Hitting the shops in Beijing, you’ll generally either be stalked by shop assistants who lurk close enough for you to tell what they had for lunch, or you’ll be groped and yelled at until you buy four pairs of socks for 10RMB. Fortunately, an increasing number of Beijing-based creatives are providing an antidote.
They are doing so through making their stores viewable by appointment only, plus coming up with quirky concepts and innovative layouts for shop spaces that are a pleasure to browse. Arguably leading this new pack is the impressive Wuhao Curated Shop. I called ahead, arranged a slot and made my way to check it out.
Walking along Mao’er Hutong, I look for number 35 and prepare myself to enter the inner sanctum. These discreet little digits are the only clue for finding the otherwise well-disguised premises. Certainly, once you go through the anonymous door of this sublime siheyuan, nothing is quite what it seems.
Wuhao’s central premise is to curate seasonal collections themed around the Chinese theory of the ‘five elements’ – ‘fire’ (corresponding to summer); ‘metal’ (autumn); ‘water’ (winter); ‘wood’ (spring); and ‘earth’ (an intermediary period between seasons). Each element traditionally has its own characteristics and colours, and these are used as inspiration. To gather pieces for each season, Wuhao’s director Isabelle Pascal works with Chinese and international artists from the whole spectrum of design: art, fashion, lighting, installation, jewellery, ceramics, furniture and lifestyle. High quality, sustainability and ‘upcycling’ (turning waste into something usable) are all paramount.
Pascal urges you to explore, to open doors and clamber on the installations. It’s every child’s (and shopping and style editor’s) dream. Nothing is out of bounds, and the space is completely transformed seasonally. Shocks abound, from an installation in the kitchen to a traditional eight-panel screen with a faux fur interior. Pascal wants this to be a holistic project, like a traditional Chinese garden, a place for creating art and welcoming friends. Literally everything you see in-store can be bought. Some of the more complex installations can even be replicated in your home.
Pascal believes the next five years will be seminal for Chinese design; that young designers really need to grow in confidence because Chinese customers are increasingly open to local talents. She works closely with design schools, the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Tsinghua University and Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, guiding young designers through every phase. All in all, she believes that building a brand and a platform to support a network of designers is crucial for the developing Beijing scene. Having begun with 15 designers signed up, Wuhao now boasts relationships with 55. Pascal won’t stop at Beijing, but plans to promote Chinese design elsewhere within the Middle Kingdom, then in Milan, Paris and New York.
Despite the continual change at Wuhao, there are some constants, pieces that will remain for several seasons. This, Pascal tells us, is the ‘earth’ element, which in Chinese philosophy is the 18 days between seasons whereby one must take the energy from the past season and put it into the new. As Wuhao – and indeed the Chinese design scene it is helping foster – is still in its formative stages, it must gradually find its voice, the ‘earth’ of the project, she explains.
The current winter exhibition, focusing on water, runs until April. It features artists as diverse as fashion designer Yang Du (a Time Out favourite for her Batman dress) alongside a popup shop for vintage haute couture brand Didier Ludot. In one space devoted to female Chinese designers, Jia Li’s memory box is positioned next to yak pieces by Shokay, fashion by He Yan and jewellery by Wang Kai Chuan. Hong Kong designer label Rotten Banana by Civic Lee is exclusive to Wuhao, and Neither Nor, Perk and The Thing also feature.
We eagerly anticipate the summer exhibition, set for May. Prepare to be surprised. Wuhao is so conceptual that nothing is certain but uncertainty.