Undercover Shopper: East Meets West in Shanghai

In China’s financial capital, glitzy high-end shopping malls share major retail real estate with traditional Shanghai glamour forged in the roaring Twenties.

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Beauty Inc issue 02/10/2012

In China’s financial capital, glitzy high-end shopping malls share major retail real estate with traditional Shanghai glamour forged in the roaring Twenties. WWD’s Casey Hall goes in search of the best modern science and time-tested beauty products have to offer here.

This story first appeared in the February 10, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Even after five years of living in Shanghai, beauty shopping in this city is still something of a
minefield for me. The ubiquitous whitening products that dominate the market hold no appeal for my Caucasian—and very much white enough already—complexion. Also, ingredient lists in Chinese are difficult to navigate, a particular problem because my sensitive and rosacea-prone skin does not play well with common additives such as alcohol and fragrance.

In search of a skin care solution, I decided to sample options across the spectrum, from top-of-the-line international brands to Shanghai’s most famous name in locally produced beauty products, Shanghai Vive.
My first destination was east of the Huangpu River that splits Shanghai down the middle, to Pudong area’s Lujiazui district. This ultramodern, sky scraper–filled business hub is increasingly becoming a shopaholic’s paradise, with shiny new malls sprouting from the concrete jungle. It is also home to Shanghai’s newest and shiniest monument to luxury retail—Shanghai IFC mall at 8 Century Avenue.

Shanghai IFC is a six-story, 110,000-square- meter behemoth, home to brands such as Chanel, Burberry, Hermès, Prada and many more. Hoping to avoid the crowds that pour into the malls here over the weekend, I visited on a Wednesday afternoon. The ploy was successful, as the center’s thoroughfares were generally quiet, though still populated with a smattering of well-dressed Chinese shoppers.

The mall has its own skin care Mecca, a row of retailers specializing in all things fragrant and dermal-related.

My first stop was the Clarins Skin Spa, where treatments range from a 30-minute Gentle Skin Smoother Express for $60 to a 90-minute Lifting Face Shaper facial for $190. I was on the hunt for a product suitable for my sensitive skin, and the businesslike English-speaking shop assistant listened attentively before guiding me to the Huile Santal Face Treatment Oil ($65). Because it contains only essential oils, she promised this would be a superior alternative to traditional, chemical-filled moisturizers.

Right next door was Jurlique, the Australian brand famous for its natural products containing ingredients farmed at their 150-acre property in the Adelaide Hills. Photographs of the farm decorate the walls here, giving it a down-home feel beside its cutting-edge neighbors. As with many Chinese retail staff, the shop assistants at Jurlique stay very close to their customers, often too close for the comfort of Western consumers, who are accustomed to somewhat more personal space. Nonetheless, the English-speaking assistant was very sympathetic to my skin issues and quickly gathered a number of products for me to sample, her primary recommendation being a Rosewater Balancing Mist ($60), which not only featured my favored scent, but also promised maximum hydration.

In the end, my first purchase of the day was Jurlique’s Tranquil Bubble Bath, which set me back $28 for 330ml and is sure to be an asset in my battle to keep warm through Shanghai’s cold winter nights.

Next in line was L’Occitane, which has already achieved relatively high penetration in China’s major cities. Interestingly, it was the only store along the row that didn’t have English-speaking sales staff, but it did have plenty of skin, bath and body products, primarily sorted by scent. Although L’Occitane is my usual go-to for its lovely hand cream, I was already fully stocked and left the store with my remaining cash intact.

The last stop on my Shanghai IFC beauty- shopping expedition was the captivatingly science lab-esque MTM store. This Hong Kong brand promises custom-blended skin care using manufacturing know-how from Japan and Swiss ingredients. In keeping with the theme, the sparse white decor of the store was dotted with beakers and test tubes filled with different-colored liquids.

A diminutive but incredibly capable 20-something shop assistant (or “customer consultant” according to her name tag) took me under her wing, and wasted no time in sitting me down for an in-depth skin consultation. This involved a magic wand being expertly waved over my face by the consultant, who took a number of (frighteningly) ultraclose-up pictures of my skin, which were then displayed prominently on an LCD monitor so we could examine every dry, sun-damaged pore in supersize detail.

With the results of my consultation in, the consultant led me by the arm to the “Allergy” section and picked out a number of products that could be custom-made for my face. All of this technical know-how and customization comes at a price, mind you, with one product, the Custom-blended (CB) Collagen Hydro Essence, retailing for $325 per 30ml bottle.

Limited by budget restrictions, I asked for the one product I should not leave the store without buying. Without hesitation she picked up a tube of CB Hydrating Miracle Mask and gravely told me, “You need this. Now.” Her serious tone was not unlike what you would expect from someone telling you that your face is about to explode in five, four, three, two… Okay, okay, I’ll take the Miracle Mask! Hard-sell successfully negotiated, the now-smiling consultant took $135 of my hard-earned cash and signaled another employee, who donned a face mask and entered the glass enclosure of the store’s on-site lab, where my custom-blended creation was made in front of my very eyes.

Interestingly, there was no section dedicated to whitening. According to the eminently sensible sales associate, the best method for avoiding a darker complexion is sunscreen and “the most important thing is moisture,” she counseled. “Always, always moisturize.”

The next day, I set out for Shanghai’s famous Bund, a riverside promenade lined with ornate, early 20th century buildings. Formerly home to banks, consulates and customs houses, the imposing structures are now Shanghai’s most prized locations for restaurants, luxury boutiques and hotels.

My destination was Shanghai Vive’s flagship store. The city’s most famous homegrown beauty brand is housed inside the Fairmont Peace Hotel. The hotel, like the brand itself, is quintessentially Shanghainese. First built in 1929, the hotel reopened in 2010 after a three-year, $78 million dollar reconstruction and
remains the city’s premier luxury hotel. Walking into the building from one of Shanghai’s busiest
streets, the original period details retained by the hotel’s renovation are a wonderfully welcoming sight. I wandered wide- eyed through the lobby with its marble floors, stained glass and gilt-edged opulence towards the retail area, home to the small Shanghai Vive boutique.

First launched in 1898 under the name “Twin Sisters” (the two beautiful qipao-wearing sisters still feature in the brand’s logo) Shanghai Vive has undergone a revival over the past two years. The glamorous rose and black packaging and a strong cultural ethos are two major elements the company hopes will make it competitive with foreign players in this brand-obsessed market.

The price point is on par with imported cosmetics and skin care products. There are two major lines, one of which is focused more on younger women, while the more popular of the two is skewed towards a 30- plus demographic. This “Restorative” antiaging line includes Shanghai Vive’s famous Radiance Restorative Cream ($110 for 50g), which first caught the world’s attention with a gold- medal win for innovation at the 1915 Panama World Expo.

Walking into Shanghai Vive feels like entering the boudoir of a mysterious and demonically chic Jazz-era woman-about-town. Lit by hexagonal Art Deco–style chandeliers and punctuated with splashes of hot pink, skin care takes pride of place on a long bench running almost the entire length of the store. The walls are lined with drawers and displays, which open to reveal cosmetics and accessories.

On this particular sunny Thursday afternoon, I was the only customer, and was immediately greeted with a gentle bow from the young, female shop assistant clad rather dandily in a burgundy and black velvet tuxedo.

As she applied the Radiance Restorative Cream, she simultaneously explained, in broken but understandable English, the brand’s history. When asked if the products are made in China, she quickly noted that they are made in Shanghai. Perhaps this is part of the brand’s desire to separate itself from the mass-produced impression a “Made in China” label might leave on its well-heeled customers?

According to the Shanghai Vive folklore spouted, generations of Shanghai’s most famous beauties swear by the products and purchasing them is the only way to gain access to the local beauty secrets. A rather persuasive sales technique, I must say.

A particularly tempting item for me was the Ye Shanghai eau de parfum, priced at $140 for 50ml. The elongated red glass bottle with a black-tasseled atomizer holds a sensuous fragrance, perfect for a night out. And the gorgeous, retro packaging just makes me want to take a little piece of Shanghai’s glamorous past home with me. I abstained this time, but I’ll definitely be back.


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