How (Not) to Be Culturally Appropriate to Chinese Luxury Consumers

“Why do luxury brands misunderstand us?”

“How come luxury brands interpret the Chinese aesthetic this way?”

“Let’s see which brand has the ugliest Year of the Dog edition product!”

These comments are just some examples of recent titles from popular WeChat/Weibo posts. They are from Chinese Millennials mocking some luxury brands’ Year of the Dog collections. Chinese consumers were not only shocked, but disappointed by the poor Chinese aesthetics produced by big-name fashion houses.

Every year, brands compete for the commercial value of Chinese New Year. By aiming to seem “China-friendly”, such seasonal collections, with a seductive ‘limited edition’ factor, are supposed to fuel sales. The proposal sounds legitimate.

But did Chinese Millennials appreciate the intention? Not really. Brand victims, ranging from Armani to Gucci, are accused of being culturally insensitive and inappropriate.

2018 is the Year of the Dog. Chinese netizens didn’t hold back, with frank opinions on these limited collections.

(1) Gucci

“Flashy.” “Are you serious?”

It seems obvious to Chinese Gucci fans that the brand simply didn’t make any effort.

(2) Louis Vuitton

“I am so embarrassed.” “They look so comical.”

(3) Giorgio Armani

Here are the Armani Chinese New Year editions for 2016, 2017 and 2018. One commenter mused “we already know what 2019 is gonna look like”:

(4) Estée Lauder

“I’d feel so embarrassed holding such a mirror to apply make-up in a public bathroom.”

This disappointment was in fact expected by Chinese consumers, given the previous collections Estée Lauder launched in past years:

(5) Dolce & Gabbana

“Is this really Italian design?”

(6) Givenchy

“Did no one tell Givenchy that it looks like a Chinese firecracker?”

For anyone not familiar with what a firecracker is, it looks like this:

From the examples above, you get the idea.

It is clear that Chinese Millennials see is thusly: designers simply didn’t pay enough attention on developing products with the same competence as the brand’s other collections. The aesthetic, the quality and the style don’t match with their brand expectation.

10 years ago, the easy gesture of simply printing an animal head in a logo on a bag might have worked. In 2018, brands are facing an audience that is not only shopaholic, but has also rapidly developed to become knowledgable and discerning. Chinese consumers develop apps to share product reviews, compare prices at forums, learn styling skills from fashion influencers and more, hence their taste has evolved quickly.

Ostentatious design with flashy logos in the middle may have been a status symbol just several years ago, but today it is considered “too nouveau riche”, AKA tu hao. Yes, even the nouveau riche have learnt the word for nouveau riche.

Among Chinese Millennial consumers, it’s a widely adopted idea that western luxury brands just don’t understand the “Chinese aesthetic”. So what is exactly the “Chinese aesthetic” that works? Here are two examples.

The first example is the collaboration of Longchamp and Mr. Bags. As a KOL and genuine bag-lover himself, Mr. Bags is very keen on observing trends and analysing what works for millions of his followers.

It’s hard for a luxury house based in Italy or France to know how much of a dog Chinese consumers want in the design. But the KOLs who lead the fashion opinion know it well, because they are an integral part of the scene.

The second example is the Palace Museum Gift Shop. The Palace Museum of Beijing launched its own e-commerce store, featuring traditional Chinese style stationery and accessories. People love the products for their gorgeous colour patterns and subtle references to Chinese culture. Beyond the stunning sales growth, the Palace Museum gift shop also sparked a creative trend among consumers.

Consumers made creative use of the museum’s tapes to decorate their lipsticks:

When the lipstick-decorating trend scaled, it led to professionals providing a “lipstick taping service” in retail stores.

Putting together the Chinese aesthetics that work is a delicate balance. It is not simply the Chinese economy or ‘shopper’ that has changed — but the entire society from head to toe. Luxury brands should understand these socio-demographic changes and realise their speed and scale.

Let’s look at the cultural background of the Chinese aesthetic.

Cultural appropriation is not new. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer (below), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Grand Odalisque were classic examples of Orientalism in art.

While cultural appropriation is nothing new, it is obviously inappropriate today:

  • It reveals a lack of imagination and lack of interest in learning about another culture. Leading luxury brands should be vanguards of style and fresh looks. Why does this become static and predictable during the most important time in the Chinese calendar?
  • It oversimplifies the “other”. This is shown by putting stereotypical and outdated “oriental” patterns in product design: red, gold, overt animalia and even the dreaded ‘dragon = China’ motif.
  • It unintentionally declares a power imbalance. In the long tradition of Orientalism, European artists portrayed ‘the Orient’ poorly because of a simple reason: they could. They were in a privileged position to do so. But not today.

There is of course nothing wrong in making an effort to please a specific target by making a gesture. Yet, when consumers clearly see results lacking the usual sophistication and craftsmanship that they demand, disappointment will ensue.

Takeaways:

  • Make effort, make investment in understanding contemporary Chinese society and consumers.
  • Consider the aesthetic and its place in the world today. While some western luxury brands have failed with this, other Japanese and Korean brands have had good success in their “Lunar New Year” lines.
  • Collaborate with tastemakers in China. Work with someone who has weight in contemporary Chinese culture.
    Undertake sincere research. Make sure the special collection is approved and adored by Chinese employees, qualified partners, agencies inside China.

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