“The Most Important Thing Is To Help Customers Truly Understand The Value Of A Brand”
Led by the likes of Beijing’s Triple-Major and Dong Liang and Shanghai’s Alter, independent multi-brand fashion boutiques continue to spring up in China’s major cities, stocking hard-to-find designers from around the world for a devoted, albeit niche customer. Recently, Jing Daily sat down with Diana Tu, owner and co-founder of Shanghai’s Le Lutin, which counts local celebrities and many of the city’s top fashion editors and bloggers among its growing number of fans. Founded in December 2009, Le Lutin — an anagram of the founders’ surnames, Lin and Tu, as well as the French for “imp” — stocks an ever-changing array of designers and independent brands, among them Preen, Jenni Kayne, Jen Kao, Boy by Band of Outsiders, TBA and Ran Fan.
We met up with Diana at Le Lutin’s new location, a spacious 510 square meter space opened earlier this year. Over the course of our interview, Diana, whose unique background includes art and film study in France, an Ivy League education in the US, and experience working at Contrasts Gallery in Shanghai, shared with us her philosophy towards fashion, thoughts on running her own business, and what the future holds for Le Lutin. (Interview translated from the original Chinese)
Jing Daily (JD): What sets your new store apart from the original Le Lutin?
Diana Tu (DT): The decor is really a continuation of the first shop. Because to us, putting together a store like this is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, so we want the interior to show a sort of continuity. Like the coffee table in front of the sofa, and that flag on top of the table, those come from the first store. Of course, this space is much larger, so we have to plan it out differently. In this room here, going forward we hope to work with designers on special pop-up shops and organize some small-scale art exhibitions. At first glance, the new space has a sort of traditional European style to it, which is interesting because Le Lutin’s overall aesthetic and the way we curate our inventory has a European vibe.
In general, I hope this store has some classic elements to it, but also like tossing in some unexpected elements. Like the two florescent pink deer heads we have mounted on the wall, just quirky things that people don’t expect. But as I said, it’s a big space, so we have plenty of room to experiment. We’re adding new furniture and making little adjustments all the time.
JD: In other interviews, you’ve said that many of the designers you stock have taken part in New York Fashion Week. On your Weibo account, though, you said you’ll be adding Russian designer Vika Gazinskaya‘s designs. Can you tell us a little about which new designers and brands you’ll add this year?
DT: When we first launched Le Lutin, it was easier to communicate with designers in New York just because I’d gone to business school there. I didn’t only have American designers in mind originally, but it was just the easiest group to bring together at the time. But this season, we’re collaborating with more Chinese designers, like [Binbin McNiven of] TBA (To Be Adored), Fan Ran (范然) and jewelry designer Wan Baobao (万宝宝). Plus we’re working with Vika Gazinkaya, as you said. She’s pretty new, but she’s starting to attract more and more media attention.
For F/W 2012-2013, we’ll add Alessandra Rich, an Italian-born designer based in the UK. She does a lot of interesting evening dresses. We choose designers in a way that ensures Le Lutin has a sort of consistency.
JD: As you mentioned, Le Lutin’s worked with Chinese designers before. Compared to other stores that sell Chinese designers, such as Dong Liang (previously on Jing Daily) and BNC, what sets you apart?
DT: For one thing, speaking from the most superficial level, those boutiques focus on Chinese designers while we have no singular focus. When we collaborate with Chinese designers, we’re not saying we want to support Chinese design, we’re saying their design suits Le Lutin. It fits with our style, so it’s a natural choice for us. Even though Dong Liang stocks some of TBA’s designs, it fits into their overall inventory in a different way because we’re approaching it from different angles.
JD: What can you say about your buying and pricing strategies?
DT: Actually, the way we’ve been choosing items for the store has been changing. At first, we’d been trying to take certain items and transplant them into the Chinese market, but later we found that this market — though it’s massive, and quite mature in some aspects — is still very new. Finally, we found that maybe what we stock here should prioritize design and quality. We always share with customers why a certain item should be priced a certain way. We carry everything from 1,000 yuan bracelets to much more expensive products. I think the most important thing is to help customers truly understand the value of a brand.
JD: High-end boutiques are becoming more common [in China]. Can you share some of your successful experiences with Le Lutin?
DT: It’s hard for me to say “success.” Alter (Jing Daily interview) and Villa have done well. I’ve still got a ways to go before Le Lutin meets up with my own personal conception of “success.” But many boutiques are trying to find themselves now. Running a store requires a lot of multitasking and is far from simple. But when you’re doing what you enjoy, it’s always a fun experience.
JD: Le Lutin currently has a Taobao store, and we noticed that your official website is still under construction. Do you think you’ll follow other high-end boutiques in launching your own online store soon?
DT: Currently we mostly use Taobao for discount sales. It’s actually a really small part of our overall business. We initially launched the Taobao store to try out online sales. E-commerce is on trend right now in China, but it’s actually pretty tough as a business owner. Requirements, in terms of graphic design and customer service, are pretty high. If you’re not prepared, you’ll have a really hard time doing it right. At the moment, we’ll focus on our store. After all, it’s the center of our business. We want to do well with the store and offer customers a unique shopping experience.
JD: Any other updates you can tell us about?
DT: Initially we stocked items in two seasons, S/S and A/W. This year we’re adding pre-fall and resort series.
JD: How do you guys deal with pricing, considering China’s luxury tax issues?
DT: We try to synchronize our pricing with Hong Kong, but of course there’ll always be some price differences, because of differing policies. But actually high-end boutiques and most retailers are different. For more large-scale retailers, pricing differences between Hong Kong and Shanghai are massive [due to customs duties], but for luxury boutiques, since you’re buying [limited numbers of] hand-made items, the discrepancy isn’t so wide. At the same time, stores like ours have their own angle in terms of what we want to sell, so we’ve got things here you can’t find at Hong Kong boutiques.
JD: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that you hope customers feel Le Lutin has a kind of spirit of its own. What do you mean by “spirit”?
DT: The Le Lutin shopper is the kind of woman who has her own thoughts about what she likes to wear and what she wants to wear. She doesn’t buy clothes according to what a magazine tells her to. She doesn’t just spend all of her time thinking about fashion, saving all of her money for months to buy some famous luxury brand. She’d rather spend her time and money on films, travel and music.
Golden Eagle Square, 2nd Floor 2A
278 North Shanxi Road, Shanghai
Hours: Tue-Sun 12:00 PM – 8:00 PM