Chinese people have long known that Chengdu, the Sichuan province capital of 16 million, has what it takes to become an alpha city both at home and abroad. Now Chanel knows it, too.
On Nov. 7, the French design house reprised its Cruise 2018 collection, originally shown in Paris, in Chengdu’s Jinsong Oriental Art Exhibition Center. Attended by high-profile guests such as Chinese-Korean pop star Victoria Song, Taiwanese cellist and actress Nana Ouyoung, and Vogue China editor in chief Angelica Cheung, the event followed Chanel’s long tradition of bringing its Cruise and Métiers d’Art collections—shows that exist outside the traditional Fall and Spring showcases in New York, Paris, London, and Milan—to locales lesser known as fashion powerhouses. Since 2013, Chanel has unveiled such collections in Dallas, Seoul, and Havana.
Outside of China, Chengdu is known for its panda conservation efforts and numbingly spicy hot pot—within China, it’s considered the epicenter of modern art, hip hop, and buzzy tech startups. The local government is also hard at work positioning the city as China’s Silicon Valley, offering subsidies to early-stage startups, special visa categories for innovation and entrepreneurship, and up to three years of rent-free office space in a new free trade zone (link in Chinese). While Chengdu has just one full-service Chanel boutique (to Shanghai’s three), Chanel’s presence there means the brand is paying acute attention to Chinese consumers and what they deem as cool—not vice versa.
Since ancient times, Chengdu has been known throughout China for its high quality of life: dewy mountain air, spicy food that supposedly sweats out your pores, and a slower pace of living that manifests itself in the local dialect, a sing-song drawl with lyrical qualities that makes Chengdu well-positioned to launch the careers of China’s top hip-hop artists (paywall). Women from Sichuan province are colloquially known as lamei, or “spice girls”—yes, that’s also how they refer to the British pop group—due to their beauty, fiery personalities, and, of course, ability to eat spicy foods. The city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 2011, is located in Tianfu Software Park so that it can court neighbors Huawei and Tencent (parent company of WeChat). And in 2011, UNESCO finally designated Chengdu as a “City of Gastronomy,” even though Qing dynasty emperors regularly employed imperial chefs from Sichuan over 200 years ago. In other words, the people of Chengdu were known for their good taste long before they became social media influencers.
At its Chengdu event, Chanel unveiled a Grecian-inspired collection, which was showcased on a set with Doric columns that itself had no reference to Chengdu, China, or East Asia. In his inspiration notes, Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld said that he is not interested in actual countries for inspiration: “It had nothing to do with a country. Reality is of no interest to me. I use what I like. My Greece is an idea.”
The brand’s opportunity in China is less abstract: In 2013, wealth tracker Hurun Report found that there are about 27,000 multimillionaires (in USD) residing in Chengdu. In 2014, luxury department store Lane Crawford picked Chengdu as its third mainland location, after Beijing and Shanghai. Chanel didn’t make Chengdu cool—but it’s a shrewd attempt to appropriate some of the Chengdu street cred already well known to Chinese consumers.