Written by Jonathan Schroeder, Janet Borgerson, and Zhiyan Wu.

How do Chinese brands draw upon what we call ‘Chinese brand culture’ in order to create distinctively Chinese fashion? Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum in New York hosted its annual Costume Institute exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, which examined 500 years of Chinese influence on European luxury goods. The exhibition featured current examples of Chinese-inspired fashion and Chinese designers’ work, as well as an historical overview of how Western designers have adapted and adopted Chinese elements through the years.

The show attempts to counter prevailing ideas about Chinese fashion. In the words of fashion journalist Carolyn Asomea, “Chinese fashion designers have spent many years fighting off the perception that Chinese fashion is cheap and tacky. The biggest obstacle in the way of designers such as Zhang has been the Western perception that ‘made in China’ means ‘cheap and badly put together’.

Shanghai Tang: Re-orient Yourself

One fashion brand that is working hard to counter such negative perceptions is Shanghai Tang, considered as the first global Chinese luxury brand. Shanghai Tang was founded in Hong Kong in 1994 by David Tang, and is now owned by the Richemont Group, owner of luxury brands such as Chloé, Montblanc, and Van Cleef & Arpels. The brand has over 40 stores worldwide, and has a roster of celebrities who wear its clothing. We became interested in Shanghai Tang as part of our research on cultural heritage brands – brands that engage a long legacy of cultural history.

In analysing Shanghai Tang, we found it important to differentiate cultural heritage brands from corporate heritage brands. Many global fashion brands, such as Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Ferragamo, use a corporate heritage approach, and tap into their own history in order to build authenticity and communicate to consumers. In contrast, Shanghai Tang specifically draws upon Chinese culture and history in its design and marketing. As it turns out, brands that consistently draw upon Chinese heritage and history are relatively rare in the global fashion scene, although fashion brands such Jean-Paul Gaultier, Chanel, and Valentino have featured Chinese elements, such as red and gold colours, dragon themes, and Chinese New Year-related collections.

Chineseness as a Fashion Brand Element

In thinking about China and fashion, ‘Chineseness’ provides a useful concept. Chineseness refers to a general look or impression of being Chinese or of Chinese origin. Iconic Chinese-related icons such as the qipao dress and the Mao suit represent Chineseness for both Chinese and Western audiences, encapsulating gender, national identity, politics, and race. Such a Chinese identity, as expressed in notions of Chineseness, may capture and include aspects of the Chinese diaspora, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and is not necessarily limited by national boundaries.

Thus, Chineseness need not be perfectly aligned with Chinese country-of-origin. This assertion also reflects how ‘national’ brand identity need not correspond with brand ownership. In other words, when Shanghai Tang is referred to as a Chinese brand, it does not necessarily imply that it is wholly Chinese-owned, or defined by political borders. The notion of Chineseness suggests an overarching impression of nationally unified traits and characteristics, that while failing to refer to the full variety and multiple identities of peoples within national boundaries, or competing versions of historical narratives, nevertheless communicates meaning in relation to Chinese identity.

Consumer research suggests that individuals construct identities as much through engagement with material objects and practices – including fashion – as they do through human relationships. Consumer insights about Shanghai Tang reveal how Chinese cultural codes can be drawn upon to develop and embody cosmopolitan consumer identity. In one informant’s words, wearing Shanghai Tang imparted fashionable, not overly ‘local’ Chineseness, which offered a distinctive look that consumers felt helped in climbing ‘the ladder of success’. For others, it embodies authentic and nostalgic emotion. For most, it expresses a hybrid aesthetic of international style and savoir-faire.

Creativity and innovation is central in any brand’s development, but Shanghai Tang’s success depends on the negotiation of Chineseness across its global product portfolio, retail design, and marketing communication. Almost all the Shanghai Tang consumers who participated in our study appreciated the brand’s introduction of isolated Chinese style elements into more Western styles to make them fashionable – for example, iconic patterns and strategically located signature colours on cuffs and collars of polo shirts and pullover sweaters. Chinese styling has been the key to Shanghai Tang’s brand, and this is particularly evident in the brand’s seasonal collections, in which designers focus on small, distinctive details, such as bamboo buttons, Chinese dragon motifs, and patterns with symbols of Chinese ingots, which were historically used as money in China, and are often considered emblems of wealth and status.

Regardless of whether it deploys ancient ingots or images of social upheaval in old Shanghai, Shanghai Tang’s strategy involves first isolating and then re-introducing familiar features into novel arrangements that juxtapose the past and the present. Once-precious ingots become more commonly available and wearable in the form of a Shanghai Tang dress. A Shanghai Tang bag invokes the traumatic Cultural Revolution, with shadowy, Maoist imagery. Their close-fitting black leather qipao affords a cool, trendy look to a traditional Chinese dress. This fashion strategy engages the cultural interest of consumers by re-engaging the old within the new.

Consumer interviews about Shanghai Tang products underscored an emphasis on what was viewed as subtle Chinese aesthetics. For the most part, these interviewees felt that Shanghai Tang was aligned with notions of harmony. The fashion designs, colours, fabric quality, and cuts are uniformly subtle: when details do stand out, they do so without disturbing the peace of the whole. They are meant to capture the eye but ultimately enhance the effect of the harmonious whole. This aesthetic contributes to the meaning of the brand, and frequent consumers would be able to read the various aesthetic codes that make up the lexicon of Shanghai Tang designs. Perhaps surprising in the wake of such subtlety, Shanghai Tang has become responsible for developing a Chinese blueprint for “contemporary luxury lifestyle products.” This strategy positions Shanghai Tang as a lifestyle brand, one conceived to sell products – and lifestyles – designed for an overall way of life, a harmonious communication of status and taste, including clothing, furniture, music, and accessories.

Brand Culture

Elements of Shanghai Tang’s brand culture – consumers, managers, retail stores, and of course, design – demonstrate that diverse contributions are essential for the co-creation and development of brand meanings and brand growth, and as a rationale for potential myth markets. Shanghai Tang served to connect ethnic Chinese to their Chinese identities. Furthermore, many consumer comments, both Chinese and other, discussed how Shanghai Tang clothing helped communicate cosmopolitan identity. Shanghai Tang provides a model of conceptualising a culturally conceived branding system by marrying global fashion systems with Chinese imagery.

Shanghai Tang offers a lens through which to observe aspects of Chinese fashion development, and offers insights into the ways in which brand culture connects companies and consumers; fashion provides fertile ground for the development of Chinese brand culture into a strategic brand resource.

Jonathan Schroeder is the William A. Kern Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Janet Borgerson is a Fellow at the Institute for Brands & Brand Relationships, and a Visiting Scholar at City University London. Zhiyan Wu is an Assistant Professor at the School of Management, Shanghai International Business and Economics University. Image Credit: CC by thinkretail/Flickr.