everal global luxury houses, hoping to capitalise on the growing influence of Chinese culture and cater to local taste, have launched brands dedicated to this giant market. One of the best examples is Shanghai Tang, a fashion firm acquired by Richemont in 1998 with high ambitions.
But its creations ended up being bought mainly by Western tourists, not by the Chinese themselves. The luxury group sold the brand two years ago. Hermès launched its Chinese brand Shang Xia in 2008, with more measured ambitions and greater success. But each time, the same obstacle rears its head: the Chinese themselves are not really fans of Made in China. And especially not when foreign brands claim to “embody” Chinese culture...
Robin Tallendier and Wilfried Buiron, the two young French co-founders of the Hong Kong-based Atelier Wen brand, want to break this curse on the Paris- Shanghai axis – the global fashion capital and the global consumer capital. “Unlike projects that have been carried out so far, which targeted a more affluent and older clientele, our focus is millennials, who emerged much more recently,” says Robin Tallendier.
Modern Chinese design
The two entrepreneurs met at Warwick Business School and quickly hit it off on the basis of their shared passion for China. Following an exchange at Peking University, Robin Tallendier took up a position at the China Horology Association, which introduced him to the world of Chinese watch movements and enabled him to build up a good network of suppliers, which was essential to the launch of Atelier Wen. In the meantime, Wilfried Buiron identified talented designers in Beijing. Technical and aesthetic: the foundations were laid.
Like many startups, Atelier Wen began with a crowdfunding session in the autumn of 2018. In return for an initial investment of 12,000 francs to submit the project to the Kickstarter and Indiegogo communities, Atelier Wen received 120,000 francs in funding. “This was the defining moment, because it convinced us to continue this adventure, at the same time as pursuing our own individual job opportunities,” says Robin Tallendier. At the end of 2018, the company moved to Hong Kong.
“We actually see classic Franco- Swiss design at the origins of Chinese watchmaking!”
The brand’s objective is to produce a “modern Chinese design”, as opposed to simply affixing Chinese imagery to contemporary objects. The two entrepreneurs asked themselves the following question: if we went back to the first modern Chinese watch, what would it look like? Robin Tallendier explains: “The production of wristwatches in China began in 1955 with the ancestor of the Seagull, which was inspired by the brand... Enicar. So we actually see classic Franco-Swiss design at the origins of Chinese watchmaking!”
Network of local suppliers
From this initial inspiration, the brand adapted certain elements. The dial (white or blue) is made of porcelain and the motifs reproduced on it are inspired by traditional Chinese time measurement systems and Taoist symbols. The back of the watches bears an engraving of the mythical creature Kunpeng, which also inspired the brand’s logo.
The mechanical movement of this first series, called “Porcelain Odyssey”, like all the components, is Chinese. It is supplied by Dandong Peacock Watch Factory. Atelier Wen timepieces are available for a little under 1,000 francs – more expensive than the average Kickstarter brand but cheaper than the global brands that have already dipped their toes in Chinese-inspired fashion. It’s an “in-between” option for millennials that the entrepreneurial duo hopes is well calibrated.
- Porcelain Odyssey combines elements of Chinese design and craftsmanship such as porcelain dials in the style of traditional Chinese ceramics. It uses a movement produced by the Dandong Peacock Watch Factory, the SL-3006, adjusted in five positions and with a daily variation not exceeding +/-10 seconds.
Atelier Wen also aims to be as much a lifestyle brand as a watch brand per se. Its adventure may have begun in watches, but the aim is to branch out into jewellery, accessories and fashion. “Our long-term ambition is that 50% of our income will be generated in China and 50% in the rest of the world,” emphasises Robin Tallendier. Will it be the first successful example of a Chinese-inspired lifestyle brand? That will be for the Chinese themselves to decide!