Wouldn’t it be a great idea for someone to arrange a match between the world’s most prestigious luxury brands and the world’s fastest-growing consumer market? Yes, it would, and someone has. His name is Melvin Chua.
To see Chua in his natural habitat, imagine yourself at New York Fashion Week. Run down Mercer Street past the bloggerazzi. (You’re late. Very late.) Take the stairs two at a time up to the 82 Mercer event space, and slide into your seat as the lights dim and the music begins to pound. After a few pleasant moments admiring Jason Wu’s spring 2014 clothes, go backstage. And there you will find Chua, embracing the designer and his friends.
Wearing a floppy black hat, a black linen jacket and jeans, he looks like just another denizen of Fashionworld, his exact place in the hierarchy known only to the gods who assign front-row seats. He isn’t. Sole occupant of an ecological (and economic) niche he created for himself, Chua is something else altogether: a spirit-guide for the transformation of China’s provincial-yet-aspirational consumers into global connoisseurs of the beautiful, the luxurious and the expensive.
Just 40 years old, solidly built and surprisingly normal beneath his outrageous hats, he is the founder and principal of Ink Pak, a public-relations and event- organising firm advising global luxury brands from Chanel to Lanvin on how to succeed in China. But that description understates his cultural role. All businesses in China operate via personal networks, and fashion and luxury are driven more than most industries by the interconnections of friends and enemies and colleagues. Chua is the central node bringing these different webs into contact. “We call him the gateway to China,” says designer Phillip Lim, who has collaborated on a number of projects with him. “Melvin is one of those people you can reference by first name only and people know who you are talking about.”
Chua has offices in Shanghai and Beijing, and clients in Milan, Paris, London and New York, and his mind is everywhere at once, his body permanently jet-lagged to the point where time has no meaning. Du Juan, China’s first supermodel, who is managed by Chua, attributes her success to his alert state. She explains: “When people in New York call, it’s usually the middle of the night in China. Melvin answers every call.”
Chua is more blunt. “I have ADD,” he says. If Attention Deficit Disorder means the ability to carry on five conversations at a time with the person sitting next to him and another dozen simultaneously on We Chat, the self- diagnosis might possibly be correct.
But this relentless connectivity is also one of the techniques he used to put himself in the middle of an epochal cultural revolution, in which China is moving from a taste for nouveau-riche bling to a preference for old-money luxury in the space of a decade or so. Chua has an extraordinary talent for putting people together in a mutually beneficial manner. “Melvin says he’s throwing together a dinner for a few friends tomorrow night,” Jason Wu explains. “Twenty-four hours later, you find yourself sitting with Mario Sorrenti, Naomi Campbell and Baz Luhrmann.”
Hours after Wu’s runway show, I joined Chua at China Fashion Night, held in the ballroom of the Pierre Hotel by something called the China Beauty Charity Fund. The ambience was a bit perplexing: a random assortment of minor New York fashion types, European and Middle Eastern semi-aristocrats, and well-heeled Chinese milling around four or five stationary, mime-like models wearing elaborate filigreed and embroidered gowns by Chinese designer Guo Pei.
The gowns were amazing to behold, and highlighted the artisanal craft of those who had sewn them. But they also reinforced the unfortunate stereotype of Chinese design as orientalising and literally unwearable by a moving human. As a helper mopped the brow of a frozen-in-place model, the inescapable impression was of 1970s-era Woody Allen doing his version of Fellini.
Into this scene strode Chua, resplendent in dinner jacket, velvet bow tie and silk pumps, leading Du Juan by the arm. Du stood apart like the celebrity that she is to would-be Chinese fashionistas. Fans begged for snapshots, and were accommodated. One New York photographer gruffly demanded to shoot her — then asked her who she was. Meanwhile, Chua took up his role as the most sought-after person of the hundreds there. “You have to meet my good friends,” he said again and again as he introduced me to three tables’ worth of his smart-looking, friendly and impressively loyal cohort.
Kan Yue Sai, the evening’s host, is a trailblazing Chinese luxury entrepreneur who built her Yue-Sai cosmetics brand into a national powerhouse before selling it to L’Oreal. When she got to the dais in the ballroom, she thanked Chua — even before she mentioned the Chinese ambassador.
The point of the evening was to bring China to New York Fashion Week — to initiate in reverse the process that Chua has pioneered of selling Western luxury to the East. What he does for clients like Giorgio Armani and Burberry is not only to shape their strategy for introducing themselves to China, but also to make that introduction himself through the full panoply of brand shaping: events, partnerships, people, installations, images and aesthetics. When Lim wanted to stage an event to mark the fifth anniversary of his brand in one of the guard towers protecting the Forbidden City, he called Chua, who made it happen. “It was a really big moment for us,” Lim says – and an astonishing show of can-do effectiveness in an intensely bureaucratic country.
Chua set up an Art Of The Trench exhibit at the Burberry store in Shanghai earlier last year that included photographs of 50 Chinese celebrities wearing the iconic coats around the city, another instance of his painstaking work at making connections — and delivering on them. His 10th-anniversary bash for Alber Elbaz and Lanvin in Beijing featured Chinese electro-pop diva Shang Wenjie, who has become a key symbol of fashion in Chinese popular culture.
Although US-based designers of Chinese descent, like Wu, Lim and Alexander Wang, have already succeeded in both worlds, the Chinese fashion night suggests that getting less cosmopolitan Chinese designers recognised in the West will tax Chua’s considerable talents. For both sides of the cultural divide, he is the indispensable man; the Virgil who will help them avoid the pitfalls of the inferno and point them towards commercial heaven.
This unique role puts Chua at the leading edge of the future Chinese economy. Having exported its way to growth for 30 years, China cannot keep growing at steep rates, unless it develops domestic markets by turning its hard-working, money-saving citizens into capitalists. In a historic twist that would have horrified Mao, the future survival of the Chinese Communist Party depends on the cultural struggle to make comrades into consumers.
To do that requires re-education in a way more sophisticated than anything the Party has ever known. It needs Chua.
The day after the Fashion Week events, Chua arrives for breakfast at the Standard hotel in a dark sweater, leather shorts and a fleecy hat with piggy ears on top. Once there, he refuses food, chain-smokes furtively in the outdoor garden and acknowledges a string of well-wishers between texts and e-mail. He is direct, if a little opaque, about his process. “I’ve been doing this for so long, that I know intuitively what will appeal to a Chinese audience,” he says. He lights up when we are joined by his best friend, Wen Zhou, the co-founder of 3.1 Phillip Lim, and her seven-year-old son, Zen.
Eventually, the Standard’s insistence on the letter of the anti-smoking law drives us to the garden of Zhou’s stylish West Chelsea town house. While Zen plays video games, Chua explains that his trajectory was rather different from the usual fashion story of the out-of- place child who finally finds a home among the creative class. Born in the Philippines to a family of self-made Chinese businesspeople, Chua asked to be sent abroad to a buttoned-down boarding school in Vancouver. “I had many friends there, and most of my closest friends are still from school,” he says. From there, he went on to Wharton, where — notwithstanding any ADD — he landed a summer position at McKinsey & Co, and then an entry-level job in China with advertising giant McCann Erickson. In a rise that would be precipitous even by the standards of Mad Men, he was a managing director by the age of 24.
Chua went to China not out of any desire to explore his roots but, he says frankly, “because the opportunity was there”. Success demanded immersion and constant work. His family is originally from Fujian province, and he grew up speaking no Mandarin at all. Now he is fluent in it. Chua managed classic advertising accounts like razor blades, hiring men off the street to be videotaped shaving to teach his team about Chinese grooming habits.
At a personal level, Chua’s transition from corporate ad exec to luxury guru – from the man in the gray flannel suit to the man in the black leather shorts – was driven by the need for independence. “Overseas Chinese”, he explains to me, “like to rely on themselves”. But his transformation also mirrored the emergence of a new, high-end consumer market in China, the inevitable result of the extraordinary wealth that emerged in the era when the reformer Deng Xiaoping said, according to legend: “To get rich is glorious.”
Chua seems to have an almost psychological grasp of how to create the very consumers that make up this market. “You have to give the Chinese a narrative that captures the authenticity of the brand,” Chua says. “If there’s no story, it’s really hard to get them to take it seriously.” Blurring the line between fashion and art serves this strategy. In Beijing, he helped stage a show of Mario Testino’s photographs at the Today Art Museum within the avant-garde institution’s first decade, helping to set the stage for buyers to see global fashion as substantial, not superficial.
Presenting fashion and luxury as art has another benefit in China’s cultural climate. “Artists come with baggage,” Chua notes. “Some have political opinions, or other people interpret their work politically.” Fashion, by contrast, seems thus far to pose almost no risk of creating political trouble within China.
That is not, of course, because fashion is outside politics. No country in which the works of Marx are still treated with respect could make the mistake of treating luxury, the ultimate surplus goods, as neutral. You don’t get access to the Forbidden City if your goals are politically incorrect. Rather, the politics of fashion and luxury are exactly what the Chinese government seeks to promote. When it comes to educating Chinese purchasers about the appealing decadence of buying beautiful things, Giorgio Armani and Xi Jinping are ultimately allies – and Melvin Chua is their matchmaker.