Shang Xia, the Chinese lifestyle brand backed by Hermès, welcomed us at its boutique at the Rue de Sèvres in Paris with exquisite creations of oriental inspiration and a delicately smooth Oolong. There, we had a passionate conversion with Jiang Qiong Er, its CEO and Artistic Director. In French, English and sometimes Chinese, she shared with us how she viewed art and business, why she refused Shang Xia’s media-given label of “luxury brand,” and her wisdom of love towards employees and family.
Leaders League. At the genesis of Shang Xia, did you adopt a posture of entrepreneur or artist?
Jiang Qiong Er. Both! I was born in a family of artists, but my entrepreneurial experience started very early, because I am a strong advocate that art should always be part of the practical life. I launched my first business at age 19 with my university professor, and created my second company in 2000, and then managed these boutiques at a distance during my studies in Paris at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. During my peak time, I had around ten companies – most of which were galleries of antiquities and modern art – I was on the board of half of them and managed the rest directly.
Leaders League. Ten companies? How did you manage to have that much passion and energy?
J. Q. E.(Laughs) Now looking back, even I myself don’t know how I made it. Those years were like a whirlwind and I was turning around and around on different subjects. But what is fabulous now is that I have only one company, which is Shang Xia, and all my previous experience as designer, distributor, manager and so forth is dedicated to this single brand. I still have a double role: I am the Artistic Director, yet I also understand the business; and as CEO, I am able to appreciate the beauty and the emotional value of our products, too.
Leaders League. This must be a great change compared to the past…
J. Q. E. Yes indeed! It is a different way of life, density of experience, dynamism of activity. Before, I had fifteen to twenty projects, but now I have only Shang Xia and all my experience in depth is injected into this project. Creation, clients, quality...everything is in the continuity.
Another lesson I have learnt from my past experience is that we are not perfect. As a Chinese expression goes, it is important to “understand the height of the sky and the depth of the earth,” we always need to improve ourselves and try to understand, listen to and learn from others. Keep open-minded!
Leaders League. What are the major challenges you have lived?
J. Q. E. I think the first challenge is to conquer myself, because it is vital that our ego doesn’t surpass our dreams and objectives. Our society is full of seduction, but we cannot lose our sight because of short-term compromises. Very few companies can achieve this, but I want to be one of the few that “hold the rainbow of ideal overhead and step on the ground of reality,” as another Chinese expression says.
The second challenge is my dream to develop the craftsmanship in China. We need to make sure our workshops progress in line with our business, and increasing their capacity requires a lot of investments in terms of finance, human resources and time in the long term. Building a craftsmanship school is also on my dream list, but we need to go step by step (laughs)!
Thirdly, we are the first Chinese house dedicated to the authentic oriental beauty and we want to reveal a new China to the occidental customers who have already been brainwashed by cheap and low-quality “Made in China” products. This work takes time, but I’m convinced that with perseverance we will finally achieve our objective and that true gold will finally shine.
Leaders League. What are the true Chinese aesthetics to you?
J. Q. E. The Chinese aesthetics go far beyond the first degree of forms and patterns such as dragon, phoenix and calligraphy, and are rather about proportion, dialogue between square and circle, lineation...accordingly, we try to keep the essence and spirit of oriental design and abandon the figurative substances - to combine contemporary design with ancient inspiration in order to achieve the timeless effect of design and the high quality of our products. For instance, the chair presented in the boutique is the result of a Ming Dynasty inspiration, and its lightness, simplicity and beauty are just amazing!
Leaders League. What is important for a person to work at Shang Xia?
J. Q. E. The human quality comes first, absolutely. Shang Xia carries a huge human dimension and our success thus depends on our people. Our ideas, design, services… all is achieved by people and for people. Another important factor would be the love for our brand. Your heart and your dream really count. As a matter of fact, we are like a start-up: we work a lot, and everyone needs to be polyvalent and proactive. I hope our people can flourish and feel happy at work, because when we believe in what we do, our energy, inspiration and optimism will circulate around us, creating a positive atmosphere.
Leaders League. Where do you put sales and business then?
J. Q. E. If we have the right talent that shares the same value of the brand, if we make good products, why wouldn’t business come (laughs)?
To me, business is more a reward than an objective. You can easily learn sales skills, but you can never learn love. And when you have love for your company, your clients can feel it.
Leaders League. You have been insisting that Shang Xia is not a luxury brand…
J. Q. E. Shang Xia is a brand of excellence rather than luxury. By “excellence” I don’t mean “elitism,” because we focus on the art of objects and the art of life, and deliver quality, design and service, none of which is defined by wealth. Shang Xia has a wide diversity of offerings ranging from 50 to 500,000 euros, which allows us to access widely different profiles. Everyone can have a crush on one or two lovely objects here and there to find his or her own happiness, big or small. In fact, the brand name has both “Shang” meaning high-end and “Xia” meaning affordable, so we are really searching for the harmony between the two ends.
For me, only two things can be called “luxuries”: time and emotion. At Shanghai, we have never hesitated to spend time elaborating our brand, searching for top Chinese craftsmen, working on the quality of our products and services… As for the emotional side, as a Chinese expression explains, “people invest their emotions into objects, and as such emotion is born through their usage of objects,” thus Shang Xia tries to bring emotional value to our products by designing products with our heart.
Leaders League. But can occidental clients share the same emotions as Chinese people when they use Shang Xia’s products?
J. Q. E. Yes of course! Two things, love and time, are universal and everybody can understand. Again, as a Chinese expression “the highest excellence is like water” puts flexibility as a sublime virtue, Shang Xia is trying to create something that evokes a common emotion in people from different cultures. I myself have never experienced conflicts between cultures, and can say that my creation is 100% influenced by the oriental and 100% influenced by the occidental.
Leaders League. How do you balance your work and your roles in life as mother of three children, wife, daughter …?
J. Q. E.(Laughs) And sister and granddaughter and so on!
On one hand, everybody needs you, so you need to be ready to give of yourself. Like water that has no color and no form, you need to be fluid among your different roles. More concretely, you need to have love and also the wisdom of love. Of course it’s tough and I’m still learning, but when we are conscious of one thing, we examine ourselves constantly and can thus gradually improve. You also need to be very organized between different issues and attach attention to the quality of the time you spend with your family. For example, when I’m with my children, I’m with them 100%, and I don’t check my mobile phone or think about business. You also need to put aside your ego and not make hasty judgments. Listen to your family and try to understand and discover. Make your life simpler!
On the other hand, like the Chinese ink painting, you need to balance between the full and the empty, which means you have to find a moment and space for yourself and learn to respire. This can be travelling, writing, reading, walking…anything you like!
Jeanne Yizhen Yin
This article is dedicated to our fortnightly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.
Other articles of the same issue: