One of the most famous landmarks of colonial era Shanghai was a sign that hung in The Bund park reading "No Dogs and Chinese." That sign never existed, although the urban legend persists because such rules did exist. Now, nearly 100 years later, with Chinese consumers growing more powerful every year, a luxury fashion designer has opened old wounds with a statement so colonially racist it would be comfortable on the streets of the French Concession circa 1921.
In a statement to WWD, the founder of high-end fashioner Zadig & Voltaire said that its new boutique hotel slated to open on the Left Bank in Paris in 2014 "won’t be open to Chinese tourists." Outrageous, for sure. But does the sentiment reveal an uncomfortable relationship between the world's haute fashion houses and their nouveau riche Chinese patrons? Just a week after D&G needed to explain its "Moorish" earrings, Thierry Gillier, fashion brand Zadig + Voltaire's founder, told WWD of the brand's new Paris hotel:
“It will be a slightly private hotel, not open to everybody, with 40 rooms. We are going to select guests. It won’t be open to Chinese tourists, for example. There is a lot of demand in Paris — many people are looking for quiet with a certain privacy.”
Through the weekend the story lit up Chinese social media networks including Weibo. Needless to say, reactions were swift and scathing.
Some Chinese microbloggers wondered if any Chinese consumers even know the French brand, the suggestion being that maybe the damage would not be that great. But in a way, this is the worst possible reality for Zadig & Voltaire, a brand whose name derives from Voltaire's book Zadig ou la Destinée and whose philosophy is to create a "specific distribution network."
It's not that Zadig & Voltaire doesn't want Chinese customers — after all, it sells its ready-to-wear fashion in Asia, with stores in Hong Kong's tony Pacific Place mall and Singapore's Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, a favorite vacation spot for China's high rollers. It just doesn't want them coming to Paris and bringing down the tone of its flagship brand, it seems.
Furthering the scandal is the fact that fashion digest WWD appears to have covered up the faux pas by changing Gillier's quote to instead read "busloads of tourists." The Style Bistro blog has the damning screenshot.
Gillier is right about one thing — there is a lot of demand in Paris and a lot of that demand is coming from Chinese tourists. Last year, France received more than 900,000 Chinese tourists, making it Europe's most popular travel target for the Chinese. The country expects that by 2020 that number will reach nearly 4 million. Paris is the top spot for these tourists who are practically driving the luxury industry. It is estimated that Chinese tourists spent $72 billion on luxury goods last year, a staggering increase from $54 billion in 2010.
Like other high-end French brands, Gillier is also concerned about the French government's plan to introduce a temporary levy of 75% on annual revenue exceeding 1 million euros — a disincentive for France's wealthy to open their pocketbooks. “If the other countries do that then, you know, it’s okay, but if we are the only one it’s very stupid,” said Gillier to the Wall Street Journal. He added that he isn’t currently considering moving the company’s headquarters out of France, because he’s taking things "day by day." Still, it begs the question, Why shun Chinese consumers?
Across the English Channel, London is strategizing on how to lure Chinese tourists, including new laws to ease immigration restrictions. And England isn't alone, with neighbors like Denmark also angling to cash in on China's tourism boom.
This trend is here to stay. Financial service group CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets projects that by the end of the decade the Chinese will be the largest consumer group for luxury products, accounting for 44 percent of the world's total. This means the highest names in French luxury — from Louis Vuitton to, yes, Zadig & Voltaire — will have bottom lines propped up by China.
This current and future market trend makes Gillier's inflammatory remarks more interesting when one reads between the lines. The relationship between luxury fashion brands and their new benefactors may not be a two-way street of respect, with brands like Zadig & Voltaire clearly somewhat resentful of the new reality. It's no secret that Chinese luxury consumers are considered mindless nouveau riche by some brands, "tastelessly" buying every luxury product in sight.
"Fashionable buyers have youth, money and rotten taste" read the headline of a China Daily report last year. That same year, founder of the magazine Privateluxy, Le Yaohui, told the South China Morning Post, "Chinese rich people are not discerning when it comes to consuming luxury products. Many have no idea what luxury is about. Cost and foreign brands are their only standards."
It's not surprising that designers who consider themselves preeminent artists might then resent patrons that were not buying out of true artistic appreciation. Zadig's Gillier is not the first designer to slag off the Chinese consumer. In February 2011, Jean Touitou, the man behind brand A.P.C., set the bar for designer resentment with his anti-China rant:
"You go there and you get so depressed. There's no culture, nothing. The streets are ugly and people do not know how to dress themselves. You go to India and you find all these inspiring people to look at. You go to China and want to kill yourself. That's not very nice to say but those people are taking over the resources of the planet and we cannot do or say anything because they have all the cash."
So A.P.C. is an acronym for Anti-Paying Chinese, evidently. This idea that the mainland's luxury consumers are a group of vulgar, uncultured and unsophisticated fat wallets dovetails with recent polling on sentiment toward China. In a 2012 BBC survey measuring China's influence, France ranked highest of any European country in terms of anti-China feelings with 49 percent of respondents saying China's global influence was negative. It just so happens that, with conglomerates like LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton S.A calling it home, France happens to be the global HQ of luxury. Such racist attitudes aren't doing much to change the stereotype of French rudeness and snootiness, of course.
Avery Booker, editor of Jing Daily which covers the China luxury marketplace, acknowledges "simmering discomfort" but is not fully convinced that the broader industry truly cares. Booker told brandchannel, "After all, we are in the era of online shopping and flash sales, where exclusivity has plummeted in the West as well." He adds, "From the China angle, not only can brands not afford to deride this consumer class, they've already gone through similar readjustments before, most notably in the 1970s-80s when 'busloads' of Japanese tourist-shoppers were wiping out stores in Paris or Fifth Avenue."
While this is a good cautionary tale for other brands, especially French luxury ones, it's unclear yet whether or not Zadig & Voltaire's misstep could cost it a future in the future's biggest luxury market. The fact that the brand has yet to release a statement of any kind is a bad sign as word spreads. As one luxury fashion blogger Bag Snob® tweeted, "I (along w/all Chinese) am not welcome at Zadig et Voltaire hotels, so I'll stop shopping there."
Bag Snob® has 64,189 Twitter followers.
By the way, the "No Dogs and Chinese" sign is not the only untrue Chinese urban legend; so is the saying that the Chinese word for "crisis" contains the word for "opportunity." Shanghai, however, has been known as "Paris of the East" — but if Zadig & Voltaire has its way, Paris will miss out on becoming the "Shanghai of the West."
UPDATE: Zadig's Gillier has apologized for his remarks, releasing a statement on Oct. 4th: "My remarks were doubtless clumsy... I understand they might have hurt my friends from China, France or elsewhere, and I am deeply sorry for that."
[Top picture via Weibo]