Attempting to Understand the Chinese Luxury Aesthetic

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Thanks to an interested and better-financed populace, luxury purchases have been on the rise in China for the past decade. Chinese consumers currently drop around $7.6 billion per year on premium goods, accounting for almost a third of the global luxury market. This has resulted in a massive influx of high-end items and brands that want to capture the public’s attention and, more importantly, cash.

This includes automotive brands — all of which are desperate to expand into the Chinese market. But finding the correct approach is tricky. Plenty of fashionable brands attempted to incorporate authentic Chinese elements into their designs, but failed to do so in an elegant or convincing way. There’s a bit of a balancing act required. Market research shows younger consumers like clean designs and a little bit of bling, but don’t want these established brands catering too much to Chinese tastes. Older consumers, however, are willing to enjoy a little bit more ostentatiousness and adherence to tradition.

That’s one reason why you see so many new cars showing up at auto shows painted red. In China, red represents good fortune and crops up on significant items on important dates all the time. Wedding dresses are traditionally red, as are envelopes containing monetary gifts to commemorate the birth of a child or the new year.

However, we have to wonder if some brands aren’t going a little overboard. Mercedes-Maybach, which just released a hideous concept SUV intended to whet Chinese appetites, has followed up that eyebrow-raising effort with “the pinnacle of luxury living.”

The space, revealed for Auto China 2018 in Beijing, combines all the elements foreign companies assume China likes. Mercedes claims the lounge follows the Sensual Purity design philosophy, providing “forward-looking enhancement and refinement” with an emphasis on beauty and high-tech charm.

“Our brand experience of the ultimate luxury is evident in the exclusive lounge furniture collection in the form of fine materials in the colours rosé gold, white and silk beige”, said Gorden Wagener, Chief Design Officer of Daimler AG. “Their sensuousness and pure refinement create a timeless aesthetic for Mercedes-Maybach, our brand for the ultimate in luxury.”

It’s worth noting that the demo living area mimics the styling of the Ultimate Luxury SUV concept exactly. We’d hazard a guess that every aspect of that design was carefully considered, too. Take, for example, the color palate. There are hundreds of years’ worth of Chinese paintings that contrast intricate organic designs with bright splashes of warm color on white backdrops. It works marvelously too, at least on the paintings. But there’s something about seeing it translated into modern furniture that seems tremendously gaudy.

Maybach is trying so hard to be glamorous, sophisticated, modern, and traditional at the same time here. But it only functions on one level — it’s not a space someone could realistically utilize, therefore the owner must be rich. I knew a family that had an all-white living room, and it was just a show piece. They would sometimes use it to briefly entertain important guests but it was really just there to show that their finances were strong enough to allow for a room to go unused most of the time.

That’s fine — nobody said luxury had to be all about personal comfort and functionality, and we don’t have to like what Mercedes is doing so long as China does. But this particular design also seems to dabble in some of the trappings Chinese consumers seem worried about.

More worrying is the possibility that global courtship of China will continue to influence designs and ideas that migrate here. While Maybach seems to have gone overboard with the Chinese aesthetic, and the language used to describe it, other high-end brands could follow suit if the market somehow finds it appealing.

As a strange aside to Mercedes’ pinnacle of luxury living room, the brand also promised a Maybach Future Mobility Concept for 2030. According to the company, the vehicle is an autonomous flying tandem two-seater can take off and land vertically. The automaker claims a huge Maybach logo will appear on the front and will define the entire fuselage area.

There will also be contrasting carbon-fiber wings “seamlessly positioned on the flying object in classic Maybach red.” It is apparently “ideal for longer journeys at the weekend.”


[Images: Daimler AG]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • KalapanaBlack7G KalapanaBlack7G on Apr 24, 2018

    I just hope the production version (?) of that living room comes complete with the testicles hanging everywhere and the "ULTIMATE LUXURY" script on the wall. So everyone knows you're ultimate. I gotta say though, they are nothing if not consistent. I could see a person owning this room and that hideous sedan truck vehicle they showed off. German hubris shown through no holds barred, new money, east Asian design freedom.

    • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Apr 28, 2018

      Complete with the marketing-speak requiring a master’s in bovine-excrement to interpret!

  • Stuntmonkey Stuntmonkey on Apr 24, 2018

    You want to understand the China luxury aesthetic? There is the one, there are many. There are the tastes of the first wave of 'investors' who came out of China and then there are the tastes of the merely well-to-do coming out now. The poliferation of Coach handbags and Ralph Lauren shirts with gigantic Polo emblems are aimed at the second group.

    • See 1 previous
    • Stuntmonkey Stuntmonkey on Apr 25, 2018

      @Big Al from Oz This is true, if you look at early American architecture, that too is an emulation/imitation, much like how China "borrows" elements from the west now. But what I mean is that there have been successive waves of capital flight from China the truly wealthy and then the well to. The second group are not like the first, but they in themselves are keeping up with the Jones with the precednt set by the first group. We're already into a third group, the tourist class. These are the prosperous in domestic China who want to travel and see the world, but who aren't necessarily looking to put one foot down in the west like the first two groups. As the global influence shifts from the first wave of plutocrats to the third wave of upper middle class, the tastes will shift from ostentatious displays of wealth to what we know as "casual luxury". Here in my hometown, a luxury retailer carries Prada, Channel, etc and does a thriving business with Chinese tourists. But one of their best selling items are those trendy Canada Goose jackets, its practically a uniform for a young Chinese girl here. Funny thing is they keep a lot of stock on the floor, but it's in the atrium just outside the store, not in the store proper. Sort of symbolic, this jackets are merely expensive, but they aren't what the establishment would call true luxury, so you can't just buy your way into a higher slice of society.

  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.
  • GregLocock Car companies can only really sell cars that people who are new car buyers will pay a profitable price for. As it turns out fewer and fewer new car buyers want sedans. Large sedans can be nice to drive, certainly, but the number of new car buyers (the only ones that matter in this discussion) are prepared to sacrifice steering and handling for more obvious things like passenger and cargo space, or even some attempt at off roading. We know US new car buyers don't really care about handling because they fell for FWD in large cars.
  • Slavuta Why is everybody sweating? Like sedans? - go buy one. Better - 2. Let CRV/RAV rust on the dealer lot. I have 3 sedans on the driveway. My neighbor - 2. Neighbors on each of our other side - 8 SUVs.
  • Theflyersfan With sedans, especially, I wonder how many of those sales are to rental fleets. With the exception of the Civic and Accord, there are still rows of sedans mixed in with the RAV4s at every airport rental lot. I doubt the breakdown in sales is publicly published, so who knows... GM isn't out of the sedan business - Cadillac exists and I can't believe I'm typing this but they are actually decent - and I think they are making a huge mistake, especially if there's an extended oil price hike (cough...Iran...cough) and people want smaller and hybrids. But if one is only tied to the quarterly shareholder reports and not trends and the big picture, bad decisions like this get made.