Shanghai Tang Commons

[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]lessandro Bastagli is everything you’d expect of a fashion mogul. He’s dapper – though you could attribute it to his Italian roots – with a full head of white hair that adds a touch of dignity.

Personality-wise though, the Florence-born textile entrepreneur, who led a consortium to buy Shanghai Tang from Swiss luxury conglomerate Richemont last July, is a little more flamboyant than the Mandarin-collar blazer (Shanghai Tang, of course) he wore when he was in town last month.

He speaks candidly and, surprisingly, without a minder to approve of questions being asked.

No stranger to the local fashion scene, Mr Bastagli introduced the Versace brand to Singapore in the late seventies with another pioneer in the industry, Tina Tan-Leo. He was also once married to Gillian Barker, daughter of the former law minister, the late E.W. Barker.

Mr Bastagli speaks fondly of his ex-father-in-law – both coincidentally share the same birth date of 1st December – but jokes the cost of his divorce has kept him away from Singapore for about two decades.

He also throws in a bit of Singlish for good measure and remembers places like Bugis Street, although he remarks the city looks nothing like it used to.

Mr Bastagli’s career has covered the full spectrum of the fashion retail supply chain. Most notably, he has been the Italian licensee of American sportswear brand Everlast and is the majority shareholder of Lineapiu Italia, which produces yarn for high-end fashion brands like Max Mara, Dior and Hermes.

Just last month, he also purchased Coin, an Italian chain of department stores.

As Shanghai Tang’s Executive Chairman, he is currently tasked with rejuvenating and expanding the luxury Chinese fashion brand founded in 1994 by the late Cambridge-educated Hong Kong businessman David Tang.

Popular for its figure-hugging qi pao which Maggie Cheung donned in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Shanghai Tang is now also aiming to attract millennials.

To that end, Mr Bastagli has roped in his 25-year-old son Edoardo, who shares both his father’s love for fashion and fascination with Chinese culture. The younger Bastagli even studied the language in university and is on board to beef up the company’s online presence.

Shanghai Tang even has a cute new mascot, Laki the French bulldog, to give the brand a fresh, youthful appeal.

Massimiliano Giornetti, who was creative director of Salvatore Ferragamo, has also been hired to oversee the design of the clothes which will retain its Chinese heritage and aesthetics but are now all made in Italy.

It’s not going to be a walk in the park given the challenging retail climate and Mr Bastagli is fully aware of it. But given his four-decade-plus experience in the fashion industry and the team he has assembled, Shanghai Tang’s revival already has a swagger.

Some industry insiders have said the sale of Shanghai Tang was due to Richemont deeming it as under-performing. What convinced you to buy it?

I do not agree with that because Richemont is strong and powerful so they can afford to reorganise and turn Shanghai Tang around if they wanted to. The real reason is that, when I met Mr (Johann Peter) Rupert (Chairman of Richemont), he asked me which of his company’s fashion brands had the longest appeal. I told him it was Shanghai Tang because it’s Chinese and has a fantastic expression of both the culture and luxury. Sooner or later, the Chinese will want a high end brand that they can call their own instead of something that is Italian or French. For me, it’s about making Shanghai Tang a top quality brand and then re-exporting a part of Chinese culture around the world because that is so fascinating and different.

Was that your first brush with Shanghai Tang?

No, I met David Tang in 1994 when he opened the first shop in Hong Kong. He was an art collector like me and I admired him for his creativity and never expected to one day be able to own the brand. And all of this happened because of my good relationship with Mr Rupert who said, “Since you love the company so much, why don’t you buy it for yourself?” I asked a friend, “Would you like to join me?”, he said yes, and in six months, we bought the company.

What are your plans for it now?

Shanghai Tang used to be recognised for its style but we want it to be known for its quality now. We would like to reposition the brand and use it to create a link between East and West. Society has become globalised today and I want to give Shanghai Tang a better identity. My son will also be helping me because he is a millennial and he is on the Internet from morning to night, which I’m not. But the world is closer now because of social media – that is the future – so it is going to be an important (part of the rebranding).

How confident are you of succeeding in this current retail climate where physical stores are generally struggling against online ones?

All our cabinets are full of stuff so I’m sure nobody buys anything now out of need – a purchase will be based on emotion and that is a keyword in retail now… The Kardashian sisters put their name on a lousy piece of t-shirt produced in the cheapest factory in Bangladesh but it sells out in ten days – to me, I don’t think that will last very long because it seems too easy. That is about jumping on the right horse at the right time but you can’t get the right horse every day so you need to be prepared… All that is progress and you can’t stop it, but I don’t think the old world is going to die so soon such that retail shops will all close down. There is a certain pleasure in walking into a boutique and touching something before you buy it. It doesn’t mean retail will go back to its old days but there will be room for everybody.

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You work in fashion and you collect art. Which is bigger – your wardrobe or art collection?

Art. My wardrobe is nice – it’s very neat, divided by colours, materials – and feels like you are in a shop, but my book collection, marbles, statues and paintings are even more well-kept. Put it this way, several people have seen my wardrobe but very few are invited to my library. For me, art is purely for pleasure and passion.

This story was originally published in The Business Times.