By Shuo Feng, Research Executive at Reuter Communications
If you’ve heard of the 4th largest city in China at all, then pandas, chili and hot pot will have likely been its stereotypical icons. But Chengdu, designated by China’s state council as the country’s centre of logistics, commerce, finance, science and technology is the engine for growth in the nation’s west.
The first city to use paper money, home to Chinese literary icons and the starting point and central supply route for the ancient Silk Road, Chengdu is again on the rise – even their official tourism board slogan is a catchy ‘Chengdu can do’.
According to the Hurun Report, there were 34,600 millionaires living in Chengdu by 2017, with 60% of luxury sales are made by locals rather than visitors, and the overall retail sales reached RMB 590 billion in 2018. While big numbers and China are nothing uncommon, and a massive population alone doesn’t necessarily relate to luxury, it’s the culture, spirit and pride of Chengdu that makes it a hotbed of potential for international luxury brands.
Since IFS Shopping Mall and TaiKoo Li successively landed in Chengdu in 2014, brands such as Gentle Monster, Burberry, Chanel, Gucci and Cartier opened their flagship stores and now over 600 brands have been established in the TaiKoo Li area.
The pride of Chengdu
Curiously, the melting pot of outside cultures and international businesses have never homogenised Chengdu into just another global city, instead, the spirit of Chengdu has been enhanced by diversity. When Chinese talk about uniqueness of Chengdu, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is its well-known title ‘China’s gay city’. The Chengdu pride community has held LGBTQ Pride Month every year in June since 2015, and people are always surprised by Chengdu’s relative acceptance and openness to homosexuality.
Individuality and confidence
Tracing this facet back, the pride of Chengdu doesn’t specifically refer to acceptance but more to the locals’ general confidence in their own culture, an open attitude towards foreign cultures and a friendly environment towards diversity and individuality.
This individuality is manifested in Chengdu’s street fashion style, unique in China. Locals consider fashion as just a part of their life, a way to express personality rather than a tool to convey social status or reputation.
The result of this is that while Chengdu is a Tier 2 city, less competitive than Beijing and Shanghai in terms of salary and career opportunity (Chengdu’s average monthly salary in 2019 is RMB 7,061, behind than RMB 9,621 in Shanghai and RMB 10,197 in Beijing), it is still attracting younger generations to the city for its distinct lifestyle. The number of permanent residents from outside Chengdu increased 466,000 in 2017, taking the population to 16.3 million in 2018.
“The city is more youth-friendly, due to less pressure on work and a cheaper cost of living, which consequently gives them more space and time to pursue self-development and higher quality of lives,” explained a lifestyle store owner who has lived in Chengdu for decades. For him, the magic of Chengdu partially comes from natives’ pride; “the locals are very proud of their identity, namely, Chengdu-nese.”
This statement was echoed by another native we spoke to, who said “many of my friends choose to return to Chengdu, even those who have been living abroad. They come back with the knowledge and experiences they learned from outside, wanting to make a contribution to renewing the city and ensuring the spirit of Chengdu remains.”
Pride in practice
This pride has become a catalyst of Chengdu’s heritage protection. The government plans to expand the scope of historical preservation from 13.6 to 24.66 square kilometers until 2035, while local architects have coined their preservation plans with the term ‘Organic Reconstruction’: constructing modern architecture upon old brick bases to create a merged style of Qing Dynasty and modern China, or to renovate abandoned industrial factories into organic zones for the rising creative industry.
One example of such merging is the Upper Gallery at TaiKoo Li, as the 1903 architecture redefines itself as a creative mixture of cafés, restaurants, bars, galleries and art shops where every customer can experience, feel and interact with exhibits.
The designer of the Upper Gallery, Wang Hai, also in charge of the renewal of the Old Congde Alley in Chengdu, demonstrated his design philosophy as representing the original Chengdu heritage with an international appearance. The contrast between a traditional brick-and-mortar edifice and the westernised interiors of the Upper Gallery visualises Wang’s philosophy, as well as exemplifies how Chengdu people are reconstructing the city organically.
Creatives such as photographers, authors and designers are pushing the same concept. The popular book ‘KuanZhai ShaoCheng’, published in 2017, tells stories of streets and people within Chengdu’s oldest residential blocks, aiming to reflect how the ancient city is being renewed.
Brands can learn from this creative spirit and culture of Chengdu in order to shape their communications and activities in a city that’s hungry for originality, individuality and more meaning than simple consumerism, flashy labels and social homogeny.
Brands merging well with Chengdu
Chanel chose Chengdu as the location to reprise its Cruise 2018 collection, in the Jinsong Oriental Art Exhibition Centre in November 2017. With the collection inspired by Greece, the emphasis was on arts and culture.
The Italian accessories brand Valextra open its Chengdu boutique in Taikoo Li in 2018, calling on design team Neri&Hu to create localised styling, centred on the shopfront being constructed of a solid wall instead of the typical glass, supposedly to inspire curiosity to walk inside rather than only look in, from the outside.
Givenchy designed its Chengdu presence in a distinct way, with a mixture of Da Ci Temple bricks and black bricks representing the integration of Chinese traditions and western contrasts.
As a key part of the Chengdu Parcours Art Festival, Chengdu IFS, in partnership with fashion brands FENDI, Chopard and LOEWE, presented themed art exhibitions during the event
Engaging Chengdu’s Luxury Consumers
- Chengdu IFS and Taikoo Li were ranked 10th and 12th as sales performance centres of China in 2017, achieving RMB 4.9 billion and RMB 4.3 billion respectively. This press release on Chengdu IFS has more details besides.
- It’s clear that without collaboration with the arts, a luxury brand won’t get far in Chengdu. Luxury in Chengdu is not to follow a label for social approval, but to find self-expression and self-indulgence.
- The region’s luxury consumers are active, looking for exhibitions, installations, topics to discuss and points of interest beyond mere shopping.
- Chengdu ranks as the fourth on the short-video platform Douyin/TikTok in terms of the number of times a city is mentioned. Related hashtags and comments about Chengdu focus on its cuisine, being a ‘city of leisure’ and ‘the place you have always wanted to go to, and never wanted to leave’.