China’s Touchy Luxury Love Affair
Image Credit: Archbob via Flickr

China’s Touchy Luxury Love Affair


BEIJING – On November 29, 2012, soon-to-be Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the National Museum of China and made a speech that was hailed as a coup in the State-sponsored “war against formalism and bureaucracy.” After touring the museum’s famed “Road to Renewal” exhibition, Xi spoke to the press casually and in a very informal setting, a move that earned him praise for abandoning the more stilted socialist jargon of his predecessor. The content of his speech, which has since become known as the “China Dream,” also won him accolades. Seemingly inspired by the exhibition, which houses historical elements dating back to the First Opium War and emphasizes China’s victimization by imperial forces, Xi offered up heaping spoons of nationalism while urging his comrades to unite in fostering “the great renewal of the Chinese nation.”

As he delivered these lines – dressed in a black windbreaker and dress shirt with the top few buttons undone – on the second floor of the same museum, 100 mannequins dressed in couture Christian Dior gowns, silently awaited their unveiling.

Slated to open at the National Museum of China on November 13 – just two weeks before Xi’s speech – “Esprit Dior,” was billed as an exhibition of Dior gowns, perfumes, accessories, photography and accompanying artwork by contemporary Chinese artists. In late November, various international media outlets reported that its opening had been delayed because the accompanying works by Chinese artists had not yet been completed. In early December, shortly after Xi’s speech, luxury conglomerate CEO Bernard Arnault of LVMH visited Beijing hoping to attend the opening of the exhibition, but the champagne flown in for the occasion remained in its bottles and the doors to the exhibition, closed.

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A technician associated with the exhibition confirms that everything was vernissage ready by the time of Arnault’s visit, and that the only thing delaying a grand opening seemed to be mysterious resistance from the museum itself. On a regular basis, the technician, who prefers to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the subject, tells The Diplomat that the exhibition would receive “visits.” These included various delegations from the museum, but also from the Chinese Vice-Minister of Culture, and two days later, from the Minister of Culture, himself. As a result of these “visits,” which lasted anywhere from an hour (the Vice-Minister of Culture was enraptured) to a few minutes (her superior, the Minister of Culture, was far less captivated), small changes were made to the exhibition.

The first was rather foreboding. At the entrance to the exhibition, which was the replica of the original Dior storefront on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, the name “Christian Dior,” which appeared etched into the stone of the storefront, was retouched, so that it was no longer visible. New insoles were also made for the 10 pairs of couture Dior shoes on display, masking their iconic Christian Dior label visible in the instep. The plaques which accompanied the items on display – indicating their year of creation and materials used to make them – were also edited so that “Christian Dior” was no longer visible on them. Videos of Dior fashion shows scheduled to play during the exhibition were frozen on frames with images where there was no detectable representation of the Dior label. Even the very name of the exhibition, which publications as mainstream as Vogue had been referring to for months as “Esprit Dior,” was changed to the rather cryptic, “La Beauté de l’Allure.”

Exactly why these changes were made is a subject neither the Museum nor Dior headquarters wish to comment on, but the mystery of why, on December 21, Dior staff in Beijing received a call from their superiors with instructions to pack everything up and repatriate it to France – before the Chinese public could get a glimpse of any of it – is a larger intrigue that has been delicately unraveling itself over the course of the last several months.

The day following Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” speech, his chief appointed corruption-buster, Wang Qishan, met with a committee of corruption fighting experts to stress the importance of cracking down on graft. The meeting marked the start of an anti-corruption campaign, which launched with a flurry of articles in Chinese media cheering the comeuppance of various party miscreants; the former district legislator who fathered 10 children with four different women, the prefecture chief who was revealed to own 23 homes, and the bureaucrat with $19 million in unexplained assets, among others. These types of strategically penned news stories have continued over the following months, with reports of corrupt officials embroiled in sex tape scandals and mistresses avenging and outing corrupt lovers, among the most popular.

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