Dylan Jones: The Chinese are learning to shop like professionals

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The Independent Online

Everywhere you go these days, people are talking about China. Everyone's going in, donchya know, every luxury brand, every top-end hotel group, every car company (Volkswagen now sells more cars in China than it does in Germany). The shopping malls are like no malls you've ever seen - Plaza 66 in Shanghai houses spanking new refits from Loewe, Louis Vuitton, Tod's, Dunhill, Versace, Dior; every superbrand you care to mention.

It's a country on the cusp of change, and since the new WTO rulings came into effect two years ago - making it easier to set up shop without a business partner - every brand in your local high street has been looking to have a presence there too (B&Q has already arrived, as have WH Smith, M&S and Tesco). Within a decade China will be the biggest consumer of luxury goods in the world, and the size of the country's population is the single statistic everyone in the retail business knows: 1.3 billion. There are a quarter of a million millionaires in China, most of whom live in or near Shanghai, leading them to be known as "Shuppies".

The Chinese are learning to shop like professionals. China's luxury goods market is now worth about £1.2bn, or 3 per cent of the world's total. The growing Chinese middle class is obsessed by all things Western, especially luxury goods; and while they might still produce some of the most accomplished counterfeit goods in the world (Giorgio Armani was so impressed by a knock-off Emporio Armani watch he bought on a recent visit that he decided to move some of his production there), but the Chinese want the real thing: the real Balenciaga bag, the real Hugo Boss suit, the real Louis Vuitton suitcase (it's the provenance that counts, the authenticity, not just the quality).

This was brought home to me in Hong Kong, where I was taken to a tiny shop no bigger than eight telephone boxes called Milan Station. This is where tourists like me come to buy second-hand designer bags by the likes of Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Mulberry. But these are second-hand bags like you've never seen before.

What happens is this: Hong Kong society lady accompanies husband on business trip to New York, Milan, Paris or London. Once there, she buys expensive designer bag. Back in Hong Kong she wears said bag to various social events over the space of about two months. But because HK is so small, and so parochial, after a while everyone she needs to impress has seen her bag. So she sells it to Milan Station, which then sells it to tourists for a fraction of the original cost. And while I realise that the luxury houses might be dismissive of such an enterprise, I think they should look upon it as a form of viral advertising. Not least because my wife loved her bag.

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ' magazine