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Shanghai: The Paris of the East

With edgy designs, a sophisticated retail scene and a multilayered cultural evolution, Shanghai is heading back to its glamorous roots

A backpack from Angel Chen’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection.
A backpack from Angel Chen’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection.

From the outside, Dong Liang looks like someone’s home on Shanghai’s Fumin Road—unassuming, suburban, dominated by brickwork and plants—but inside, it turns out to be a carefully curated showcase of some of China’s most progressive designers, the go-to store for cutting-edge fashion. The stuff is delightful, with whimsical touches. Take, for example, a red backpack by Angel Chen which looks like an overgrown space-age bug with exaggerated tentacles. The store features the works of 20-odd designers, some established names that I recognize, like Uma Wang and Nicole Zhang, and a whole bunch that I don’t.

Interestingly, the look is not overtly Chinese, it is decidedly international, or perhaps universal is a better word, the sort of creativity that would hold its own anywhere in the world. I am, of course, looking to buy something that at least hints at being Chinese, and the salesgirl finally walks me to a sister store nearby on Changle Road, and we settle on an Uma Wang top, purple velvet with a rambling floral pattern in tan, beautifully constructed, oversized, slouchy, with extra-long tie-ups on the side. When I get home, I discover the label says “made in Italy".

I am in Shanghai after a gap of five years, and I find a qualitative change, a cultural evolution if you will, which is multilayered and sophisticated, and fascinating in the way it combines old and new, Chinese and Western, art and commerce. It is no longer just the maniacal consumption of big Western brands—although that is still happening in spades, the Chinese consumer accounting for one-third of global luxury brand sales—it is also the emergence of local designers, the opening of intriguing new retail concepts like the K11 Art Mall, the expansion of the art scene to the West Bund district, the maturing of an already vibrant dining scene with the arrival of Michelin-star ratings just over a year back.

Almost all the Chinese designers represented at Dong Liang have an international connection. Take Uma Wang—she studied both in China and at Central St Martin in London; she has shown at the Paris, Milan and London fashion weeks; her brand is not only sold in China, it retails at over 70 locations worldwide; and as my purple top shows, all the world may be going to China to manufacture, but this girl is not afraid to go to Italy. Angel Chen, of the funky bug-bags earlier, has similar international links—the 26-year-old is also a Central St Martin graduate, she interned at Alexander Wang and Vera Wang in New York, she has shown at the Milan and London fashion weeks. The upshot? China’s designers may be relatively new, but they are equipping themselves to play the international market—not just the Chinese market, massive as it might be—with an aesthetic that is sophisticated, and quality that is world class.

This sophistication is perhaps best exemplified by the lifestyle brand Shang Xia—it makes clothes, jewellery, bags, furniture, home-ware—that was launched by Hermès in 2008 in collaboration with the Chinese designer Jiang Qiong Er, who is also the chief executive and creative head of the brand. The salesman at the Shanghai store helpfully suggested I think of Hermès as the dad, Qiong Er as the mom, and Shang Xia as their baby. And indeed it is, the products are Chinese in concept, drawing on traditional craft—think paper-thin eggshell porcelain and zitan wood chairs polished to butter-smooth perfection—but the rendition is 21st century, an aesthetic that is restrained, spare, almost Zen-like in its elegance, but with a certain playfulness, a wink in the eye. The quality is exquisite—take, for example, the eggshell porcelain teacups, fragile, impossibly thin, their bottom halves lovingly encased in finely woven bamboo. Or a scarf from the peasant collection in soft baby pink cashmere-and-silk, printed over with a painting done by a villager from nearby Jinshan (think Madhubani painting) in bright teal and orange.

The retail scene is gaining in sophistication too. The Shang Xia store, when I visited it five years ago, was in a regular mall, now it has shifted to a beautiful 100-year-old colonial villa—red brick, three storeys—on Huaihai Middle Road, while the interior is ultra-modern, delicate-white cave-like structures created by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Right next to it sits dad Hermès in a similar red-brick villa, only a lot bigger.

The K11 Art Mall is an exciting new turn in retail—as its name suggests, it attempts to unshackle art from museums and happily mingle them in an everyday shopping centre. The effect is fascinating—you run into a Damien Hirst sculpture titled Wretched War, a pregnant mother striding confidently, until you walk to the other side and see the foetus is half exposed. Or a Guo Xiaowu sculpture by the escalator titled Our Generation—I Love You—white, plump, anime-esque, it’s a couple kissing with happy abandon. The stores and products all lean towards the avant garde, there is a K11 art store with quirky gifts, there is a floor where tulips are being “urban farmed", and alongside crisp lettuces are being grown in water, while red fish swim around. There are plenty of dining options, and the food court has so many cute ideas (including masala chai, which I promptly try) that you feel you are in Japan.

What surprises me is that even mainstream brands turn on the sophistication for Shanghai in ways that I have not seen elsewhere. Starbucks, besides its usual fare, offers “Nitro" cold brews, and a line-up of hot brewing options like Chemex, Pour-over, and Coffee press. At Pizza Hut, the day’s appetizers feature fried calamari, herb-encrusted shrimps, and escargot, and the pizzas include a mushroom and black truffle one, which turns out to be delicious. At Victoria’s Secret, a massive stand-alone three-floor affair, there is a retrospective of its famed fashion shows which started in 1995, with displays of the outlandish costumes that were worn by the Angels, a listing of every one of the 252 models who have walked the show; for example, Kendall Jenner, who also features in the show window, in a red bikini, sporting huge angel wings in blue and red feathers.

Our very own Manish Arora clearly sees China’s market potential, for he has opened two stores in Shanghai. I visited the one in the HKRI Taikoo Hui Mall, and it feels right at home, the clothes are international in cut and look, but, of course, with Arora’s unique mix of audacious design, intricate craftsmanship, hyper colourfulness, and sheer joy.

I wonder what makes his brand tick in this alien setting. Like the Chinese designers at Dong Liang, he too has mastered a universal design language—there is nothing visibly Indian about his offering despite the fact that the craftsmanship is Indian. Perhaps, like them, his mastery stems from international credentials—he has been showing at the Paris Fashion Week for a decade, is a member of the French Federation of Pret-a-Porter, and has been awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

Shanghai, back in the 1930s, was one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, the Paris of the East. It seems to be heading straight back to those glamorous roots.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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