The rise of the multi-brand concept dominated conversations on luxury retail in China in 2013. However, the spotlight focused mainly on the arrival of the big department stores: 10 Corso Como, Lane Crawford, and Galeries Lafayette, which all opened new flagships in China within the last three months.
Slipping somewhat under the radar was the arrival of a small Parisian concept store, Maria Luisa, the brainchild of inimitable fashion doyenne and legendary buyer, Maria Luisa Poumaillou.
Maria Luisa first made her name in the early 90s in Paris with her eponymous fashion boutique on Rue Cambon that became a tastemaker destination for the fashion world, providing an early platform for brands such as Rick Owens, Christopher Kane, and Martin Margiela. After a difficult retail climate in the early 2000s forced her to shutter her boutiques, the concept was later reincarnated as shop-in-shops in the French department store Printemps, where she remains as a creative consultant. Now, she has big plans for China.
Following an opportune meeting with Hong Kong-based Mazly Fashion Group, there are plans to open 40 stores within the next three years all over China, not just in Shanghai, but also in up-and-coming cities like Hangzhou and Wuxi. Aside from a boutique in Doha, the new stores will be Maria Luisa’s only locations outside of France. Alongside her multi-brand concept, she will be re-launching her own label exclusively in China through a series of standalone Maria Luisa Collection stores. In order to learn more, we spoke to her about her motivations for coming to China, her take on Chinese luxury consumers, and the challenges of breaking into the luxury retail market in China.
Why did you decide to open stores in China instead of somewhere like New York or London?
We were always very interested in China and when our partner [Mazly Fashion Group] approached us, we were given a great opportunity. I believe China is the new United States in terms of fashion. Cities like London and New York have been strong players in the fashion industry for the past century, with lots of competition already. To discover a new market—that is fascinating to me. When Mazly approached us, we got on well immediately and we proceeded very quickly, opening four stores together within the first nine months. You would not even imagine doing this in any other country. Only in China will you see a miracle like this.
In addition to your multi-brand stores, you will be opening a number of stores, which will exclusively carry your own brand. Why did you decide to start your own label?
We have had the multi-brand store for a number of years and for us, starting our own brand was an experiment, an exciting new project. We wanted to have something to call our own. As a buyer, you never really control the delivery or the production and we wanted to have a product that was truly ours.
Eventually, we want to be an international brand, not just in China. We want to wholesale the collection in Europe, but right now, we are focusing on getting the collection ready and complete. We are perfectionists and it’s not perfect yet.
You also manufacture your own collection entirely in China. Did you have any concerns about the quality?
We were really surprised with the manufacturing quality that we got in China. We are a contemporary collection and the quality of manufacturing is much more superior [in China] than what we get in Europe for the same cost. If you are doing an expensive, exclusive couture collection, there is no doubt that the best places to manufacture are Italy and France, but we are not looking to launch that kind of collection.
The designs and concept come from my team and myself but we are very proud to be made in China. We do not want to hide this fact. Quite the opposite.
Has it been difficult to educate consumers about your concept in China?
No, not really because contemporary is an international trend. Fashion is a global language that everyone understands. You don’t have to do things specifically for China. The trend right now is for interesting collections with good design at affordable prices and that is true also for China.
Even though the [contemporary] market has not been around for that long in China, our feeling so far is that the Chinese customer is very eager and is ready to experiment with fashion.
Have you done anything to tweak the concept for China?
China gave us the occasion to sit down and really think about our brand. We refined the concept to strengthen the branding and to help build awareness for our own label but it was not necessarily specific to a Chinese customer. We kept our core values and of course, our signature black and white motif.
In terms of the product, we perhaps experimented more than we would have done in France. The French customer is so educated that she has become kind of blasé and bored. The Chinese customer is more open to playing with fashion and more enthusiastic, which is very exciting. So for our collections, we try to put more colour into it but we never did anything that was not within our DNA. We just pushed our DNA a little further and were little less shy than we would have been in Europe.
What have been the biggest challenges of entering the Chinese market?
The key challenge has been communication and we are really working on that, especially digital marketing, which is very important in China. But perhaps compared to some other brands that have entered the market, one of our assets is that we are always visiting China. So far this year, we have been in Shanghai every six weeks and every time we go, we check out the stores and malls and see what is doing well and what isn’t. We are working every day hand in hand with our partners to better understand the market and do the right thing for China.
What do you think about the emergence of Chinese designers in the last few years? Will you be carrying them in your multi-brand stores?
It’s going to happen in the next five years. We hope to be carrying one or two or maybe three collections. So far, I think Yang Li is the one to watch. For us, it is important to only carry a Chinese designer when we really believe that the brand works internationally. There is no point in carrying a China designer just to please a Chinese customer. Fashion is international. When we pick a designer, they have to be of an international standard. But it will happen. We are looking.
Jillian Xin is the founder of XINLELU.COM, a website dedicated to introducing hard-to-find indie labels to the Chinese market. Since launching in 2012, it has amassed a loyal coterie of sophisticated shoppers and now has two brick-and-mortar locations in Shanghai.