Ancient Chinese Crafts, Modern Chinese Designs
Backed by Hermès, Shang Xia creates luxe cutting-edge fashions with traditional Chinese methods.
It was all about craftsmanship, says Jiang Qiong Er regarding the birth of Shang Xia. Jiang, who was the first Chinese designer invited to create window displays for Hermès in Shanghai, was introduced to Hermès CEO Patrick Thomas by Leo Lui, president of Hermès China. She says they “realised we all had the same passion for quality and craftsmanship . . . it was like a love story.”
That respect for craftsmanship, married to Chinese cultural heritage, is central to the Shang Xia brand. Hermès may be majority owner, but Jiang, Shang Xia’s artistic director, is quick to say that Shang Xia is not an Hermès sub-brand, but rather that their shared values of craftsmanship, quality and creativity make Hermès the brand’s natural parent. “It’s not a financial investment . . . it’s an investment in Chinese culture,” she says, regarding Hermès’ role.
Shang Xia (in Mandarin, “shang” means up, “xia” means down) is about making the old new, and creating a connection between the urban and the rural, the past and the future. The brand works with a vanishing breed of traditional artisans to create furniture, decorative items, fashions and accessories that celebrate China’s cultural heritage and, at the same time, make sense for the modern consumer. The Shang Xia boutique in Shanghai reflects this sensibility—an ultra-contemporary, cocoon-like space walled in with material that calls to mind traditional weaving techniques. A second boutique in Beijing’s China World Mall evokes the Great Wall with aluminium brickwork, stone and natural wood design elements.
Jiang is also creating a preserve for crafts that are on the verge of extinction. Many of Shang Xia’s artisans are elderly and had been eking out a living in mass-production factories. In working with Jiang, they are redefining objects for the modern world, but the craftsman’s thinking remains: The time it takes to create these objects is measured in weeks and months, and many are limited-edition. Jiang is trying to regain a legacy of artisanship in China, and “the return on our investment comes in 100 years, 200 years,” she says.
Jiang’s mission is about more than resurrecting ancient Chinese crafts. Shang Xia’s products must have relevance in contemporary China: “If they don’t have any contact with modern life, young people won’t use them. It’s the design that creates new life for the old crafts.” Shang Xia’s marketing focuses on the stories behind the crafts, or the Chinese lore behind a piece, and the emotions it raises among its market of young, affluent, urban Chinese—a mix of pride and nostalgia. As Jiang says, “We bring the past to the future.”