Three little words, “Made in Paris” are chiming with Chengdu’s language of luxury as French savoir faire hits a high note with local tastes.
Located in the southwest province of Sichuan and described by Forbes magazine in 2010 as “the world’s fastest-growing city in the next decade,” Chengdu is the holy grail for global retail. For the first eight months of 2014, the city’s total retail sales reached RMB270.29 billion (US$43.2 billion), up 12.9 percent year-on-year.
Now the world’s top city for shopping developments, it has attracted retail behemoths including Lane Crawford, Swire for its Daci Temple project, and the New Century Global Center—the world’s largest mall.
Enter mall developer Lessin, a mainland-based company led by Jacky Chen, a maverick mainland Chinese retailer who enjoys long-standing European luxury connections. His Lessin group is in the ascendancy in Chengdu, addressing the material desires of a population of 120 million.
Chen’s European fashion initiatives stretch back to 1999, when Lessin opened the first Salvatore Ferragamo boutique in Chengdu. From 2001, he established partnerships and franchisees with French-owned Agnes B, Chaumet, Chloé, and Italy’s Sergio Rossi and Brioni. By the end of 2013, Lessin owned 150 stores in 20 Chinese cities, stretching from Harbin in the north to Shenzen in the south. In 2013, turnover reached 220 million euros.
Lessin’s first mall in China, the French-named Maison Mode, in Chengdu’s CBD is a true El Dorado for European brands. Many of the 50-plus freestanding boutiques are populated by French-owned favorites including Hermès, Bottega Veneta, Chloé, and Céline.
The mall boasts numbers that these European retailers can only dream of in their home markets, including 80,000 VIP customers who enjoy a personal valet to carry their shopping bags and entry to a luxurious VIP room.
In the fourth quarter of 2015, Lessin’s second luxury mall, Maison Mode Grand will open. This 38,000-square-meter shopping paradise, a one-hour drive from the sister mall, will include a “lifestyle” supermarket with imported foods, international restaurants and bars, a hotel, and serviced apartments. Luxury European fashion brands are integral to the shopping experience.
“You might compare Maison Mode to the Avenue Montaigne in Paris,” says Christophe Billet, who is charged with buying European brands for Lessin, “while Maison Mode Grand will be more akin to Neuilly,” an area in Paris favored by the wealthy for its elegant houses surrounded by leafy gardens.
Billet and business partner Martina Planty are the founders of Fashion Intelligence, a new Paris buying office specialized in placing European brands in China’s emerging multi-brand boutiques.
They have spearheaded buying for Lessin’s own multi-brand boutique, J Gala, with the first opening in Maison Mode, in March. A second J Gala will open in Maison Mode Grand.
Billet and Planty’s two decades of China market experience position them to buy for China with advantages European-owned mono-brand boutiques do not enjoy. Many fail to consider the nuances of China’s varying tastes beyond Beijing and Shanghai. Only the smarter mono-brands educate their Chinese buyers to challenge the traditional dictates from Paris.
Before founding Fashion Intelligence, Billet opened the Paris buying office for Joyce Ma, the visionary retailer whose Joyce boutiques were the first to sell with the European multi-brand concept in China. After seven years with Joyce, he went on to head the Paris buying office for Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong and Three on the Bund in Shanghai. Almost concurrently, Planty spent nine years building the Paris buying office for Lane Crawford during a period when the department store was helmed by the legendary retailer Bonnie Brooks, who is now vice-chairman of Canada’s Hudson Bay.
Buying for J Gala, Billet, who is regularly in China, followed Lessin’s directions to decided against black or funereal shades favored by Europeans. Instead, he has focused on 40 brands with an emphasis on color—including Manish Aurora, Maison Margiela, Christopher Kane, Mary Katrantzou, and Kris Van Assche. Overall, Paris runways show a consistent trend for primary colors, which some industry observers say is an effort to cater to Chinese tastes.
“The Chengdu market has moved on from dressing from head-to-toe in one label as a status symbol,” said Billet. “The attitude is ‘let’s dress up’ and ‘dare to try’.”
Fashion Intelligence is building a bridge between China’s emerging multi-brand boutiques—with a thirst to discover new European designers—and those designers in Europe who are inexperienced in dealing with China.
“Opening a boutique is the easiest part,” says Billet, “so we help them understand the rules of the game and work to satisfy Chinese tastes. The first mainland multi-brand boutiques ‘followed the lead,’ imitating the buying choices of highly experienced Hong Kong buyers.”
But the picture is changing as Chinese boutique owners acknowledge regional fashion nuances and enjoy the support of a European buying office like Fashion Intelligence.
In Chengdu, where the young fashion spend is split 50-50 between men and women (in Europe it’s 30 percent men and 70 percent women), local tastes may increasingly challenge groups like France’s Galeries Lafayette or Italy’s Corso Como if their boutiques take a formulaic approach and replicate offerings at home. “There’s a taste for adventure in Chengdu, the Chinese are eager to discover the new, you cannot move fast enough,” says Billet.
It all bodes well for the traditional Silk Road, signaling a bright future for European designers in Chengdu. Brighter still—if it’s not in black.
Susan Owens is the founder and editor of Paris Chérie, a Paris-based fashion website dedicated to bringing French style news to Chinese readers.