Katie Ewer
Jan 8, 2014

Asian Champions of Design: Shanghai Tang

Shanghai Tang has employed its unique design, rooted in tradition but with modern twists, to captivate western clients and native Chinese alike.

Asian Champions of Design: Shanghai Tang

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of columns highlighting Asia-based brands that make effective use of design.

Shanghai Tang is a Hong Kong brand that’s inspired by its provenance but that’s directed by its personality. Founded in 1994 by Hong Kong entrepreneur David Tang, it has forged a unique
place in the fashion world through an elegant, flamboyant and very distinctive design aesthetic.

Shanghai Tang made a name for itself with a style that blended 1920s and 1930s Chinese fashion, Han dynasty imperial clothing and traditional Chinese graphic motifs. It became known for its stylish reinterpretation of the Mao jacket and the qipao, as well as for its tongue-in-cheek appropriation of Maoist era print and iconography.

The original logo that adorned the façade of the iconic Pedder Street store (above) drew on the graphic traditions of communist China and threw them together with a pop-art aesthetic. It’s a recipe of reinvention that’s served the brand well. (Today the brand more frequently uses an understated logo, below.)

With a name that conjures the romance of jazz nights on the Bund, Shanghai Tang found its first loyalists in a Western audience—a target who were captivated by the mix of exotic, old-world glamour and modern fine tailoring that the brand so deftly captured. Things have changed. From a previous share of 70 per cent, Shanghai Tang’s Western audience now accounts for only 50 per cent of the brand’s market, with the other 50 per cent in Asia and the majority of its customers in mainland China. A sign perhaps that the domestic market in China is finally ready to embrace homegrown luxury brands.

Let’s hope so. Shanghai Tang is frequently referred to as China’s first luxury brand, and considers itself a frontrunner in the shift from ‘made in China’ to ‘designed in China’.

That pride in Chinese design is pivotal to the brand’s spirit and distinctive personality. “Never describe it as East-meets-West’ because it’s not, it’s Chinese”, David Tang once said. “We make traditional Chinese clothes and we modernize them."

But the brand does much more than this. Shanghai Tang has never simply aped the traditions that it embraced—it’s always found a way to somehow make them ‘their own’, evolving fresh perspectives on its rich heritage in everything from its logo and graphic styling to homeware and fashion. Its elegant modernity and measured use of vibrant, often conflicting bright colours has become something of a hallmark, as has the irreverent way in which it sometimes treats traditional subject matter. 

With one or two well considered stylistic twists on an existing set of design conventions, Shanghai Tang manages to create a language that is both unique and recognisable. It has found a voice beyond the conventions of luxury and fashion, and provides enough substance and style to keep us captivated for more than just a season.

Tang Trivia

  • David Tang sold Shanghai Tang to the Richemont Group in 2006. The new CEO is French luxist Raphael le Masne de Chermont 
  • Shanghai Tang was kicked out of its Pedder Street home in 2011. The brand set up camp in a series of Mongolian-inspired yurts on the roof of Central Pier, calling the event ‘A New Journey as a Nomad of Central’, before opening its new flagship store on Duddell Street.
  • Shanghai Tang's recently opened Cathay Mansion in Shanghai offers 10,000 square feet of retail space in a restored art deco movie theatre (pictured above, second from right). 

Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR Global in Singapore.
Check out the rest of the Asian Champions of Design series.


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