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SHANGHAI — Compagnie Financière Richemont’s recently restored villas in the former French Concession don’t just house Dunhill and Vacheron Constantin flagships — they’re also home to the newest outpost for this city’s oldest contemporary art gallery, ShanghArt.
The gallery and its founders, Laura Zhou and Lorenz Helbling, spearheaded the emergence of the Shanghai contemporary art scene, and 2008 has proven to be another busy year. ShanghArt’s new space is hosting its second exhibition, “Hybrid,” which showcases the work of more than a dozen artists, including Tang Guo’s evocations of traditional Chinese ink landscapes through monochrome photography and Zhang Enli’s minimalist still life paintings. The show runs through the end of next month. The space opened with an inaugural exhibition of photographic light boxes by Shanghainese duo Bird Head, made up of Song Tao and Ji Weiyu: a daringly noncommercial, avant-garde choice for what easily could have been a more sales-focused location.
Richemont opened the renovated twin villas, built in 1921 and 1927, in mid-October in a bid to fuse elements of art, lifestyle and luxury into a unique experience for its Chinese customers. The compound also features an English garden — tapping into the brand’s British heritage — as well as a branch of the private Hong Kong bar and restaurant Kee Club. ShanghArt 796 occupies the ground floor of a minimalist glass structure at the back of the compound; Richemont’s new offices are upstairs.
“Richemont is the first luxury group to establish such a vanguard concept in China’s luxury retail revolution,” said John Durnin, chief financial officer of Dunhill Asia.
Yann Debelle de Montby, Dunhill’s director of image and press relations and the creative force behind the project, said the company is eager to distinguish itself from hordes of other brands and shopping environments that reek of sameness.
“As consumers, people are frustrated with the shopping experience,” he continued. “It’s boring; it feels like being in an airport. Malls account for 95 percent of turnover, especially in China, but it feels wrong — when you enter a store, you should step into a larger idea.”
Debelle de Montby said Dunhill is striving to teach Chinese customers how to dress like proper gentlemen and turn them into loyal customers.
The store features a first floor cluttered with travel paraphernalia — dubbed the “room of discovery” — as well as a suit room, a casual room and a cigar and martini bar. The smaller back rooms contain a boutique barbershop and a tailoring service straight from Savile Row.
The Vacheron Constantin manse features a retail showcase, a watch-repair laboratory and an exhibition room with revolving displays of vintage watches and a collection of watch books. For the most dedicated watch collectors, there are also 18 vacuum-packed, climate-controlled watch safes available.
Shanghai represents the third Dunhill Home project and the second Vacheron Constantin Mansion in the world. Vacheron’s first is its Geneva headquarters. The other Dunhill Homes consist of London’s Bourdon House, which opened in September, and a space in Tokyo’s Ginza Chuo Street that launched in December 2007.
The Shanghai project was two years in the making, starting with the location scout. “Two years ago we discovered the place, and when you walk in, there is a spirit about it,” enthused Vacheron Constantin’s Asia-Pacific managing director Yann Bouillonnec. “It is in the center of Shanghai, on Huaihai Lu, which is very busy, but when you walk in [the lane], it is very quiet with a garden.”
Debelle de Montby explained that conventional wisdom directed them toward the trendier, higher-profile, more international retail districts of Nanjing Lu and the Bund. However, after coming to Shanghai in 1996 and falling in love with the city and its history, he held out for the former concession and historic shopping avenue that has the most cachet with native Shanghainese.
Dunhill entered the Mainland market in 1992, making it among the earliest international brands here, and it remains a leader in men’s wear. Dunhill has 100 stores in Asia, spanning Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and, more recently, India.
“We have worked hard at building our men’s wear and leather accessories ranges across China. We have a strong and growing leather assortment that targets both gifting and self-purchase and also allows us the appeal to the rapidly increasing businesswomen sector in China who need to carry serious business cases,” specified Durnin.
Meanwhile, Vacheron has been quietly tapping into the growing Chinese love affair with timepieces. The brand, which first had a presence in China in 1845, relaunched on the Mainland in 1996, and now has 20 doors in about 15 cities. Bouillonnec said the brand is still “very male” in orientation, but women are increasingly interested in timepieces and now make up 30 percent of the brand’s sales in China.
“China is one of the countries with the most numbers of successful women in business,” Bouillonnec said. “Chinese women are strong and work hard to achieve success. We are offering more and more mechanical watches for women.”
Although they were in the works for some time, the Richemont villas are opening at a precarious time, as the global recession begins to hit Mainland China, but company executives stressed the project is about long-term branding, not sales. “If times are difficult, we should provide better products and service, showing what makes us different from our competitors,” Bouillonnec said. “When your brand is 250 years old, you don’t think about daily economics, you think about 10, 20, 50 years into the future.”