In New York’s MET China Through the Looking Glass, the birth of a positive Orientalism.
“This exhibition is not about China per se but about a collective fantasy of China.”
We, at CC, are in New York because we believe that one day fashionistas will flock into Guo Pei shop on Madison Avenue just like how they flock into Balmain today.It is inspiring to see that New York is the “looking glass” of how European (mostly French) luxury brands used Orientalism to portrait China’s best.
Most media coverage about MET’s recent exhibition “China through the looking glass” shows us just what the show is NOT about. The Rihanna’s dress-bashingbuzz works exactly against the show’s intention of putting into light one of the show’s Chinese designer, Guo Pei. In most articles, the journalists disdain to give the show its deserved diplomatic importance. Except for one, Refinery29’s Connie Wang quotes from the Met’s brochure, “We present a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative response by the West to an encounter of the East”. She criticizes the statement by arguing that the exhibition tries to say that Orientalism “can be good”.
Interestingly, that “Orientalism can be good” echos a marketing approach to the problem: Can Exoticism be a positive narrative for brands?For that we would like to share the following models and to evaluate just when brands should stop treating themselves like a souvenir shop (although that is another story).
When you meet a Chinese businessman or businesswoman, you will first hear”China has 5,000 years of history”. What your peer is really trying to say is that “ China has 5,000 years of history…So why do you always talk about Mao, Ying Yang and dragons in front of me?”
To understand what Guo Pei is doing, one needs to understand what narratives there are in China about China.
SHANGHAI 1930s: Europeans conceive this era as elegant and savoir-vivre while for Chinese, it was a time of invasion and turmoil. The narrative is widespread in luxury industry with regard to China. Shanghai Tang, Shanghai Vive and Chanel are all good examples, mostly thanks to the international success of the Qi Pao dress.
TANG DYNASTY: It is referred as an era closest to China today. The Empire growth was relying on its opening to the world, trades and cultural
innovation. This era is now mostly interpreted by brands within their retail, packaging design, as well as through poetic narratives such as the Silk Road. Shanghai Tang and Shang Xia are two examples among many brands that refer to that era.
CULTURAL REVOLUTION: As a narrative, it is used the same way as the West has been using Andy Warhol’s art in branding. In China, it is common to see designers playfully deriving Mao’s icons – be it portraits or slogans – onto teacups, t-shirts and hundred other souvenirs. It is used by foreign brands dominantly as a mean to attract Chinese young generation. But ironically Chinese young generation, in the opposite, are more eager to break out from that past. They are much more willing to reinvent their identity, which is in a way similar to the western idea of Deconstruction philosophy of the late 1960s. Usually, brands that use this narrative are more niche such as Café Commune and Song Fang Tea.
At CC Shanghai, we are glad that we had a chance to work on branding strategy for Guo Pei. She is considered as the only Chinese designer who reveals China’s Imperial legacy in Haute couture. She is just about to own the whole China’s vast Imperial wardrobe and cultural icons in a generation who needs more than Mao and Cultural Revolution.
Guo Pei is China’s unique weapon against Orientalism in fashion – a concept created by Columbia University-based Edward Said – and, in a way, a New Yorker’s response to colonialism. Guo Pei is creative about how Chinese elegance can be a diplomatic asset for Chinese people and purposefully seeks to export that.
The MET gala was Guo’sgreat debut in the New York fashion scene and we can tell New York has opened its arms to her. Guo understands that historical references and its lyrical influence in fashion is not a western import. Instead, it had existed in China way before China met the West, and that it must be reinvented to balance the luxury narrative equation with the West.
THE NARRATIVE OF “VOYAGE” IN LUXURY
Almost all French luxury brands have utilized the narrative of “Voyage” as a global brand story strategy. The reason is that Voyage can be marketed as Exoticism to Western customers and at the same time, Escapism to local customers. Such narrative has been largely fueled by one
particular historical era that has a strong negative social repercussion: Orientalism. While “Voyage” is a Western narrative targeting westerners, Western brands also rely on it when they sell abroad. You will find examples everywhere, from Chanel exposing Coco’s trips to Shanghai, Dior’s misinterpreting class photography from the 40s, Guerlain and its Shalimar campaign, to Cartier and Odyssey, as well as Hermes travel DNA being criticized for Orientalist use of Bedouin patterns on its scarves. Orientalism in art is the visual language of Western diplomatic tradition. It is to portrait one culture through Western eyes in order to own it (or maybe to tame it). Despite its negative repercussion in history, it can be seen as a way of promoting cultures of that particular emerging market. Yet it depends on historical timing, as the ultimate goal for this language is self-identification and clearly cultural expression.
THE BIRTH OF EXOTIC CAPITAL
While Orientalism is negative, Exoticism in branding can be positive. Globalization has increased the value of Exotic Capital in branding. As a capital, it is not infinite. It needs to grow with time, and the most importantly, it is a type of property of the brands who own it. While Orientalism is subject to cultural domination in a given region, every region has its own Exotic Capital.
France, for instance, has become an exotic culture for citizens who were the “victims” of Orientalism. Reason being; French brands have been relying on its Exotic Capital by communicating their culture not from their own, but the point of view of their local consumers. Exotic Capital is leveraged when a brand realizes the untapped strength of the narrative of its place in the eyes of its audience…What the press has been called positive Orientalism can be seen as the power of Exotic Capital carried on by brands.
This expo is an ingenious mix of local creative expertise. Parisian brands bring alive the cultural mystic through craftsmanship; China provides the per se cultural content; and New York, after putting the negative parameters to light, showcases the bright side of that relationship. What has it proved? Utilizing positive Orientalism (by mobilizing brands exotic capitals) can be a cultural movement in itself that separates from Chinese culture.