Why Luxury Brands’ Approach to “Chinese Aesthetics” Fails

    The Palace Museum tapes used by consumers to decorate luxury lipstick products is an example of design based on cultural references, not assumptions.
    A trendy practice among Chinese consumers is to use Palace Museum tapes to decorate their lipstick products by luxury brands. Photo: Shutterstock
    Jade XiongAuthor
      Published   in Finance

    Young Chinese people are never predictable. With lipsticks from luxury brands becoming incredibly popular among young Chinese girls, a new trend has emerged of self-decorating luxury goods with traditional, Chinese style tapes.

    Recently, a series of tutorials on taping luxury lipsticks and perfumes went viral on Weibo and WeChat. The tapes in question are from the Palace Museum, located within the Forbidden City in Beijing. The tapes feature traditional Chinese elements, such as famous calligraphy works, seals, paintings, and a variety of Chinese aesthetics such as patterns inspired by flowers, porcelain, furniture, etc.

    The combination of luxury goods with Chinese elements received very positive feedback on the internet, as a lot of Weibo and WeChat users found the final product to be very aesthetically pleasing. For example, Weibo user “Aprilloe,” who is not an online influencer but has around 4K followers, received over 14,700 comments and 39,300 reposts on her post showing her DIY tutorial using the Palace Museum tapes on luxury lipsticks.

    These posts also prompted discussions on luxury brands’ attempts to utilize Chinese elements in their designs. Many Weibo and WeChat users expressed their dissatisfaction with previous “Chinese-inspired” luxury goods by asking: “Why can’t luxury brands learn to understand real ‘Chinese aesthetics’ through good examples like this?”

    Before we discuss the tapes’ popularity, here are three mistakes luxury brands often make when trying to cater to Chinese consumers’ tastes.

    Three Mistakes Brands Often Make When Featuring “Chinese” Elements in Design#

    1. Misunderstanding of the Chinese Language#

    While many people who might not read Chinese characters are amazed by the beauty of Chinese calligraphy, luxury brands having Chinese characters on their products should not simply approach the design from an aesthetic point of view. As a single Chinese character can carry multiple meanings and consumers often look for sophistication in the design of luxury goods, luxury brands should be careful featuring Chinese characters in their designs, especially regarding the combination of characters.

    Nike’s 2016 special edition trainers were heavily discussed on the Chinese internet when they were released. Each shoe featured a Chinese character sewn on. The left shoe had the character fa (發) which colloquially can mean "to become wealthy." The right shoe featured fu (福) which means "fortune." However, when the two characters are combined, the meaning drastically changes and euphemistically means "to get fat."

    Luxury brands that place Chinese characters on their products can also fail to deliver the sophistication that Chinese luxury consumers look for when owning luxury goods. During the 2011 AMAs, pop star Katy Perry arrived on the red carpet with a stunning outfit featuring a pattern inspired by traditional Chinese ink wash painting from Vivienne Westwood. However, the four characters on her dress, luse jingji (绿色经济), mean “green economy." Moreover, her dress featured simplified characters, but Chinese calligraphy is almost exclusively written in traditional characters.

    The phrase on Perry's dress was actually promoted as a key theme in China’s efforts towards an eco-friendly society by the then president Hu Jintao. Having a contemporary political slogan used in a traditional painting style not only appeared odd because modern and classical Chinese are two distinct languages, but it also failed to demonstrate the beauty of the Chinese language. Indeed, as political slogans tend to be concise and effective phrases to communicate policy goals to the wider public, the use of a political slogan on a piece of luxury clothing clashed with the desire of Chinese luxury consumers to communicate a sense of exclusivity and luxury.

    2. Misunderstanding of Chinese Symbols and Imagery#

    Chinese characters are complicated and often evoke particular elements of Chinese culture. As the western world has developed an interest in Asia-related elements, luxury brands often generalize and oversimplify.

    Givenchy was criticized for the simple mistake they made with their special-edition red-and-gold Chinese New Year star clutch. The Chinese national flag features five gold stars in the top left corner on a red background, and the Vietnamese flag is simply a red flag with a gold star in the middle. The Givenchy clutch appeared to be a tribute to Vietnam, which at the time was witnessing large anti-Chinese demonstrations and riots because of the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea.

    Moreover, even when luxury brands are familiar with the meaning of China-related imagery, they still struggle with utilizing Chinese aesthetic traditions. The Chinese zodiacs are relatively well-known, and more and more luxury brands like to include zodiac animals in their special-edition designs for the Chinese market. However, most of the launched products have been criticized for a superficial understanding of the zodiac symbols. Many became objects of ridicule among Chinese people.

    A series of rooster-themed luxury goods were scrutinized by Chinese people during the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) this year, which is the year of the rooster. As there is no one fixed image for a rooster, luxury brands created their own images of the rooster of a blessing. While Estee Lauder’s powder compact featuring a diamond rooster was considered too dramatic, Dior’s bracelet with a rooster with a round body and big eyes had a childish aesthetic inconsistent with the brand’s overall image. Dolce & Gabbana’s rooster bomber jacket visually bombarded the audience by featuring six roosters on it, and the casualness of the hand-drawn roosters did not quite fit the atmosphere of Chinese New Year.

    However, the failures of luxury brands’ discussed above do not mean Chinese people are necessarily hard to please. Moreover, many times aesthetics are a universal concept. There are definitely good examples of appealing to Chinese consumers by using Chinese imagery by keeping in mind common conventions of aesthetics.

    3. Abusive Use of Bright Colors#

    Many Chinese express their dissatisfaction with the monotony of luxury brands’ China-themed designs. Since most of the Chinese special-edition designs were launched to celebrate Chinese New Year, almost all luxury brands favor an intense use of red and gold. However, the overuse of those colors can be associated with a sense of gaudiness.

    Traditional Chinese artwork often uses mild colors contrasted with a white background, like in many paintings, or is simply wholly white and black, like calligraphy. Luxury brands should not be stuck in the mindset of using red and gold as a representation of Chinese culture. A deeper cultural investigation into traditional artistic themes throughout Chinese history could demonstrate a more thought-provoking utilization of Chinese artistic themes, and that effort will surely be appreciated by Chinese luxury consumers.

    Photo: Weibo
    Photo: Weibo

    What Can Brands Learn from the Palace Museum to Be More Authentic?#

    One of the advantages that the Palace Museum has in terms of understanding Chinese aesthetics is its incredibly abundant resources. The collection of this former imperial palace is arguably the best Chinese history collection in the world. Moreover, being the most prestigious history museum in China, the Palace Museum highly values its reputation, and always refers to its own collection for the inspiration of its gift shop products.

    As a result, many of the gifts from the Palace Museum evoke the deep cultural heritage of China. For example, the patterns of the blue & white porcelain tape series are directly taken from those on imperial vases. The calligraphy tapes also feature the craft of famous Chinese calligraphers.

    The success of the Palace Museum tapes hinges upon design based on cultural references instead of assumptions. Chinese culture being correctly understood and beautifully presented by luxury brands that have international influence matters a lot to Chinese consumers, but brands should also be more aware of the authenticity of “Chinese aesthetics.” The fact that the top cultural institution of China emphasizes historical accuracy in its design should be an inspiration for luxury brands.

    Discover more
    Daily BriefAnalysis, news, and insights delivered to your inbox.