Head in the Clouds: Kengo Kuma Designs an Etherial Shanghai Boutique
To say that the world’s luxury brands are selling well in China is a bit like saying that Louis Vuitton occasionally puts logos on its bags. The country is currently the world’s second-biggest and fastest-growing luxury market. But as today’s Chinese indulge their newfound taste for hand-stitched silk and leather, a question remains: When will China, ancestral home to some of civilization’s oldest and finest crafts, start building more domestic luxury brands rather than importing them? Shang Xia offers an answer. Launched with the financial backing of Hermès, this maker of women’s and men’s apparel, fashion and decorative accessories, and furniture is intent on rediscovering the richness of China’s inheritance while ushering the past into the present.
To design Shang Xia’s debut boutique—in an upscale retail complex in Shanghai’s onetime French Concession—CEO and artistic director Jiang Qiong Er looked to Tokyo’s Kengo Kuma, known for giving contemporary expression to Eastern tradition. “He’s not only an architect. He’s a philosopher,” Jiang says. Kuma himself adds, “My concept of design has a lot in common with theirs. Much of the ‘Japanese’ tradition came from China, so there are lots of similarities between the two.”
Mingling history and contemporaneity, Kengo Kuma & Associates created the Shang Xia environment to convey the ethos of the brand’s meticulously conceived products: Skirts in Mongolian cashmere, porcelain bowls rendered eggshell-thin by a renowned master, chairs that require six months to make from a rare rosewood. “People should experience the past seeping into them,” Kuma says. But not through straightforward reproductions of antique forms or motifs. The idea of a contemplative urban refuge morphed, in his mind, into “a soft cave,” he explains. Indeed, walking into the store is like entering a grotto of clouds.
He achieved that effect with the help of open-weave white polyester that’s coated in more polyester and thermoformed into faceted geometric surfaces that lend a certain breeziness to the cave concept. The rippling scrims, hung from lightweight frames, appear either transparent or opaque depending on the light. On closer inspection, they’re intended to look “rough but of good quality,” he notes. “I discovered, during the course of the design process, that the fabric’s porous texture is similar to that of Chinese scholar’s rocks.” At the same time, the triaxial weaving evokes techniques traditionally associated with bamboo.
A two-dimensional pattern based on the 3-D polyester forms was screen-printed onto the shop windows to futher the hidden-refuge idea. Inside, the actual scrim system that awaits, dividing the 1,350 square feet into a series of caves. An archway in a scrim reveals a reception and sales counter to the left of the entry. To the right is the fabric enclosure of a tearoom where shoppers can examine tabletop items while enjoying a few sips of China’s signature drink. The enclosure beyond that belongs to the jewelry room, which spotlights exquisitely carved jade pendants, gold and silver latticework bracelets, and necklaces with abstracted dragon and pearl motifs. Between the tearoom and jewelry, their enclosures curve back toward the sidewall to create a niche displaying benches, chairs, and stools that streamline classic Ming silhouettes—but cut not a single corner in terms of craftsmanship. The smallest of the enclosures, tucked away at the rear, are two fitting rooms. Together, the enclosures define a central sales area that, unlike them, is open. Like them, it’s oak-floored and outfitted with shelving and display fixtures veneered in ash wood.
“The store is like a Chinese garden. You don’t see everything at once. Instead, you work your way through, taking your time, discovering little by little,” Jiang says. In a country hurtling ahead at warp speed, after all, the goal is to get people to slow down. And the marriage of opposites embodied by Kuma’s design—past and future, tradition and innovation—are as Chinese as yin and yang. Shang Xia, in fact, translates into Mandarin as up, down.