Marc Jacobs’s Chinoiserie: Obsession or Opportunism?

Recent Collections At Paris Fashion Week Show Hints Of Asian Influence

Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, S/S 2011

Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, S/S 2011

In his Spring-Summer 2011 collections for Louis Vuitton—menswear in July and womenswear last week—Marc Jacobs has been exploring the influence of Chinese design, a development that has drawn a great deal of media attention. Cuing his recent womenswear show to a Susan Sontag quote—“The relation between boredom and camp taste cannot be overestimated”—Jacobs presented distinctly Chinese materials and motifs in over-the-top, extravagant pieces that prompted lively discussion about China’s expanding role as a luxury retail market.

Most critics described the runway show as decadent and fun, praising Jacobs for hitting the camp factor without overdoing it. Rejecting the minimalism of the previous season, his models walked down a raised faux-marble runway, with gold and black curtains and three taxidermied tigers in the background. The line featured electric colored silks, cheongsam-inspired dresses, fringe details, large animal motifs, and lace fan accessories.

Beyond the playfulness and glam, reviewers clearly picked up on the Asian influence, seeing it as an acknowledgement of the growing industry influence of China and other Asian countries, or perhaps a play for their consumers. Style.com’s Nicole Phelps, for one, noted the expanding influence of the Chinese market, but expressed reservations about the appeal of Jacobs’s latest collections for these consumers. “It’s debatable,” she noted, “whether the aspirational Chinese customer wants to look like a ‘China Girl.’”

As a global, multi-brand conglomerate, LVMH certainly has a focus—and an agenda—in Asia. Excluding Japan, the region contributed 26% of the company’s overall revenue in June 2010 and 31% of its fashion and leather goods revenue. But Marc Jacobs has said that he did not design the SS2011 collections with a retail agenda in mind, Asian or otherwise. After his menswear presentation in July, according to a report by Associated Press, he “balked at the idea that the Chinese imagery was aimed at seducing the burgeoning Asian luxury market.” In the same backstage interview, he agreed that “probably the least appealing thing to the Chinese market is any kind of Asian reference,” adding that his approach to the SS2011 collections “wasn’t about appealing from a business point of view.”

LV's S/S 2011 menswear line also displayed Chinese influence

LV's S/S 2011 menswear line also displayed Chinese influence

However, this seems at least partly ingenuous. Nels Frye of Stylites has commented on the never-ending obsession of Western designers, Jacobs included, with the concept of “Old Shanghai.” Noting that “many of the looks could be achieved after an afternoon excavating at the Xiushui market, here in Beijing,” Frye wryly observed that going to the Louis Vuitton boutique less than ten minutes away would save “the stress of haggling.”

Those who know the Chinese market seem to agree that this collection, with its exaggerated use of Chinese elements, is not likely to appeal to the Chinese market. Torsten Stocker of Monitor Group, a global strategy consulting firm with offices in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong, observed that with “cliched” elements that “reflect a Western image of what Chinese design looks like,” Jacobs’s SS2011 collections may not truly appeal to Chinese consumers. While the clothes “might be good for a Chinese star to wear in a Western setting,” Stocker said, the collections would be less successful with the broader Chinese market.

Even so, Jacobs has followed LVMH’s agenda to compliment Asia, underlining China as a key driver of the market. For the Spring 2011 womenswear runway show, Jacobs cast seven Asian models, including Chinese models Liu Wen and Shu Pei Qin, to walk 13 percent of his runway looks – a substantial increase from previous shows. His Fall 2010 show, for instance, had none and his Spring 2010 had 5.4 percent.

While this increase may reflect a not-so-hidden effort to engage Asian consumers, it may also simply reflect the 2011 collection style, and a growing trend for more diversity in runway models. It seems that as China becomes an increasingly significant market segment, China’s profile as a style influence is being raised in the fashion industry, reflected in Marc Jacobs’s incorporation of Chinese design elements not to court consumers, but to reflect his own fascination with these motifs.

Article by Felice Jiang

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