Do Savile Row Suitmakers Really Want To Be Seen As “Coal Boss” Brands In China?

Trinity Ltd., Owner Of China Retail Rights For Savile Row Suitmaker Gieves & Hawkes, Plans To Add 50 Stores In Smaller Chinese Cities

Not the best advertisement for LV (Image: Stylites in Beijing)

Not the best advertisement for LV (Image: Stylites in Beijing)

This week, Bloomberg reported that Trinity Ltd., which owns the China retail rights for brands like Cerruti 1881, Intermezzo, and Savile Row suitmaker Gieves & Hawkes, plans to open at least 50 more store locations in smaller cities throughout China in order to tap the growing demand from newly rich coal mine and factory owners in the country’s interior. According to Managing Director Sunny Wong Yat Ming, the planned store openings would boost Trinity’s locations to more than 500 outlets throughout Greater China by 2011. The planned expansion is currently aimed at areas like Inner Mongolia, where Trinity plans to open 17 stores, and Zhoushan in eastern Zhejiang province.

From Bloomberg:

As of June 30, almost 70 percent of Trinity’s stores were outside China’s so-called first-tier cities, which include Beijing and Shanghai, according to a company financial statement. The company’s first-half sales climbed 20 percent from a year earlier to HK$925 million.

Trinity is also the retailer of Cerruti 1881 suits, and designs, makes and sells D’urban and Kent & Curwen menswear in China. While the brand heads are from Italy, England and Japan, the local teams comprise designers from Hong Kong who are better attuned to specific needs of Chinese customers, Wong said.

“We have more folds in our pants to accommodate pot bellies and make shorter sleeves as Chinese arms are shorter than Europeans’,” he said.

Here, the issue of brand integrity is bound to come up. Part of the reason major luxury brands like Burberry, Dunhill and others have burned bridges with their China retail partners in recent months is to stop unchecked expansion into China’s interior. Though incomes there may be rising and millions of nouveau riche may be minted every year, major brands naturally worry that ubiquity — particularly in smaller cities that are considered “backwoods” by regular luxury consumers in cities like Beijing or Shanghai — imperils their image of exclusivity.

Perhaps nowhere is this issue of brand integrity more important and hard-won in the China luxury market than in men’s fashion generally and suiting specifically.

While many observers like to focus on the growing spending power of women in the China, the fact remains that the Chinese luxury industry (at the moment), is still dominated by male consumers. They may be spending on gifts for business acquaintances (or government officials), wives, mistresses or girlfriends, but they’re still the ones spending the money. And when they have the means to spend lavishly on themselves, they tend to opt for brands like Ferragamo and Zegna that are both well-known and still somewhat exclusive. Spreading too quickly throughout the interior could see some of Trinity’s brands, particularly Gieves & Hawkes, seeing their brand message of Savile Row pedigree ring hollow in top-tier cities and among some of the most loyal potential customers in the country.

While these brands may be able to maintain a high level of credibility by sticking to luxury malls in second- and third-tier cities (as has been the case for Ferragamo, Dunhill and many others), branching into “coal boss” areas like Shanxi, Inner Mongolia or Liaoning is a relatively risky move for Trinity. While the rich as a whole are not terribly looked well upon in China, coal bosses are almost universally reviled, with most city-dwellers considering them louche and slimy, their choices of cars, houses and clothing garish and unrefined, and their lifestyles laughably decadent.

Although Trinity’s expansion plans are simply in the pursuit of higher profits, and the company is just looking to tap a market that has proven spending power (and won’t fly off to Europe or Hong Kong for luxury shopping), company execs have to ask themselves: will a more sophisticated target consumer want to be seen wearing a brand that’s popular with coal bosses?

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