du 08 au 09 janvier 2015
The routes of luxury

Organized by Marc Abélès in the Collège d'études mondiales.

Some of the most remarkable aspects of the drastic transformations of the Chinese society in the last two decades appear in the field of luxury consumption. In a few years, China has become the second market of the world of luxury goods, of which concentrate almost the third part at a global level. The rapid development of trade in luxury goods illustrates the impact of globalization in China. After years of austerity, what it counts today is the pursuit of pleasure and beauty, and the hedonic function of luxury is a key dimension of this opening of China to the outside world. While wealthy Chinese consumers are particularly fond of Western luxury products, their willingness of ostentation bears the mark of an excess of expenditure that resonates with the frenetic development of capitalism in China. Another issue concerns the impact of globalization on the luxury sector. Is the globalization producing an increasing homogenization of this sector? Are we assisting to the emergence of new niches for one type of customer that reinforce the logics of social distinction while, at the same time, big brands are trying to reach a wider public? Is China becoming a global setting where new conceptions of richness, luxury and consumption are emerging?

In order to explore these topics, this workshop aim to gather specialists from different disciplines of the social sciences interested in the study of the current transformations of China through the lens of the political, symbolic and economic dimensions of luxury in this country.


Tursday, January 8


09.30-09.45  Olivier Bouin (Collège d’Etudes Mondiales)
Welcoming Address

9h.45-10.30  Marc Abélès (EHESS-CNRS)

10.30-11.30   John Osburg (Department of Anthropology, University of Rochester)
Luxury and its Discontents in Contemporary China

11h30-12.30   Carolyn Cartier (China Research Centre, University of Technology, Sydney)
Towards the Chinese Consumer Society: Lineaments of Didacticism in Luxury Consumption



14.30-15.30   Sylvia Yanagisako
Immaterial Value and Material Logics of Italian Luxury Goods in China

15.30-16.30   Jianhua Zhao (Department of Anthropology, University of Louisville)
Routes of Luxury: Observations and Lessons from the Chinese Fashion Industry

16.30-17.30   Boris Petric (EHESS-CNRS)
The global wine alliance: an ethnography of the new transnational elite in Hong Kong
Workshop dinner

Friday, January 9


09.30-10.30   Maximo Badaro (CONICET/ Universidad Nacional de San Martín)
Luxury as pedagogy of global modernity in contemporary China

10.30-11.30   Lynda Dematteo (EHESS-CNRS)
Political significance of the timeless in the promotion of the Italian      luxury brands

11.30-12.30   Hervé Munz (Institut d’Ethnologie, Université de Neuchâtel)
Swiss luxury watches, made in Hong-Kong? A study of skills transmission and social status as reflected in after-sales service of      Swiss watches in China

12.30-13.00   General Discussion


Some abstracts

Máximo Badaró

In the last decade the significant growth of luxury consumption in China has attracted many foreign marketing-, branding-, and consulting agencies, which open offices in Chinese main cities to carry out market research and provide information to Western brands about Chinese consumer behavior. This process goes hand in hand with an increasing number of expositions, fairs and workshops where foreign goods and expert knowledge related to luxury are displayed and celebrated. These actors and scenes are key cultural and economic brokers and agents of the rapid development of global China. This paper presents a preliminary ethnographical exploration of these networks of luxury in Shanghai and Beijing. The paper argues that in these settings, the idea of luxury is deployed in pedagogical terms, framing Chinese consumers as people that lacks, and needs to learn, the knowledge and meanings associated with global modernity. However, this politics of value face the increasing evidence that China is becoming a global landscape where new ideas and concepts of wealth, luxury and value are emerging. It is in China that these foreign actors have to learn and redefine new ways of being global.

Carolyn Cartier

‘Towards the Chinese Consumer Society: Lineaments of Didacticism in Luxury Consumption’

In less than a decade, social and economic mobility in China combined with international travel have erupted in Chinese consumer-tourism with urgent requirements for consumerability. Established with fervent speed, and trailing forms of socialist excess, the Chinese consumer-citizen must learn what, where and how to consume. This worlding time of it, under late capitalism, also instantiates consumer practices in China in relation to neoliberalizing intellectual property rights, exacting finer degrees of differentiation over design and brands (even as it risks mashing-up ‘brands’ and ‘fakes’). These convergent conditions renew authenticity, and press interest to locate the premier object, including through travel to the source.

In reflection on these convergent conditions, this paper proposes the idea that evolving Chinese consumer society finds distinction especially through modes of learning and experience, including now through ‘consumer coursework’ on teachable luxury consumption. Didactic elements of consumer practice, binding an affective cultivation of taste to affiliated structures of learning, churn through memes of historical-symbolic forms including popular expressions of Confucian-linked aesthetics. Such lineaments of didacticism manifest in intensities of shared, socially recognizable luxury, suggesting how luxury in China insinuates into broader urban milieus. Is the globalization of luxury brands, combined with Chinese proclivities for a didactic consumerism, likely to change meanings of luxury? Underscoring this potential are the roles officials and elites in China who, as ‘model consumers’, index correct consumer practices and their positional goods affiliated to official rank in Chinese politics and society.

Hervé Munz

Swiss luxury watches, made in Hong-Kong? A study of skills transmission and social status as reflected in after-sales service of Swiss watches in China

Today 95 % of the watches produced on the Swiss territory are intended for the export. After having studied, during my PhD, the ways watchmaking skills were passed on and heritagization of such forms of knowledge was made within the Swiss industry, I’d like to understand, in my next postdoctoral research, how the watches that are labelized Swiss Made circulate on the international stage and how the skills transmission related to the after-sales service of these watches is nowadays managed abroad ?

Considering that China (and especially Hong Kong) has become, for a bit less than ten years, the first importation market for fine Swiss watchmaking, the goal of that project will be to study the topic of the after-sales service in the specific place of Hong Kong (HK) in connection with a particular type of watches, namely the « complicated watches ». These are mechanical luxury watches, produced by Swiss brands and positioned by them on the highest and most « traditional » and prestigious range of  watchmaking products.

Even if I still haven’t officially started that research but on the basis of some preliminary interviews that I drove in HK, I’ll try to underline here some of the issues crystalized in the skills transfers and the implementation of training centers by Swiss brands in HK to assure, on the spot and by a very qualified local workforce, the technical follow-ups of the « complicated watches » labelized Swiss made. I’ll also describe the tensions and problems of secrecy that the transfer of such forms of technical know-how (perceived by numerous watchmaking actors as « Swiss heritage ») to China implies.

John Osburg

Luxury and its Discontents in Contemporary China

Based on ongoing fieldwork with a group of wealthy entrepreneurs who at one time were avid consumers of luxury brands, this paper examines recent changes in the local meanings and uses of luxury brands (clothing, accessories, and cars, in particular) in urban China. I begin with an overview of the key roles luxury brands have played during the past two decades in signifying membership in exclusive social networks in China and mediating their associated gift economies. I then look at more recent changes brought on by several factors: anti-corruption campaigns, the growing “commonness” of luxury brands in elite social circles, and increasing “inflation” in the gift economy. These factors have begun to undermine the previous meanings and functions of luxury, and to many wealthy Chinese, luxury brands now deliver something very different from the “global recognition” they once promised. The contradictions inherent in luxury consumption, I argue, are pushing members of China’s new rich towards less blatantly commodifiable and more austere forms of status distinction including religious devotion, elite sports, and traditional forms of self-cultivation.

Sylvia Yanagisako

Immaterial Value and Material Logics of Italian Luxury Goods in China

This paper addresses the question of whether the rapid increase in the consumption of Western luxury goods in China is leading to a homogenization of the luxury sector and a reinforcement of logics of social distinction.  Drawing on ethnographic research conducted over the past ten years among Italian firms engaged in both manufacturing and selling luxury fashion in China, I trace the shift in these firms' strategies from procuring materials and labor at lower cost to meeting the growing Chinese demand for their products.  As the Chinese market has become crucial to the survival and expansion of luxury brands, Italian firms are under pressure to reorganize their production and distribution processes to live up to the prestige-value claims of Made in Italy.  This includes maintaining or relocating manufacturing in Italy, emphasizing the firm's family history and continuing roots in provincial Italy, and prioritizing European retail outlets. 

In rejecting the conventional narrative of the erasure of diverse cultural logics by the global expansion of Western capitalism, Sahlins has argued that non-Western cultural systems are not necessarily supplanted by a Western cultural logic nor ossified as they resist it.  Instead, he suggests, the encounter with an expanding Western capitalism may lead to the enrichment and elaboration of local cultural systems, as it did in Hawaii and China in the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries.  In contrast, my ethnographic research suggests that the phenomenal growth in demand for Western luxury goods by Chinese has enabled Italian firms to enrich their industrial-commercial system at the same time that it constrains it through a materialist reading of symbolic value.  This has yielded a reverse fetishism in which the immaterial value of a commodity is translated into material relations between persons and objects

Jianhua Zhao

The Routes of Luxury: Observations and Lessons from the Chinese Fashion Industry

Just a few decades ago, the word luxury would be associated with moral failings and invite political prosecutions in China. Today, China is home to the world’s second largest market for luxury products. How did this happen? What is the pattern in which the Chinese consume luxury products? What does the Chinese consumption of Western luxury products say about globalization? From the vantage point of the growth of the Chinese fashion industry, this paper attempts to answer these questions. Drawing on my archival and ethnographic study of the Chinese fashion study since 2002, I argue that the birth and growth of an industrial fashion industry are driven by the process of market segmentation in China and that while globalization has significantly impacted the Chinese fashion industry, the Chinese consumption of fashion products, including high-end products, indicates distinct local patterns. Fashion being a significant part of the luxury market, observations from the Chinese fashion industry are also helpful in understanding the patterns of the Chinese consumption of luxury products in general.


Lieu : Le France
Localisation : Salle 638

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