Field Notes:
Dior and I in Asia

Date: 16 Oct 2020
Location: India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia
By: Felix Ng (Anonymous)
Travel teaches you many things: the ways people live, new languages, and the stories that different cultures offer. But I never expected to learn about economics from travel until we went on a tour around Asia for Christian Dior in 2015.

As we were preparing for A Design Film Festival in January 2015, we received an interesting email from Christian Dior. We had just organised the Asia premiere of the film, Dior and I, a documentary on Raf Simons’ first collection for the brand. Christian Dior asked if we could bring the film beyond Singapore to other cities in Asia, where they had market presence and stores in, and to consult on private screenings for their customers and the media. At the time, we had secured the screenings rights for all of Asia, as we were preparing for the Bangkok edition of DFF. This meant we not only had exclusive screening rights, but we also had leverage to set the value and terms of the project since there was no one else who could do it. I will write more on this later.

In addition to producing private screenings in Singapore, the project brought me to Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. While we had produced and consulted on private screenings for brands before, it was the first time we were organising them out of Singapore.

Here is the trailer from the film and field notes from the tour, with learnings and insights from each city, about business, design, and the different cultures in Asia.

First stop: Mumbai, India. 19 February 2015

This was my second trip to India. The first was in 2014, as a juror for the Kyoorius Design Awards. Although the city’s names are used interchangeably, the locals prefer referring to it as Bombay, its colonial-era name, instead of Mumbai. There is an energy here that can’t be found elsewhere. For someone visiting for the first time, the city can feel messy, gritty, and unorganised. There are traffic lights but no one seems to follow them. Even in the city, you will find cows, revered in India, sharing the roads with cars and bicycles. It can take a few days before you settle in to the city’s rhythm and unpredictability but the more time you spend, the more beauty reveals itself in unexpected places. In a rare open space along with the Gateway of India, you will find thousands of pigeons gathering every morning.

On a small alley in Colaba, you will find Obataimu (which means overtime in Japanese), a bespoke clothing store where on-site tailors offer slow fashion casual clothing made just for you with only locally sourced materials. Nothing is off the rack. You step in, identify the style and material you would like, get measured and come back in a few days when they have a sample. The entire process takes a week from the time you get measured and when you receive the final piece of clothing. This deliberately slow process is the founder’s way to celebrate a slow form of art and fashion, and being mindful of the things we buy and consume.

The private screening, attended by VIPs of Christian Dior India and the media, was held at the banquet hall of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (known to locals as The Taj). This was one of the main sites targeted in the 2008 Mumbai attacks which the city was still recovering and rebuilding itself from. The heritage building is now seen as a symbol of the resilience of the people and city.

On my last night in the city, I had dinner with Kay Khoo, the creative director of Kyoorius. He had just moved from Malaysia with his wife and two daughters. Over dinner, I asked what made him decide to move his family from Kuala Lumpur to Bombay. What he said changed my perspective of business since. “In India, the middle class is still growing, and the market opportunity is largely untapped. If you compare India with Singapore, Singapore is already mature and saturated. There is a limit to how many people you can reach, which means there is a limit to the investment a company would be able to invest in the business. In Singapore, even if a telecommunications company wins the entire market share, it can only ever reach 5.5 million. That is the ceiling. In India, the investment a company is willing to make each year will keep growing because the market potential is 1 billion.” This was such an obvious insight that I never fully realised until Kay said it.

The number of people and the value of the market that your product or service reach (indirectly or directly) determines the value you gain in return. If your work provides value to a small group of people with small margins (directly to customers or indirectly through work for a client), the value you get in return will likely also be small. The market growth potential limits how much growth future investments will be from your client.

Next stop: Shanghai, 12 March 2015

Producing a film event in China is largely the same as everywhere else we have brought DFF to, except for one main difference: the “龙标” (dragon mark in Mandarin). This is a certificate that is given by the local government to foreign films screened in China. Only 34 of these certificates are awarded each year, which limits the number of non-Chinese productions shown to the public. The process of applying for one was complicated. You would need a local company to be a legal guarantor, a deposit, and other fees that we never really understood. And even if you have all the documents and fees, there is also a chance that the application will be rejected, with no reason why. To get around this, we found a local broker to help navigate the tricky process to ensure the certificate would be awarded. With the help of a “礼物” (gift in Mandarin), anything is possible.

The private screening was organised for 100 VIP guests, consisting of customers, the media and partners. A few hours before the event, I noticed that there were what looked like a hundred servers for the event, which meant each guest would have their personal server carrying drinks and snacks, waiting patiently beside them. When the event started, aside from having a personal server, each guest also had a ‘manager’ accompanying them throughout the event. After the first screening was over, I asked the marketing director why go to such expense? His reply was these guests were special customers of the brand, who spent an average of US$250,000 a year shopping at their stores. The manager that was accompanying them would be almost like a personal assistant, to help them with any needs they might have. If they were not sure what shoes to pair with a particular dress, the manager would travel to the customer’s home and help them to pick one or even to go as far as accompanying them to stores to find the best pair. This was the moment I realised how different the scale of wealth was in China compared with the rest of the world. The amount of wealth and market size means brands can offer customers an experience unlike any other market.. This was a behemoth.

My first trip to China was in 2008, to hold the Art with Sound exhibition we curated with Japanese design studio, artless. Back then, Shanghai was a different place. Digital payments such as AliPay and WeChat Pay were uncommon, and it was still a cash-based society. There were no bicycle lanes, restaurants still allowed smoking indoors, and people were dressed simply in T-shirts, jeans and flip flops.

Fast forward 7 years and the city is completely unlike before. Shop-owners and cab drivers frown when you pay by cash, preferring cashless payments. Electric bikes and bicycles dominate the main streets, on bike lanes that go almost everywhere. Walk along the busy main street, and you see people decked out in luxury and high-fashion street brands. It felt more like New York City. The transformation in the span of half a decade was incredible and inspiring. It felt futuristic and sophisticated. Singapore has always been held up as a forward-looking model city, but this new Shanghai seemed to have edged forward with incredible speed and innovation, with e-payments, bike lanes, electric vehicles, their unique take on 3rd wave coffee with local beans, and commercial success for their local brands of furniture, products, clothing, and more. It felt like I was living in the future.

A shop displaying Ito suitcases. There are no staff, just an iPad for you to make an order. You pay using WeChat Pay and they deliver the suitcase to you. There is no need for you to lug it home.

Next stop: Beijing, 19 March 2015

I had a free day after the private screenings in Beijing and met up with Wenli of One & One Design, a designer whose work I followed for a few years. Their office was a minimalist white loft, with the designers and team on the first floor and Wenli’s office on the upper floor.

He prepared a pot of tea, and we spoke for 2 hours about design, art, and life in Singapore and Beijing. Fortunately, despite the very limited Mandarin I could speak, we were still able to understand each other easily. We both share similar experiences of running a small creative business, but one thing stuck with me till this day. While most designers or creatives I have met are eager to quote designers and artists whose work inspired them, materials they use, or their creative process, he spoke about ideas using nature. His way of looking at design was learning from his surroundings: natural light and shadow, the ways birds chirp, the warmth of a teapot and appreciating the time while the tea sits. It was humbling to meet someone with such a profound perspective of life and design—not as a technical craft or pursuit of clever ideas but a translation and tribute of our surroundings, sharing it with the world. This philosophy is needed in the world now more than ever. Our planet is in crisis, and we need to urgently use creativity with nature and the environment in mind. As I was preparing to leave, he handed me a gift. It was a box of tea that he had recently designed for a client with a Chinese painting of a mountain.

Next stops: Jakarta & Kuala Lumpur

For the remaining two stops in Jakarta on 23 March 2015, and Kuala Lumpur on September 9 2015, the private screenings went smoothly without much to report. Which in hindsight, is good for the event but makes for less interesting field notes.

Demand > Supply

I know this sounds obvious, but in reality, easy to lose sight of, and difficult to apply. Especially in our highly competitive, globalised world today. So it bears repeating.

Whatever work that you do, if the value you provide is scarce, you are on the right side of the demand and supply curve. This gives you leverage to set the price and terms. If you find yourself in a situation where you are often asked to do more for less or to lower your price, then you are on the wrong side of the curve. There is more supply than demand, which means the buyer has more leverage to set how much your work is worth and the terms of the agreement. It really is obvious but easy to forget.

Suppose you are a designer, and your fees are $xxxx to design a book. There are another 100 designers in your community who can do the same work as you. Unless the book requires specific knowledge of the local community for the design to be effective, chances are, the work can be done by someone in another city or country, which means that’s another 10,000 designers who can do the same thing. Now imagine you are the client. There are 10,000 other designers who can do the work. That’s a demand and supply ratio of 1 to 10,000!

There are a few choices for the client:

  1. Work with the best and most high profile. (These are very subjective qualities. Try finding the best or most famous photographer. It is impossible.)

  2. Work with the cheapest if everyone’s quality is the same and you just need it done, or

  3. Ask for a sample through a competitive pitch because you have leverage.

Unfortunately, the 3rd option is what the majority of creative businesses have faced for a long time and are still facing. There is more supply than demand, and quality and brand name are subjective. And in an economic recession like the one we are in now, the leverage is on the buyer to set the terms. What are people doing? They try to market themselves to be louder to cut through the noise, to differentiate themselves through clever writing or a rebranding exercise with a new identity that makes them somehow look different from everyone else and thus more relevant to the customer. But unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The product is still the same and people can tell soon enough.

What do I think is an alternative? Change your game. Create a product or service that is scarce or does not exist yet and where there is more demand than supply. You can also increase value by providing value for the greatest number of people possible.

It sounds obvious but easy to forget and lose sight of.