NEW YORK — It wasn’t that Dragon Week NYC did not go off as expected, but rather that those involved with the weeklong luxury trip for rich Chinese to Manhattan didn’t really seem to know exactly what to expect.
“It was a learning experience for everyone,” said Christine Lu, a co-founder of Affinity China, the company that organized the trip, which began in New York on Sunday. “The story is not finished yet.”
The tale of the excursion was that it was one filled with nothing short of impressive, exclusive events for those who signed up to take part in Dragon Week, named so due to the fact that 2012 is the Year of the Dragon according to Chinese astrology.
Gilles Mendel gave guests a private tour of the J.Mendel atelier, while Montblanc invited Lang Lang, an internationally renowned pianist, for a private performance in the brand’s Madison Avenue boutique. Linda Fargo, the senior vice president of Bergdorf Goodman’s fashion office and store presentation, emceed a private fashion show at the store, which was followed by a cocktail party and dinner attended by designers including Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg, Naeem Khan, Zac Posen, Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, VBH’s Bruce Hoeksema and Peter Som.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a brief appearance at the Empire State Building for a gala and lighting ceremony in which the building’s top turned to hues of gold and orange to celebrate Chinese New Year. Yue-Sai Kan, a Chinese-American TV personality, and Luo Zilin, China’s entrant in the 2011 Miss Universe pageant, made frequent appearances throughout the week. Ralph Lauren, Piaget and Coach held private shopping events. Estée Lauder had a reception hosted by Aerin Lauder, the brand’s style and image director, at its world headquarters.
Those were the main attractions. The side story of the week was that not that many Chinese actually showed up. Affinity China, which bills itself as a concierge service aimed at reaching a growing demographic of a more affluent, culturally discerning group of Mainlanders traveling overseas, said 300 access cards were given out. While some events capped the number of people who could come, the average attendance numbered, at best, around 20, and, at times, fewer than a dozen.
Many of those who attended already live in the U.S., are second-generation Chinese studying at American colleges or are not Chinese. Affinity China said more Mainland Chinese were slated to come but canceled at the last minute due to visa issues or because they preferred to stay home with their families over Chinese New Year.
The fact that not that many Mainland Chinese attended didn’t seem to matter to the brands that participated. Instead, it seemed the overarching goal was to leverage an image of Chinese-looking faces in their stores mingling with celebrities, as well as an expectation that those who took part would share their experiences with family and friends back on the Mainland. A number of Chinese media outlets, including the state-run China Central Television and Xinhua news agency, covered the trip.
We “had the impression that it would be people coming to the States for the first time,” said Daniel Annese, Estée Lauder’s senior vice president and global general manager of market development.“I would say overall it has been a fantastic event.”
“This was our kickoff for our strategy, and I think it was absolutely the right thing to do,” said Bergdorf Goodman general manager Bill Brobston. “I think we will continue to get good press here and in China. We made a lot of friends, and that is a very important start for an area of the world we are just not that familiar with. I think it was great.”
What were not as stellar throughout the week were sales generated from the tour. While Brobston said a number of attendees have since returned to the store to shop, very few took advantage of private shopping hours after the fashion show and cocktail party on Tuesday evening. Staff at Ralph Lauren’s Madison Avenue flagship were clearly disgruntled by the dozen or so guests who attended a private shopping event where Susie Coulter, president of the brand’s retail stores, gave a personal tour of the store on Wednesday morning.
Ralph Lauren said it was expecting 50 people to come to the event. When that number failed to materialize, staff eventually opened the flagship to the general public, offering excess Champagne and caviar to regular shoppers. The company declined interview requests from WWD on its involvement with the group.
“It was never about how many sales you can bring in for us,” said Affinity’s Lu. “It was about how can [brands] position themselves to a demographic that is starting to travel the world, who are coming into stores and brands don’t know how to reach them. Word of mouth is going to get out. Honestly many of the Chinese did not know who these brands are. No one had heard of J.Mendel. No one had heard of Bergdorf Goodman.”
Which is why many of the designers, particularly those with little, if any, presence in China said they agreed to attend Bergdorf’s event as an opportunity to interface with Chinese, or even American Chinese, consumers with the hope that word would get out about their brands in China.
“It is intriguing for me to understand the prospects of the business [in China] and for them to understand who I am and what I do,” said Khan at the Bergdorf cocktail party. “The media and the press will carry this forward from today’s event that there is a Naeem Khan that exists and who does these kind of things. I just believe that is how I build my brand.”
For the handful of local Chinese who attended, there was a certain degree of surprise that an experience could exist that does not involve tour buses loaded with dozens of Chinese being herded into stores and buying massive amounts of luxury goods.
“I like the fact that they served Champagne in the stores. I have never experienced that before,” said Lina Li, a 36-year-old from Wuhan, a city in inland China, who found out about the trip from a posting on Facebook.
“I think in the future, when I tell my rich Chinese friends, I will have a lot of rich friends who want to come and will be interested in this kind of event,” she said. “They want to feel good. I am going to tell them if you want to experience a new lifestyle and feel privileged and experience some local culture and have someone to take care of you but not like a regular tour, then this will be the best thing to do.”
And there will be lots of opportunity to do it: Affinity is planning similar trips later this year to Las Vegas and Los Angeles.