I met David Tang in Hong Kong in 1997, during a visit to Shanghai Tang's flagship store in Pedder Street. I was struck by the "emporium" style of the boutique, combining traditional Chinese jackets and usurped 'Mao' objects. The Independent spoke of it as the era of "high-quality China kitsch". Richemont had just bought the brand, seeing behind the glibness of the creator an attempt to build a Chinese brand. After several years without a clear direction, it decided to make it the first Chinese luxury brand. Since 2001 Shanghai Tang projects itself as such. Where does it stand in 2013?
We can only applaud the tremendous work that has been done in terms of style and design under the direction of Joanne Ooi. The boutiques have been modernized and there is, evidently, a stylistic Shanghai Tang identity, in bright colours and dark wood. But is that enough to make it a Chinese luxury brand?
My answer is, on the whole, negative, for two reasons:
During my courses on luxury in China (with MBA audiences, where the majority of students represent the main target of the brand - sophisticated young urban Chinese) to the question: "Is Shanghai Tang a Chinese brand?", the answer is always the same: non-Chinese students answer 'yes' and the Chinese say 'no'. The Chinese consider that the style does not correspond to them: too Chinese, too colourful. Foreigners love it and are willing to buy products to take home.
In the Shanghai Tang boutiques in Shanghai all the vendors speak English. When mystery shopping in luxury brand boutiques in the west of Shanghai, it is clear that most of the sales personnel do not speak English. The Shanghai Tang vendors speak English because their clientele is essentially non-Chinese. I therefore deduce that Shanghai Tang is a Chinese-inspired brand for an international clientele - not a Chinese brand for Chinese clients.
One can also question the idea of a "luxury brand". The shops are often poorly maintained: products not properly arranged, non-existent service, decoration showing signs of premature wear. But above all, a misconception of the brand, its history and the themes of the collection by the sales staff, unacceptable at this level. One understands it better when one goes to Shanghai Tang's website where there is no page that gives us this information: even the "World of Shanghai Tang" makes no reference to it. Shanghai Tang is therefore a lifestyle brand with no real history or heritage.
A fascinating bit of information confirms that the brand positioning is not what it seems. It currently has 40 shops, including only 19 in China. Thus we see that the development grew first on an international plane before it was constructed on its supposedly "domestic" market. But more interesting is an analysis of Chinese boutiques: there are 6 boutiques in the centre of town (including 3 in Shanghai), 9 boutiques at airports, and outlets in four hotels (like the Peninsula in Shanghai). This combination again shows that the clients targeted are international travellers - among which the Chinese are probably a minority (but would the brand agree to provide statistics?).
Nevertheless, one point deserves all our attention: the 3 other downtown boutiques of the brand were opened in 2nd tier cities in 2012 (Kunming, Xiamen, Shenyang). This shows that Shanghai Tang has finally decided to take an interest in its "home" market and go in search of a Chinese clientele. This is a very good sign - but the question of style raised earlier, will it not come up again very soon?