Ralph Lauren's China-inspired F/W 2011 collection (Image: AFP)
Fashion Week in New York came to a close last week, and an interesting highlight turned out to be classic American design house Ralph Lauren, who debuted a China-influenced Fall/Winter 2011 collection. The show contained cheongsam-inspired dresses, mandarin collars and Chinese embroidery featuring dragons, and was blatant in its inspiration, with models wearing jade earrings and a soundtrack featuring a cover version of David Bowie’s “China Girl."
Tapping all that China has to offer, Ralph Lauren also drafted several Chinese models for his runway show, including opener Sui He, as well as Liu Wen, Jing Ma, and Ming Xi.
The collection had André Leon Talley, editor-at-large at American Vogue, giddy after the show, telling Luxist that “it was a simple masterpiece,” and describing Lauren as “unstoppable in his sense of taking his classics and giving them new twists and drama.” However, the reception to Lauren's new collection has been decidedly mixed for its fusing of East meets West, self-described as "China through an Art Deco lens." Additionally, the collection has been further scrutinized in the wake of the Polo Ralph Lauren group’s announcement that it soon plans to build its first company-owned stores in China.
The Financial Times recently reported that Roger Farah, president of Polo Ralph Lauren, told analysts that the brand was looking to expand in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as second- and third-tier cities. In an effort to drive up sales performance in Asia, and to solidify Ralph Lauren's name in China, the company aims to establish brick and mortar stores as well as taking advantage of the country's recent upsurge in e-commerce. Additionally, the brand has recognized the “extraordinary impact” that Chinese tourist-shoppers are having on sales outside of the country, and Ralph Lauren's overt approach in establishing itself within China should help the brand position itself in the eyes of Chinese consumers.
With this in mind, it is difficult not to see the collection as an direct appeal towards Chinese consumers, or at least partly related to China's near overexposure in the realm of luxury news. According to Ralph Lauren, his inspiration for this new collection came from his first trips to China this past year, and as David Lauren, Senior Vice President of Advertising, Marketing and Corporate Communications for Polo Ralph Lauren, recently told Luxist:
“The future of our company is very much going to be expanding in China over the next couple of years. It has been in the air everywhere we turn. He is very inspired. For him, it was a trip he took through a Ralph Lauren lens and what he saw, which is very different from what exists there, or it even never existed there. It is his interpretation of a China that could and should be.”
Ralph Lauren's "chinoiserie-lite" collection follows the Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2011 collection and Chanel's Pre-Fall 2010 collection in referencing China as inspiration. While inspirations behind collections are rarely questioned, China's status as a growing luxury consumer powerhouse adds to the significance of the motivations behind these collections, which may simply amount to what has been on their minds more than an active play for China’s fashionistas.
In the wake of Lauren's newest collection, fashion critic Lynn Yaeger brought up this recurring issue, writing, “if this is a naked ploy to corner the Chinese market, Lauren should bear in mind that the prospective customer in Beijing and Shanghai would probably much prefer a Fair Isle cardigan.” This fits with the sentiments of the Jing Daily team, that the overt referencing of Chinese design and culture, and attempt at localization of these products is not likely to make them more appealing to Chinese consumers. The heavy-handed nod towards Chinese culture may be appreciated, but the products themselves may not do better than other collections.
Either way, the obsession with China among major brands won’t likely fade any time soon, and if three makes a trend, China's influence on design may become an earmark for this period.