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China’s first luxury goods house fuses traditional craftsmanship with contemporary design in a marvellous first collection based around tea. Shang Xia’s CEO and creative director, Quiong Er Jiang, talks about her partnership with Hermès.

The creative director and co-founder of the Hermès-funded Chinese luxury goods brand Shang Xia, Quiong Er Jiang, talks in Chinese proverbs: of getting “pregnant” with Hermès and the “baby” of Shang Xia; of the “garden” of Chinese contemporary design and its “wild” mix of good and bad creativity; of her work being like that of a “peasant” who is “preparing the earth for the next generation”. Her conversation is like traditional Chinese poetry come to life except that what Jiang talks of is utterly contemporary.

As the brainchild and minority shareholder of Shang Xia, Jiang is the founder of what is surely China’s first home-grown luxury brand. Based on the principle of combining China’s time-honored craftsmanship with modern design, Shang Xia is unique in China’s luxury malls filled with western luxury brands. Indeed, its first store, which opened in September, was designed by Kengo Kuma and stands out amongst the identikit boutiques in Shanghai’s Hong Kong Plaza Mall.

It was in 2008 that Shang Xia was founded after a “beautiful encounter” between Jiang and Patrick Thomas and Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the CEO and Artistic Director of Hermès, respectively. She explains that they shared the belief that the Hermès model could be translated into another culture: “It could be China, India, or anywhere with its own historic civilization and craftsmanship.” Previously, Jiang had studied art and design at Shanghai University, then at ENSAD Paris. An artist in her own right, she was also the creative director of Hermès windows in China for three years prior to staring Shang Xia. Hermès is the majority shareholder and Jiang owns a small interest. (It should be noted that the Hermès investment in China is part of a wider expansion that includes the forthcoming Petit H collection of more affordable objects created from leather off-cuts, and a new landmark store on Paris’s Left Bank that will open in early 2011.)

Shang Xia is the Hermès of China in the sense that it is committed to craft and innovation. But rather than offer iconic handbags, Shang Xia is dedicated to creating “cultural objects”. Its first collection is based around tea and includes furniture, decorative objects, accessories, clothing and, of course, teaware and tea itself. And instead of focusing on fine leather, Shang Xia uses zitan (an ultra rare Imperial wood), eggshell porcelain, and hand-felted cashmere, among other materials sourced from far-flung ateliers around China.

Contemporary design is integral to the brand and Shang Xia has a policy of not referencing historic Chinese shapes, patterns or motifs. Jiang explains: “Real timeless objects are not born out of shape but rather from something spiritual.”

When Jiang refers to yet another “beautiful encounter” (this time with the master craftsman who creates Shang Xia’s furniture), she is compelled to explain their importance: “What is important to Shang Xia is emotion and people. Emotion comes from beautiful encounters. With this kind of encounter, the object is fuelled with emotion from my side (design) and from their side (craftsmanship). When a client touches the object they feel the emotion through the quality and design.” A Chinese proverb this is not: after launching just three months ago, there is already a waiting for list for its woven bamboo teapot. Shang Xia is rewriting the book when it comes to luxury brands, creating a world where teapots are the new Birkins.

Quiong Er Jiang’s definition of luxury?
Two words: time and emotion. It can be anything: a train ticket from childhood, a letter, a beautiful tea object, jewelry. When people take time to think about something, then the time to make it, then someone else takes the time to use it and appreciate it, then the time to repair it because they love it, then the time to give it to the next generation.

A place?
In your heart!

A person?
A loved one! That could be anyone: your husband, your grandmother, your professor.

A moment?
The moment when your heart is touched emotionally.

An object?
An object with emotion. For example, I am organizing a small dinner in Shanghai for the former French president. I have invited some friends of Shang Xia, musicians, writers, gallerists, and artists. How will we remember this dinner? I asked everyone to bring an object, whatever they want, that they have an emotional relationship with that they will share with us during the dinner.

What is the inspiration behind Shang Xia?
Patrick Thomas and Pierre Alexis Dumas at Hermès had this idea that Hermès is successful because of the quality of raw materials, great craftsmanship, and contemporary design and creativity. And this model is universal. They were thinking that it could be replanted into another culture and civilization; it could be China, India or any place with its own historical civilization, craftsmanship and culture. They could not do it without meeting some people from that culture. I studied art and design at Shanghai university and then after at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. I came back to China in 2003, which was the beginning of the boom of the Chinese creative industry. My dream is to how can we translate our Chinese traditional culture inspirations into modern life with contemporary design.

How did your partnership with Hermès begin?
With a beautiful encounter. Five years ago I was invited by Hermès to be the first Chinese artist to create art installations in their windows. I tried once and continued for three years. The president of Hermès China introduced me to Patrick Thomas and Pierre-Alexis Dumas. It was a beautiful encounter like when a man and woman fall in love, they spend a lot of time together, decide to make a baby, and get pregnant together. After three and a half years, the baby was born one month ago. We share the same vision, the same values of life, the same dream. We made a joint company together; Hermès is the majority and I own a minority.

What does the name Shang Xia mean?
The name Shang Xia is a Chinese philosophy. If we translate word for word, Shang means up and Xia means down. When we put them together it’s a philosophy about life being a balance of two opposites. Life is composed of woman and man, day and night, sun and moon, sky and earth, nature and human beings, urban and the countryside, private life and social, positive and negative. The happiness of life is where we find the harmony in-between. Shang Xia is based on this philosophy. The lifestyle we propose to share with people is about an equilibrium.

What does the first Shang XIA collection comprise of?
The first collection is about tea. Tea drinking was intended to be on of the methods to be quiet, to have a harmony between your private life and social life, country and urban life, a moment that is balanced. When you drink tea, you need tea objects, which you can find in our collection. To drink tea you need to sit down, so we have furniture. And you need to wear something, so we have some very comfortable, soft, tender, relaxed and quiet clothing. And when we drink tea in China, we have some toys, things that we can caress, touch, appreciate. So we have some jewelry, some miniatures, some “toys” for adults.

How would you describe the Shang Xia aesthetic?
We’re trying to create a style that is timeless. If you have a look at furniture from Ming dynasty, it’s so modern, it’s timeless. This is what we’re trying to do but with a contemporary language and with functional objects that we can use everyday. At Shang Xia there are no traditional Chinese shapes or patterns, no flowers or motifs borrowed from history. What is Chinese is the inspiration from spiritual symbols and the craftsmanship. Real timeless objects are not born out of shape but rather from something spiritual.

How would you characterise Chinese contemporary design now?
The Chinese creative industry only started 10 years ago. My generation who graduated from design school at that time is very lucky to be at the beginning of this new development. The market and society needs us. Today, the creative industry is very active. It’s like in a garden, every flower is growing. But it’s a wild garden. It’s not like in France or Italy where there is a developed system. In our garden of design, most designers are still making trendy objects and trying to be avant-garde.

Is part of Shang Xia’s mission to safe guard traditional craftsmanship that is in danger of being lost?
Pierre-Alexis said that we are like peasants preparing the earth not only for us but also for the next generations. Today in the traditional Chinese ateliers of craftsmen, they have difficulties because what they are making is not up-to-date with today’s lifestyle. Either you are a master and you make unique pieces for collection or you make huge elephants that no one wants to buy. The craft could disappear. We use their experience with a new design to transform functional objects. Then we all have a market.

How have the craftspeople you work with reacted to the Shang Xia project?
There are a lot of very touching stories from during three and a half years. For example, I visited the atelier of the master who makes our furniture in very precious imperial wood. We were so happy to meet each other and when I came back to Shanghai I wrote to him to express my appreciation. One week later I received a hand written reply. I cried because he is 60 and he shared everything about his life during the Cultural Revolution, what he’s disappointed about, the cultural differences between him and his son, how he appreciates our project, how he shares our dreams. In the last paragraph he wrote that he is a person of the sunset (because he is 60 years old) but that the sun of the sunset still has some warmth and light and that he is ready to share that. He asked that if we succeed together his only demand is that we invite him to visit Paris which he has dreamed about since he was young. Our project is full of this kind of love, exchange, respect, and generosity. Only this way will be successful.

Are you filling a niche in terms of the demand of the modern Chinese buyer of luxury goods?
China opened up in the 1980s and rich people over the last 30 years have experienced all luxury brands from the west. When a country develops its economy to a certain level, people go back to its own roots. Rich Chinese people are now looking for things from our culture. I have some very rich friends and I see how they have changed their buying behaviour. For example, they want to know what tea the emperors drunk and they’re trying to find out where they can buy that.

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