Shanghaiist recently caught wind of an article in the magazine Fast Company called “The Gucci-Killers”, which we at first thought referred to some obscure antiglobalization terrorist group but was actually an article about the up-and-coming luxury fashion and lifestyle brand Shanghai Tang. We have to say that this article rubbed us the wrong way because of the damn near breathless way in which it describes Shanghai and China. For example, take this first paragraph:
It’s 10 till 10:00 on a dark night in a 1,300-year-old Confucian temple in Shanghai, and if the weather is any indication, Confucius is ticked.
First of all, is there anything 1,300 years old in a city that was just a bunch of backwater fishing villages until the 19th century? Secondly, while Confucius has been made into a quasi-divine or religious figure by some, we believe we can safely assert that for the vast majority he remains what he was: a philosopher and teacher, and not some temperamental deity that makes rain.
The rest of the article talks about how Shanghai Tang was born in Hong Kong, how they used to make somewhat creative products but didn’t have real innovation and cachet with with regular shoppers (and not just high-end tourists). Ambition they had, in spades — which is why they attempted to open a store on Madison Avenue in New York, but “nineteen months later, it was clear Tang had miscalculated Americans’ appetite for expensive Chinese costumery, silver rice bowls, and painted lanterns.” Cut to a few years later when the dynamic duo of CEO Raphael le Masne de Chermont and creative and marketing director Joanne Ooi (a Singaporean-American of Chinese descent). After a rocky start, they revamped Shanghai Tang and now are poised to create the first global luxury brand to come out of China (even though the management and the designers are from all over the world). Interesting enough, but for some reason we found ourselves distracted by the writing itself.
Take this paragraph from a related article by the same author in the same issue of Fast Company:
But brand-building is a slow game, and the creativity-quashing Cultural Revolution left the country with little strength in bourgeois skills such as marketing, advertising, customer service, and imaginative thinking.
We’ve got nothing against this kind of hip and breezy prose style per se, it suits the magazine and the subject quite well, but “creativity-quashing”? Is it just us, or is there something too blithe about this? It doesn’t help that the title of this little blurb is “The Little Red Book of Branding”. We know this isn’t a history textbook but still, something of that enormity deserves, even in a piece like this, more appropriate adjectives. At one point, the author say this: “The fashion world at the time seemed mystified as to whether Tang was launching a new era of global fashion or peddling Chinese tchotchkes better left to Canal Street” — which is exactly how Shanghaiist feels about this kind of writing.
As for Shanghai Tang, their website isn’t as persuasive as the above article is. The creative director, Joanne Ooi, says that “[e]very item should transport the wearer mentally to someplace exotic in terms of time and region,” and adds that “… it’s also important that every piece we make is able to be worn with a pair of jeans. If it can’t be, we’re not succeeding. That’s the nature of modern dressing.” Ooi wanders around China collecting ideas and looking for inspiration. She studies Chinese culture and history. Some of the designers she hires are Chinese. And yet Shanghai Tang, like others trying to cash in on “China chic”, run into this problem:
“When we ask a Chinese student to do an assignment, we usually get a Chinese version of an American pop poster,” Swanepoel says. “We say, ‘Guys, you’ve got to own your own history.'”
So too with Chinese fashion designers, says Joanne Ooi, creative director of Shanghai Tang. “They’re very Western-looking. They don’t have the confidence in their own cultural roots.”
Shanghaiist finds this comment interesting, coming from a Singaporean that grew up and was educated in the US. If Ooi has confidence in what she does, it’s because she owes much of that to the fact that she, too, is Western-looking. If Chinese people seem to ape or imitate the West, the blame is laid at their feet for not having enough confidence of their own. The problem is much more complicated than that. Is Chinese rock or Chinese rap a product of an inferiority complex as well? Shanghaiist is no fashionista — mom picks out half our clothes — but a brief perusal of the Shanghai Tang website revealed a lot of clothing labeled or adorned with “dragons” and “phoenixes” or with one Chinese character (like the tattooes so popular in the West). And most of the models, at least for the latest lines, are not Chinese. Shanghai Tang is not anymore obliged to use Chinese models than the producers of Memoirs of a Geisha are to use Japanese actresses — but the predominance of Caucasians in the modelling/fashion world is part of the reason why Chinese people don’t have confidence in their “cultural roots”. Their “cultural roots” aren’t what make the fashion and luxury goods world go around. We’ll have to see whether or not Shanghai Tang can really get this “China chic” thing going. Last gripe (we promise) is how the author of the “Gucci Killer” article described her experience of Xintiandi:
I felt strangely at home, however, in a popular shopping area in the historic French Concession called Xintiandi. The low-rise complex housed restaurants and stores in beautifully restored stone buildings.
Restored? Please. And does anyone really wonder why this author felt strangely at home drinking a double nonfat latte at Starbucks?
Shanghai Tang locations in Shanghai:
Promenade on Mao Ming
59 Mao Ming Nan Road
Telephone (8621) 5466 3006
15 Xintiandi North Block
Lane 181 Tai Cang Road
Telephone (8621) 6384 1601
33 Fu Cheng Road, Pudong
Telephone (8621) 5877 6632