Raphael le Masne de Chermont is the driving force behind Shanghai Tang’s expansion and positioning as the first Chinese luxury lifestyle brand.
And while Europe and the US are targeted for growth, a new fragrance launch is due next year and a flagship boutique in Shanghai that just opened is getting rave reviews. The Frenchman in Hong Kong thinks the best is yet to come.
Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan visited him at his Hong Kong flagship, where he talked about the future as well as the textbook transition from founder David Tang to an important house for global luxury power Richemont.
Elite Traveler: You’ve had a hectic week?
Raphael le Masne de Chermont: We opened our flagship store last week in Shanghai, which is in a gorgeous 1930s heritage building, a former cinema. Last May, we opened this shop (in Hong Kong); it’s dedicated to Chinese art, which is why we have the art collection. The Shanghai flagship is dedicated to Chinese cinema. It’s fun.
ET: And you’ve led an amazing evolution of the brand?
RMC: We started as a small shop in 1994, a bespoke tailoring business that was capitalizing on the know-how of the Chinese tailors from the ’30s who had immigrated to Hong Kong in 1949. They were literally the artisans of Chinese haute couture. They were unique, and they created unique pieces. When I joined there was one shop, absolutely beautiful, colorful, and stylish because David Tang, who founded the brand, has an incredible eye. It was a fantastic start upon which to develop the basis of what we are today, the first Chinese luxury brand.
ET: Shanghai Tang is perhaps a model for successfully building a luxury brand after buying out the owner. What was the secret?
RMC: David Tang left us with a very strong DNA. David is a genius and what he created and left us is brilliant and amazing. I was good friends with David before I joined as chairman. I told him once, “People will remember you, not me. I am just making sure your heritage is protected.” The transition was smooth: Everyone earned well, and I think we gave [the previous owners] an exit, so everyone was pleased. [The key is] you can’t have an ego. Personally, I have a real passion for the brand, which is dedicated to China.
ET: Where are you now?
RMC: Today we have 45 stores around the world. We are a business balanced between apparel and hard goods. The huge difference today is the demographic. We used to be 90 percent Western, and today we are 50 percent Western and 50 percent Asian with Mainland Chinese being our biggest customers. We are Chinese and our mission is to be the curator of modern Chinese chic. We are contemporary. We dress people on a daily basis. We try to filter what comes from the Chinese culture and translate it to a lifestyle experience.
ET: Who do you see as your competition?
RMC: Our competition is very much the premium fashion brands of the world, such as Ralph Lauren. In terms of price, we are like Coach, Kate Spade, or MaxMara, but in terms of aesthetics, the product is akin to what you can find at Hermès. We are able to offer a better price because we manufacture in China. Also, there is very little business in high-level apparel, so it is mainly accessories.
ET: What about the future?
RMC: We are not going to change much. The blueprint for the brand’s development exists; we’re just going to scale it. We’re going to open more stores, and we’re going to start wholesaling the brand. Our priority for wholesaling is Europe and the US. We will also start opening more boutiques with partners in second- and third-level cities in China. We have a strong presence in travel retailing in Asia that we plan to grow as well.
ET: What’s your plan for the United States and Europe?
RMC: We should have at least two flagship stores in Europe and two in the US. We are opening a flagship store in Paris (for the travel market), and we are already in London. We are launching our new fragrance at Colette next year. As for the US, we have been in the country since 1997. We closed Las Vegas and are looking for a new location in New York, probably downtown, as that’s a better fit culturally for the brand. We also want to have a restaurant, as we want to give people the chance to embrace a beautiful contemporary Chinese lifestyle.
ET: What’s the timing for New York?
RMC: We are not in a rush [for New York]. Americans have always been fans of Shanghai Tang. Meanwhile the US is our number one market for e-commerce, which is growing by 40 percent, so in essence, we are already there, though we would also like to find a department store partner in the US.
ET: Any other news?
RMC: We will be launching a collection of fragrance in May. It will be our entry price point ambassador. The launch will be very big for us. In terms of accessories, we started very broad and then edited what we were doing. There are three categories: Scarves; fashion jewelry (not high jewelry); and leather goods, small leather goods, and handbags. Though you have to be careful with the bags: You get an “It” bag, and it has a one-year lifespan. Then the bag gets copied. Recovery from an “It” bag can be dangerous…I would rather produce high-quality bags with consistent appeal.
ET: What’s your biggest challenge?
RMC: While I don’t know people who don’t like Shanghai Tang, I know a lot of people who haven’t heard of Shanghai Tang. That said, we have a very committed base of customers who buy Shanghai Tang products not only for themselves, buy also as gifts. Before, the brand’s style was a bit cliché Chinese, but now it has transitioned into something that anyone at any age can wear.
ET: What are your favorite hotels when traveling?
RMC: I love the Mandarin Oriental in New York. We have a close relationship, and to an extent, the brands have a common history. Mandarin Oriental has done an incredible job developing their brand. The hotel in New York has superb views. When I’m in Singapore, I stay at the Beaufort Sentosa. I love the gardens, and it feels like you are on holiday. In China, I stay the Langham in Xintiandi – great location and very good service.
ET: What about when you are not working?
RMC: Polo is my passion. I wanted to be a professional polo player when I was 13, but my dad said I would have to pay for it. Unfortunately, it’s a dangerous passion. I’ve gotten a stick in my face. I’ve had knee ligaments torn out. But it gives you a lot of stamina for business. Also, you can’t cheat in polo, so it’s a good foundation for business.