The swelling numbers of interior design and lifestyle shops popping up in China, makes it quite clear that Chinese consumers have a developing appreciation for design. Increasingly, interior and furniture design is becoming a staple of luxury events targeted at affluent Chinese consumers. As I already mentioned in my previous article The rise of multi-label and lifestyle brands in China, more and more auction houses have been adding a design and furniture element to their sales, encouraged by Chinese consumers’ design savvy shopping habits abroad.
The trend is for well-decorated spaces to become increasingly important to Chinese consumers. This fact is supported by the global design events that keep being announced in China and by the growing presence of China in the Milan Design Week. Through the past five years I had the privilege to witness the growth, or what we might call the flood, of Chinese designers and industry players to the most important interior design event of the world. Apart from Chinese visitors, branded events and exhibition have also started mushrooming in Milan, targeting the huge (and selected) Chinese audience.
This March 8 to 11, the Shanghai Exhibition Center displayed 350 exhibitors for Design Shanghai. Design Shanghai gave the entire Shanghai community a chance to participate through offsite installations and networking events. In a smart move, that seems to start being adopted for many of these events since the Beijing Design Week in 2015, Design Shanghai also partnered with upscale shopping district Shanghai Xintiandi. In a win-win situation, aside from giving consumers another dimension of the exhibition through experience, the shopping district benefits from bringing in design-minded luxury shoppers seeking inspiration for their homes. It featured interactive installations by artists from China and around the world, and tours of relevant shops, showrooms, and museums were offered to event guests.
JD.com and the Milan Design Week
This April marks the 5th year I work as adviser and event producer during the Milano Design Week. (I wrote about previous exhibitions here) This year the exhibition we present is sponsored by China’s largest online direct sales company: JD.com (京东 Jingdong), pretty much Chinese version of Amazon, and competitor of Alibaba’s Tmall. As every year, the exhibition will be held at Milan University (Statale di Milano, via Festa del Perdono 7), where traditionally every year Interni Magazine connects the avantgarde of the global design with the best of Italian manufactures and brands. This year, it will be again curated by professor Yang Dongjiang, from Tsinghua University. Professor Yang sits also as vice director for Tsinghua Art Museum and Editor in Chief of Interni China. Interni China, launched in 2015, is the Chinese version of Interni Italia co-published by China International Publishing Group (CIPG) and Mondadori, Italy’s largest media group and owner of Interni Italia, a leading magazine of interiors and contemporary design. (Check out here for the press release on this year’s exhibition, and here for a brief introduction to its curator, Yang Dongjiang)
JD.com and Alibaba competition on cross-country design e-tail
Last year, JD.com signed a high-profile partnership with Milan Fashion Week’s organiser, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, and Milan-based school of design European Design Centre. The partnership, called “Fashion Shiner”, was made to create a media platform to launch an “Italian Fashion Mall” on JD.com. The deal marks significant progress for JD.com as it faces challenges and competition from Alibaba in attracting high-end brands. With a fear of diluting their image, very few luxury brands have agreed to partner with the e-commerce behemoths despite their dominance in China’s e-commerce market. Many brands worry that the platforms are a poor fit for luxury due to their mass-market identity, rampant fakes, and focus on discounts, but some are slowly coming around. Alibaba’s Tmall has netted Burberry and Calvin Klein, while comparatively mass-market premium categories like cosmetics and sunglasses have been more open to the platforms—JD.com recently signed both Sephora and Luxottica. JD.com’s “Italian Mall” is part of the company’s JD Worldwide cross-border platform that launched in April and competes with Alibaba’s Tmall Global, which has been ramping up its own efforts through the creation of 11 different “country pavilions” in June. Attracting prestigious foreign brands is a key strategy in a high-stakes competition between Alibaba and JD.com, which are both aiming to impress international investors after launching their U.S. IPOs last year.
JD.com’s and the Italian home furnishing
Last year, JD.com announced that it was launching a dedicated platform for international home furnishing designers and brands to reach millions of Chinese consumers online. JD.com’s Milan Design Week exhibition was held in Zona Tortona and featured 10 individual rooms, each showcasing the collaborative creations of Chinese and Italian design teams around the theme of modern lifestyle. “Demand for home furnishings on JD.com is exploding, and international brands in particular are gaining traction as consumers look for new fashionable styles and designs,” said last year Lijun Xin, President of JD.com’s Apparel and Home Furnishing Business Unit. “The new home furnishings platform reflects our commitment to bringing Chinese consumers easy access to the best global products, while enabling top brands to reach our unrivalled pool of 155 million upwardly mobile customers. Our global logistics reach means that we can work with brands anywhere in the world to deliver their products right to consumers’ doorsteps, significantly lowering the barrier to entry to the China market.” The event of this April in Milan serves the purpose to reinforce the image of JD.com as industry leader, and kicks off the presence of Italian design furniture on the platform.
The Chinese penetration of the Milan Design Week
Despite being unofficially forbidden to join the Salone (the Milan design fair), Chinese established and emerging brands flocked to Milan showing collections of furniture developed by up-and-coming local designers and international professionals. The result has been quite various, but it showed a national design system taking shape. Along with a massive growing middle-class that is getting more and more into furniture, Chinese designers are responding to a new way of living, nor cheap or copied. A new market is blooming and Western brands hardly explored it as they were mostly aiming to reach the wealthier target.
After being one of our speakers and presenting their work in our exhibition Yu – Designing in China in 2014, in 2016 Shanghai-based architecture firm Neri & Hu presented a minimalist coat hanger for Swedish design retailer OFECCT. Also present at the same exhibition, Hangzhou based Pinwu Design Company displayed their works at Brera Design District. True veteran, Chinese home furnishing company Red Star Macalline, has since 2012 joined the Milan Design Week. In 2016 it commissioned 10 local design firms to reinterpret Chinese traditions. Honestly the outcome of their exhibition has been quite low on standards so far, and you can see an extensive (as ugly) presentation of their work at this link. QuMei Home Furnishings Group Co., Ltd cooperated in 2016 with designers Steve Leung and Lu Zhirong to display the ‘Fan’ series of coffee tables and armchairs, under the theme of “Tradition in Evolution”. The opening ceremony attracted great attention from multiple media sources, including RAI, the Italian National Television Station, daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, top design magazines and multiple Chinese media publications.
The Italian penetration of Chinese design market
In 2015, exports to China has brought into the coffers of the Italian companies revenues of 331 million euro. It is expected the number will exceed 500 million by 2020. Italy is the first furniture exporter to China, with a share of 15%, against Germany (12%) and the US (10%). But China so far only weighs 3% of total Italian exports and the business is just getting started. To strengthen the Italian leadership in designer furnishings, the Salone del Mobile pushed last November over 70 brands at the Shanghai Exhibition Centre for first edition of Salone del Mobile in China. The event has closed with over 20 thousands of selected visitors.