In 1994, an internationally known businessman opened a designer boutique shop in Hong Kong, called “Shanghai Tang.” The shop specialized in distinctive Chinese style clothes to satisfy the eager of seeking a cultural identity before Hong Kong’s return to China, and thus found its instant success. After 1995, branches were opened in New York, London and the larger Asian cities.
In places outside of Hong Kong, “Shanghai Tang” was viewed as an exotic shopping destination for authentic Chinese styles. In 1999, “Shanghai Tang” had to close its 1,000 square meter New York store and move to a place half the size.
A fashion critic claimed the Chinese style is “still cool, but it needs to adapt to our lifestyle trends in order to be successful.”
Upon entering the 21st Century, Shanghai Tang hired a French man as chief executive. The new man at the helm reduced the Chinese emphasis in the design and introduced a fusion style, combining Chinese and Western elements. He said, “A priority is to bring some relevance to the brand and make it wearable outside China. If you are taking Chinese clothing as it is and setting it down in New York or London, you will never succeed except to westernize it.”
The fact is, even in its Shanghai and Beijing stores, most customers prefer Western styles over Qipao and other traditional Chinese clothing.
The French executive tried to prove his point by dressing in a navy blue blazer over a button-down shirt, gray flannel trousers and a pair of brogues. Upon closer inspection, this seemingly Western outfit had many Chinese features. The outfit included a mandarin collar, calligraphy-stamped cuffs and a wrist watch with red stars in place of conventional Roman numbers.
This style sold well even though there were only a few Chinese features. The clothing ranged from military-style jackets with mandarin collars to T-shirts with a row of printed Chinese jars around the hem. “Shanghai Tang” was successful in France and the French executive attributed the success to the subtler Chinese style.
The French executive had even greater ambitions. He believed, “If Hermes represents the French style of chic, and Ralph Lauren is the equivalent for the Americans as Armani is for the Italians, why not ‘Shanghai Tang’ for the Chinese?” Ironically, the first step towards realizing this dream of making “Shanghai Tang” clothing synonymous with China was to reduce the Chinese influence. Perhaps this explains the mystery behind charming Westerners into accepting the Chinese style.
That’s the story of “Shanghai Tang”. Dear readers, what do you think of it?