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Mina Choi Tenison

Social Code & Globalization

How well do unspoken social codes travel across the globe?

Recently I chatted with Jonathan Seliger, the boss of Alfred Dunhill China, at his deluxe Dunhill emporium on Huai Hai Road. I passed an intimidating doorman and was lead into the very secluded complex, where a chauffeured Bentley awaited VIP customers. Seliger walked me through the twin 1920’s villas and sat down with me at the exclusive Kee Club on the third floor to chat about the luxury business in China.

Seliger’s been working with top luxury brands in China for fifteen years, so I knew he was the right person to ask about China's exploding new luxury market. When I asked him how he trained his staff to respond to potential customers in China, Seliger replied “Looks can be deceiving. It’s a level playing field in China.” So then I asked him about the much-whispered phenomenon in China: that the highest-spending Chinese luxury customers often don’t look the part. Seliger’s response was: “That might be an observation from you or me, or other foreigners, but most local staff here are very attuned to what high-spending customers look like.”

After our meeting, I pondered what he'd said regarding “local” social codes and how they can get lost in translation across different cultures. I remembered when I first landed in Hong Kong twelve years ago, I couldn’t figure out why all the taitais wore Chanel or Gucci outfits to go shopping in the afternoon. After all, I had come from Los Angeles – the land of the super-casual, open-toed plastic sandals where the richest and the most famous people walk around in t-shirts and shorts with a mobile phone stuck in their pockets. The taitais' name-brand designer outfits seemed so ridiculously formal, and just plain impractical for steamy and hot Hong Kong.

Well, I quickly learned the answer: those taitais didn’t want to get snubbed. After one too many occasions where the salesgirl gave me the once-over (as I stood around in my cotton shirt and trousers), I realized the designer outfits in Hong Kong served as a kind of armor, armor against condescension.

The condescension was rife in Hong Kong back then, so much so that when I reported to my very wealthy Hong Kong friend, who lived on the Peak and only went around in a chauffeured Jaguar, that a clerk at a shop she referred me to wasn’t so friendly or helpful, she knew instantly what must have happened. She immediately got on the phone to yell at the manager for daring to treat her friend so badly. That little occasion, and other few occasions where I was mistaken for a maid, and thus treated like one, made me understand the Hong Kong social code of the Chanel suit or Louis Vuitton bag: I'm rich; I’m a buyer; Don’t you dare treat me badly.

Of course, the same local code loses its meaning in Los Angeles, where being uber-casual and un-groomed, shows how wealthy and trendy you really are (in additional to a nice set of wheels—like a Porsche or Mercedes). A friend from Moscow once visited me while I was living in L.A. and I invited her out to very trendy club where a friend of mine was DJ-ing. Terribly excited, she dressed up in what she thought was a great party outfit: a cocktail dress with a pair of high-heels. After watching her spend 30 minutes in the mirror, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this outfit was no good: the unspoken dress-code at the trendy club was a pair of jeans and a trendy (and expensive) cotton t-shirt. When she walked into this club with her heels and her carefully applied make-up, it was as close to announcing: I’M A PROSTITUTE. Needless to say, she did not have a good time at the club.

My husband, who is British, also suffered when he went cross-Atlantic. His beaten-up Barbour jacket, an enviable must-have item for a British country gentleman, (SOCIAL CODE: I’m a country gentleman; I spend all my weekends in the countryside fishing and shooting, and because my jacket is very old and beaten up, I’ve been doing this for many, many years unlike the NEW money with their NEW Barbour jackets) lost its message inside a snobby apartment building in New York City. When he went down to the laundry room in the basement wearing his old Barbour jacket, a security guard asked him to use the back elevator, the elevator held in reserve for service people such as maids, electricians and maintenance workers. What might have been considered high-status item in Britain was reduced a poor working man’s outfit in New York City.

So what happens when Alfred Dunhill opens its luxury “Home” emporium in London, Tokyo and Shanghai? Some of these social codes become more convertible across the globe. A Dunhill jacket or a belt basically costs about the same everywhere, and for those who wear them, it carries a specific social code. And just what that code is something only the wearer and others who judge the wearer by will be able to say.


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