The Comeback Of A Chinese Classic
Who would have expected Ye Shumeng (叶书萌), a design student from Helsinki, to become one of the greatest proponents of bringing back “Made in China” classics? What started out for Ye as a personal interest has ignited a movement in the world of Chinese-made sneakers, bringing vintage style into the international spotlight (and attracting new investment). Ye’s interest in Warrior (Huili 回力) shoes led to her documentation of the lingering presence of Warrior shoes in China over the last half century, often led by economical convenience or simply romantic nostalgia. The result was a godsend to the waning brand; not only did it catch the attention of foreign investors, intent on reviving the brand, but Warrior shoes quickly found their way into many international and domestic hipsters’ closets.
This time, Ye has proven to outdone herself once again. Her recent efforts at the Nouveau Riche pop-up store in Sanlitun have once again redefined the conceptual status quo of Chinese consumption.
In our interview with Ye, Jing Daily discussed the gradually changing views on Chinese brands in the West and got some of Ye’s perspective on the future of the Made-in-China fashion.
Jing Daily (JD): The Nouveau Riche pop-up store was very successful while it was up. How did you come up with concept?
Ye Shumeng (YSM): I got the idea for the Nouveau Riche pop-up store in summer 2010 when spending time in Shanghai. While the Chinese fashion retail market felt very exciting, and lots of things are happening all the time, the market also felt quite dominated by the same high-end brands and the same mall concepts in every city. Due to the maturity level of the market, China is still lacking a lot great brands with a moderate price tag and an inclusive approach. Personally, I don’t believe you should have to choose between accessibility and good design as they can go hand in hand and I felt the urge to do something. At the same time, I got to know people from the local brand The Thing and they offered me the opportunity to do something in their Sanlitun store in Beijing, so the decision for starting the pop-up was born very quickly.
The goal for Nouveau Riche was to offer affordable items with unique designs. With the help from some of my friends in Finland and the US, I created a mini collection especially made for the pop-up and also brought in two really great brands that I really admire – SSWTR and Native Shoes. The mini collection was produced in collaboration with The Thing and a lot of the pieces were inspired by Chinese everyday things like the chicken feet and tiger pillows, of which are often overlooked in a design context.
I also wanted to try something disruptive in a high-end mall setting to challenge the status quo a bit. But don’t get me wrong, I find nothing more dull than just to criticize. From my perspective, I’m more interested in being part of the system and to experiment from within it. Many people also asked me about the meaning of the name “Nouveau Riche.” It gives off an impression of an ironic commentary of the Chinese fashion market but the deeper meaning lies within the fact that it stands for being a newcomer and doing things in a fresh way. In a wider perspective, China as a whole, can be seen as a newcomer; it has always fascinated me how Nouveau Riche can conjure up a mix of envious and contemptuous imagery.
JD: Amongst the various designers who were included in the store, Mary Ping was perhaps the only designer of Chinese descent. hast drew you to Mary Ping’s collection?
YSM: I have been a fan of Mary Ping’s Slow and Steady Wins the Race for a while. Not only are her designs outstanding, but also the SSWTR concept is really unique, sharing similar values as Nouveau Riche.
JD: What types of customers did you have? How did the customers react to the store concept, designers and the temporary pop-up idea?
YSM: Situated in Sanlitun, Nouveau Riche mainly received young Chinese hipsters but also attracted a varied crowd. After all, mall shopping is very popular in China!
Earlier this year, the pop-up store concept was still relatively novel in Beijing but that will probably change soon. In terms of the feedback, the new brands were surprisingly well received considering the short time we had. I definitely believe that indie brands have a bright future in China.
JD: Since the pop-up store was only temporary, do you foresee similar shopping experiences being installed in other big and small cities? Perhaps outside of China?
YSM: I’m very interested in experimenting with branding and within the retail field so that’s why I usually like to try out new things. But who knows, maybe one day.
JD: Prior to your pop-up store, you have worked on many projects, namely The Book of Warriors project. Can you tell us a little more about that?
YSM: A few years ago, I stumbled upon Warrior shoes by accident and found out about the history of the brand. Warrior used to be highly popular in the 70s and 80s.
They were the most coveted fashion item back in the day when my parents were young and during the time when people really took great care of their material possessions. For anyone who lived in China back then, like me during my childhood in China in the 80s, treasuring material belongings is a very familiar memory and it immediately resonates with me. But since then Warrior has fallen out of fashion and only the poor and elderly are still wearing them. Young people in China today have moved on to Nike and Converse.
Inspired by Warrior’s rich heritage and the classic style of the common man, I decided this was a story to be cherished and worth telling. I traveled around China and took photos of people with Warrior shoes. I self-published these pictures as a limited-edition book and packaged each with a pair of original Warrior sneakers. This new pairing was sold at premium retailers around Europe such as Colette and received wide coverage by Western press. As a result, the project was also widely reported in China and Warrior became a hit again among Chinese trendsetters after people started to see them in a new light.
Through the project, I also wanted to play with the notion of “Made in China” and globalization, and how the perception of a product can be revived with branding.
JD: In light of the interest of various Western companies in acquiring vintage Chinese brands like Warrior (回力) and Feiyue (飞跃) and subsequently revitalizing their images, how do you foresee the fate of Chinese brands? Will they attain success abroad only through foreign investment?
YSM: I think at least for now, foreign involvement is necessary if the brand is using Chinese heritage as a big selling point. My guess is that native Chinese are not so comfortable yet with marketing a product using China culture. On the other hand, the markets abroad are more evolved in the sense that the vintage trend has been around for so many years, so a foreign perspective can help to predict consumer trends. In fact, I was involved until recently as a creative and partner in Warrior Footwear, the company responsible for distributing and marketing Warrior shoes in North America. On the other hand, I see also many manufacturers moving from producing private labels for Western department stores to creating their own brands and labels like JNBY opening their own stores in the US so there are many ways.
JD: What do you think of the future of the new wave of “Made in China” brands and products? You have mentioned in a previous interview that it’s best for the brands to provide English sources online. Aside from that, what other suggestions do you have for them?
YSM: Self-confidence is a huge factor in my opinion and better market analysis to understand consumers outside China.
JD: After your time in China, how do you perceive Chinese consumption behavior and psychology?
YSM: Since I never actually lived in China as an adult, there are still so many things I want to learn. China is a very exciting place for retail because there are so many consumer behaviors developing in parallel at a very fast pace. You have a huge amount of people just about to get their first taste of consumerism and you also have the person willing to splurge on hand-crafted artisan goods. And everything in between. I think for us coming from the West, the most important thing is not to generalize too much and to take it case by case.
JD: What projects are you currently working on?
YSM: Last month I enrolled in the e-Commerce Business program at Hyper Island, a digital media school in Stockholm, Sweden. For my next project, I would like to do something digital, and I’m working on a small brand of leather goods that tries to bridge the gap between physical and online. But I hope to be back in China soon next year!