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…