With the credit crunch in the West and rapid economic growth in China, it’s little wonder that the spotlight has turned on Asia’s buoyant retail sector. Zijia Wong profiles three established operators that look both east and west for inspiration
If you’re Chinese, you can afford a 1.5 million yuan (£100 000) cognac and a £165 000 truffle while lounging on the world’s most expensive bed. At least you can if the confidence of luxury brands Hennessey and Hastens is anything to go by. Brands such as these are placing faith in the Asian market, and the statistics suggest they may be close to the truth – China has about 400 000 millionaires and will soon be the world’s second-largest consumer of luxury goods. Another Asian country, Japan, will remain at the top.
Prosperity may be fuelling this shopping euphoria, but the region’s premium retailers have been quick to ensure that their customers stay loyal. Chanel’s choice to have Hong Kong – not Paris or New York – kick off its mobile art exhibition shows how brands in Asia now ensure that the shopping process goes beyond the wallet to be a lifestyle experience. Many other top brands are enlisting the help of fashion’s closest siblings, design and architecture. The new Singapore mall ION Orchard, when launched later this year, will be the embodiment of their answers with architecture from UK architect Benoy, space for arts and cultural events, and an observation deck for runway shows. Commes des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo launched a multi-level store, White Box, in Hong Kong last year. The last similar store she launched was in London in 2004.
Interior designers and architects from Europe and America can leverage their experience in what is still considered as ‘more mature’ retail regions, but this may not last for long. Increased travel and easy access to information means that their Asian counterparts can acquire the same knowledge. Asia is a complex market – Kevin Roberts, chief executive officer of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, feels as if there are ‘50 Chinas’, referring to the diverse audience in China. Designers need to ease into each market’s history, culture and way of conducting business.
Retailer Douglas Benjamin’s advice for foreign fashion designers ‘to be aware of cultural issues’ and not view Asia as a homogeneous market is applicable to interior designers. The luxury hotel project Commune by the Great Wall, whose brief to its 12 architects was to use local traditional building materials, shows that the Chinese aren’t satisfied with importing foreign talent and ideas.
‘[The Chinese] will never catch up with Europe,’ Swedish interior designer Johannes Tüll, long-time collaborator of Shanghai Tang, declares. ‘They will branch off and start something different. Then, Europe might start copying from it.’
His prediction comes from six years of living in Shanghai, during which he started work on Shanghai Tang, which France-based Richemonte Luxury Group had acquired. How a Swedish designer manages to work on founder David Tang’s chosen colour palette (candy-coloured pink and green, among others), Art Deco style and Chinese elements, is anyone’s guess. But Tüll worked out a formula that could be exported to anywhere in the world – whether you are in Miami or on London’s Sloane Street, a Shanghai Tang store would look similar. It recreates the ‘whole idea of Shanghai as an Eastern Paris’, while using distinct Chinese elements, such as lacquered wood, the colours red and gold, and brass detailing.
Asia is a tempting market to get into, especially China, but it has its barriers to entry. Shanghai Tang’s executive chairman Raphael le Masne de Chermont emphasised the difficulties of finding qualified staff and how expensive it is for foreign brands to move into a new market and build brand awareness from scratch. He envisions that since ‘the face element is very strong in Asia, flagship stores will have rooms for special customers; special editions are very important’. Designers can find themselves setting up flagship stores around Asia, especially in China, as the brands want consumers to get acquainted with them in this way, ‘to feel the strength of the brand’.
Tüll is reluctant to generalise about Asia, but he notices that ‘Western fashion brands have a huge impact on the standards of what is fashion and good design, maybe more than in Europe’. Appreciative of local Chinese talent, he thinks that the only advantage a non-local interior designer would have over them is the ability to ‘watch a new market and culture from a different perspective. Elements – taken for granted by the people in it – might stick out, inspire, be misunderstood and reinterpreted’. However, this can be offset by a Chinese designer who travels extensively and have more references.
The vast market is free for all to play in, but designers need to put in effort to understand it. In his early days on the Bund, ‘everyone looked at you as if you were crazy’ when he asked for payment on design concepts. They did not understand why they had to pay for ‘just paper work’.
When you step into an outlet of FJ Benjamin’s own-label store Raoul, you’d think you’d entered any of its other franchise stores, Valentino, Guess or Gap. Singapore design group Kingsmen’s store concept for the ‘the man of Raoul’, as it stated in an interview with a magazine, has an obvious international allure, which is why investors from countries as disparate as Bahrain and South Africa are keen to snap up franchise licenses, along with Raoul rhodium cufflinks and striped shirts. But Douglas Benjamin, chief executive of FJ Benjamin (Singapore) and son of the company founder, is one step ahead in the game – he is now exploring an avant-garde way to spice up the store design.
His observation that ‘standalone boutiques, hypermarkets anddepartment stores are finding their way, but good, co-ordinated, consolidatedretail space is quite lacking’, is telling: designers and retailershave a lot more scope to explore, and most of it on the large scale.In terms of fashion design, the Singaporean admits that ‘renownedEuropean labels have the advantage [in Asia] because people knowtheir names.’ However, he feels that Asian retailers and designershave the ‘sensibility’ that will make them stand out in local markets.For instance, they can create fashion knowing that Chinese womenare quite conservative and Asian shoppers go for practical items.
Whether it’s Prince Charles’s cookie shop or fashion label CK, Singapore retailer Christina Ong has a finger in high-end retail across markets in Asia, Europe and America. She has even earned the moniker ‘queen of Bond Street’ because of her extensive Club 21 holdings in London. With her Como Hotels and Resorts, which provide the chance to wine and dine in style all the way from Nepal to Parrot Cay, this woman is everywhere.
Described as an ‘impossibly chic’ style maven, Ong has a discerningtaste that is reflected in her shops – the A/X Armani Exchangein the US and the Giorgio and Emporio Armani franchises in Britain.Whether you step into Mulberry in Pusan by London’s Four IV DesignConsultants, or Asia’s largest Apple retail store iShop by Singapore’sKathryn Kng, you can hardly detect the difference in whatthey are doing.
Mandatories from the brands’ head offices would definitely play arole, but the brands’ popularity in Asia signifies just how much thelocals identify with such design sensibilities. Even for Club 21’sSingapore label, the now-defunct Song & Kelly21, you can hardly sniffout anything ‘local’ about it. Increased exposure to foreign designsand a global exchange of ideas through education and work are shapingtaste and preferences to one mould the world over – a one-size-fitsallsolution is possible.