What if a panda were no longer cute and adorable? Apparently, a grumpy panda can still be popular, possibly even more popular than its charmingly naive-looking counterpart.
An angry, but oddly endearing panda is the icon for a Chinese clothing line named Hi Panda. The motif appears on hooded sweatshirts, T-shirts and jeans, and has attracted attention from the international fashion scene.
The scowling, "evil" panda, and his equally grumpy fiancee, are pictured driving a sports car, playing basketball and eating noodles. The simple images are reflections of the post-80s pop-art generation of China and young people all over the world, according to its creator Jiji, who goes by one name.
"I was inspired by the youth culture and streetwear style. The panda depicts young people's thoughts and expressions," says the Chinese-born artist who is based in Shanghai. "They are rebellious, independent and willing to be distinguished from others."
The Hi Panda line can be found in 43 retail stores in shopping centers across Europe, including Citadium, Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marche in Paris, Harvey Nichols in London, and in nearly 50 stores in China. "We also have a boutique in Paris and plan to open a new one in downtown London this year," he says. "Our goal in 2012 is to explore North America."
The first iteration of the panda came in the form of a sculpture in 2000. A collection of artwork was shown in international exhibitions from 2003 to 2004. But it wasn't until the 2008 "China Design Now" exhibition, held in Victoria & Albert Museum in London, that the mostly black-and-white illustrations captured the attention of many in the upper echelons of the fashion world.
The head of communications at Louis Vuitton, Antoine Arnault, who is also the son of LVMH chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault, was intrigued by the panda.
The younger Arnault is a co-owner of Hi Panda and is helping promote the brand in Europe.
Even Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, has been seen wearing the Hi Panda emblem.
"I contribute my current success to right timing and right direction," Jiji says. "My panda sculptures attracted the attention of Western fashion icons in 2008 because of the lack of new artwork there caused by the economic turmoil. Also, foreign customers love my panda since it is the symbol of China."
Jiji has strategically combined art and apparel. The artist-turned businessman, who earned a bachelor's degree in industrial design from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 1994, does not think they are totally different businesses. "I believe the art and the clothing line can benefit from each other. The clothing line isn't more popular than my artwork of the panda, or vice versa," he says.
The ambitious Jiji hasn't stopped with the clothing line. He has opened a gallery in Shanghai, released albums for Chinese hip-hop singers and held art exhibitions for Chinese artists. All of them, according to Jiji, are a platform for Chinese youths to express themselves. "I hope to produce a hip-hop concert for domestic singers this year," he says.
"The strategy of appealing to the art communities in London and Paris was brilliant," says Keith Niedermeier, director of the undergraduate marketing program and adjunct assistant professor of marketing of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "It helped create an icon of the evil panda that led to apparel sales and a broader appeal. Additionally, the panda motif helps the brand be identified as uniquely Chinese."