After a decline in the number of Chinese travelers to Hong Kong in 2015, the figures have made a rebound due to cross-border visas becoming easier to attain. Hong Kong saw 23.7 million mainland visitor arrivals in the first half of 2018, and retail outlets are now in a programming battle with the hope of luring shoppers to visit—and ultimately spend in—their retail spaces.
Last week, the highly regarded V&A exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain made its final stop on its Asia tour: the prestigious Swire Properties shopping mall, Pacific Place, in Hong Kong. The exhibition is composed of over 140 pairs of shoes from around the world, spanning a period between the 14th Century and today and including designs by today’s top brands such as Christian Dior, Christian Louboutin, Salvatore Ferragamo, and even the revered architect Zaha Hadid. It’s a five-part show that explores the power of transformation and evolving culture by tracing history through footwear.
This exhibition is the V&A’s second foray into China. In December 2017, the V&A oversaw the opening of the Design Society in Shenzhen as part of a five-year partnership with China Merchants Shekou Holding (CMSK) that runs through 2019. It was the first art and design venue in China to open with an international partner involved in all areas of ideation and development.
With Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, the V&A is taking a different approach and establishing itself in the region not only as a design or art foundation, but as an institution with programming that extends into luxury lifestyle. The choice in partnering with Swire Properties was a wise one, as this touring show snaked through Swire’s malls in Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Beijing engaging local luxury audiences across China’s leading commercial cities. Each property promoted the exhibition through their own WeChat accounts, utilizing mini-programs to offer everything from audio guides of the show to games encouraging audience engagement.
The exhibition, which was co-curated with Swire Properties, breaks the show into sections that include Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation, and Obsession. Swire is savvy enough to know that any global exhibition needs to find a relevant connection to the local audience, so they worked with the V&A to include an exclusive feature for the Asia tour: 14 pairs of shoes from the Hong Kong actress and singer Karen Mok’s personal collection.
“Shoes are a universal language, connecting everyone across cultures and continents,” said Director of Commercial & Digital Development of the V&A, Alex Stitt. “Every individual has their own unique, special memory of shoes. We’re thrilled to be working with Swire Properties to bring this exciting exhibition to Mainland China and Hong Kong, and specifically through shopping malls; creating a brand new experience for visitors outside of museum walls.”
With Chinese outbound tourism at an all-time high (mainland Chinese tourists made more than 71.3 million trips outside of China in the first half of 2018 which was a 15 percent growth year-on-year), this type of investment from the V&A helps establish the museum’s brand and encourages visitors to the museum’s home in London.
The ambition is perfectly paired with Swire’s track record in establishing itself as a land developer with a flair for art and culture. The model of combining art with luxury brands is popular in China, where retail establishments tout their art programming. Those companies include the K-11 malls across China, who have a renowned art foundation; Prada, which unveiled Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai in 2017, a historical venue the brand relaunched to host art alongside unique collection experiences for visitors; and Gucci, who will open a Maurizio Cattelan exhibition this month at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai.
At a time when the Chinese middle class is reaching a spending high, art and culture are becoming a trustworthy route for brands wanting to reach this specific audience.