Tag Archives: China

Mongolia’s ‘Cashmere Princess’ Expands 1436 – BUSINESS OF FASHION

From the vast, goat-populated plains of Inner Mongolia, ‘cashmere princess’ Jane Wang is spinning a winning formula of handcrafted luxury knitwear and strategic business savvy. By Marion Hume, Business of Fashion September 2014

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ORDOS, China — The sweeping plains of Inner Mongolia are not the first place you’d look for signs of the next international luxury brand. But before you dismiss any notion that a significant label could emerge so far from the fashion world as we know it, a flashback through history: it was from here that Genghis Khan used the element of surprise to forge an empire that would dominate huge swathes of the then-known world.

That a true luxury brand will come out of Greater China (as opposed to all those who have gone in) has been anticipated for some time, although our sights have been set on Beijing and Shanghai. If, instead, we look North, to where the land seems endless and empty except for the goats, it is those many (many) goats that are the clue to probable success in the West.

Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the most populous human settlement in these parts, the towering (although still somewhat sparse) city of Erdos, also written Ordos. (As to why there are two spellings, maybe it has something to do with translating ᠣᠷᠳᠣᠰᠬᠣᠲᠠ from Mongol, 鄂尔多斯市 from Chinese). Erdos means “Palace of Tents” and it is a company town.

That company, founded 35 years ago, is also called Erdos and it accounts for over one-third of the world’s cashmere production. Erdos used to supply HermèsBurberry and Loro Piana; that it no longer does is due to its own requirements for 3,000+ eponymous stores across China. As for rolling a brand into the West, Erdos can certainly afford it. The Erdos Group (which also includes energy and metallurgy) is valued at approximately 60.8 billion RMB ($9.5 billion).

Shall we meet the cashmere princess?

Jane Wang doesn’t love her nickname but because her father, the Erdos founder, is often referred to as “The Cashmere King,” his only child is stuck with it. Just like a princess in a story book, Wang’s favourite colour is pink and she spends her life spinning. But this is a modern fashion fairytale. Our princess is not in an ivory tower but down on the factory floor, using the Masters in Engineering she earned from Cambridge to achieve her heart’s desire: the most luxurious cashmere fibre on earth.

As to the time frame, we start in 2004, with Wang (who is 34 today) departing from Cambridge. A prized possession was a sweatshirt featuring the University motto translated from the Latin to read, “Open your Mind”. By 2006, she was working with the technicians at Erdos, who tried to remind her that one gram of cashmere could be spun to a maximum length of 48 metres. “What I learned from the UK is how you should always be curious and willing to change,” she recalls when we meet for tea, not in Inner Mongolia but in a hotel in Central London.

Wang recounts how she persuaded Erdos technicians to push further, to see how fine the best fibre (combed — very precisely — from the shoulder and flanks of one-year-old baby Arbus goats) could go, achieving 60 metres, 80 metres, 100 metres in length per gram. (It can now be spun to 120 metres.) However, the equation is not as simple as ‘the longer the better’. The best cashmere yarn needs to be resilient yet soft, and the diamond measure is fibre that is less than 14.5 microns in diameter yet still robust. (The math isn’t simple to grasp. It goes something like this: 14.5 microns x 36mm length fibre taken to as long as you can spin it without losing quality.)

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With these high counts, Wang and the technicians, achieved a cashmere that is peerless in delicacy. Once achieved, she called her formula 14-36.

With that technical challenge cracked, Wang’s next ambition was to create, quite literally, a spinoff brand, one that would use only the finest “baby cashmere” spun to that magical 14-36. “Because the Erdos brand is so strong in China, I thought we ought to start a new brand,” she recalls, referring to one in which the ambition would be to be as upscale as the top Western luxury brands. “We have 20,000 people working at Erdos. We choose the best 200 to handle the yarn that is 14-36. They are very happy and proud to do it.”

The name of this brand? Wang went with the numbers — 1436 — a logical choice.

Of course, if you want to woo the fashion crowd, you need more than a winning spinning formula. Wang, who admits, “I am not a very creative kind of person; I’m more like a management, strategy kind of person,” went looking for a fashion designer. In 2011, she appointed Graeme Black, the former creative director of Ferragamo, ex-Giorgio Armani, ex-Hugo Boss, to give 1436 its aesthetic vision. That Black is Scottish is a considerable added bonus, given the Scottish cashmere story, with which he is very familiar, always begins in Inner Mongolia.

Last July, 1436 made its international debut with a fashion show in Edinburgh, thus emphasising the two nations’ over 200 years of shared cashmere history. The audience comprised roughly a third from across Scotland; a third from London, Amsterdam, Stockholm and other Europe cities; a third from China. A broad collection of men’s and womenswear was presented. Traditional Asian embroidery patterns were rendered in knitted intarsia and complex jacquards. While much of 1436 is made — beautifully — in China, skilled hand-knitters from the Scottish Highlands and Islands created couture-crafted pieces. Also unveiled in Edinburgh was 1436 packaging in the rich turquoise of imperial porcelain, with the numbers rendered in calligraphy.

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Could 1436 be the Chinese breakthrough we’ve been waiting for? Wang is confident. “We have the resources and good opportunities to be a world brand, the same as the Italians, the British,” she says. Certainly, when you run a checklist — raw luxury source, production, technical, retail and business expertise, design smarts and of course cash — it is promising. That 1436’s founder is the scion of a Chinese textile behemoth who speaks excellent English adds benefit.

1436 products are established as the national gifts China presents to Heads of Foreign States. With the Edinburgh show, it went far further in polishing an international identity. “I think we could be in that great category,” says Wang. “Of course we’re not there yet; we’re still a young brand but I think we can.” As for whether the tastemakers will take to it, fashion’s famous early adopter, Joan ‘Mrs B’ Burstein of Browns has already been spotted sporting a 1436 scarf.

Jane Wang’s next strategy is to plot the steps to a roll-out of 1436 stores into Western cities. No word yet on where or when they will open (there are already 40 stores for 1436 within China). In the meantime, watch this space. And keep an eye on Inner Mongolia.

 

At The Court Of Armani – Australian Financial review

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At The Court of Armani 

Born in the year of the dog, Italy’s foremost designer is a China crowd pleaser, not least for the well dressed sophistication of his highly wearable clothes. But the succession question dogs the 78 year old all the way to Beijing, where Marion Hume joins him on a night of nights that proves Giorgio Armani is unlike any other of fashion’s living greats.

Austalian Financial Review | August 2012

by Marion Hume 

“Are you responsible, compassionate, reliable, honest, pessimistic and anxious?” Giorgio Armani’s ice blue eyes lock onto mine. Who dares ask fashion’s last emperor – his kingdom resolutely independent from the conglomerates that dominate the global luxury landscape – about his personal character? Yet we are in China, where a reporter, born under the year of the tiger, merely wishes to enquire whether the world’s wealthiest designer fits the description of those born under the year of the dog.

This emperor, who has absolute control as sole shareholder of a business worth billions, is shielded by a fiercely protective court. His mandarins – easy to spot because, like their ruler, they don’t wear socks – are stringent about vetting questions in advance. Tabled for today’s interview, taking place in a hotel penthouse 74 storeys above the streets of Beijing at the end of May, is discussion about Armani in China where the group has 289 of some 2125 stand-alone stores globally, with 50 more Chinese openings slated within the year.

There is a beat of silence. Then the interpreter translates the question into the designer’s native Italian (court protocol, as many suspect Armani understands English). “Perfecto!” Armani pronounces. Then he laughs. Then everyone is laughing and so it is that a reporter, distanced from greatness by ample space in which to kowtow, is allowed to stay upright in her chair.

When granted an audience with Armani, whether in the group’s palatial Milan headquarters or anywhere in his dominions, do not expect intimacy. The emperor must maintain distance (unlike, say, Tom Ford, who might start stroking your back). There will be a platoon of people. They will be dressed either just like him (T-shirt, sweater, immaculate casual) or they will ‘work’ his designs in studiously funky ways. The latter is a sartorial shift in a company that used to decree low heels, no earrings, nude nail polish – the change perhaps to semaphore a core brand message of ‘cool’, although the designer himself is 78.

Looking decidedly odd in such an on-trend crowd are the suits. The guy in the tie hand-signalling ‘five minutes to time’s up’ when we’ve only just got started? He’s Armani’s loyal assistant, Paul Lucchesi. The suited and booted guy standing all buff and bristling by the door? His palace guard.

Back in ancient China, it was believed that a man carried the creature of his birth year forever in his heart. Of all the animals in the 12-year cycle of the Shengxiao zodiac, the dog is the most determined. There is no need to ask Giorgio Armani if that is true of him. In 1975, he started a business with cash from selling a car. In 2011 alone, that business achieved a total turnover, including licensed products at retail value, of €6.73 billion ($7.9 billion). The dog is stubborn. When Sergio Galeotti, who was Armani’s partner in business and life, died in 1985, Armani expanded when expected to retreat and runs everything at one of the world’s most recognised brands.

It is written that dogs prefer saving money to spending it. At last report, Giorgio Armani SpA had some $817 million in cash on its books and even Armani’s yacht must earn its keep in charters. To a dog, a well organised home is important. Make that nine private homes, a homeware line called Armani Casa and, in partnership with the UAE property developer Emaar, hotels in Milan and Dubai. But dogs are sensitive, or you might say prickly, given Armani’s less than complimentary comments about other designers’ creations over the years (“molto porno”; “troppo Joan Collins”).

Being born in 1934 makes Armani specifically a ‘wood dog’, the kind that hunts in a pack. Where the emperor leads, others trot behind, even on his annual holiday to Pantelleria, a volcanic speck southwest of Sicily. Apparently, Armani snarls at those he loves the most. In a 2000 interview with Vanity Fair’s Judy Bachrach, he admitted to “verbal violence. And sometimes I even use words, Italian ones – stronzo or cazzo!” Shithead, prick… “That is normal. [Among ourselves], this is what we say all the time.”

This visit to China is not holiday galavanting; it is an international show of brand power – or make that brands, plural. Within the group are Giorgio Armani Privé, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Armani Collezioni, AJ | Armani Jeans, A/X Armani Exchange, Armani Junior, plus eyewear, watches, jewellery, fragrances and cosmetics. On this evening, the emperor plans to dazzle all those who have received a gilded invitation – accompanied by a little box of nine (Chinese lucky number) Armani Dolce chocolates – with an extravaganza entitled ‘Giorgio Armani: One Night Only in Beijing’.

But overnight success is the opposite to how he got to be here. Along with talent and a singular vision are years of sheer hard work. Armani hails from Piacenza, a northern industrial town far removed from the Italy of La Dolce Vita. Unlike Yves Saint Laurent, born two years after Armani (who was telling his mother how to dress when he was four and was famous by 21), Armani’s childhood stories are not of decorating paper dolls but of hiding in ditches while his home town was strafed in Allied bombing raids. His father worked in the offices of Mussolini’s Fascist Party and then as a shipping manager. His housewife mother could be as hard as nails. It took Armani years to see his name in lights, although for almost as many years since, a vast Emporio Armani sign arcing over Milan’s Linate airport has welcomed visitors.

Armani didn’t design under his own name until he was 40, making him something of a fashion George Clooney (often in Armani on screen), which is to say, old enough to know what to do when fame came knocking. That fame has been burnished through associations with many movie stars at awards ceremonies and in costume collaborations. Who can forget a cocksure Richard Gere, matching Armani shirts, pants, ties in the 1980 filmAmerican Gigolo?

This catapulted an Italian label to international stardom just as Western economies were booming and Young Urban Professionals were wondering what to wear. For men, Armani knocked the stuffing out of the suit. For women, his supple tailoring signalled soft power in a changing world of work.

But that is all known to fashion insiders. What we don’t know, when we show up in China, is the succession plan for a company that directly employs some 5700 people and it’s the scoop all of us are really after. In this imperial tale, there is no little Pu-Yi to ascend to the throne when the current occupant journeys to meet the ancestors, although Armani has two nieces (Silvana and Roberta Armani) and a nephew Andrea Camerana. Instead, two weeks after Armani’s appearances in Beijing, it will be revealed through the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, that the Giorgio Armani group will become a foundation once the emperor has gone.

This will benefit family members without giving any one of them control and ensure independence, keeping the kingdom safe from far mightier powers such as LVMH. (About a decade ago when LVMH titan, Bernard Arnault approached Armani with an offer few would refuse, Armani did just that.) Such a structure gets around the risks of selling to private equity, which can lead to strange bedfellows, and also protects against the vicissitudes of the stock market.

But while in China, reporters who have travelled across mountains and oceans to get ‘the succession scoop’ do not yet know of this imperial edict. And so it is that an Englishman, an Irishman and a dual nationality British/Australian walk into a hotel penthouse – not the opener to a joke but instead because we English-speaking journalists find ourselves bunched together. (Pressure of time, what with all the French, the Spanish, the Mandarin speakers also interviewing in teams).

We agree the Englishman will be the diplomat: “Can I ask Mr Armani about Beijing and his impressions of Beijing, especially coming back here after four years?” This Aussie will jest about cutting suits big enough for Russell Crowe’s beloved Rabbitohs, while the Irishman, fluent in Italian and in blarney, will watch for the moment to ask “what happens next?”. But do not forget the mandarins are skilled at games of cat and mouse, or shall we say dog-taunt-tiger, rabbit, monkey. An American journalist joins us just as we start, with more questions to be translated, yet with no extra time.

What Armani wants to talk about is clothes. The emperor pontificates, the interpreter waffles on. “He says that with the jacket, he uses more rational shapes, more easy to dress. He says the main difference is not in colours, is not in material, but especially in the structure, the shape.” The penthouse door swings open again and the reporters from across Asia take their seats as we four are ushered out of ours and forward to shake the imperial hand.

Later that day, it is in the subterranean Hades of Beijing’s fake markets, being suffocated by horrid handbags dangling with gewgaws, that the essential difference between the Giorgio Armani brand and almost every other mighty fashion marque slaps me in the face, almost literally. (“Look lady, best LV!”) As I swipe a gawdy Vuitton copy away from my eye line, there are no Armani logos to be seen, not on the cheap clutches piled high on the stalls or among the more convincing fakes I see in private cubbyholes, through doors concealed behind mirrors, or doors disguised as sets of shelves. There’s ‘Hermès’, there’s ‘Fendi’, there’s ‘Chanel’. Fundamentally, Giorgio Armani is a clothing brand with some bags on the side, thus much harder to rip off than those fashion giants which are bag companies with clothes on the side.

While some brands appear to be using China as a shop window (their rich Chinese customers buying abroad where taxes are lower), clothes are different. You might need something tomorrow for a business meeting or cocktail party. The Armani brands sell robustly within China. No numbers are given, but a figure of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of customers gets a nod from Paul Haouzi, who is offered up for the AFRMagazine to interview when it becomes clear that the most senior executive, group commercial director Livio Proli, will not be taking questions.

Haouzi, chief executive Asia Pacific, is a Frenchman fluent in Mandarin, as well as in the English he uses to explain that Armani customers in China “know what they want, understand what fashion is about and want the best. They won’t care too much about price. Armani is a big name and a great product, especially for menswear. And the men here, they really want to look good.”

Training sales staff is key, he says. “The people who serve the customers are not only nice, not only look good, the most important thing is that they are knowledgeable. They have to make sure the person who buys something not only buys the piece, but also buys the Armani experience: the love that Mr Armani has for beauty, for fashion. I want to make sure that our staff are able to deliver more than a piece of clothing.”

Yet while Armani is the king of clothes, paradoxically, the fashion world tends to get much more excited about showpieces spun out by those labels that principally sell bags. Armani does care, personally, that the fashion media shrugs off his wearable offerings as bland when, frankly, where could you go in what comes down the catwalk at Balenciaga?

To examine how good his clothing can be, you have only to take a look at his Australian celebrity clientele. No, not at Cate Blanchett (“In reality she can be very strong, so sometimes you are surprised about this strongness,” Armani says) because she looks good in anything, although it was Blanchett who got Armani to Australia. Not Nicole Kidman either, a natural clothes horse (“Ah, Nicole!”), nor even Russell Crowe, who scrubs up well (“He knows what he wants.”). But recall Armani also clothes the actor’s South Sydney rugby league football team, the Rabbitohs. (In the interview, Armani mimes thighs of magnificent girth accompanied by “molto machile”.) The day the Rabbitohs were fitted is one some of his staffers will never forget, given several players were ‘going commando’. These days, off field, they look impeccable.

As night falls, we are transported at a crawl across Beijing where five million cars have replaced those fabled 10 million bicycles, towards 798 Space, in the city’s Dashanzi art district. Within what was formerly a power plant is the shell of an enormous gasometer (scale: not quite Rome’s Coliseum, but large at 3500 square metres) where a thousand guests mingle for pre-show cocktails inside the perimeter, then are ushered into a stunning theatre-in-the-round. Off-white cushions, bleacher seats, ‘landing lights’ illuminating the catwalk, all echo Armani’s permanent show venue in Milan. American crooner Mary J. Blige is in her dressing room, the models are lined up backstage, all preparing to perform as part of a show which must be costing a fortune. (How much? Who knows, when Armani has to account to no one but himself?)

In this era of the fashion show mega-stylist, Armani does not appear to employ one. Perhaps he does that job himself too. He checks every model before they step out of the wings. Yet while the catwalk is peppered with pieces you’d grab if you could pick what you wanted from a store, on this night, fussed up to look heightened for the dramatic setting, more becomes less. Then, at last, the finale. In the Shengxiao zodiac, dogs are warned: be wary of dragons.

“The pinnacle of the fashion show is a sinuous black lacquered dress around which a spectacular three-dimensional embroidery of a dragon wraps itself, from whose jaws spout not flames, but the lightest of feathers,” is how the final gown is described in an official press release. Shall we just say that the gulf between how fashion scribes express themselves post-show, in private, and what appears in print is often not the same thing. Global reviews are euphoric.

In any case, Giorgio Armani’s true triumph lies not in such travelling circuses. He stands as a style colossus for a quiet elegance that cuts across class and geographical divides. He is a modernist, as Coco Chanel was a modernist, his key contribution to fashion’s lexicon being the calm clothes that promise at least one element of your day will be right. While he has been refining daywear since 1975, it is telling that he did not launch Giorgio Armani Privé, with its sparkling couture gowns, until 30 years later, in 2005.

Included in our Beijing itinerary is a visit to Tsinghua University, where Armani sponsors a program for fashion and textile students. He is here to tell Wen Ya and Wang Yilong that they have been awarded intensive six-month apprenticeships in Milan. It is in the company of these young women, surrounded by their peers, that an emperor becomes mortal, a man with a burning desire to transmit his knowledge to a new generation. Far more animated with the students than with the press, his sense of urgent need – palpable, even through the mire of translation – is to teach that the true power of clothes is to bring out the best in the person who wears them.

Armani leans into the wattage beam of eager young smiles: “I want to say this to all of you: when you design, you should not just think of external things, you should think of internal things. Maybe a woman’s exterior is not so good, so you think of how a woman’s inner beauty can benefit from your designs. This industry needs inner passion.” The lights in the lecture hall dim and some vintage images flash up on a slightly shabby screen. “When the hell is this video from?” snipes one of the press pack, looking up from trawling through emails on his smartphone, only to be plunged back into the 70s.

Then Blondie’s Call Me from American Gigolo comes through the speakers and here they come: Richard Gere, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, an older Richard Gere going up the escalator holding a rose. Here comes Michelle Pfeiffer, Michelle Yeoh, Julia Roberts. Armani’s army marches on with Rafael Nadal and a tattooed David Beckham in their underpants, Rihanna in her bra and (surprisingly) Lady Gaga in her clothes. Cut to Beyoncé shimmying in a spangly mini and even the hacks are a bit awed by the punch, punch, punch of it all.

But from where I am seated, light coming off the screen makes Giorgio Armani himself just visible through the blackness. As all those audacious achievements flash up on the screen to the side of him, a silver-haired senior in a tight fitting sweater stares out into nothingness, fine fingers extended in a cathedral of prayer. As a life in fashion plays out before us all, he is marble-still, like a knight on a tomb.

Armani is not like fashion’s other living greats. He is not a designer-for-hire like Karl Lagerfeld who could (although unlikely) spin on his Cuban heels and walk out on Chanel. He is not Ralph Lauren, six years his junior, whose namesake is a public company where one of his sons is senior vice-president. Calvin Klein, who is nine years younger, sold out to the highest bidder and withdrew. Armani has never been one for opulent indulgence like Valentino, who held an unforgettable farewell party and enjoys a luxurious retirement. We know that, one day, the Giorgio Armani Group will become a foundation. But until his last breath, the emperor rules alone.

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..

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.