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Céline to Stage Runway Show in Beijing

As Céline’s sales have tripled globally, the brand’s China presence has grown apace, ceo Marco Gobbetti said in an interview Tuesday.

BEIJING — In only a few years, China’s top-end luxury consumers have gone from clamoring for status-driven brands and logo-laden pieces to seeking out quieter labels.

This story first appeared in the May 21, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The rapid evolution of China’s luxury retail market has created a unique opportunity for brands like Céline, which embarked on its own transformation six years ago when it brought designer Phoebe Philo on as creative director. In that period, as Céline’s sales have tripled globally, the brand’s China presence has grown apace, chief executive officer Marco Gobbetti said in an interview here Tuesday. Gobbetti said China is now in Céline’s top five most-important markets and will continue to be vital to the brand in the years ahead.

To celebrate Céline’s success with China’s consumers and extend their understanding of the brand, Philo will stage a runway show on Thursday evening in the main art district of the Chinese capital — the first Céline runway show in China and a rare exhibition outside of Paris.

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“It’s a way to respond to a customer that’s been evolving and growing,” Gobbetti said of the China market. “A few years back they were just approaching the market, and now they are the real experts.”

Gobbetti said Céline appeals to a new generation of Chinese consumers who are active professionals making their own choices. They want quality products and have done extensive research about designs and materials. China consumers still want a full-service retail experience, but they arrive informed and knowledgeable.

Céline now has 20 stores in China, and Gobbetti said there are no plans to open more soon. Instead, the company is expanding and refining existing shops, and will focus on perfecting retail locations in China for the next three years. Plans include a major overhaul and enlargement of the brand’s store in Shanghai’s Plaza 66, one of China’s first major luxury malls.

“We have grown fairly rapidly, and we now cover the most important cities,” Gobbetti said.

Céline started with 135 stores worldwide when Gobbetti undertook a revamp of the business. Today the company has fewer than 90.

He said many brands made the mistake of opening too many stores too quickly in China, anticipating a massive, unending boom. The luxury retail market in China has now become highly competitive, and any cost savings in real estate and personnel found a few years ago are gone today. China is no longer a low-cost place to do business.

Furthermore, nearly half of the retail business from Chinese consumers comes from brands’ stores outside of China — an offshoot of the boom in China’s travel-retail fervor.

Gobbetti said he’s comfortable with Céline’s store numbers here and intends to continue to cater to discriminating customers.

“The educated classes are moving status, now they are researching what suits them,” he said. “Even in China, you don’t need to please everybody.”

So what’s in the evolution of the China’s vast luxury market? After such intense change in such a short span of time, seeing the future can be a tricky proposition. Gobbetti said he believes that Chinese consumers will next move into buying timeless pieces that last several seasons, while seeking out a complete customer service experience.

“Real values are what it’s going back to,” he said.