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BEIJING — Taking luxury — and event marketing — to an audacious new summit, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld on Friday staged a sunset fashion show atop the Great Wall of China, capped off with giant double-F logos projected onto neighboring mountains.
“I think it’s the first fashion show visible from the moon,” Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, joked a few hours before 500 guests climbed steep stone steps to witness Karl Lagerfeld and Silvia Venturini-Fendi stroll down the 2,000-year-old structure to a rousing ovation. “It’s a big sign that China is the place where things are happening today.”
And how. The actresses Ziyi Zhang, Kate Bosworth and Thandie Newton joined LVMH brass, Beijing power players, Hong Kong and New York socialites and an army of press for an extravaganza said to have cost upward of $10 million.
“This is about positioning Fendi for the next 50 years,” declared Fendi chief executive Michael Burke, asserting: “This is not a Chinese event; it’s a world event.”
With a section of the awe-inspiring, 4,000-mile-long structure snaking up the mountain behind them, 88 models walked a runway 88 meters long (the esteemed number eight connoting prosperity in China) in an expanded version of Fendi’s spring-summer collection.
“It was absolutely magnificent,” said Bosworth, who will be racking up more air miles with her role as a knife-thrower in “The Laundry Warrior,” filming soon in New Zealand. “It was definitely the first time I took my camera out more than the photographers.”
“Beautiful, amazing,” concurred Ziyi, decked out in a burnout-print Fendi fur to ward off Beijing’s evening chill. (Though she needn’t have, since the bench-style seats were heated and all the ladies were draped in black Fendi cashmere shawls.)
Burke noted the collection — featuring clothes based on a circle motif that is a Chinese symbol of happiness, and the relaunch of its iconic Baguette bag — is Fendi’s most successful to date, posting a year-on-year increase of 30 percent.
Although countless fashion shows and other trade events have been staged at the foot of the Great Wall, Burke said it’s the first time a fashion show has been staged on top of it, with Fendi constructing a sloping runway lined with disco lights atop a picturesque section of the Juyongguan Pass, 30 miles northwest of the bustling, traffic-clogged Chinese capital.
“In fact, this wall was built like a runway,” Lagerfeld joked backstage, a knitted expanse of sable spread over his lap. “Can you imagine the physical difficulty in building something like this in those days?”
Yet the designer shrugged at the magnitude of Fendi’s own feat. “Fashion is a kind of show business, too,” he said. “We live in a global word. Fashion isn’t local.”
To wit: Some 80 Fendi employees were flown to Beijing to mount the event, including 10 seamstresses charged with final fittings for a collection that is roughly two-thirds new versus the spring styles shown in Milan last month. Burke said the new styles would be available worldwide in Fendi stores as the second part of its spring-summer runway delivery, and that look books would be dispatched to its wholesale clients to allow them to place orders. Lagerfeld added a suite of mid-calf dresses in lacquer red, while Venturini-Fendi decorated Baguettes with dangling silk tassles.
Burke said the event took a year of dedicated planning, given the lingering “fuzziness” of doing business — “You don’t have Western-style contracts in China,” he noted — and the daunting scale of the show. Completing the branding experience, Fendi Casa furniture was shipped from Italy to remake certain VIP rooms at the Grand Hyatt Beijing — and Lagerfeld’s interview suite backstage.
The company invited hundreds of journalists and countless TV crews to document the event, along with some of its best customers from the Asia region. Flanking the fashion show were a series of dinners and cocktails, plus organized visits to Beijing’s pearl market, the Forbidden City and the thriving contemporary art district known as 798.
The fashion show itself was followed by an open-air dinner and party at The Village at SanLiTun, a high-tech, spanking new shopping complex in downtown Beijing emblematic of China’s speed-of-light pace of change and futuristic optimism. Acrobats suspended from ropes twirled on the face of a five-story building, and a Chinese dancer unfurled the long silk sleeves of her dazzling pink kimono. DJ sets by Japanese streetwear king Nigo and actress Asia Argento kept the party pumping long past midnight.
Although the event was not done in tandem with any boutique opening, Fendi is enjoying rapid annual growth in China of “between 50 and 100 percent,” Burke said, adding increases of 30 percent a year should be “quite sustainable” in the market over the next decade.
The brand already operates 10 stores in China, including two in Beijing, and plans to add one additional unit per year in the giant nation to feed demand. At present, China ranks third among Asian markets for Fendi, after Hong Kong and South Korea. “At the rate it’s growing, it’ll be number two in 18 months and it’ll surpass Hong Kong in three years,” Burke said.
As for global clientele, Chinese consumers rank fourth, after Italians, Americans and Japanese.
Fendi opened its first boutique in China in 1999, initially with a retail partner it bought out two years ago. Burke noted that its business in China has been profitable since 2005.
“This is a real business. It’s not just image-building. There is a thirst for fashion and a thirst for luxury that is pent up,” he said. “It’s evolving very quickly.”
The timing for the Beijing event couldn’t be more opportune, with the Olympic Games next year poised to vault the city’s profile on the international stage, and with demand growing rapidly for luxury goods and fashion.
“It’s a very forward-looking country, and that’s what interests us,” Burke said. “It was always a country where luxury was produced and consumed.”
As in many emerging markets, consumers in China initially gravitated toward showy, logo-driven merchandise. But that bling dynasty is quickly coming to an end, said Burke, citing growing interest in sophisticated designer ready-to-wear, as opposed to just accessories. What’s more, luxury brands with global success and rich heritage are edging out some Western names with limited cachet outside of China, Burke asserted. “If you’re not relevant in your home country, they’re not going to consider it luxury,” he explained. “It’s about differentiating yourself from the pseudo luxury brands.”
In spite of the boom in China, one of the most imposing challenges is finding attractive, world-class real estate for luxury boutiques, Burke said. With its flotilla of brands, including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Sephora, LVMH has been instrumental in forging new retail developments, including attempts to create new downtown destinations, in addition to car-based luxury malls. “We have to be urban planners,” Burke noted. “The consumer exists, the desire exists, spending exists, but the environment doesn’t exist.”
Fendi’s Beijing event comes on the heels of a large-scale party at Tokyo’s National Stadium last December — not to mention over-the-top anniversary festivities last July for Valentino and Christian Dior.
Burke said such large-scale media events feed a growing audience interested in up-to-the-minute fashion information, not only the small clique of industry professionals who shuttle between Milan, New York, Paris and London.
“It’s part of the expanded reach of fashion,” he said. “Everybody basically sees the information simultaneously.”
As Lagerfeld pointed out, runway images are shown in luxury brand boutiques worldwide and “if you just have a white wall with a girl walking in front of it, nobody would look at it.”
Fendi has put major events in “iconic” places — which echoes its claim to such hometown sites as the Colosseum and Forum in Rome — at the center of its communication strategy.
“At the end of the day it’s a very efficient way of communicating what Karl and Silvia have to say about the season,” Burke said.
The wall event should certainly add more fuel to Fendi, one of the rising stars of the LVMH empire. Burke said the company should reach the $500 million threshold next year, and with growing profitability.
Many new Fendi stores are slated to open before year-end, including locations in Geneva, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul, where two units are planned. A location on Avenue Montaigne in Paris is scheduled for a January opening.
Next up for the brand is a men’s fragrance, yet to be named, to follow up the recent launch of Fendi Palazzo. Lagerfeld is booked to shoot the campaign next month, Burke noted. The brand is also mulling forays into fine jewelry and hotels.
As for Fendi’s next giant event, Lagerfeld and Venturini-Fendi tossed out a few ideas backstage: the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal or the ancient city of Petra, Jordan.
“‘Nothing is impossible’ is the Fendi motto,” Venturini-Fendi noted. “Let’s see what we’ll do next year. I told Michael, ‘You should get in touch with Richard Branson and book some space on the shuttle.'”