The Return of Craftsmanship in China

For centuries, the label “Made in China” meant exceptional craftsmanship and represented a benchmark of quality and beauty. European traders and power brokers traveled the Silk Road to purchase silks, stone-carved decorative pieces, cashmere, unique calligraphy, and first-rate ceramics. Yet over the past four decades, attempts at cutting quality to achieve adequate profit margins in China changed the perception of Chinese imports into one of low-quality, bargain products. This change helped turn the country from a well-established luxury goods producer into a global manufacturer and was a big factor behind the country’s historic economic boom. But now, as China seeks to rebalance its economy with consumption-driven growth, the country has begun embracing a new mantra in order to again promote Chinese luxury products as the embodiment of refinement, authenticity, and originality.

As the prevailing boom environment favors China creating homegrown luxury brands, Premier Li Keqiang said in a 2016 Government Work Report that the country will start to promote their “craftsmanship spirit” by stimulating businesses to adopt “custom-tailored production processes” so they can create high-end products as well as safeguard these traditional crafts. Boosting the “craftsmanship spirit” (工匠精神 gongjiang jingshen) will help established businesses improve their competitive advantage while positioning them as reputable challengers to the market sovereignty of Western corporations.

The state-run advocacy in favor of craftsmanship has created excitement among local artisans, media, influencers, and even the public, all of whom are embracing the concept with patriotic vigor. The term “craftsmanship” itself has become a buzzword that led the government to create a plan to empower Chinese artisans. Authorities have launched education initiatives aimed at teaching artisans about things like intellectual property rights and the trademark clearance process, and they’ve also created new grants and sponsorships for those who are preserving an ancient Chinese craft.

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Along with this economic push, new engines of economic development must be bolstered, and the country’s ambitious new plans for luxury production fits right into this need. Because of rapid economic growth, a modern and innovative technology sector, the ongoing trade war with the U.S., and new geopolitical power shifts, a renaissance of national and cultural pride has blossomed in China, and a new, glamorous Chinese consumer has materialized his desire for identification with a certain set of cultural norms.

Despite these favorable conditions, it is challenging to generate a long-term relationship with Chinese consumers and shift their collective focus from Western luxury goods to homegrown Chinese brands. The devotion to Western (mainly European) brands has, over the years, built a strong resistance against the arts and crafts of local artisans and designers.

Chinese luxury goods makers still face a credibility problem despite their truthful messaging, high-quality products, and targeted marketing, because of decades of the country promoting low-end production. Therefore, this market will require time to win Chinese consumers’ confidence. By using a long-term strategy, which doesn’t focus merely on commercial success but on a differentiation strategy, homegrown, high-end brands can eventually outpace leading luxury players from the West. The bottom line is that Chinese consumers believe that luxury brands must come from the West, but it’s up to homegrown brands to educate consumers and develop their own brand awareness.

Despite these challenges, some notable exceptions have already captured the hearts of Chinese luxury consumers due to their technical expertise, the ability to spotlight the advantages of their core products, outstanding customer experience, genius brand storytelling, and game-changing strategic partnerships.

The Hermès-backed Chinese lifestyle brand Shang Xia has global aspirations while maintaining a strong cultural identity. Hermès has given the brand a “carte blanche” and total artistic freedom, and the brand has focused on rebuilding the reputation of the Chinese craftsmanship. Shang Xia’s products highlight traditional Chinese savoir-faire and high craftsmanship while also applying a contemporary twist.

Meanwhile, The Hong Kong-based luxury fashion house Shanghai Tang is deciphering the elusive code of the Chinese cultural heritage through the use of their “Metiers d’Art.” By mastering the arts of customized Chinese tailoring and embroidery, Shanghai Tang is transforming garments into uniquely personal Chinese designs. Through the use of high-quality fabrics like precious silk and Mongolian cashmere, Shanghai Tang creates bona fide signature pieces that are perfectly in line with traditional Chinese practices. Other refined items like a signature fragrance, Chinese cloisonné, porcelain, bone chin, and lacquered wood pieces complete their singular collection.

Another high-end Chinese fashion brand called NE•TIGER has also found remarkable market success by mastering the art of traditional Chinese style Hua Fu dresses. NE•TIGER’s designs combine traditional elements (red silk fabrics, golden details, embroidered pieces) with more modern designs. Through the use of ancient Chinese elements and practices, NE•TIGER has utilized the country’s rich know-how to create an authentic yet contemporary luxury brand.

But Chinese artistic traditions and knowledge aren’t only confined to the garment industry. In 1929, Chow Chi-Yuen opened a jewelry store in Guangzhou, China, and today Chow Tai Fook Group stands as a remarkable success story. With a business empire that stretches across jewelry, real estate development, hotels & casinos, and various other enterprises, it’s easy to forget that the company started with just one jewelry shop. Today, Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group delivers an experience-driven product that’s perfectly in line with the needs of modern consumers. According to the Spokesperson of Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group, in order “to address customers’ preference on craftsmanship,” the house “launched ARTRIUM in 2018, which focuses on artisan jewelry pieces with meticulous craftsmanship.” The Group has also continued with its CTF • HUÁ Collection, which “features design elements inspired by symbols, pictographs, and decorative patterns that carry the meaning of blessing in ancient China.”

Some observers might dismiss the success of some of these luxury makers because they work or identify with Western brands, but partnering with international players (Shang Xia with Hermès, Shanghai Tang with Richemont, and Qeelin with PPR) gives Chinese brands the crucial advantage over other local premium brands they need by learning valuable lessons about international business. Through these partnerships, local Chinese luxury brands can improve their performance by blending Western and Chinese elements, creating cross-cultural training programs, and establishing better connections worldwide. The authority of well-established luxury brands with Chinese consumers can be challenged, but they’re easier to beat when brands have access to those companies’ own best practices.

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As Chinese consumers gain a better understanding of premium brands, they’ve begun replacing the desire for ostentatious status products (i.e., well-known Western labels) with a greater appreciation for quality, workmanship, and customization. According to a 2014 Mintel report, “Craftsmanship was claimed by 64 percent of urban Chinese consumers as the word most defining luxury,” ahead of expensive (58 percent) and status (53 percent). This newfound appreciation for craftsmanship helps level the playing field and makes room for local high-end brands, particularly those that can find an emotional connection with the growing millennial and Generation-Z consumer bases.

In fact, it’s easier for homegrown luxury players to build intuitively from their own local culture than it is for international players to walk a tightrope of sorts: desperately trying to distinguish their brand in a crowded marketplace while appealing to — and not offending — local consumers. An example of this can be seen during the recent Chinese New Year when various Western designers plastered accessories with Pig motifs (e.g., Louis Vuitton pig key chains, Gucci coin purses, etc.) and rushed out special capsule collections in the hopes of attracting Chinese consumers. But it’s easier for local artisans to understand the nuances of traditional Chinese aesthetics and to use them to meet the needs of Chinese customers. From Li-Ning’s red-yellow nationalist activewear to the sold-out Feng Chen Wang “Made in China” collection, local designers have begun rewriting the story of Chinese luxury products, and with legions of new fans inside the country, they’ll surely continue to build on what they’ve started.

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