the wrong: competing from weakness

last month, the latest intertextile was held in shanghai. textile mills (and their agents) all over the world were exhibiting their fall / winter 2011 fabrics collections and competing for share in the fastest growing market. bucol carries the best fancy silk. for lace, you just go to soltiss. solbiati provides top quality natural-fiber woven such as cotton, linen and wool. cut-and-sewn knits belong to mario boselli. denim? kaihara. no question.

that got me thinking: what made them who they are today? the money? the history? the passion? it is all of the above and more. it is the tradition. and, it was a very nice way to work in the pre-internet era. information was restricted. techniques were passed down from generation to generation within the family. it would take decades to master all the little tricks and secrets of the trade. but this business model does not work neither in china nor the post-internet economies.

i disagree with the western point of view of china being merely a copying nation. modern china is relatively young comparing even to the us. we are only 60 years old and we are in the economics adolescence for the pass 25 years. speaking of tradition within such a short time is like examining the cooking skill of a chief of mcdonald – there is none to be found. copying is how you learn. copying is part of growing up. look at japan in the 70’s.the first skyline by toyota was an effort to “learn” from the americans how to build a muscle car, only cheaper and smaller. i bet a ford mustang owner was laughing at the skyline back then. but somewhere along the way, the toyota found its own way (the manga culture and the rising video gaming industry lent a great hand). the latest skyline is nothing to sneeze at – with the million renminbi price tags and its performance, it is more like a ferrari then any ford.

drawing parallel between the two counties in different era is a mistake. unlike japan in the 70’s, because of the internet, new china has an abundance of information, which crowded out both traditions and new ideas. so i would argue that copying is more a by-product of the time and place in history for the chinese.

with the backing of hermès, shang-xia is aiming to be a chinese luxury brand building on the tradition of chinese craftsmanship and nothing else. according to its website, it is “chinese and asian heritage crafted for contemporary lifestyle”. it could be very beautiful and extremely successful financially, but it sounds very boring to me. where is the excitement? what is the new idea here? to truly build a modern chinese hi-end brand, the idea of tradition would be a negative one. we can’t compete on the history and heritage with the western companies. nor should we. chinese customers will dominate the new luxury market. so why are we playing their game of tradition?

(first published in the dec. 2010 issue of his life magazine)

Leave a Reply