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2 de novembro de 2011

Can China Produce A Luxury Brand?

Louis Vuitton Hong Kong

Image via Wikipedia

China is more known as a luxury consumer rather than a producer. And while it is a manufacturing hub for many global labels and retailers, it has yet to produce its own luxury brand in the manner of Hermes or Louis Vuitton. True, it took centuries for Hermes and Louis Vuitton to become what they are today, but these questions begged to be asked: Are there Chinese labels that are poised to become the Hermes of tomorrow? Are the Chinese too enamored by the cachet of owning something from a French or Italian house to support one of their homegrown talents? Can China move past its reputation as just manufacturers and source of cheap labor?

There are established high-end labels that have originated from Hong Kong and China, of course. There is Shanghai Tang founded by David Tang in 1994 and purchased by Richemont, which owns Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, in 1998. “We’ve moved away from just being a souvenir shop to a complete fashion and lifestyle brand,” said its CEO Raphael le Masne de Chermont when I interviewed him previously.

There is also Ascot Chang, Hong Kong’s answer to a Savile Row tailor, which was founded in 1940 and has stores in the Asian region and in New York and Beverly Hills. On the jewelry front, Qeelin, the brainchild of Hong Kong businessman Dennis Chan, has made a dazzling impression on the international stage with its jewel pieces that combine Asian inspirations with Western techniques. They have stores in Paris, London, Los Angeles, Taipei and Singapore. And socialite Bao Bao Wan has been producing exquisite fine jewelry under her own label from her studio in Beijing.

But will these brands become as big as one of the brands in the LVMH portfolio? For China, especially Hong Kong, to rightfully claim the title of fashion capital, shouldn’t it have an iconic label similar to Paris’ Dior and Chanel or Milan’s Bulgari and Prada or New York’s Ralph Lauren and Tiffany & Co.?

When I was doing a story on Hong Kong labels and designers before, I found that being based in Hong Kong was a double-edge sword. On the up side, it made manufacturing more efficient and cost effective because China was just next-door. The flip side is that it is hard to shake off the Made in China stigma. Even worse, the Made in Hong Kong label. “That is a challenge, actually, because it’s (Hong Kong) is not exactly known for producing world-class designers,” said the creators of the contemporary Hong Kong brand Daydream Nation.

But the negative connotations of the Made in China tag are being erased according to Fiona Kotur, an American handbag designer whose line Kotur is based in Hong Kong and manufactured in China. “‘Made in China’ means something different now than 10 years ago. In the past, China manufacturing was all considered uniform. Now, there are distinct differences among regions in China, with better-quality goods being made in the southern provinces. There is so much European luxury manufacturing done there already, and with that, better-trained workers. Often Italian workers are brought in as well to teach traditional techniques. Southern China is also becoming more expensive to manufacture. It’s no longer the mass-produced low-cost center.”

What then should labels in China, and Asia in general, do to make the leap towards the big leagues? “I believe that for luxury goods to reach the same international standards, they must deliver a singular experience beyond that of just merchandise—the product should be about outstanding quality and the extraordinary manner in which it was created. It should be about a service provided, and the resonating heritage experienced—a certain evolution and a consistent vision of excellence shared. In Asia, because of the proliferation of counterfeit goods manufactured here, there remains the impression that cheap, substandard, unoriginal designs are the only things available here. General lack of exposure and opportunity to showcase homegrown Asian talent has also contributed to this impression. Yet there have been many original designers and lines that have been able to carve out their own niche and who have brought forth to the global arena some truly groundbreaking pieces to light,” says Bea Valdes, a bag designer from the Philippines whose designs are often featured in American and British Vogue.

But all this information is futile if local brands are passed over for prestigious Parisian and Milanese labels. A reader asked me why there are so many stories about the Chinese lapping up luxury goods and why not contemporary labels? For the Chinese consumer, especially those from the Mainland, it is still about the allure and the glamour of owning the latest Gucci or Rolex. It’s a way of showing the world that they are wealthy, that they have arrived and can spend lavishly. And buying a piece from label that is not instantly recognized by others is the opposite of that. This is part of the reason why Valextra, the Italian stealth luxury label worshiped by style connoisseurs, did not do well in Hong Kong. It’s lack of logo and bells and whistles did not translate well to the local consumer. The products, though handsome and exquisitely crafted, did not scream ‘status’ to the eye of the Chinese consumer. In China, it’s not consumption if it’s not conspicuous.