If you ever pondered the difference between an oyster fork and an escargot fork, you are not alone. In the wake of China’s crackdown on corruption, which put the kibosh on extravagant banquets, one outcome has been an uptick in home entertainment. Interior designers, homeware brands and even etiquette specialists are pushing into China.
“For many years now, people in China have been giving as well as attending very elaborate banquets, held in lavish hotels or fine restaurants,” said lifestyle expert Grace Leo. “In this new time of responsible austerity, people are trying to equal the grandeur and spirit of the banquet by entertaining luxuriously in their own home.”
Leo, who calls herself ‘the Martha Stewart of Asia’, is a 25-year hotel veteran who has made a name styling interiors. Next month her new online platform will begin shipping its high-end crockery and tableware to China.
The site also gives free tips on savoir-faire, offering a ready-made plan for how to host a dinner party, European style (she advises against bringing flowers as a gift). Leo also offers free interactive Q&A sessions on the platform.
She explained: “The idea is to demonstrate l’art de vivre to a predominantly Chinese female population, many of whom want to learn about European home styling and etiquette.”
So how big is the market opportunity in her view?
“Our goal is to accrue 50 new customers or sales per week, at an estimated value of roughly €200 ($226) per sale,” Leo added.
Leo’s launch is the latest in a string of Western-educated gurus preaching the art of European table-manners to Asia.
Some, like Gloria Starr and Institute Sarita, offer dining etiquette classes. Starr has created YouTube videos showing a step-by-step guide on everything from buttering bread correctly, to what constitute taboo conversation topics at a family meal. “China is very interested in knowing the international ways, and about 30% of my work is in China now,” said Starr.
Others, like British interior designer Kelly Hoppen, have adopted a similar model to Leo’s, by selling her own branded tableware in conjunction with advice. Hoppen’s free ‘Art of Home’ series features tips ranging from laying a Christmas table to making the bed. Hoppen says that Asia now constitutes half of her business, stemming from projects in Hong Kong, Taiwan and obviously in mainland China itself.
Others are going a step further by establishing on-the-ground presences in China, selling minimalist European-style furniture. Last year Italian family-owned furniture maker Minotti, known for its natural tones and modern textures, launched a flagship store in Chengdu. Since then it has been aggressively expanding its presence in Beijing and Shanghai.
“The concept of installing a modern interior inside a traditional building, long seen in the West, is now also becoming popular in China,” commented Antonio Marelli, the Minotti area manager for Asia.
He expects sales in China to hit a new peak this year. “I am confident that China is one of the best places for Minotti to be.”
According to UK-based consultant Ledbury, demand for luxury furniture in China is about to rise.
Although currently limited in scale, with a market size of around €2 billion, Ledbury predicts sales will grow 75% by 2020 to €3.5 billion.
Madelaine Ollivier, an analyst at Ledbury, says the average Chinese luxury consumer traditionally preferred products that “can be seen when they leave the house”. That’s changing as more of the affluent travel abroad and “increase their exposure to luxury trends such as spending on the home,” she says. Meanwhile Ollivier predicts that upmarket foreign furnishing brands will increase their hitherto weak presence in China.
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