Chinese brands may be committed to shattering the notion that Made in China implies inferior quality, but they can’t count on the luxury powerhouses of Europe to relinquish market share without a fight. Executives from these houses hold firm to the belief that the signage Made in Italy and Made in France sends a powerful message about provenance, luxury and quality.
“A sense of place is crucial for the long-term viability of a brand,” says Fendi ceo Michael Burke. “Chinese consumers are voracious consumers of brand history. They buy into the entire story of the brand.”
In 2008, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld staged a mammoth fashion show atop the Great Wall of China near Beijing (right), drawing a link between two imperial cities while dramatically announcing their global ambitions. More recently, the house has been staging demonstrations of craftsmanship around the world via its Fatto a Mano program that teams skilled leather artisans with local industrial designers to realize designs on the spot. This spring, sizable crowds gathered over the course of two weeks for such events at the MIXC complex in Hangzhou where Fendi recently opened a boutique. The spectacle prompted a spike in the firm’s made-to-order business, including a significant amount from China.
“When you have people coming to buy a Chanel product, they are buying something from France,” notes Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion, which manufactures primarily in France while outsourcing some specific products such as cashmere sweaters to Scotland. “Customers want to know more about the products,” Pavlovsky says. “It’s not about one ‘made in’ being better than another. They just want to know it’s the best. We buy all our silk from China because the best silk today is coming from China.”
Three years ago, Chanel began dispatching its artisans to China to give demonstrations of what goes into making its famous jackets, handbags and accessories by the specialty ateliers it owns, the embroidery house Lesage, shoemaker Massaro, hatmaker A. Michel, feather and flower house Lemarié and button maker Desrues. “The objective is to build a strong relationship and understanding between the boutique, the customers and the product,” Pavlovsky says.
Gucci works actively to communicate to Chinese consumers that all of its goods are made in Italy. Along with artisanal demonstrations, it uses Chinese social networks such as Sina Weibo and Youku, and recently launched an app and blog in Chinese to tell its story. “We believe firmly in our patrimony and the value it adds to our products in the minds of our customers,” says ceo Patrizio di Marco. “It is clear that Asian markets are becoming more adept at making things, but when it comes to the luxury products we sell, there is no substitute for the artisanal skills and expertise that have been handed down from generation to generation.
Chinese customers, he continues, are well informed and “increasingly sophisticated in their choices.”