HONG KONG — Karl Lagerfeld believes his Chanel collection is ideally suited to the Asian consumer.
"The physical look of Asian women is perfect for Chanel, because she [Coco Chanel] was not too tall, had dark hair and a very tiny silhouette, like they have," the designer said during his whirlwind visit here to show his spring-summer couture collection for the house on Friday evening. "Here you don't see big, fat women like you do in other parts of the world. I think Chanel is made for Asian women more than any other label."
The show was held at the famed Hong Kong soundstage Shaw Bros. Studios, which may be best known for producing some of the most action-packed films in cinematic history. Nearly 900 guests, including film pioneer Sir Run-Run Shaw, singer Kelly Chan, local supermodel QiQi, a plethora of socialites and journalists from around Asia gathered for the show, which was a virtual re-creation of the one in Paris. Accomplishing such a feat meant that Lagerfeld and Chanel SA president Françoise Montenay arrived in the city with dozens of Chanel staff and the same models, lighting, music, 15-meter-high white column, spiral staircase and circular set that made its debut in January.
"For me, seeing the dresses again was like a strange dream," said Lagerfeld. "I thought, ‘I've seen these before, but where?'" Despite working on two other collections since presenting this one, the designer said the collection still feels fresh, although there were occasional hiccups in showing the line in Asia. "The dresses have traveled a lot, been photographed a lot, been tortured — and here, it's very humid. The lining is affected. These are so delicate. The dresses have to be kept in perfect climatic conditions."
Not coincidentally, the motif of the couture collection was partially inspired by an exhibition of Chinese jade objects and porcelain in London. The China connection was not lost on the audience, publicity team or designer. "I am not a marketing person, but I wanted to do the campaign in Hong Kong," said Lagerfeld. "I have done it in New York and LA. I wanted another big city of today's life as a backdrop for the mood of it. Plus we just reopened the big [Prince's Building] boutique and they loved the idea of doing something here."That 6,800-square-foot flagship, which first opened in 1986, recently received a major facelift, which included all new interiors designed by Peter Marino, outdoor LED screens, custom-made artworks and individualized spaces for selling the complete range of Chanel products — from ready-to-wear and accessories to fine jewelry and shoes. Lagerfeld commented about the store, "For me, when I walk in I know it's a Chanel shop, it's beautiful. There are moments that it's like a private mansion — even if the ceilings are a little low."
Montenay said, "The reopening of this store is an opportunity to show all facets of the brand." She added that bringing the couture show to Hong Kong was not so much to market it as it was "a promotion of our image. The haute couture is the ultimate — it's the beginning of what we do."
She also admitted that educating local media about Chanel's history is important, particularly in mainland China. "We bring journalists from China to Paris for the shows, show them the [Chanel] apartment, because the journalists can really explain Chanel in magazines and on television."
Lagerfeld, on the other hand, feels Chinese customers should come to their own conclusions. "I hate the idea of teaching. I propose. I say it in a gentlemanly way. I am not here to say do this or do that," he said.
Currently, there are two Chanel boutiques on the mainland (in Shanghai and Beijing), with plans for two more. "It's important to be at the right place in the right location," commented Montenay. "To go somewhere that isn't the center of luxury is a mistake."
She said Chanel intends to expand its Shanghai store and to add an adjacent fine jewelry boutique. But the brand's expansion plans for China are intentionally limited. "We don't want too many points of sale — even beauty has only 50 and will have a maximum of 80. We do not want to be everywhere," said Montenay.
She noted that although China is changing quickly, it hasn't yet caught up to luxury-brand retail standards. "The most important obstacle has been the outlets. In the past five years, there has been a huge increase in the number of malls in mainland China, but they were not always at the right level or the right location. You have to find the right one."In the meantime, the brand is busy fighting counterfeiters in China, which Montenay called "a big issue." She said the worst thing was seeing the brand's label on inferior products. "Quality is the answer — you can see the difference. Those who buy counterfeit products are not Chanel customers. We fight them again and again and again." Montenay cited meeting with ministers of trade and industry as well as with police as part of the continued effort to fight piracy. "The Chinese government has to understand how bad it is for the image of China. It will come, but it will take time," she said.
While Chanel's legal team was pursuing pirates and the public relations team worked publicity, Lagerfeld spent his time pursuing artistic endeavors. "I will be working on photos next week," he said. "And I may do it at night, because I love Hong Kong at night."
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