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Tough on the outside

Updated: 2012-11-04 14:39
By Zhao Xu ( China Daily)

Tough on the outside

Jiang Qiong'er says, by extension, Chinese luxury is about Chinese aesthetics and captures the magic generated by interaction between man and nature. Photos Provided to China Daily

Tough on the outside

Tough on the outside

A heady mix of discipline and creativity inspires the luxury brand Shang Xia. Zhao Xu finds out more from CEO Jiang Qiong'er.

As the woman behind what's touted as China's first luxury brand, 36-year-old Jiang Qiong'er automatically commands attention. However, the veneer of a high-powered CEO soon reveals the passionate and persevering soul of a designer.

"The aesthetic of Shang Xia is based on the philosophical concept of dichotomy. What we are after is a combination of outer severity and inner sumptuousness," she says.

For a deeper understanding, one needs only look at the Shang Xia furniture series that use a rare local species of hardwood known as zitan. The simple lines and muted dark colors are offset by the exuberant grain of the wood, and by a silken luster from extensive smoothing and polishing.

"We Chinese believe in a veiled type of beauty," says Jiang, pointing to a strip of cashmere felt that has been hand-pressed into a cape-like overcoat. Dubbed "soft sculpture" by Jiang, it doesn't have a single seam or stitch, and falls effortlessly over the body of the wearer.

"We took inspiration from the roomy shape of traditional Chinese women's wear. Rather than accentuating their contours, like the corsets and bustiers did to Western ladies, these clothes serve to hide the female curves," says Jiang. "But when the women move, especially in the wind, the draping fabric clings temporarily to their body, to give a suggestion of their sensuality."

"This is what Chinese aesthetics, and by extension Chinese luxury, is all about. It must be subtle and there must be a moment of interaction between man and nature for the magic to take place."

Jiang heads a design team of 15 and is responsible for all of Shang Xia's products.

How is it that such a young and energetic woman is also such a traditionalist? Jiang responds that it is due to her childhood immersion in classical Chinese art.

Daughter to the designer of both the Shanghai Museum and Shanghai Fine Arts Museum, Jiang was taught by two Chinese ink-and-brush masters from the age of 6.

"I was taught zhuanshu, which is probably the most ancient and time-consuming form of Chinese calligraphy," she recalls. "That experience really helped to rein me in, and to temper my heart."

"My father, who also painted, always emphasized to me the importance of emotional input," she says. "I was required to have 'real feelings' when working on lifeless objects."

After graduating from the art design department of Shanghai's Tongji University, Jiang backpacked to Paris, became infatuated with the city, and eventually enrolled herself in Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs, one the city's oldest and most revered design schools.

From there, she went on to work for Hermes, doing window dressing for the French luxury fashion house's China boutiques. It was over coffee with Hermes CEO Patrick Thomas and art director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, that the idea for Shang Xia was conceived.

"Qiong'er gave us the confidence to invest," says Thomas, about Hermes' decision to finance the Shanghai-based brand. "She has the creative vision and the business acumen."

Since 2010, two Shang Xia boutiques have opened in Shanghai and Beijing, with another planned for Paris next year.

Though the brand is losing money, Jiang is content to wait 10 years for a return and has reached out to handicraft masters.

"There's Lu Jiande who started as a village tailor and fell in love with the daughter of a porcelain master.

"To win the hearts of his loved one and her entire family, Lu put down his scissors and took up clay. The result? He got what he wished for and in the process became a disciple of the age-old craft."

Lu has embraced the life of a recluse in his rural Jiangxi province paradise, where he produces "eggshell porcelain".

From time to time, the designer sends handwritten letters to her masters. "The fact that most of them do not use the Internet forces me back into a previous era of communication."

She says the more deeply she becomes part of these artisans' lives, the more convinced she becomes of her mission to build Shang Xia, which translates as "above and below".

"These days, we have our modern economy which is sitting above and traditional handicraft arts which are languishing below. Our mission is to take the latter on a journey upstream," she says, drawing a half circle in the air. "For any civilization to continue and prosper, culture should be at the top with economy forming its basis."

"The two will swap positions, maybe in the far future, and that's when everything will just click and fall into place - we'll rediscover our roots."

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