K11: Outside the box

Mainland China’s first ever art mall has just opened in Shanghai. If successful, it could change the face of the food and beverage industry countrywide. K11’s Eric Chan tells Charlotte Middlehurst about mixing art and nature and why China is ready

Damien Hirst’s Wretched War takes pride of place in the K11 lobby. The life-size bronze of a pregnant terminator stands proudly in front of a blooming roof garden where guests are invited to plant spinach and Chinese kale. It’s an odd juxtaposition that neatly sums up what K11 is all about – art, environment and making impressions.

Located on Huaihui Road, Shanghai’s bustling commercial artery, the new K11 stands on the site of the former New World mall, which was first built in the 1990s. The rebooted eight-story K11 is drawing the eyes of rich investors and locals alike – not just because of the Damien Hirst quality, but rather the experimental concept of bringing art and organic food to a city famous for its cavalier attitude towards both.

The mall is the brainchild of K11 Concepts, part of the New World Group. Established in 1970, New World is one of the biggest real estate developers in China with a total asset value of $270.2bn. In 2009, the Group opened the world’s first K11 in Hong Kong under the auspices of executive director Adrian Cheng Chi-kong.

Cheng has explained that the name of the mall came to him during a plane trip from Beijing to Hong Kong. He recalled dreaming, as a child, of having his own kingdom one day and because the K in kingdom is the 11th letter of the alphabet, he named the shopping mall K11.

So far K11 Hong Kong has proved a resounding success. The profits have funded new ‘art villages’ in Wuhan and Guiyang, where promising young talents are scouted and groomed for later fame. The overall collection features some of the world’s most precious works, most notably, Polyhedron Lamp by Olafur Eliason; Splash and Flake (skeleton) by Teppei Kaneuji; and Chinese Wall Painting by Yinka Shonibare.

However, for the booming mainland market Cheng is cranking ambitions up a notch. While the K11 vision remains the same, the scale is much larger and grandiose. K11 Shanghai is four times the size of its older sister and classifies itself high-end rather than mid-range. By 2017, the brand plans to have outlets in Wuhan, Shenyang, Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Haikou with a combined area of 1,220,000sq m.

So what can K11 really offer China? “If you look at most of the malls in China right now they’re doing what we call ‘space management’ – they have a big box and inside they put smaller boxes. If you don’t shop then you don’t have much to do,” says Eric Chan, general manager at K11 Concepts. “We try and add a level of lifestyle to the experience, which we base on art, culture and the environment.”

Fresh sources

K11 is doing this in three key ways. First, through decking the mall in contemporary art; second, through its art education programmes; and third, through its food and beverage outlets.

Instead of awarding tenancies to the highest bidder, as is common practice in China, Cheng and Chan have cherry-picked food brands for their strong self-image and reputation for organic sourcing, food safety standards and innovative approaches to sustainability, including Element Fresh, Azul, The Urban Harvest and Celeb de Tomate. Although a very popular and growing concept, food sourcing and sustainable farming remains a thorny issue in China, with food scares eroding public confidence in Chinese food producers.

For example, in April 2012 a 20-member criminal gang was sentenced for manufacturing and selling “gutter oil” that was sold in Shanghai and the surrounding Zhejiang province. One month later, the world’s media seized on shocking images of exploding watermelons across Jiangsu province as fields of chemically-pumped fruit detonated from premature ripening.

Chan has a better insight into China’s consumption habits that most. Before joining K11 Concepts he was the general manager of Wharf Group, where he developed retail shopping malls across China under the Group’s investment portfolio including Dalian, Chongqing, Beijing and Changdu. So how does he predict the K11 concept will go down among the locals?

“One of our biggest challenges is that China is a huge market but not yet a sophisticated market compared to the West or Hong Kong, Korea and Japan,” he says. Yet he is optimistic about the speed of change.

“People here are fast learners, they really want to have a better lifestyle, not just spend money, so we see a lot of potential. Take Element Fresh [a highly successful health food café chain]. When I was here in 2007 it was full of foreigners. Three years later I come back and more than half of the customers are Chinese. People are now willing to spend an extra buck to have better food safety assurance,” he says.

While K11 has plans to open a mall in Beijing, they deliberately chose to launch in Shanghai first – why? According to Chan it boils down to the traffic. “Shanghai is much more accessible. Beijing is divided up into the east, west, north and south zones, because of the congestion. In Shanghai you can get to anywhere in 30 to 45 minutes,” he says.

K11 selected both international and homegrown brands to work on the project. On the ground and basement levels are four cafes, Baker and Spice, Musk Cat Coffee, Simply Life Bakery and Costa Coffee; plus 11 confectioners and dessert brands. High on the third and fourth levels are the 12 mid- to high-end restaurants, with the green innovators and local celebrity chefs at the helm.

New concepts

The Urban Harvest is equal parts open lab and restaurant. The new Shanghai concept serves hydroponically-grown mushrooms and sprouts which are nurtured in the restaurant itself. Diners select their own mushroom, which are then cut and cooked fresh in either Western and/ or Eastern styles. Whatever you can’t finish is packaged for you to take home with instructions on how to replant the remains.

Japanese brand Celeb de Tomato was started in 2006 and this month opens its first China restaurant in the K11. Set over two floors, it is an Italian restaurant with an eco twist. All dishes feature tomatoes in some fashion, even the desserts; and the produce comes directly from Celeb’s own farm in nearby Kunshan, less than an hour from Shanghai.
K11 is promoting indoor ‘al fresco’ through its bar street, as well as its urban fare. Each day, the restaurants will invite customers to wander out from behind their tables and socialise over a drink. Special happy hour deals and cocktails will be featured to entice the after work crowd to fully appreciate the space.  According to reports, the most popular drinks are Urban Azul’s mojitos (in watermelon and mango) and white sangria, made with white wine, rum, fruits, lime, mint and triple sec.

The pick of the remaining outlets include Azul Urban, a new offering from the larger than life Peruvian chef Eduardo Vargas; Home Thai, with over 100 Thai dishes from chefs who’ve personally served the Thai royal family; and Element Fresh, the homegrown health food chain which opens with a huge roof-terrace.


Charlotte Middlehurst


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