Jiang Qiong Er is the creative and commercial force behind the brand that could unleash a top-down revolution on Chinese consumer values.
Hermès’s pioneering move to conquer China using a two-prong brand attack was one of the most talked about business stories of 2010. But beyond the industry’s collective marvel at the foresight of the firm to bolster its export of Hermès goods into China by inventing a domestic Chinese luxury brand to boot, there is much more that the Shang Xia brand is destined to achieve besides just filling the Hermès coffers. Shang Xia’s visionary co-founder, Jiang Qiong Er, explains why…
How and where did the idea for Shang Xia actually happen? Did Hermès find you or did you find Hermes?
JIANG: Four year ago, I was invited by Hermès China as the first Chinese artist designer to create their window shop installation in China, and then I was presented to (CEO) Patrick Thomas and (general artistic director) Pierre-Alexis Dumas. Shang Xia is the result of a beautiful encounter between myself and Hermès. We found that we shared the same vision and passion for the excellence of craftsmanship, Chinese culture, and for a dialogue between tradition and innovation, as well as heritage and emotion. We then started to build the philosophy and the core values for the dream of Shang Xia together.
Unlike many Western luxury brands, you have chosen a brand name that doesn’t identify the creative personality or family behind it. Is this because you wish to share creative credit with the team of 20 or so artisans and designers who you direct? Or is this a strategic branding decision because the words “Up Down” allude to something attractive to Chinese consumers?
JIANG: The characters themselves represent a philosophy of life: the circulation of different energies, the encounter between past and future, tradition and innovation, craftsmanship and contemporary design and so on. Shang Xia symbolizes a balanced and harmonious lifestyle from the social sphere to the private; from urban to nature. It is about a certain kind of splendid simplicity. This is why we feel that the words “shang” – meaning up – and “xia” – meaning down – represent perfectly this concept and that no translation could replace it.
On the other hand, Shang Xia is a project about bringing heritage from the past into the future, so it is beyond time, beyond place. We’re looking for a kind of eternity. Shang Xia doesn’t belong to me or to anyone; it belongs to Chinese culture and belongs, therefore, to the whole world.
Hermès’s CEO, Patrick Thomas, often says that one of his objectives is to “bring Hermès’s philosophy to China” and to “create a Chinese Hermès”. What does this mean to you exactly?
JIANG: His quotes show Hermes’s engagement to work with international artists and craftsmen. Shang Xia is not a second line of Hermes; it shares the same engagement of craftsmanship quality, but with Chinese inspiration. The best strategy of realise this is staying loyal to our philosophy and to use excellent raw materials, great craftsmanship and contemporary design.
“ Shang Xia is about a certain kind of ‘splendid simplicity’. ”
High-end fashion from the ‘sculpture’ range
Shang Xia currently has products in several categories such as furniture, porcelain, home wares, clothing and jewellery. However, most lifestyles brands start by specialising in one category and expand into other categories gradually. How do you weave a unifying “thread” through them all to create Shang Xia’s own identity so early in its development?
JIANG: Shang Xia is a Chinese contemporary brand that brings the excellence of Chinese and other Asian craftsmanship into a contemporary lifestyle. Shang Xia doesn’t represent one section of know-how; it is about a particular Chinese philosophy and lifestyle: splendid simplicity.
We have a basic structure of product categories which is furnishings, apparel and jewellery. We “thread” our product lines through a Chinese tea ceremony instead of a commercial brand structure. As you know, the tea ceremony is one of the most important elements in Chinese hospitality. During the tea ceremony, you need a nice tea set to serve the tea, you need comfortable dress to wear and conformable chairs to sit in. So you see, since Shang Xia’s collection flows from Chinese lifestyle, our first collection offers an extended experience of tea.
Finding the balance between heritage and innovation seems to be one of Shang Xia’s biggest promises to the consumer. Although there’s clearly a spirit of heritage through zen and ancient refinement using traditional Chinese materials and a timeless aesthetic, it is sometimes harder to notice the innovation in the products unless you view them in person. Could you offer a few examples of products which marry heritage with innovation?
JIANG: The Da Tian Di collection is inspired by traditional Ming-style furniture. However, the usual rounded outer lines have been developed into a more complex square outline with rounded interior lines creating lines that are both graceful and modern. Only mortise and tenons were used to connect the round stool with the square back of the chair yet the two join perfectly and tightly with each other after hundreds of thousands of polishes. Pure handcraft gives the most precious and hard zitan wood (which is precious Chinese imperial wood) the most velvety texture. Each piece from this collection needs about six months’ work.
Then there is the Bridge tea pot collection which is created by a new weaving technique for a white porcelain tea set. It’s an innovative and creative process based on the traditional bamboo over porcelain technique which seamlessly melds one material into the other. The Sculpture series are another example. They’re clothes that are sculpted rather than sewn. Most felt is made from wool, but Shang Xia, together with Mongolian felt making craftswomen, have developed the technique of making a cashmere felt. Each piece takes two skilled craftswomen over a week to complete.
“ China has a very rich heritage of craftsmanship from thousands of years, but it has been cut and broken many times over the last century ”
Clearly, there is a big potential market for luxury goods in China which transform traditional Chinese design into modern products. But besides the idea of a successful business, was one of your personal motivations for Shang Xia to reignite an interest in China’s artistic and artisanal legacy? In other words, did you fear that the young generation was losing its roots and pride or that Chinese crafts were somehow endangered?
JIANG: In fact, before a successful business, the most important motivation for the Shang Xia project is about its cultural and social values. China has a very rich heritage of craftsmanship from thousands of years, but it has been cut and broken many times over the last century. Shang Xia has a dream which is to rediscover the Chinese know-how, then revive and then to revaluate it.
Today, these craftsmen are all the age of our parents and grand-parents. At the same time, less and less young people want to learn about these crafts, as it takes a long time. So it’s now time to take this traditional know-how back, re-translate it with a new design and function which correspond to our today’s life. We have to offer a new market for them and also enhance the social level of craftsmen.
I wonder if you are also not trying to persuade China’s luxury consumers to stop blindly buying Western brands because of a perception in the country that Western brands are better quality or more stylish. Or are you filling a gap in the market to satisfy a new romanticism sweeping the country for authentic Chinese goods?
JIANG: During last 20 years, most Chinese luxury consumers prefer the Western brands, as these objects make them dream. But once China’s economy develops beyond a certain level, as it is today, more and more Chinese people start to get back to our own cultural roots and lifestyle. At the same time, I think Chinese customers are becoming more and more mature and more rational. More people are seeking excellent craftsmanship, the finest materials and contemporary design instead of symbolic tracing.
The Da Tian Di furniture collection
The fact that the brand is majority-owned by a European luxury brand which is well-respected in China must give it more credibility to some consumers there. But how do you address the criticism by other consumers that Hermès’s ownership dilutes the integrity of the “Chinese-ness” of Shang Xia?
JIANG: Shang Xia is a joint venture between the Hermès group and myself, If Hermes is the father of baby Shang Xia, then I am the mother, and the definition of China in the Shang Xia project is not about a country or a territory. It is about Chinese Culture. Shang Xia is an independent brand, with our own unique identity.
Your approach to marketing matches your brand identity and designs. It is rather quiet and subdued by contemporary Chinese standards. Your recent Shanghai shop opening was not as glitzy as most luxury brand openings, for instance. Will marketing and advertising be challenging aspects of the business for you because many consumers continue to have extravagant expectations?
JIANG: Shang Xia shares a life philosophy with our “friends”. As I said, it’s about Splendid Simplicity. You can see from our collection that it is all quite, pure and subtle from the outside but they are all splendid inside. Clearly, Shang Xia is not about bling bling or a logo brand; it’s about people and emotion. Or as one Chinese slang saying goes, “Ji Qing Yu Wu”, which means “ put the emotion into objects”. About the Shang Xia launch, yes it’s true that we didn’t make a huge party. As Shang Xia is still a new born baby, we prefer to give it more time to test things, to discover and to be discovered. You know, I think that time and emotion are two of the most precious things we have in the world.
The eventual success of Shang Xia will almost certainly lead many more brands to follow your lead and reinterpret traditional Chinese design into luxury goods. If indeed “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, as an artist, you must welcome such a ‘movement’ or ‘revival’. But as a shareholder in the business, you must have mixed feelings about this. How will you differentiate Shang Xia from its future competitors?
JIANG: The revival and renaissance of Chinese craftsmanship can’t be built by Shang Xia alone. We welcome all the brands and projects which can join and make this together. There’s another Chinese saying that works well here: “competition makes for improvement”. So we are ready to share and study with other people or brands who are interested in heritage and the innovation of craftsmanship.
Interior of the Shanghai flagship
Tell us a bit about how the creative process works within the company structure. As both artistic director and CEO of Shang Xia, you must have almost total freedom. Will you let pure instinct guide your creativity? Or, as you find loyal consumers, will you use practical market research?
JIANG: Here, again, I’d like to use the Shang Xia philosophy about finding a balance between ‘shang’ and ‘xia’. There are always two sides in life for whatever we do. So we need to at the same time do some market research and listen to what people expect, but we also need to believe in our instincts sometimes to create a sense of surprise and wonder. It really is important to find this balance.
How much pressure do you feel to turn Shang Xia into a profitable company within a certain time frame? Has Hermès really invested enough to give you the time to develop the brand slowly for a long term vision?
JIANG: Shang Xia is a long term project. We are like peasants, cultivating the earth for or future generations. With the father of Shang Xia, we decided together to give the necessary time and money to allow this project to live longer than us.
You are the daughter of a celebrated architect and the granddaughter of a painter who, like you, trained abroad before returning home to China. What are the most important experiences you feel you brought back after living in Paris and studying at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs school?
JIANG: Yes, I am lucky to have had this opportunity to get to know two cultures. After studing in France, the most important experience for me is about “the capacity of being free” – freedom in mind, heart, spirit etc. With the Chinese education system, we were taught to follow and repeat, much the same way we methodically learn the Chinese writing system. So several years in Europe brought me this new freedom in thought.
A necklace from the jade & agate collection
It has been reported that your next boutique after Shanghai will be in Paris and in further international locations. Despite China’s increasing economic development and power, for many luxury consumers in the West, China still has a reputation as a manufacturing centre for cheap goods. And many Westerners’ ideas on Chinese culture are limited to clichés and exoticism. Are you confident that you can overcome such stereotypes and obstacles in the Western luxury market?
JIANG: Just as Chinese consumers need time to become mature and rational about Western luxury brands, the other side is true. Western consumers also need time to re-discover China. Today’s China is still the centre of global manufacturing, but we’ve also started looking for our own culture and identity. For several years, little by little, more and more Chinese people are more interested to rediscover our own quality of life. I’m confident that if Shang Xia can stay loyal to our engagement with quality and craftsmanship, then Western people will be sensible about this and they will appreciate us. After three months of opening of our first store in Shanghai, we have had quite lot western clients who are so happy to see this new China, and they’ve become not only our clients but also our ambassadors.
At 34, you are quite young to be leading a renaissance of a Chinese luxury. But you are also a generation older than China’s “millennial generation” in their early and mid 20s who have the least vivid memories of Chinese tradition. How can you interpret Shang Xia’s message for them? And how will you convince them to listen — and to buy your products?
JIANG: Here we should never forget that China has a 5000-year history. There is such a rich inspiring history in front of us. But for the young generation, if we show them these traditions in a traditional way, of cause it won’t be interesting for them. If on the other hand we share with them the traditions in an innovative way, if they’re surprised by their own culture, then the result could be very different. It’s about convincing this young generation that Shang Xia is an invitation to re-discover their own culture and to bring this heritage into our contemporary life.