From afar it looks like a bag made from bamboo but go closer and you realise it is actually strips of leather – some as narrow as 1.5mm – woven together in the kesi Chinese silk tapestry style. This is the Lan Yue, inspired by Chinese bamboo baskets, and created by Jiang Qiong Er, the artistic director, CEO and co-owner of Chinese luxury brand Shang Xia – which has been launched in collaboration with Hermes.
A signature piece that took five years to make, it is entirely hand-crafted and is the only contemporary handbag from China to make it into London’s Victoria & Albert Museum collection.
Incredible craftsmanship stories like this are de rigueur at Shang Xia, which offers a range of products from furniture to homeware, fashion accessories and clothing for men and women. It is thanks, in part, to Jiang, an artist and designer, as well as the other co-owner, luxury fashion house Hermes, which owns 90 percent of the business.
Together, they have grown Shang Xia from the first store in Shanghai, opened in 2010, to more than 10 points of sales worldwide, including a boutique along the Rue de Sevres in Paris, France.
An 11th will soon be added in Singapore the end of this year, which will carry about one-third of the brand’s entire collection, including re-editions of the Lan Yue handbag.
(Related: Singaporean Luxury)
Modernising Chinese crafts
“Shang Xia is a brand inspired by Chinese culture but its expression is contemporary. We take our heritage from the past and bring it into the future,” says the 43-year-old Jiang, in a phone interview with The Peak from Shanghai, where the Chinese national is based.
In the decade since it has been established, the brand has not wavered from its original intent. Instead, it has only become better at expertly balancing what seems like opposing forces, through storied collections such as the Da Tian Di, inspired by the style of furniture from the Ming Dynasty, with selected pieces made in carbon fibre. There is also the Bridge tea set, crafted in white porcelain at high temperatures and covered with a bamboo weave.
But nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in the name of the brand. Literally translating into “up, down”, Shang Xia represents a philosophy that harmonises contrasting concepts such as East and West, past and present, and tradition and innovation.
More than anything, it is an attempt to contemporise 5,000 years of Chinese craftsmanship and revive artisanal practices, one object at a time.
High art in the every day
A jewellery and interior designer before she co-founded Shang Xia, Jiang is the grandchild of an artist, and the daughter of the architect who designed the Shanghai Museum, Jiang studied industrial design at Shanghai’s Tongji University. She later obtained a postgraduate degree from the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.
That art had an influence in her life is an understatement. “When I was eight, I was very lucky to be taught ink and brush painting and calligraphy by two famous traditional art masters. I have been influenced [by art] since childhood,” she reveals.
Her work eventually caught the attention of Hermes China, which invited her to create an installation for its boutique window.
Through the project, she had the chance to meet its then-CEO Patrick Thomas and artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, and discovered a shared vision and passion for Chinese culture, heritage and craftsmanship that would lead to the establishment of Shang Xia.
A decade on, Jiang looks back and, in lightly-French-accented English, summarises the evolution of the brand. “For the first 10 years, we were focusing on building the foundation of the brand. We have the dream to be a 100-year- old brand, a timeless brand.”
This meant a starting point of identifying and designing its style. She is heartened that consumers are beginning to recognise Shang Xia’s products without having to look at the logo. “Our style is about purity, lightness, functionality and emotions. Chinese culture tends to be very heavy but we want to bring a contemporary expression filled with lightness – you can see this from the proportion of our pieces, for example.”
(Related: Hermes Opens Flagship Store in Shanghai
Another foundation she laid was building the network of workshops with skilled craftsmen and artisans across China, where 90 percent of the products are made. The remainder is from other parts of Asia, including Nepal and Vietnam.
Says Jiang: “Many of the craftsmen we discovered only had decorative, rather than functional, skills. But because we don’t need what they produce anymore in our lives, they are disappearing.”
A third action: establishing the brand’s position. She acknowledges that validation as a top luxury brand can only come from the market and its clients. And in many ways, it has. Between 2018 and 2019, Shang Xia’s revenue increased by 40 percent.
Its pieces are also collected by important museums around the world, such as the British Museum, which added the Xi Pi Lacquer Heaven and Earth Lid Box to its exhibits.
The Bridge tea set is part of the collection at the Guimet Museum in Paris, known for its expansive range of Asian art.
Muses Jiang on her artistic direction: “We did two half circles, which together makes one full circle. The first one is bringing the heritage and craftsmanship of the historical treasures in the museums back into daily life through contemporary design.
“The second is creating the best of today and returning them to the museum as witnesses [of what is possible for posterity]. These two circles are like shang and xia. We should keep doing these two half circles; it’s the way forward.”
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