Western luxury brands, recognizing the enormous opportunity among upscale Chinese consumers, have been focusing their attention on mainland China for the last few years. Burberry, Coach, Ferragamo, Vivienne Westwood and others have added boutiques and stores in China.
But they are acutely aware of the importance of brands that originate in China as well. Late last year, Hermes launched a separate Chinese brand called Shang Xia in a partnership with Chinese designer Ms. Jiang Qiong Er. Shang Xia opened its first store last September. According to the brand’s website, Shang Xia, which means “up and down” in English, is “a 21st century brand from the best of traditional Chinese and other Asian craftsmanship and design.” Shang Xia began by offering furniture, decorative objects, accessories, garments, and tea. Additional lines are planned.
Shang Xia is just one of a number of young Chinese brands that are legitimizing China as a center of fashion and luxury. Others include Hong Kong-grown Shanghai Tang, which refers to itself as “Chinese Chic,” and NE-TIGER, which in the last few years has taken the Chinese fashion scene by storm, particularly because of the company’s ability to mesh traditional Chinese design and cultural elements with a contemporary flair.
NE-TIGER is the brainchild of Chinese designer Zhang Zhifeng. He started in business in 1982 and founded NE-TIGER ten years later. In an April 2010 interview appearing in Jing Daily (which reports on “the business of luxury and culture in China”), Zhang observed that, while the fashion world portrays China as a new entry into the luxury market, “the history of luxury goods in China dates back a very long time.” He cited Chinese silks that were brought to the European continent as early as 139 B.C., the fashion consciousness of the TANG Dynasty eighteen hundred years ago, and such coveted luxury products as Chinese silk, Yun brocade, jade, china and tea that the MING Dynasty produced during the 1400s.
NE-TIGER developed an early reputation with its fur and leather products; in fact, in 1998, NE-TIGER’s Furs flagship store became the largest specialized fur shop in Asia. In 2001, NE-TIGER launched its own luxury brand of clothing and in 2003, it introduced the “Lady NE-TIGER” Evening Dress Series. By 2004, NE-TIGER was achieving prominence on the world stage, making appearances at a number of international fashion festivals. In 2007, NE-TIGER was invited to simultaneously attend the English and Dutch Luxury Exhibitions.
While NE-TIGER maintains its headquarters in Beijing, in late 2010 the company launched a brand store in Shanghai, at Libao Square on Middle Huaihai Road. Traditionally this area had been populated with Western luxury brand stores such as Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and Zegna, so NE-TIGER’s presence made a profound statement about Chinese brands. Opening night featured a ceremony and party with numerous Chinese celebrities and socialites
Now, the company is a leader in Chinese haute couture, offering custom-made outfits for weddings and special events, as well as its Hua Fu (Chinese national dress) collection. Reporting on the 2011 fashion season, Gan Tian wrote in China Daily:
“Another Chinese label making waves is NE-TIGER. When it presented its 2011 haute couture collection, fashion columnists sat up.
Qiang embroidery, a traditional craft from the Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan, is artfully incorporated into NE-TIGER’s contemporary three-dimensional cutting techniques.”
Despite its rapid growth as a luxury fashion brand, however, NE-TIGER and other Chinese luxury brands face a vexing challenge on their home turf. Zhang. told Jing Daily that “foreign brands are always offered considerable discounts, the best locations, extended rent exemptions for a couple of years… all of these contribute to their rapid expansion in China. …in contrast, most new-born Chinese luxury brands are not treated fairly here and have to operate under considerable restrictions.”
Still, Zhang Zhifeng is confident NE-TIGER will thrive because it is on the leading edge of fashion. According to Zhang, “I think Chinese brands should be bold enough to challenge and to overcome the established centers of influence, to establish new rules, and to create new leadership in the industry.”