Designer and co-founder of the Chinese lifestyle brand Shang Xia, Jiang Qiong-er envisages a world in which ancient craftsmanship meets technology. Spoiler alert: it’s magnificent.
The idea of interconnected and harmonious opposites is one of the founding tenets of Daoism. This concept is also known as yin-yang, and though its direct translation stands for “dark side” and “light side”, it can refer to any two contrasts: good and evil, life and death, rest and motion, and up and down. The latter interpretation served as an inspiration for the name of a Chinese lifestyle brand Shang Xia.
Nicknamed “Chinese Hermès”, Shang Xia was founded as a partnership between designer Jiang Qiong-er and the French maison’s CEO Patrick Thomas in 2009. “Before this, everything for Hermès was designed in Paris and made in France,” says Jiang, “and the brand thought that the Chinese customer wasn’t ready for it. So, we began with a few trials.” She started dressing windows for Hermès stores in China, “I’d introduce Chinese craftsmanship to each window,” she explains, “and that’s how Patrick and I discovered we shared the same passion for bringing heritage to the future.” After all, Shang Xia also stands for “past and future”.
Conversations about the preservation of craft and heritage are on the increase. In 2021, for example, the first K11 Night in Hong Kong shone a spotlight on the conservation work of the K11 Craft & Guild Foundation. Last year, the Centre for Heritage Arts & Textiles held a series of exhibitions and workshops fostering multi-cultural dialogues between Hong Kong and the region through textiles, under the supervision of Prestige Woman of Power Takahashi Mizuki. Industry titans such as Christian Dior, Chanel and, of course, Hermès have also been spotlighting artisans globally, especially those from less developed regions.
But Jiang, who visited Hong Kong last month to give a talk at the Business of Design Week, has been promoting the renaissance of Chinese craftsmanship for almost 20 years – and still has plenty to do. “In the beginning, there was no ecosystem,” she explains. “There were craftsmen and masters, who can maybe create one piece each, but they can’t make hundreds of them. That’s why there needs to be a framework, which includes logistics, packaging, storage, contingency planning and quality control.” No one said making heritage relevant to a mass market was easy. She also notes how many artisanal pieces lack functionality, which was also something she felt eager to change. Design, after all, is meant to be practical. “It took 12 years to bring the brand to this starting point,” she adds, “and we aren’t even talking about the challenge of creating a distinct style.”
Indeed, global recognition for Shang Xia’s elegant lacquer boxes, bamboo marquetry screens, hanfu-inspired shoes, celadon tea sets and mandarin-collar dresses is the result of years of meticulous work. “The artistic director of Hermès, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, once told me that my work is much more difficult than his,” she says. “He said that Hermès had existed long before he began working there, so there was no need for him to create heritage – it was all in the archives. So, his job instead was to create surprises and new expressions, while I had to build Shang Xia’s unique style from scratch.” The fact that took only 12 years now seems impressive.
“We’re already working with a lot of craftsmen,” says Jiang. “Traditional embroidery masters, people who specialise in the art of lacquer, which dates back 800 years, eggshell porcelain, agate carving, Ming-Dynasty-inspired furniture and more.” She says the real challenge lies in discovering what the second-generation interpretation of these crafts might be. “When we begin working with a certain craft, we try to update it and make it desirable to customers. But how do we keep updating it to fit evolving taste and demand?” That question remains open.
Jiang will also lead you to believe that the boundaries of traditional craftsmanship stretch far beyond the confines of living spaces. A year ago, she was enlisted by Ferrari to design an automobile to mark the Italian brand’s 30th anniversary in mainland China. “I chose the Roma model,” she says, “and, when I was going through the archives, I saw that every image was bright red, aggressive and visible – very nouveau riche. But China has changed, so I wanted to interpret this beautiful encounter between Chinese poetry and Italian romance in a new way.”
The gleaming Sanusilver Matte body colour of her iteration is heightened by a striking stripe of Rosso Magna Glossy, a hue taken from ancient Chinese carmine red, which courses over the Roma’s smooth contours and draws inspiration from classical Ming Dynasty furniture. The dynamic dual-tone palette was further elevated by the addition of sporty carbon-fibre sills, accented with a subtle yet eye-catching scarlet line. A touch of Chinese tradition can also be seen in the crimson and gold Boluo lacquer key case, which reveals a commemorative plate adorned with the Chinese characters for “30”. Inlaid with jade and coated in gold, the plate is meant to represent prosperity and wealth, purity and grace. But that’s not all: Jiang also created an exclusive lifestyle package, described by Ferrari as a “collection of luxurious pleasures that embody sophistication and refinement”, which include an ebony cigar box, inkstone ashtray, four aroma diffusers – one per season – and cashmere blankets.
“Because they decided to auction off that car instead of mass-producing it, I asked Ferrari to make
a short film to complete my concept.” The video, which recounts the process of creating the one-of-a-kind vehicle, reveals Ferrari’s softer and more elevated side. “Take the thread from bamboo, red from the coat of insects, silk from the skies and weave it into a song of the past 5,000 years,” goes the narration, written by poet and artist JinJin Xu, emphasising once more the antiquity of the craftsmanship Shang Xia champions.
Throughout our conversation with Jiang, straightforward questions often take us to unexpected places. Just like her brainchild, she’s full of surprises. Does she consider Shang Xia a luxury brand? “There was no such thing as a luxury brand 100, 200 years ago,” she exclaims, “but there were these maisons of excellence and craftsmanship.” Jiang veers into the philosophical once again, “There are three most precious things on Earth: time, love and freedom. Shang Xia dances with time and creates objects that express beauty and freedom and ignite emotion in our customers.”
At present, Jiang is preparing for her next artistic breakthrough. To mark the 60th anniversary of French-Chinese diplomatic relations and the Paris Olympics, Jiang was invited to create an installation at the Guimet museum, which holds one of the largest collections of Asian art outside of Asia. “It’s the first time the museum gives its facade to an artist,” she notes. It’s the perfect location, Jiang believes because the museums are “the lighthouses of human civilisation”.
“My concept for this artwork is guardians of time,” Jiang continues, “If you look at human history, the first traces of human art are in caves and grottos. There are these famous Lascaux caves near my house in Bordeaux, and the paintings there date back 23,000 years. It’s so powerful.” So, she decided to bring these primordial artworks
to the 21st century by creating modern grottoes on the Guimet Museum’s facade, using artificial intelligence as her partner. “I’m also creating 12 mythical creatures,” she adds, “because in these grottoes you have the images of deities, who grant wishes and possess the power beyond human imagination.” The creatures will correspond to 12 core values Jiang believes everyone should adhere to, some of which are courage, authenticity and equality. Parisians and visitors will have a chance to feast their eyes on the Guardians of Time in April.
Through her arduous work of promoting and preserving ancient craftsmanship, Jiang emerges as at once a guardian of time and a modern philosopher. And, in the cult of Shang Xia, this writer is now an ardent follower.