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All aboard the LV express

Updated: 2012-07-22 10:01
By Tiffany Tan ( China Daily)
All aboard the LV express

Models sashay down the runway with Louis Vuitton's latest fall/winter women's collection, along The Bund in Shanghai. Photos by Jiang Dong / China Daily

Louis Vuitton celebrates its 20th year in China with a four-story "maison" in Shanghai. It opens its doors to the public on Saturday. Tiffany Tan reports.

When the clock strikes nine, steam begins rising from underneath the runway gates. Then the panels slide open and a one-carriage steam train, liveried in brown and blue, chugs to a stop before an audience of about a thousand.

Pulsating music comes on, and from the train descends models in Louis Vuitton's latest fall/winter women's collection, followed by uniformed, white-gloved porters lugging their bags.

Louis Vuitton's show on Thursday night along The Bund, Shanghai's famous waterfront of concession architecture, was the first time the French fashion house decided to restage its Paris Fashion Week show. It was also only the second time the luxury label presented a fashion show outside Paris - the first time was in Tokyo in 2006.

"I said to him (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault), you know, I feel really, really very emotionally attached to this show," Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton's creative director and head designer, says backstage before the start of the highly acclaimed show, originally presented in the Louvre museum grounds in March.

"I think it was our most beautiful ever. I'd love to take it to Shanghai. I think it would be a romantic and kind of a beautiful gesture to do that. We have so many fans there, I've never been, etcetera. And he said, 'That's a great idea. Let's do it'."

The big event, held in makeshift halls resembling areas of a train station, was part of Louis Vuitton's big celebration of its two decades in China.

In September 1992, the company opened its first store at the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing. And on Wednesday, at a cocktail party attended by foreign and Chinese celebrities like Gong Li, Alexa Chung and Fan Bingbing, the fashion house inaugurated its biggest of what is now 41 stores on the mainland.

Housed in Shanghai's upscale Plaza 66 mall, the four-story store is Louis Vuitton's response to China's increasingly discriminating luxury consumers, growing competition, and people who say the brand is losing its sheen of exclusivity.

As Louis Vuitton's first "maison" (house) in the country, the store offers custom-made shoes, belts and bags. On the second floor is an alcove where men can order Italian-made shoes and choose among five models, four construction types and eight kinds of leather, including snake, ostrich and alligator skins.

Women, meanwhile, have what the French call the haute maroquinerie, or luxury leather crafts. Customers can design their bags from eight leather types from four to 27 colors, five shapes and three sizes. The bags, made in France, can take up to six months to reach customers, just like the leather shoes.

The store's top floor, where the customized bags are ordered, is the store's invitation-only area for the brand's most important customers. Called the "apartment", it consists of two VIP rooms, a lounge, a kitchen and a bathroom with a heated bidet toilet. And like the rest of the store, the floor features contemporary art and designer furniture by foreign and Chinese artists.

The Plaza 66 store joins only a handful of Louis Vuitton stores worldwide to offer such services and amenities, a testament to the importance of the Chinese market - now the third largest in personal luxury goods, next to the United States and Japan.

"We see all over the world a growing sophistication of the demand of our clientele," Yves Carcelle, Louis Vuitton's chairman and CEO, tells China Daily. "When people have been clients of luxury, they have already bought several bags, several pairs of shoes, they want to grow their pleasure by buying more sophisticated things.

"And clearly, this need, this demand that is worldwide is maybe even stronger in China, because here everything goes faster. The sophistication of the client and its demands have been much faster as a process than in other countries."

But looming over the new store, which opens its doors to the public on July 21, is the economic slowdown in China. The country's GDP growth fell to 7.6 percent year-on-year in the second quarter, the lowest in three years, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

And although the Chinese luxury market is still expanding, its growth will slide to about 20 percent this year, compared to 30 percent in 2011, according to a report by management consulting firm Bain & Co.

But Louis Vuitton has placed its bets on the Chinese market.

"Even if it slows to 8 or 7.6, it's still a fast-growing economy that creates richness and people, who in a few years, see their wealth increasing very fast. And they want to have the same evolution of the pleasure of buying that they have in the building of their fortune," Carcelle says. "It's clear that if there is one country that justifies this (store), it's clearly China."

In a news conference, Christopher Zanardi-Landi, the company's executive vice-president, says: "We are still seeing very, very strong, double-digit growth among the Chinese, so I don't think we have so much of an issue with that."