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Humble luxury

In recent months, one word has been on everyone’s lips in China: “tuhao.” Translated as “the tasteless wealthy,” this buzzword pokes fun at the country’s nouveau riche, suggesting they lack the culture to understand the luxury they so ostentatiously flaunt. Tuhao may even soon grace the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Ever since the economic boom in the 1980s, Chinese luxury has been synonymous with the bling-bling of high-end brands. But jokes about tuhao show a deepening awareness of taste and luxury, from upscale fashion to hotels.

The recent crackdown on corruption and government extravagance is also fueling this transformation. Government officials, for example, have been shamed online and investigated after being photographed with luxury products or dining at lavish venues. If a hotel is known for its opulence, they may avoid it.

Some of my Chinese clients now request deliberately understated spas and F&B interiors because they fear losing key customers if the design is tagged as extravagant. Gaudy, stiff luxury is on the way out in China. Understated, classy luxury is in.

Today, I’m increasingly contacted by owners seeking these new expressions of luxury. They prefer to talk about quality of craftsmanship rather than logos. They no longer see luxury as a way to show off their conspicuous spending.

Designers working in China are now in a position to lead this transformation from opulent luxury to what I call “humble luxury.” The heart of humble luxury is comfort, refined materials and detailed craftsmanship. It’s about the look and feel of the material, the way a door slides open, or even a swift and intuitive check-in.

Many other Asian countries I have worked in — Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, for example — have undergone similar transformations. I’m inspired to see Chinese clients also expand on and adopt a more nuanced understanding of luxury. The sophisticated developers who pioneered hotels like The Puli and Park Hyatt in Shanghai and Opposite House in Beijing have all set a milestone for this humble luxury revolution.

What hotels in China or Asia have broadened your own view of what luxury can be?

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