BEIJING, China - My first glance at Beijing's brand new airport (BCIA) was also the first sign of China's stylish transformation since my previous visit here 7 years ago. I couldn't take my eyes off the ceiling, which seemed to go on forever, as I zoomed through immigration and retrieved my bag. I was in and out in less than 30 minutes.
When I commented on the airport's breathtaking design and efficiency to locals, they proudly informed me that BCIA was completed in only 4 years and has run without a hitch from day one. This is particularly notable when compared to the disastrous opening of London Heathrow's Terminal 5, which opened around the same time as BCIA, but took 6 years to build and is still not running as expected. And, the success of BCIA also provides the perfect analogue for China's nascent fashion industry.
First, it must be noted that the Beijing airport was designed by the UK's Foster and Partners. So, whereas the Chinese are in the midst of a full-on architectural boom, their own design aesthetic is still in its infancy. For now, they must borrow design-savvy from the West, and combine it with local resourcefulness and entrepreneurship.
The fashion business here works very much the same way. Well-run Chinese factories churn out beautifully made, high-quality garments that are designed and sold in the West by fashion brands that we all know. Local Chinese retailers hire European and American designers who act as consultants and bring an advanced design sensibility to their collections. And, department stores like Lane Crawford employ fashion-savvy Westerners who up the style and sophistication quotient, while also educating local staffers on how to achieve international standards in luxury customer service and experience.
Beijing's new Lane Crawford emporium, for example, is amongst the most sophisticated, well-curated specialty stores I have seen anywhere in the world. Six hundred brands are creatively mixed together in a welcoming and innovative environment designed by Canadian design agency Yabu Pushelberg. American department stores in particular could take a page out of the Lane Crawford book to bring their stores up to this world leading standard.
And, while there are certainly logo-happy Chinese looking for Gucci and Louis Vuitton, there are also sophisticated locals who are willing to spend serious money on world-class design. To wit, at the Walpole Luxury Seminar held in London in May, Bonnie Brooks, President of the Lane Crawford Group, noted that the very first item to sell after the Beijing store opened was a $45,000 Alexander McQueen dress. The second item to sell was the only other $45,000 McQueen dress that the store had ordered.
The other highlight of my first 24 hours in China was a visit to Beijing's Danshanzi 798 Art District, currently home to noteworthy exhibitions by Maison Martin Margiela and Nike, two brands which have smartly planted their flags in this fertile ground for local contemporary art and design. The budding creativity in Dashanzi shows the promise for fashion design from China in the years to come. I don't think the Chinese will be importing designers forever.
Lane Crawford (courtesy of Lane Crawford)
798 Art District - Martin Margiela
798 Art District - Nike