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Curation, Content and the Future of China’s Art Malls

‘Curation’ is the latest trend in China’s retail scene, as mall and department store giants keep pace with online competitors by transforming into places to see and be seen.
A couple walks through graffiti art at K11 Musea | Source: Courtesy
  • Casey Hall

BEIJING, China – Glitzy SKP Mall has long been a hub for luxury brands in China's capital city. But luxe inhabitants like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Valentino, Dior, Burberry and Balenciaga have recently been joined by an unconventional new neighbour.

A flock of animatronic sheep, complete with simulated breathing and bleating, are moving in as part of an installation called “Future Farm” within the soon-to-open SKP South Hall (SKP-S). The new four-floor section will focus heavily on experience, with art installations from contemporary Chinese and international artists aimed at luring shoppers away from their screens and into a physical retail space where they can also discover and purchase products. Gentle Monster Chief Executive Hankook Kim helped design Future Farm's rustic interiors and mechanised sheep; elsewhere, a robotic arm 3D-prints a statue and a room is lit to look like Mars — rover and all.

Many of the installations on display have been produced in conjunction with the South Korean glasses-makers known for creating retail spaces that could be mistaken for contemporary art galleries.

“[SKP] chose us as their partner rather than a professional interior design firm because we are good at experiences and that’s what SKP-S wants to be,” Gentle Monster's Kim said at a media preview at the start of December.


SKP-S is the next step in SKP’s transition from traditional mall to modern retail destination, underway since 2013. Despite consistently ranking as one of the most profitable shopping spaces in China, the retailer acknowledges the importance of curation to driving visitor numbers — creating a destination interesting enough to tear consumers away from the convenience of shopping online.

The focus on experience, curation and culture has proved popular with younger Chinese consumers in tier one and two cities.

SKP-S is facing e-commerce competitors head-on with a December 12th opening date that coincides with one of Alibaba’s lauded shopping festivals. (The “Double 12” festival was created in 2014 to diversify sales events, following on from the massive Singles’ Day event on November 11, called “Double 11” in China).

The explosive growth of smartphone-enabled online shopping in China over the past decade has upended the retail industry and reconfigured consumption patterns. As much as 23 percent of China’s $5.61 trillion of retail sales last year took place online, according to data from Oliver Wyman. Singles’ Day 2019 was a record-breaker, with Alibaba platforms hitting 268.6 billion yuan ($38.4 billion) in gross merchandising value (GMV) over the sales period.

"In 2014, online retail sales in China were growing so fast they started to eat into the sales of traditional physical channels. Brands started to shutter stores, as customers flocked to digital channels," said Daniel Zipser, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Co. and Leader Greater China Consumer & Retail Practice.

But the evolution of major Chinese brick-and-mortar retailers towards cultural destinations with cutting-edge digital features is driving a noticeable shift back to physical stores, according to McKinsey & Company, who have released a new study showing that 88 percent of the online apparel consumers surveyed had shopped in physical stores in the past three months, compared to 83 percent in 2017.

The focus on experience, curation and culture has proved popular with younger Chinese consumers in tier one and two cities, for whom “da ka” — must-post social media moments — are a vital cultural currency that communicates sophistication to their peers.

Introducing the ‘Curetail’ Concept

An exterior rendering of TX Mall, a new "curated retail" concept opening in Shanghai this month | Source: Courtesy An exterior rendering of TX Mall, a new "curated retail" concept opening in Shanghai this month | Source: Courtesy

An exterior rendering of TX Mall, a new "curated retail" concept opening in Shanghai this month | Source: Courtesy


Also due to open in December is a major new curated retail project in Shanghai’s Huaihai Road shopping thoroughfare. Dickson Sezto, TX Mall founder and self-proclaimed inventor of what he is calling the “curetail” concept, told BoF China that the site will forgo the traditional marble tile and crystal chandeliers of China’s high-end malls and will instead be “full of giant digital screens.”

“We want to feature young artists who are a little bit crazy,” Sezto said. “I want to use a lot of installation art, avant-garde art, contemporary art, and digital art. People who come to TX may look at the art specifically, or they may come to eat, drink, and have fun, but those two activities are not separated.”

TX Mall will feature a rotation of brand pop-ups changing every three months (similar to an art gallery’s rotation of exhibitions) in a bid to keep up with young consumers’ desire for newness.

“If I give a brand three years of space, I am taking a risk, but they are also taking a risk, so pop-ups are the best model for both parties,” Sezto explained. “If the sales of the brand fail to meet the standard after two months, we will rotate them out [but] if the sales performance is stable and good, then they will be moved to a two-year store accordingly,” he added.

So-called “art malls” are not a new phenomenon in China, with the first iteration of Adrian Cheng’s K11 art malls opening in Hong Kong in 2010. Having already opened art malls in Shanghai, Wuhan, Shenyang, and Guangzhou, K11 now has a total of 29 projects set to be completed by 2024.

It's no longer enough for China's malls to be shopping destinations.

“K11 has always been different, it has always had a cultural mission,” Cheng told BoF, adding that in this new era of physical retail, content will be king. “We have content, we are not just a space.”

Though he agrees that content is important, TX Mall’s Dickson Sezto cautions that it alone won’t be enough to maintain a flow of consumers; the integration of art into the physical retail environment must be done right in order to translate to more than social media buzz.

It’s no longer enough for China’s malls to be shopping destinations. The digital world may have increased competition from online retail, but it has also presented an opportunity in the form of social media; China’s 855 million digital citizens need content to power their own social media identities.


When done right, interactive and engaging art installations can be a convincing draw for luxury retail properties looking to attract a young, digital and culturally-engaged generation of Chinese consumers.

Additional reporting by Christina Yao and Jing Wang.


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