As small, independent fashion brands increasingly catch the eye of China’s wealthy shoppers, ultra-niche bespoke French shoemaker Maison Corthay is moving in on the mainland market.
On March 10, the store’s first ever mainland China opening at Beijing’s posh Shin Kong Place mall featured in-store artisans showcasing the shoes’ craftsmanship and custom fitting appointments with founder Pierre Corthay, demonstrating the brand’s emphasis on individualism and bespoke service.
The independent men’s shoe brand has a strong focus on Asia with four of its seven total stores worldwide located there, including two Hong Kong stores and one Tokyo store in addition to the new Beijing location. At 25 years old (with a 12-year-old ready-to-wear line), the relatively young label is a prime example of luxury retailers’ pivot toward Asia—it has yet to open its first store in the United States, but is already eyeing Shanghai and Hangzhou for its next China openings.
Despite China’s current luxury market slowdown, the label is banking on Chinese consumers’ growing demand for unique, niche labels to spur sales for the shoes, which retail for around US$1,000.
“The people who are very wealthy already have Vuitton; they already have Burberry,” said founder Pierre Corthay in an interview with Jing Daily at the Beijing opening. “They are always looking for something more niche; very quality, and bespoke is the best service you can offer to somebody. They are very attracted to this.”
Maison Corthay CEO Xavier De Royere agrees, stating that individual style is becoming a new status symbol among China’s well-heeled. “We are an example of the fact that actually, you have connoisseurs and risk-takers who are happy to try something new.” He notes that this is “a trend that’s not only a trend in China but a trend everywhere, where people want to tell you at dinner about a wine that’s actually not well-known but it’s 50 meters from a famous château and it tastes fantastic. They want personalization—they will buy a car but they will spec it the color that they want, the piping on the seats, all of that. It’s a trend that’s everywhere.”
Although Corthay has been visiting mainland China regularly to meet with individual wealthy Chinese customers for six years, the brand is still relatively unknown in the market. De Royere believes that this is not a challenge given Chinese luxury consumers’ interest in learning about new brands. In Hong Kong, “a very small percentage of our customers know Corthay when they walk past, and yet 10 minutes later, you’re swiping their card. There’s this appetite for new things,” he says.
Thanks to its focus on its Chinese customers’ sense of sophistication and individualism, the brand is taking a “less is more” approach toward its China expansion with a focus on only opening stores in China’s most high-end locations.
“We’re not overexposed; we don’t have 15 stores with huge fixed costs,” says De Royere.
“The more stores you have, the more exposure you have, and the more the risk that you become a commodity. We want to remain very special.” He notes that because the brand is so small, “we have to be extremely careful when we do things that we’ve thought long and hard about where we want to be—which city, which mall, which location.”
The brand has also taken a novel approach to its mainland China pricing policies in order to address the fact that higher China prices have increasingly driven Chinese consumers to do their luxury shopping abroad or buy through the gray market online. Shoes at its mainland China store are priced equivalently to those in Hong Kong. The approach is similar to the one luxury automaker Tesla took last year when it announced that it would not inflate its China prices—a move that generated a significant amount of news given how rare it is.
As for Chinese customers’ preferences, Corthay says that they tend to be more adventurous in their styles than Europeans. “They are very, very wealthy. They don’t care about being in a tie or in a suit,” he says. “They wear what they want to wear; they want to have fun. They’ll wear pink shoes or green shoes and it’s a statement—they’re really saying, ‘I wear this when I want. Does it bother you? It’s ok, I don’t mind.’”
According to him, “They really love colors. If you compare it to the men in Europe, you could say they are much less shy on the colors.”
In addition, he notes that comfort is a key factor. “They love to be very comfortable at the very beginning” when they first try a pair on, he says, noting that this is different for Europeans, who are willing to break shoes in. As a result, the brand is introducing new styles with special cushioning material in the soles.
According to De Royere, Maison Corthay is unconcerned about China’s current luxury slowdown given the market’s potential for long-term growth. “It might go down one year or two years, but the wealth that’s in this country, the taste level is there, so when you get the opportunity to get such an incredible location—in what I consider to be the best mall in China—whether you read about a slowdown or you don’t, you have to be there.”