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China Blue

October 12, 2010

A few thoughts on Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2011 collection, Shang Xia, Chinese taste, and fashion…

Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2011 looks, from

The Spring/Summer 2011 Louis Vuitton runway show, which featured printed silks, high collars and qipao-esque ensembles, has caused some debate within the fashion blogs. Personally, I love the collection; the long cascading earrings, the delicate yet provocative bits of the lace, the floral prints, and of course, Marc Jacobs’ singular way of smoothly blending a touch of camp (bejeweled pandas, neon florals and animal prints, and hotpants,) and elegance. In the context of Jacobs’ other professed influences for the collection – art deco and art nouveau – I personally don’t find the “Asian” motifs to be offensive or lowbrow since Art Deco and Art Nouveau design was rife with references to the Far East. Jacobs is playing with a theme, not trying to entice a new customer base.

However, some see the show as a shallow play for East Asian customers, which is a sensible assumption since there is a lot of money in China and a lot of people who want to prove they have it by snapping up luxury goods. On a half-mile stretch of Nanjing Xi Lu alone there are four malls devoted to luxury brands which feature at least one or two boutiques each by Louis Vuitton, Celine, Dior, Prada, Anna Sui, Lanvin, Balenciaga, Roger Vivier, Tod’s, Chloe, Gucci, Bottega Venetta, McQ, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Max Mara etc., and a few miles away in Pudong there are even more. It seems that creating a collection aimed at Chinese consumers is an unnecessary move since Louis Vuitton, in particular, is one of the most visible and successful Western luxury brands and there are literally dozens of fake good markets and stores devoted exclusively to selling fake Louis Vuitton clothes and bags. Ask a Shanghainese to name a high fashion brand and, more likely than not, you will get Louis Vuitton as an answer.


More importantly, I have to wonder if this is how a brand actually courts the Chinese market, if that is even what LV is doing here. Shopgirl’s Shanghai is a blog I follow and its writer, who is a Swedish-Chinese girl with a passion for fashion, said of the Louis Vuitton collection, “What do you think? Do we Chinese girls want to look like that?  I won’t [sic].  I[‘d] rather wear Oscar de la Renta S/S11 than Louis Vuitton S/S11.” I imagine that plenty of contemporary Chinese women would agree. Vuitton isn’t the only brand to flirt with Chinese motifs. Suzy Bubble at Style Bubble pointed out that the Spring/Summer 2011 Nicholas Kirkwood for Rodarte shoes have a Chinese flavor to them with their white and blue print reminiscent of Chinese porcelain. Rodarte has little to no presence in the mainland and these shoes weren’t seen as a play for Asian customers:

Rodarte Spring/Summer 2011 shoes from

There is continuous battle between what is “modern” and what is “Chinese,” with the two terms often being mutually exclusive in the minds of many contemporary Chinese. Modern, successful, and urban Chinese want to wear Zegna and Prada and look like their contemporaries in the West, or at least that is what I see here on the ground in Shanghai. In Shanghai, “Chinese” habits like spitting, smoking in restaurants, and morning walks in one’s pajamas were outlawed or seriously frowned in the lead up to this year’s Expo. It is increasingly rare to see Chinese women wearing “traditional” clothes like the qipao – I use traditional in quotes since the qipao isn’t traditional at all and was developed in the 1920s. This battle is a huge part of my Fulbright research on early 20th century China and breast-binding. Back then, it was believed that in order to become a strong nation, China had to become “modern” which meant adopting Western hygiene, fashion, and haircuts. In this thinking, anything distinctly Chinese, like breast-binding, belonged to the past.

Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2011, from

That same spirit exists in a slightly altered form today, as seen with reactions like Shopgirl’s Shanghai’s, so it will be interesting to see how the LV collection is received here in Shanghai when it hits stores in the spring. It will perhaps be a test of the market here as well: will people buy anything stamped with a Western high fashion logo, which is the assumption amongst many including myself at times, or is the Chinese [wealthy] public beginning to have a particular taste and aesthetic when it comes to what designs it wears?

More Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2011, from

Regardless of whether or not this most recent Louis Vuitton collection was a heavy-handed move to court Asian consumers – which seems silly since two floral dresses from LV’s Fall/Winter 2010 collection grace the cover of Vogue China’s November issue – I am more interested in the continued assumption that contemporary Chinese high fashion has to include Chinese fashions of the past: qipao, Mandarin collars, fans, printed silk etc. This is more directed at the commentators who think that an Asian-influenced collection must be directed at the Chinese customer. When one thinks of Chinese clothes, the mind typically wanders to an image of 1920s and 1930s Shanghai, which is heavily referenced in the LV collection. Whereas Japanese fashion tore away from traditional kimonos and obis in the 1980s when designers/labels like Yohji Yamamoto and Commes des Garcons all created a new aesthetic for Japanese high fashion, contemporary Chinese fashion finds itself beholden to the past, or at least the past as it is seen through Western eyes.

Images of Shang Xia boutique in Xintiandi, from Shopgirl’s Shanghai.

This idea continues with the new luxury brand, Shang Xia. Shang Xia is the first China-centric luxury good brand, although there are plenty of them already like Shanghai Tang, Annabel Lee, and Shiatzy Chen, all of which put forth a particular kitschy vision of Chinese clothes – lots of high collars and detailed buttons! Shang Xia is no different. To me, it feels like what a serene, mellow Westerner would imagine Chinese taste to be, with no real idea of what actual Chinese people wear, buy, and like on a day to day basis. Like, who thought this was a good idea? However, Shang Xia has an advantage over these other labels because it is a branch of French luxury giant Hermes. Shang Xia’s slant is that it focuses on Chinese design – it is designed by a Chinese designer and made by Chinese artisans – and Chinese materials like bamboo, jade, porcelain, and lacquered wood. A few quotes from an article about the brand’s first boutique opening in Shanghai:

The store, a picture of minimalist chic, offers clothing, home furnishings, shoes and tableware — a collection inspired by tea, and made from traditional Asian materials such as bamboo, cashmere and porcelain.

The brand, which will be run as a separate entity, presents a unique China strategy for an international fashion house: building a brand from scratch around a blend of traditional Chinese craftsmanship and contemporary design.
[From an AFP article about the store, found here]

To be honest, I wouldn’t wear a damn thing in the store but hey, it isn’t catering to me!

In a way, I have to admire the idea behind Shang Xia even if I find it a failure since it is at least trying to create a Chinese fashion community. Clearly, China’s fashion past can’t be ignored but to rely on the same slightly-Orientalist tropes whether it be serene, minimalist tea-based designs (what?) or Mandarin collars isn’t the way to create bold Chinese designers or an independent fashion community that appeals to Chinese and non-Chinese consumers alike. When flipping through Vogue China or Elle China, homegrown Chinese designers are few and far between. Tons of Asian-American designers like Jason Wu, Thakoon, Phillip Lim, and Alexander Wang, who were the subject of a recent New York Times piece on emerging Asian-American designers, find their way into the pages of Chinese fashion magazines but designers trained in China and running their business out of China are only occasionally profiled. Sure, there is a Shanghai fashion week but does anyone actually care about it? There are young designers but how are they putting out their work and, more importantly, is anyone buying?

[EDIT] In my original post I mentioned a boutique on Jinxian Lu selling Rad by Rad Hourani and Preen knockoffs. After visiting so many of the boutiques on that street, which are all filled with fakes, I was pretty sure that they had to be fake too. I have seen so many convincing fakes here. Well, it turns out that their wares are the real thing as confirmed by another visit to the boutique and by cross checking the Rad by Rad Hourani website. But, this new revelation is actually a really nice, positive way to end this post: Le Lutin is a a well curated, forward thinking boutique on Jinxian Lu that mixes local Chinese designers and avant Euro-American labels. Shanghai based readers should go make a visit – on my first visit lots of stock was 50-70% off. I definitely plan on going back very soon and talking to the shopgirl again.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. nox_lumen permalink
    July 11, 2013 5:16 am

    As a westerner, my biggest objection to the LV collection, as well as many modernized Asian historic designs is that many of them leave the model looking like she forgot to finish getting dressed. To my eyes, half the appeal of historic Asian styles is leaving something to the imagination as well as the opulence of being draped from neck to toe in a luxurious silk, and without that, the full elegance is just not there. That said, I think Mohammed Ashi actually understood that aspect when he played with the concept.


  1. Cathy Horyn on fashion and China « We Drive East

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