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October 19, 2017
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Louis Vuitton S/S 2011 collection (Source: killahbeez.com).
Emporio Armani S/S 2011 Ad Campaign
(Source: lamodadubai.com).

The theme of Emporio Armani's S/S 2012 ad campaign is vintage China. Asian female and male models are dressed in the label's spring attire showcasing simple, clean lines and shot amidst the busy streets of Hong Kong in an apparent nod to the Asian luxury consumer. Asian references were similarly visible in Louis Vuitton's S/S 2011 campaign where models gracefully draped over lacquered Oriental furniture in what could be viewed as a 21st century opium den. Clad in smooth, glistening silks with soft pale skin recalling the physiognomy of women from the Far East, the models were at once decadent, exotic and enrapturing.

For years, fashion brands have being looking to the Far East for inspiration - a love affair that is now more apparent as brands desire to court the Chinese luxury shopper in hopes of achieving a stake in the country's rapidly growing luxury goods market.Economic forecasts continue to chart the growth of the Chinese luxury market, providing stellar figures that encourage luxury brands to position themselves within the country. The numbers are impressive and, surprisingly, they point to men as being the greater purchaser of luxury goods. According to a Bain & Company report, in 2010, Chinese men spent 7 billion yuan ($1.1 billion) on their wardrobes compared to the 2.8 billion yuan spent by women. The fact is reflected in Landmark Men, the 60,000 square-foot men's only mall in Hong Kong showcasing brands such as Valentino Men, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Louis Vuitton now has 36 stores in 29 cities across mainland China compared to just 10 cities in 2005 and used an Asian male model for the first time in its 2011 advertising campaign. According to a McKinsey report, China will account for over 20 percent of global luxury sales by 2015 thus overtaking Japan as the world’s largest market for luxury goods.

Yet is the traditional Chinese look truly appealing to Chinese consumers?

While these remarkable facts certainly hold ground for the luxury brands desiring to set foot in China, what is interesting is the marketing and advertising strategies western brands are using to court Chinese customers. For the last several years, a number of prominent institutions have staged exhibitions on traditional and contemporary fashion in China. In 2010, London's Victoria and Albert Museum staged Imperial Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City, featuring some of the Emperor's most stunning, special occasion robes, many of which had never before been seen outside of China. Last year, the exhibition Culture Chanel, organised by the fashion house and staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai, displayed 400 items including designs and various elements inspired by Coco Chanel in an effort to reveal the designer's psyche to the Chinese people. In China, Chanel is known more for its perfume, Chanel No. 5, than for its renowned little black dress and such an exhibition serves as the perfect sales pitch of the culture of Chanel. According to the Bain report, Chanel ranks as the second most-desired brand after Louis Vuitton - a good place to stand in the country's fast-growing market worth over $10 billion in annual sales.

Tom Ford's final collection for Yves
Saint Laurent (Source: style.com).

Then there have been the spectacular runway performances: Karl Lagerfeld's unforgettable staging of the Fendi show on the Great Wall of China in 2007 and Dior's unveiling of last year's Cruise collection in Shanghai. In 2004, Tom Ford's final collection for YSL mixed elements from the Mao period's utilitarianism with Qing Dynasty colours (yellow, which holds an imperial connotation) and architectural references. The collection was inspired by Yves Saint Laurent's 1977 Chinese collection - the same year in which he launched his perfume, Opium. Ford translated these Oriental influences into luxurious satin and silk fabrics coupled with elegant hourglass silhouettes. Most recently, Marc Jacobs' S/S Louis Vuitton collection delved deeper into Chinese heritage than just exposing Chinese fashion clichés to highlight the theatrical appeal of Chinese traditional dress and its performative functions. Regardless, his starting point was China, apparent in the qi paos, kimono sleeves, mandarin collars and pyjama pant-suits which are of current trend.

Yet is the traditional Chinese look truly appealing to Chinese consumers? As previously stated, numerous brands have experimented with China-inspired design elements; other examples include Ralph Lauren's cheongsams and Zegna's mandarin-collared shirts providing visual testimony of the desire to create a tailored product as a merchandising strategy for Chinese customers.

Chanel Shanghai Ready-To-Wear
A/W 2010-11 (Source: vogue.co.uk).

However, according to a recent article in The Business of Fashion, experts are advising that it is best to avoid Chinese fashion clichés. The piece cites former Richemont Asia Pacific CEO and luxury consultant Francis Gouten: "You cannot change your product completely. It's like Shanghai Tang having a mandarin collar - it's just a gimmick. [The Chinese] want to buy the name, the product and the quality. You have to be yourself, come with your DNA and be as strong as you are in your own country. Don't try to change your identity and don’t try to be special for China." In support of this statement, many experts advise that luxury brands should focus on highlighting their most defining products such as Chanel's 2.55 handbag or Ferragamo's Varina ballet flats. One must retain their history and, most importantly, their heritage even when entering into a new cultural domain.

The abundance of Asian styles entering the market raises many questions as to the continued romanticism of the Far East as well as the purported need to assimilate in order to conquer, whether it be for financial or military means. It may soon be crucial to address China's own economic and humanitarian needs as well as the importance of delving back into Chinese history to see how such visual clichés are seen and defined by the country's people. Even so, in the world's current state of recessionary woes, it's not hard to see why so many Western luxury labels are flocking to China and aggressively courting the yuan to the point of cultural imitation. 

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