Why Italian lifestyle and brands are so popular in China

Dominik Pietzcker
The casual and friendly atmosphere in Shanghai is particularly appreciated by Italians; it simply reminds them of home.
Dominik Pietzcker

On a global scale, consumers' appetite and aspirations are to a certain extent quite similar. Driving German cars, using American smartphones (or toothpaste, or both), listening to K-pop, watching English Premier League, wearing a Swiss wristwatch and, not to forget, investing heavily in French cosmetics.

Yes, why not. All these products and experiences have already become part of the eclectic cosmopolitan lifestyle of our times, whether in the East or West.

Hypnotized by Italy

But haven't we left something out – a country that is, since the days of the Romans, essentially part of every single achievement in human aesthetics, art and civilization? So, what about Italy? A magic word, a magic country!

Goethe, Byron and Keats – just to mention the most prominent travelers – were immediately hypnotized by Italy's natural beauty and cultural abundance. French writer Stendhal felt completely overwhelmed when he arrived, for the first time, in Florence and Milan. And that was more than a century before Salvatore Ferragamo and Armani, Emilio Pucci and Prada had opened their flagship stores! How would Stendhal experience Shanghai, today? Probably as very Italian, I guess.

Palladio, Michelangelo, Casanova

Who's the most eminent architect? Palladio. The genius of art? Michelangelo. The most famous (or infamous) lover? Casanova. An immortal poet? Dante.

History and architecture, landscape and urbanity, communication and sensuality, all these heterogenous elements form a very peculiar way of living that can only be described in an Italian word – italianità, roughly translated as "the Italian way."

But what is italianità all about? I asked Wang Jianquan, associate professor in Roman studies and Italian language at Shanghai International Studies University, to explain this peculiar phenomenon: "It is a specific self-perception of Italian people and Italian culture, a collective mirror, precisely a psychological and cultural self-reflection. Remarkably, Italy is very successful in evoking a positive image of itself. And that is more than just a marketing gig."

In other words, the Italian dream is real!

Italian luxury brands in China

Italian luxury brands are big in China and omnipresent in Shanghai. According to Shanghai-based fashion consultancy Luxeco, Bulgari, Gucci and Bottega Veneta are among the most popular Italian brands in China, followed by Fendi, Max Mara and Valentino.

Walking through the inner districts of Shanghai, one simply cannot ignore the plentitude of Italian handbags, shoes, scarves and dresses. It's all about "conspicuous consumption," to quote American sociologist Thorstein Veblen. When it comes to high-end shopping, Nanjing Road W. and Huaihai Road resemble very much Monte Napoleone in Milan, one of the hottest travel destinations in Italy for young urban Chinese.

Cultural scientist Dr Ester Saletta from Bergamo, northern Italy, explains the tremendous success of Italian brands: "Excellence and uniqueness are our aim when it comes to production. Italians consider their products as works of art. Handmade details and an outstanding artisanal tradition make all the difference. You cannot find it anywhere else in the world."

As we all know, this difference comes with a heavy price tag.

What makes Italian products so desirable for Shanghainese?

For Vincenzo Pinto, a designer and architect from Naples, Italy is "the quintessence of European culture. Italian products combine heritage with modernity, tradition with lightness and romanticism with functionality."

He points out that most Italian brands initially come from small patriarchic family businesses. "It's all about trust and highest quality standards, constantly kept over many decades."

Proven quality, natural elegance and timeless beauty: Do these attributes not perfectly match with the self-perception of Shanghai culture? When it comes to social competition, an iconic luxury item might just be one of the decisive accessories, the ultimate proof of personal style.

Although Chinese brands are catching up, quintessential elegance still comes from Italy – Buccellati for jewelry, E. Marinella for ties, Ferragamo for leather goods. Some Italians even claim that the purest sense of Southern elegance can only be found in Naples, the vibrant city under Mount Vesuvius.

Pasta, pastry, perfect day

But Italy is not only about antiquity, fashion and Baroque design, it's also about coffee and sweets, two things that Shanghai people are as mad about as the Italians themselves. Shanghai is known to be the city with the highest number of cafés and coffee shops across the globe. Well, I didn't count – who did, anyway? – but the affinity toward Italian coffee specialties (espresso, cappuccino, Americano, etc) is obvious. Italian wines, not to forget pastry and chocolate, in all their varieties are also extremely popular, among both the expat community and Shanghai people.

Essentially, there are not so many differences between a typical Italian and a typical Shanghainese café. Both are usually small family business, the neighbors come around for a chat or simply enjoy the first espresso of the day. Best example is the little café "Room 127" on Guangling No. 1 Road in Hongkou District, which serves an espresso as typically Italian as it can be. No wonder – owner Zhang Ying, a busy man in his 30s, used to work with Italian coffee brand illy.

Strong family tie and joy of life

The casual and friendly atmosphere in Shanghai is particularly appreciated by Italians; it simply reminds them of home. I meet with Dr Paolo Vigalli, associate professor at Shanghai Normal university, at Café Paradox on Wuding Road, a cozy Mediterranean exclave close to Jing'an Temple. He enjoys his "doppio espresso macchiato" and explains some similarities between Italian and Chinese cultures.

"We are both obsessed with food! We really love eating and talking about all kind of culinary adventures. Family relations in both cultures are extremely important and very tight. The mother-in-law plays an eminent role in both countries." Vigalli must know, as his wife is Chinese.

But the most striking resemblance between Italian cities and Shanghai is the omnipresence of scooters on the streets. A truly democratic way of transportation in both countries! No matter old or young, courier, craftsman, student, worker or businessman – simply everyone in Shanghai is riding a scooter.

Often, you can see couples, people with their pets and even whole families on their vehicles. Freestyle driving on two wheels, wind in the face, and the loved one behind, isn't it just a practical way to express the joy of life itself? And what could be more – Italian.

(The author is a professor at Macromedia University of Applied Sciences in Germany and a visiting professor of European studies at Shanghai International Studies University).

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