lacking in savoir faire, whatthose with big ambitions won’t lack is money; Beijing and Shanghai are backed with newly minted billionaires looking for glamorous investment opportunities.

The French and the Italians of course just shrug at all this. For what Chinese brand can realistically give a grand marquee with 50, 100, 150-lus years behind it a run for it’s money? But those much-vaunted years do somewhat depend on how you count. Sometimes the moniker ‘luxury brand’ really translates as ‘company able to flog mountains of pricy handbags with some other stuff on the side’. While Louis Vuitton has indeed an artisanal heritage arcing back to 1854, it is in trunk-making for which construction techniques could ‘hold their own on avenue Montaigne’, thanks to ‘a long history of exquisite craftsmanship, a wealth of beautiful stones, an emotional relationship with fold, and the talent to design and create ornaments with a very distinct identity’. She also points out the popularity of the jewellery brand Amrapali among American celebrities. The actress Sandra Bullock and Jada Pinkett-Smith, and the singer Rihanna, have all worn pieces on the red carpet this year.

Sheetal Mafatlal, a Paris front-row fixture who introduced the Valentino label to Mumbai, also insists that local jewellers such as TBZ are the best anywhere, but cautions that their strengths lie not in the global brand reach but in their spectacular bespoke offerings.

Shweta Shiware is the former fashion editor of Mid Day (India’s afternoon newspaper with a circulation of five million.) She explains that designerwear is synonymous with bridalwear in India because that’s where people spend money. ‘Bridal masters like Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Malhotra control the market in a far tighter grip than any international luxury brands can hope to’. Of course, among the Indian diaspora, top sari labels are already international brands. Manish Malhotra is known as the Cavalli of Mumbai, while creations by TT (as Tarun Tahiliani is known) are accessorised with Bottega Veneta clutches and Louboutin heels at all the best Bollywood parties. To woo India, Hermes now offers its famous scarves expanded to sari size. Expect others to copy that idea.

Brazilian brands have already made some serious headway. Fernanda Paronetto, head of corporate marketing for the Brazilian operation of the concierge company Quintessentially, has a hot-list of local brands-gone-global at her fingertips. There’s the jeweller H Stern, with 165 stones in 12 countries; the fashion designer Carlos Miele- who has shown at New York Fashion Week since 2002 and is worn by mega-stars such as Jennifer Lopez Beyonce. Alexandre Herchovitch is another Brazilian designer, who is currently big in Japan. For shoes, Alexandre Birman is known as the Brazilian Manolo Blanhik and is a hit both on net-a-porter.com and the red carpet. The lingerie label Rosa Cha is Brazil’s answer to La Perla, Osklen is the South American Polo Ralph Lauren and there’s the model Gisele Bundchen’s favourite Havaianas – the flip-flops that wouldn’t be considered luxurious except that every female Oscar nominee gets given a pair. ‘And don’t forget Jack Vartanian,’ adds Paronetto. ‘Nowadays his jewels are worn by Demi Moore and Kate Hudson.’

With many an economist’s eye on South Korea’s emerging economy, if the name Lie Sang Bong is not yet familiar to you, it should become so. The McQueen of Korea has been showing at Paris fashion week for almost a decade, and is the most prominent designer in his home country, dressing the first lady and collaborating on design projects as wide ranging as home décor, cigarettes and computing (the Lie Sang Bong limited edition mobile phone is a highly desirable piece of kit). ‘And Lady Gaga loves him!’ adds the Seoul-based interior designer Rea Kim.

Such is Korea’s success that it has threatened to budge Russia out of its own acronym, with some economists vaunting a change from BRIC, the acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, to BRICK. In fact, as far as new local luxury brands are concerned, the Russian’s don’t seem to be son interested. The designer Valentin Yudashkin has been showing at Paris Fashion Week for decades and is the only Russian designer to be honoured with membership of the city’s Syndicate of High Fashion. But his brand is still not one with global recognition.

Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of Paris Vogue who has Russian blood, is a supporter of Yudashkin, and she also has a hand in the revival of the Russian jewellery house Faberge. Faberge thrived from 1842 until the 1927 revolution ad is famous for its exquisite bejewelled eggs (valued at about £12 million each). The Brand, now owned by the London-based consortium Pallinghurst Resources, is no longer based in Russia, and is returning to London and New York with new stores. The flagship stores is in Geneva rather than St Petersburg these days and the brand’s creative director, Katharina Flohr, isn’t Russian, but the talented designer Natalia Shugaeva is. And what could be more Russian than a history full of opulence, tragedy and exile?

Of all local brands that could take on luxury giants, the wise woman might place her quilted gold, pave gem-set jewelled chips on Faberge..

Holidaying with Ikea – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

That IKEA has caught on, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is in part directly due to my mother, who will always drive out of her way for napkins and a jar of herrings. 

Holidaying with IKEA

AFR | December 2011

by Marion Hume 

I was really excited. I had travelled to the source – a bit like Burton and Speke and the source of the Nile, except for the details, such as Burton didn’t actually make it to Lake Victoria and I didn’t have a camel. No need for camels with such a massive parking lot. What lay before me was not nile green, but the world’s most recognized colour combination, yellow and blue. I had reached the birthplace of IKEA.

Actually, I’ve just lied a bit and I’m sad about that. Ingvar Kamprad opened the first IKEA in Smaland. But my Swedish friend insisted the Goteburg branch was better, so while I missed the thrill of the most ancient temple of flat­-packing, a still historic source of self­-assembly was good enough. I could barely contain my excitement as I grabbed my yellow ‘for use in store’ bag.

I should confess here that I love IKEA. I just do not understand why people hate it. I mean, even I can follow instructions and build a drawer. I also love that the designs are democratic, which is to say affordable and widely applicable. Not for you with your ‘shabby chic’ sitting room? But have you thought of how happily one of the $10 tables will sit next to your overstuffed armchair were you only to cover it in a pretty chintz cloth?

As for hiding in plain sight, one swanky decorator of my acquaintance stocks up on LACK bookshelves for oligarch clients’ homes. Sure, she puts the IKEA mostly in the chauffeurs and security guards’ accommodation, but she always sneaks a bit into the main house(s) because it fills the gaps. Then there’s the eco­-thought, the sustainability, the effort that has gone in to flushing all those toilets with reclaimed grey water. I’m not crazy about the meatballs, but why linger in the canteen when there are wash bags to snap up, just like the ones at Prada but with more useful mesh pockets?

Still, I’ll concede that few people, when booking a holiday, want a Swedish farm house, by water, no internet access (on vacation from email) and an easy drive to IKEA. But then few can rival my connections to this mighty brand. Back in the 1950s, my parents, students at The Glasgow School of Art, both won travel scholarships to study Scandinavian design. Fueled by a shared love of skandi­chic, they returned to Sweden a second time just as an empire was dawning. I’ll say this for my canny Scots folks; while many others would have doubted anyone would pay to make their own furniture while there were craftsmen in every village, my Mum and Dad took one look at the LOVET table with removable legs (so it packed easily into the Volvo) and decided IKEA would could catch on. That it has, to the tune of about $US23.5 billion in 2010, is still, in part, directly due to my moth Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it

Perhaps it is because of this history that I am drawn to IKEA and indeed it is drawn to me. I once sat next to an IKEA kitchen designer on the plane to Shanghai; then I was on a little plane in Kenya and the woman next to me was part of an initiative to support women’s rights in communities. “Which NGO do you work for?” I asked. “IKEA,” she answered. But there’d be no need for an allen key in a manyatta mud hut.

Here’s what I observed in Gotenberg. In the kitchen sales area, there were people actually cooking. In the bed area, blondes of various sizes were testing a mattress via a family group hug. But most novel of all, people in workout gear were walking ‘the long natural way’ (the route designed to encourage the customer to see the store in its entirety) using those arctic ski poles. In an empire born in a cold country and on a bedrock of practical ideas, who could say they shouldn’t?

The Critical Choices – AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW

Cultivating concierges at the best hotels has its rewards when a crisis ensues. 

The Critical Choices 

AFR | 2011

by Marion Hume 

There are various choices one must make in a crisis. For me, as the privileged holder of two passports, the first might be “what nationality am I today?”. I know this is a cliché but, were I in a situation which required guts and muscle (these possessed not by me of course, but instead by some taciturn yet decent bloke, possibly to be played in the true­-life movie by Russell Crowe) then I’d be Australian. I suppose if the crisis required sneaky diplomacy issued with velvety vowels, I’d be British. After all, they do say the greatest skill of British diplomats is they can tell people to go to hell and make them believe they will enjoy the trip.

In a smaller crisis; which is to say one not involving fleeing to an embassy and being helicoptered off the roof, there are also choices to be made. Mine, if possible, is “head for nearest five-­star hotel”. Now, to be clear, I do budget. I’m the expert in ‘charming’ hotels where I have to haul my suitcase up the 18th­ century stairs to the attic. But, when budget allows, I’m there at the desk making a friend of the five-­star concierge with four crossed keys on his lapels.

The elite, global band of Les Clefs d’Or concierges was founded by the 11 concierges of the grand Paris hotels in 1929. Today, members must pass challenges far trickier than getting you a table at a restaurant or tickets to a show. A micro-­crisis, such as volcano ash, brings Europe to a standstill? The concierge at the Gritti Palace, Venice, not only booked every minivan in northern Italy to transport guests home, he worked out who would get on with whom with the skill of a society hostess planning a gala, packed posh picnics and made those who had arrived via the splendour of the Orient Express believe three days in a van would be an awfully big adventure.

Suddenly stranded in Hong Kong? The concierge at Lanson Place (a surprisingly tranquil and intimate hotel despite being housed in a 26­-storey skyscraper) won’t just tell you a morning walk will help you get things in perspective, he will literarily lead the way – the hotel offers ‘wow walks’ free of charge or tip, to help guests feel at home in the neighbourhood.

So when my flight home from Geneva was cancelled recently, the first thing I did was phone the concierge at the lovely Le Richemond. “We’re completely full but don’t worry,” Emanuel soothed. The queue to get any flight information was long, the atmosphere charged – not surprising given airspace was closed due to an electrical storm. At times like this the choice is to behave well or not. Showing how not to do it, the bloke with the Brietling watch flashed his frequent­flier gold card, even though this was Geneva where everyone is wealthy and frequent fliers are thick on the ground.

When the woman in front of me finally reached the desk, she did the ‘sobbing act’, protesting she could not possibly fund another hotel night (for which she would be refunded) and where could she sleep at the airport, sob sob? The tantrum didn’t wash with me. This season’s Celine, Manolos and a Roger Vivier handbag, and you don’t have a credit card? OK, so I was surprised I couldn’t get on any flight for 24 hours, but just then Emanuel called, a reservation had been cancelled, I had a room as well as a dinner booking somewhere not expensive “because perhaps you had not budgeted for this evening?” And as to my surprise free day? Les Bains des Paquis, entrance fee €2, is at the end of a pier in the middle of Lake Leman. You can swim then enjoy a set lunch. That I got to dry off on plush mongrammed towels kindly lent by Le Richemond was a very nice touch.

The People’s Republic of Luxe – 10 Mag

The People’s Republic of Luxe


10 Mag | Issue 41 November 2011

When I was a little girl, before you were born, China was the place they made cheap stuff. Now it’s the place where all the luxury labels have to have their snazziest stores in the world. When I was a teenager, China remained closed  – they only let them out to scoop up all the medals at the Olympics. Now, of course, if you are in fashion, you have to go there to scoop up your share of an annual consumer expenditure estimated to top 1.3 trillion yuan (about £122 billion) by 2020.

by Marion Hume

And we’re not just talking Dior, Chanel, Vuitton. You want a yacht with that handbag? British yacht brand, Sunseeker is out there flogging its Manhattan 73 model for 31.4 million yuan (£3 million). You could toast your purchase with Chateau Lafite 1982 at 445,186 yuan (£42,115) Oh stop fretting, that’s for half a case. Did you think anyone would pay that much for a bottle?

When I started work, Hong Kong was the gateway to “Mainland China” as it was known (those in the know call it “the PRC” today). Back when Honkers was still a British colony, you could almost count the grains of rice in people’s dinner bowls as the plane swerved around mountains and tower blocks to touch down at Kai Tak, the world’s sixth most dangerous airport. Now, the PRC is peppered with super-dooper airports designed by “star-chitects”. But China’s billionaires don’t fly commercial, although some hire rather than own their own Gulfstreams. Price for Beijing-Shanghai return on a Gulfstream G550: 276,500 yuan (£26,157).

From the far south of Guangzhou, where Louis Vuitton has its largest Chinese flagship store, to the the old silk road staging post of Urumqi, the most inland city in the world – yup, they’ve got a Vuitton there too – China is fashion profit central, even if a recent store renovation is rumoured to have cost Vuitton in the eight digits. The first fashion person I knew who reached “real” China, as in Beijing, was sent by Zara to find a cheap production source. Now, Zara has 70 stores in the PRC.

The first time I went to Beijing, it was to interview newly-successful women, several of whom thought they were wearing designer clothes, but these were funny fake brands that I had never heard of. Then the fake market started to thrive and I seemed to always be clambering through some fat-filled restaurant kitchen, then down a back alley and into a room the size of a toilet pretending to be a customer. The criminal salesmen pretended to believe me as they took photographs of my (real) Fendi Selleria bag. The fake business shows no sign of slowing down as China’s love of luxury booms. The new trend is in counterfeiting an entire experience, although who knew there was anywhere on earth that they would welcome a completely fake branch of IKEA?

Even as recently as five years ago, the picture the photographer had to get was the “contrast shot” of the toothless guy parking his bicycle next to the Louis Vuitton superstore in Shanghai. The shoppers within were still so delighted in the newness of being able to express their individuality through fashion, that they would willingly stop and talk to a stranger with a tape recorder, a photographer and a translator. They told such sad stories of their Mao suit years. One shopper never knew her father. When her mother was pregnant, her parents had been sent to the country to be “re-educated” and they locked her father in a shed until he died. Her mother survived eating frogs and birds eggs. Another was once given a yellow silk shirt from abroad, which gave her great joy every time she looked at it – until her mother dyed it brown so she could get the use out of it. That woman – a very powerful woman – started to cry as she remembered that. The power of fashion is powerful indeed.

Now, the bulk of luxury shoppers – and there are more than 200 million young adults under 30 in the PRC – were born after The Cultural Revolution so have not “eaten bitterness” as their parents did. Far from envying their lifestyles, their mothers tend to encourage them. “If I dress a little bit sexy, she thinks I look beautiful,” one girl told me when I returned to Beijing in 2008. “I’m the youth she didn’t have.”

For the luxury tsars, China’s love of the new is a great plus. “They don’t have a generation before them to refer to style-wise, so they are daring with the choices they make,” one CEO told me, eyes ablaze. The rules are still being written in this high profit battle ground. Beijinger and Shanghainese girls like to write off those from the “second tier cities” as bumpkins who have just learned to say Vuitton, but that doesn’t stop those in cities you’ve hardly heard wanting designer bags. No surprise then that as well as opening stores everywhere,  the likes of Chloe now have Chinese language blogs. Faye Wong, a Chinese singer and actress, does print campaigns for Céline. One of Louis Vuitton’s male models is Taiwanese-Canadian actor and model Godfrey Gao. No prizes for guessing (beyond those gorgeous cheekbones) why he got the gig.

It might be hard to believe this now, but British designers used to quake in their boots when the American department stores came calling. China is expected to be the second-largest consumer market in the world by 2015 and if the USA doesn’t pull its economy out of tailspin, it could come sooner. Guess which buyers get the champers and the Rose Bakery cupcakes these days? But forget any cliches about Chinese shoppers liking the logo-a-gogo stuff. The level of sophistication is obvious when you walk past racks of Vanessa Bruno, Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens at the Lane Crawford department store in Beijing.

A year ago, I got a call from Francois-Henri Pinault’s office. Would I like to join him on a trip to 10 Chinese cities, few of which I had actually heard of (and I’m up on Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Dalian…)? Alas, I was in a diamond mine in Australia (key global market for Tiffany? Yes, you got that one too) so had to pass on the PPR titan’s tempting invite, but I did once interview Pinault’s rival, Bernard Arnault of LVMH, in a penthouse suite in Beijing. Trying to get to Arnault, both the richest man in fashion and the richest man in France, when you are actually in France is well-nigh impossible. Yet in China, he was as relaxed and warm as a chilly billionaire can be, although he was probably totting up what you get when even 0.001% of a population headed towards 1.35 billion people wants Dior.

But you should never count your Chinese chickens. When Arnault’s mate President Sarkozy said he would be meeting the Dalai Lama (do, please Google exactly why Richard Gere is so passionate about Tibet), the Chinese ambassador in Paris apparently had the luxury titan quaking in his handmade Berlotti shoes at the thought of Chinese Vuitton customers asking for their money back.

Those customers get wooed. Last year it was the Dior extravaganza staged on the Bund in Shanghai; there was the “Culture Chanel” exhibition, the Fendi’s show on the Great Wall and the Ferragamo show within the Forbidden City. But it is not just about wooing the girls. One of the glories of modern China, if you are a luxury tycoon, is this is one of the few markets where men outdo women in their regard of expensive designer goods as trophies of success. Good news for Dunhill and Hugo Boss,

You can’t keep up with who is opening, who is expanding where. There’s Burberry’s upcoming Hong Kong megastore which promises to be a smart shopping destination for an annual 23 million Chinese tourists who come to town. Niche brands like Moncler are making a splash in Beijing, Miu Miu is expanding in Shanghai – the list goes on.

Susan Owens is a China expert whose blog, Paris Cherie, links the world of Paris fashion to Shanghai. She admits she can hardly post content up fast enough or keep track of the Western brands keen to snap up the services of Shanghai model, Du Juan.

What the Chinese luxury consumer is not madly interested in – up to now – is the vast nation’s sartorial past. “There’s no vintage—Chinese don’t wear old clothes,” someone told me. Hello Ralph Lauren, who visited China last year. Cue an autumn-winter 2011 collection of cheongsams inspired by the old silk road. When Ralph Lauren opened his first stores in Britain, back when Princess Diana was young, few thought his coals-to-Newcastle – or more precisely chintz-to-Downton Abbey -offering would work in a land where some people actually owned family silver. How wrong we were so expect to see fashion folk in the PCR dressing “Chinese”

Coming soon, more homegrown designers, more competition. And I leave you with this. In 1997, I was editing Vogue Australia, which meant I was “Asia Pacific” on the Paris show seating plans and thus in the worst seats in the house. Around me would be the first few fashion editors from the PRC. Where are they now? Locate Suzy Menkes and track along a couple of chairs, that’s where. All power to China.