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Prada's Beijing show awakens the Chinese fashion tiger

The Australian 01/27/2011 05:02
Actor Gong Li arrives at the Prada fashion show in Beijing.

Actor Gong Li arrives at the Prada fashion show in Beijing.

MIRRORED catwalk, a front row full of fashion editors and socialites, a bunch of banana prints, quirky "baroque" sunglasses and raffia wedge brogues, 50 pale, self-contained models and a Debussy and Beethoven soundtrack, Jay Jopling sitting in the third row... No, this is not Prada's spring/summer 2011 catwalk show in Milan, but a subtly rebooted version presented in Beijing at the weekend.

As in Milan, Miuccia Prada appeared, briefly, on the catwalk when it was over, dipping her head in her customary acknowledgment of the applause. But this was not a business-as-usual moment. It was a first for the brand - the only time it has shown its mainline collection outside the symbolically important homeland.

Jostling for Chinese business is nothing new for fashion labels, which were among the first wave of trade conquistidors in the 1990s. New affluence invariably announces itself via the same old trinity: cars, jewellery and clothes. Property usually comes a bit later, although not that much later in China, where house ownership is as central to a sense of success as it is in the UK and where the rampant rise in real estate prices is threatening the marital chances of many men, since without the requisite flat they're a lot less attractive as husband material. But if the value of property is soaring so fast that it's becoming out of reach for many, there's always the consolation of fashion.

Prada opened its first store on mainland China in 1995. In those days flag planting on China's hastily paved new shopping strips was more a demonstration of long-range faith. Now, with the American economy sluggish and Europe's not much more energetic, it is a strategic necessity. In 2010 Prada's turnover in China increased by 75 per cent. Factoring in Hong Kong, it's twice the size of the label's US market, and that's with only 14 stores on the mainland. There are nine Pradas in tiny Hong Kong and another 30 in the Asia Pacific region. The potential for brand growth there is sufficient to make the number-crunchers salivate.

It seems inevitable that the brand's financial axis will ultimately shift from the US to China. At any rate, Prada's decision to invest €50 million in opening another nine stores in China this year seems anything but rash. "Even China's so-called second-tier cities have eight-million-plus populations. Beijing has 19 million. There's a huge base of sophisticated consumers who understand what we represent, which is innovation and technical modernity," says Sebastian Suhl, its chief operating officer.

Not even Prada could ensure that the "live" streaming of the show really was live, however. In China, online streaming has a 24-hour delay.

"God bless Prada," the manager of the Ritz-Carlton confided gleefully. "They're paying for 60 per cent of our rooms this weekend." To mark the fashion show, the brand flew in a major actress (Gong Li, who now, somewhat to the chagrin of Beijingers, lives in Singapore with her Singaporean husband), a greying but still successful pop phenomenon (the Pet Shop Boys), a two Michelin-starred chef (Carlo Cracco, whose restaurant in Milan is a Prada favourite) plus 35 models, more than a dozen make-up artists and hairdressers and key customers and retailers from across Asia.

The celebrity line-up had a deliberately Chinese feel: this wasn't to be perceived as Western cultural imperialism stomping in.

Read more in The Australian...