Shanghai Tang’s Heritage Dilemma

on April 17 2014 | in Fashion | by | with No Comments

heritage, shanghai tang, oriental clothing, Chinese chic, mainland China

Shanghai Tang, a Hong Kong-based luxury brand known for its traditional Chinese clothes, is attempting to gain consumer favor on the mainland by striking a balance between the past and the present.

Founded in 1994, the brand’s style was inspired by 1930s Shanghai. Originally, the brand produced finely crafted but conspicuously oriental clothing and tried to use their vintage style as a selling point. This did not bode well on the mainland, however, as Chinese consumers were often embarrassed to purchase the ‘antiquated’ apparel, according to Raphael le Masne De Chermont, Shanghai Tang’s executive chairman.

“Everything was too costume-y,” De Chermont said in an interview with the China Economic Review. “It was like Western people dressing like Chinese.”

The unpopularity of the clothing among Chinese may stem from the nation’s history; some Chinese historians see the 1930s as a particularly low point of the country’s “century of humiliation.”

“China was not confident for a while,” said De Chermont. “They are the big players of the economy and will soon be the first. They have a lot to catch up. They don’t want people to remind them of their misery in the past.”

As Shanghai Tang expands into mainland China and across the rest of the world, De Chermont hopes to shake off the past and position the brand at the forefront of “Chinese chic.” Their merchandise includes a mandarin collar that is “low, unfolded and can be buttoned to fit snugly around the neck, conjuring the image of a Qing dynasty scholar.” The collar can also be unfastened and worn as a V-neck. De Chermont is a vocal advocate of this traditional yet modern collar as an alternative to the more popular necktie, which he calls “the leash of the corporate animal.”

Luxury brands are doing well on the mainland, particularly in second-tier cities like Harbin, Chengdu, and Chongqing. Shanghai Tang has only a small presence in these cities, as European luxury brands are favored over Chinese brands as status symbols.

But Shanghai Tang has several advantages over its international competitors. Unlike many flashy European brands, it has largely fallen under the radar of the recent government crackdown on luxury spending, and its clothes cost less than those of foreign companies. Shanghai Tang’s popularity on the mainland has also shown a steady increase; according to De Chermont, mainland customers accounted for just 9 percent of sales in 2010. Last year, that share increased to 22 percent.

“It’s very good for us,” De Chermont said. “We’re growing very fast.”

image credit: shanghai tang

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