Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:52 PM CST – China

Society

X+Q Boutique

Old Dog, New Tricks

Pioneering designer boutique X+Q is adjusting its scope to carve out a bigger market share

“Oath in the Peach Garden,” a limited edition reproduction of a 2009 work by Qu Guangci Photo by CFP

Qu Guangci with a white variant of his signature work, “Angel” Photo by CNS

Opposite the Starbucks in Beijing’s Yintai Center, X+Q’s first flagship store has been open since 2011. Its shopping mall neighbors include luxury brands such as Hermès, Cartier and Giorgio Armani, to name a few. The store’s founders, Qu Guangci and his wife Xiang Jing, are two of China’s most influential sculptors, with their works commanding impressive price tags. In 1994, at the age of 25, then college student Qu Guangci won the top award at the 8th National Art Work Exhibition, one of China’s top art showcases. In 2010, a piece by Xiang Jing broke mainland auction records, selling for more than 6 million yuan (US$948,000 at the time).

X+Q’s stores stock facsimiles of their sculptures in various sizes, along with designer bags, scarves and accessories. While some items can be snapped up for a few hundred yuan, the average price ranges between 3,000 and 10,000 yuan (US$456-1,521).

X+Q was just awarded Brand of the Year by the China General Chamber of Commerce – USA, with Qu collecting the accolade on January 20, 2016. When he returned to Beijing, he was welcomed at the airport by a group of fans of X+Q and the artists themselves.

“It was the first time I had received such an organized welcome,” Qu posted to WeChat, along with a photo of himself holding a bunch of flowers.

Angels

Not long before the brand received its US award, Qu and X+Q had just wrapped up Maison&Objet Paris, one of the world’s most important design and interior décor expositions, where X+Q had a stall. X+Q’s presence marked the first time a Chinese brand had appeared in such a prominent place at the exposition – exhibiting in the prestigious Hall 7 alongside Japanese brand Arita, Normann Copenhagen, Ibride and &Tradition.

Qu arrived in Paris with some 70 X+Q products including sculpture, lamps and accessories. Pride of place was reserved for Qu’s signature works in his “Angel” series. Qu’s “Angel” is a depiction of a corpulent man wearing a vintage Mao suit, a pair of angel’s wings protruding from his back. First created in 2005, the sculpture was developed by Qu into a series incorporating similar figures in various positions and executed on a range of scales. In 2009, Qu brought his “Angels” to an exhibition in Hong Kong, and his work was snapped up by luxury department store Lane Crawford, who invited Qu to sell copies of his original “Angels” in its Hong Kong flagship store. “They sold well. In just half a year, I made 700,000 to 800,000 yuan [about US$100,000 to 120,000],” Qu told NewsChina.

At Maison&Objet, “Angels” were placed to be one of the first sights greeting visitors to Hall 7. Nearly 30 of the now iconic figures, all executed in blue, surrounded the “white box” that served as X+Q’s exhibition platform. Five versions of Xiang Jing’s signature work, a figure of a “bunny girl” titled “I Have Seen Happiness,” each in a different color, were also on display at the center of the white box. Almost all the products Qu brought to the exhibition sold out. In his view, “the exhibition brought X+Q more overseas business opportunities in one morning than [we] had had in the previous four years.”

X+Q now has three stores in China, in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. They also cooperate with 15 boutiques in China and six abroad, including the Guggenheim Store in Manhattan.

‘I Didn’t Understand Business’

X+Q has few competitors in its home market. Most design houses in China either lack the fame of the store’s celebrity owners, or their experience. Qu saw an opportunity to capitalize on the spending power of China’s middle class, but meeting his own expectations is proving tricky.

“I like Starbucks a lot. They did something most other brands didn’t,” Qu told NewsChina while sitting in the eponymous coffeehouse, opposite X+Q’s Beijing store. “They started with a simple product – quality coffee.” X+Q started from Qu’s “Angels,” and, once an icon had been established, began to diversify.

“The product is the core of a brand,” he continued. “It needs to be magical.” The company’s design philosophy is to create different “experiences” for each customer. Qu mentioned Starbucks’ tactic of turning all its staff into shareholders, hinting that this might be a future model for X+Q.

However, unlike Starbucks, X+Q is very much a top-end brand, and brands, Qu believes, will determine the future of Chinese consumer culture. “Who are China’s largest group of consumers?” Qu asked. “It’s those who earn 5,000 to 10,000 yuan (US$760 to 1,520) a month. The past decade belonged to art and literature. The next decade belongs to brands.”

Thus, he reasons, his store needs to reach a broader clientele. “Our current customers are mainly middle-aged rich people who like art and literature,” Qu told NewsChina. “Luxury brands from abroad are intentionally expensive in China, while the best-selling domestic goods usually lack quality.”

Therein, Qu continued, lies X+Q’s potential niche – more mid-range, quality products marketed to the growing middle class.

X+Q came into being, Qu admits, almost by coincidence. Despite its successful trajectory, Qu told NewsChina he was actually “stuck in the mud” a lot of the time. “I didn’t understand business at all in the past. My team and I were into art instead of commerce.” This year, however, he says, “I finally realized what business is and what a businessman is. Commerce means to maximize, whether it’s craftsmanship, technique, quality or interest.”

Expansion consequently awaits. “X+Q will begin financing,” Qu said, though, like Starbucks, he doesn’t want to sacrifice that which has provided his company with the momentum to grow. “A good product should give people a sense of nobility, originality and magic,” Qu said. “X+Q is like a dog – from the outside it seems to be of no practical use, but once you have it, it becomes indispensable.”

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