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China’s Touchy Luxury Love Affair

The shifting of a Christian Dior exhibition reveals much about the sensitivity of Chinese officialdom to luxury today.

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.

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.”

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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.

Rod Wye, an associate fellow at the London-based think-tank Chatham House, attributes the persistence of salacious news stories to the new regime’s attempt to distinguish itself from the former administration; and particularly, from some of the more egregious problems that have plagued it. “Anti-corruption is the headline they’ve chosen, because it goes down well with the people. It shows the party is self-policing and self-cleansing,” he says, though he warns that there may be more rotten eggs than the party is willing or able to eradicate.

To Wye, the entire anti-corruption movement smacks of the strategy used by the party when handling cases of social unrest. “The narrative is that it’s all the fault of the corrupt, inefficient local officials who have brought this bad state of affairs about,” he explains. “They like to make it seem that a deus ex machina from the center swoops in and waves his magic wand, the corrupt inefficient official is dealt with, and everyone lives happily ever after.” The danger with this approach is that it only deals with the problem in a very isolated, superficial way, and allows the central governing force to put a distance between itself and the mal-administrations of its system. The local administrations are turned into the scapegoats, and the central powers who discipline them are reinforced in their role as the ultimate source of power and salvation of the people.

But what might all of this have to do with a 67-year old French luxury label? 

As one of the only museums in China to operate under the direct jurisdiction of the Chinese Ministry of Culture, the National Museum of China is one of the Party’s prime means of showcasing and shaping the narrative of history. While this may sound rudimentary in a country where State-controlled media confections the news on a daily basis, it’s more complicated than it sounds. The governing elite tasked with writing this narrative are often in disaccord on how they’d like it to be presented. A statue of Confucius, for instance, once stood prominently at the front of the museum, until one night when it was quietly relegated to a remote internal courtyard because certain members of the elite decided that China’s revival would not benefit from a reminder of the strictly hierarchical relationships enforced by Confucianism.

These types of internal tiffs and changes, Dior employees may be unsurprised to learn, have resulted in the museum spending more time closed, than open, in the 50-odd years of its existence. Built in 1959 as one of the Ten Great Buildings commissioned to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the museum occupies an honorary place overlooking Tiananmen Square (where, ironically, some of China’s most violent manifestations against government corruption have taken place). When it was first scheduled to open, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai is said to have visited and objected that it did not sufficiently emphasize the “red line,” or the spirit of the country’s supreme leader, Mao Zedong.

The museum officially opened in 1961, closed a few years later in 1966 with the onset of the Cultural Revolution, and didn’t open again until 1979. It continued to erratically open and close until 2001, when Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics. At this time, it was decided that China needed a world-class museum to spruce up its capital. In an attempt to make it the largest in the world, what were formerly known as the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution were combined in 2003 and renamed the National Museum of China. Then, in 2005, a German architectural firm was enlisted, and renovations were set to be completed in time for the Games in 2008, but the museum’s opening was postponed again to October 1, 2009, or the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule. That deadline wasn’t met either, but in March 2011, after a decade of renovations worth $400 million, and more than 50 years of spotty operation, the National Museum of China once again opened its doors.

As noted by Kirk Denton, China historian and author of Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China, the museum reopened with a selection of three very telling marquee exhibitions. The first was the previously mentioned “Road to Renewal” exhibition, which Denton notes, plays to the glorious socialist legacy which the Party would like to keep fresh in the minds of its people. Next, there was the exhibition on the Chinese Enlightenment, which traced the Party’s origins to the May 4th Movement, highlighting a move towards anti-imperialism and an upsurge in Chinese nationalism. The third exhibition, opening just two months later in May of 2011, was “Louis Vuitton Voyages,” an spread of luxurious LV suitcases and travel accessories.

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“It was very odd that a museum meant to represent China’s tradition, history and revolution reopen with an LV exhibition,” notes Denton, “though it is completely representative of the post-socialist consumerist society supported by the Party.”

And indeed, the Party’s relationship to luxury is deeper than it might like to admit.  

Luxury brands began their foray into China in the early 1990s, with Louis Vuitton at the helm. Former Chairman and CEO of LV Yves Carcelle is largely credited with making LV the luxury retail giant that it has become, as a result of his foresight and determination to make LV the first major luxury house with a store in China. It is also no secret that the early days of the luxury industry in China were fueled by the purchases of Party officials; either in the form of lavish gifts to grease their “guanxi;” the system of backdoor favors and exchanges on which China runs, or in the form of lavish gifts to mistresses, in exchange for favors of another variety.

As might be expected, the “Louis Vuitton Voyages” exhibition was met with a fair degree of ire. Yet while Peking University professor Xia Xueluan won support for his critique that the exhibition was ill-suited to a state-level public museum – would should instead restrict itself to non-profit cultural promotion – the general response to the museum was positive. Lines for the exhibition extended for hours, and netizens rejoiced at their opportunity to see craftsmanship mixed with commercial success; something rarely reflected in the “made in China” label. On the heels of LV, the Italian luxury giant, Bvlgari hosted “125 Years of Italian Magnificence” at the National Museum of China that following September, and Chanel showcased more than 400 articles in “Culture Chanel,” at the National Art Museum in November of 2011.

Dior’s experience at the Museum, however, was less fortunate. Before it could open, the luxury label had to scotch an exhibition that had been several months and millions in the making. All 100 gowns and accompanying elements were sent back to France, denying the Chinese public of an exhibition which otherwise promised to be both exquisite and edifying. Prior to its original opening date, a Dior team had spent over a month inside the National Museum of China, custom-building a set tgar included a sprawling atelier where an artisan leather-worker, flown in from France, would be cutting and stitching together Dior bags. A brodeuse would also be on site, hand-embroidering gowns as visitors made their way through the exhibition, which was designed to educate visitors about the artistry and artisanship that define the luxury of the label. Several elements featured in the exhibition were also historical, including a perfume coffret that had belonged to Grace Kelly, and was on special loan from the Principality of Monaco. Accompanying artworks by Chinese artists were also plentiful, among them, Zhang Huan’s stunningly realistic oversized portrait of Dior, made from the ashes of a Chinese temple.

Though considerable time, money, and opportunity to increase brand awareness was lost, as of September 13, 2013, the Dior exhibition is now back in China. Nearly one year later, it enjoyed a much warmer reception at the privately owned Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Shanghai, which has previously hosted other luxury giants such as Chanel, Ferragamo and Van Cleef & Arpels. “We’re getting over 1,200 visitors per day, and the weekends are crazy,” explains the MoCA Marketing Manager, who preferred not to be mentioned by name. The 1,800-square-meter exhibition space contains a similarly spectacular display of couture and art intended for the National Museum of China, but with none of the imposed subtlety or label masking. Advertisements for the exhibition, which has been restored to its original name, “Esprit Dior,” abound in People’s Park, and even the museum café has paid its homage to haute couture, allowing diners to eat in a garden of topiaries shaped like Dior handbags and J’adore perfume bottles.

With the exhibition at MoCA, Dior has recovered a tremendous opportunity to connect with the Chinese market, which already appears geared in its favor. Dior currently has more than 40 stores on the Mainland, and according to reports by Bain Capital, in 2012, it surpassed Burberry as the second most popular brand of womenswear, after Chanel. As the top five luxury brands are reported to account for 50 percent of luxury goods sales in China, in a luxury market worth an estimated 115 billion RMB ($18.9 billion), this is a significant accomplishment. Though Dior’s rise may have more to do with the increased buying power of young Chinese women than the purchases of profligate party officials, Bain reports that 35 percent of luxury purchases made in China are still for gifting purposes.

“The bottom line is, luxury brands in China are not going to go away,” says Radha Chada, a leading marketing and consumer insights expert, and co-author of The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury. “They’re now so much a part of Chinese culture, they’ve become the very ecosystem that guanxi puts into place.” She suspects the Dior debacle at the National Museum was just a matter of extremely unfortunate timing; evidence of the far-reaching ramifications of sudden changes in the Chinese political climate, a testament to how meticulously orchestrated these changes can be, and a shallow, temporary attempt at feigning thrift.

“The Party’s strong link to luxury will persist until there’s a more proper legal system that enforces transparency, accountability and justice in China,” says Chada. “Until then, if you’re in trouble, you reach out to your internal relations, and in order to be able to count on them when needed, you must nurture them.”

Roseann Lake is a Beijing-based journalist.