For China's High-End Fashion Consumers, 'Italy' Now Just A Bullet Train Away

Tucked in between Beijing and Tijanjin is a “village” with all the trappings of Rome, Florence and Milan combined. Welcome to Florentina Village, an Italian-themed outlet mall that’s already drawing upwards of 25,000 visitors per day.

Marco Alfieri

WUGING -- There are little streets, piazzas, stores selling Italian brands and of course, Michelangelo's David. Only David's not naked, as he usually is. Instead he wears jeans and holds shopping bags. Which makes sense since this isn't, after all, Florence, Italy, but rather Florentia Village, the first Italian-style outlet village in China.

Located in Wuqing, between Beijing and Tianjin, the mall is almost 100% Italian-made. The design and construction were overseen by the office of Milan architect Massimo Roj, Florence's Rdm Group, via a joint venture with the retail giant Waitex, is in charge of the project's development and management. Rdm, in fact, has several such projects in the works. Last year it invested $1 million in five luxury villages near Chinese cities. The next village due to open soon will be near Shanghai, between Pudong international airport and the upcoming Disney resort. In China, these types of outlet villages are suddenly big business.

China, the world capital of fake brands, may indeed be overrun with two-dollar T-shirts. But it is also a huge market for expensive designer labels, who are more than eager to do business here. Zegna, Armani, Ferragamo, Prada, Fendi, Bulgari and Moncler all have boutiques around Florentia Village's "Piazza San Giovanni." Tod's, Frette, Piquadro and Brooks Brothers also have shops – near the "Colosseum." And along the "Grand Canal Promenade" customers can browse at the Satchi, Esprit and Pal Zileri stores.

At the end of the promenade is a restaurant called Bella Vita, which features wooden tables and a familiar flavor. Even in this fashion park there is place for tasty Italian food. "It's going well, many people stop here to eat our pizza and pasta," says the manager, Samuele Rossi. Inside, there are Italian vintage wines which are not easily found in China.

Over "Rialto Bridge," near the yet-to-be completed "Piazza San Carlo," a poster reading "Coming Soon" announces upcoming sportswear stores. Dozens of workers are fixing flowerbeds and road signs. Once completed, Florentia Village will host 220 stores. The first section was launched in June - with a Venetian masquerade party and fireworks. The second section is set to open this month.

"Re-creating the Italian style has not been easy," says the architect Roj. "With these kinds of projects, details make the difference. Asking Chinese workers to re-create Italian style pink rock, pilasters, frames, and copper eaves was hard. But we did it."

Just Like Italy, Only Friendlier

Wuging is located between Beijing and Tanjin, which are 100 kilometers away from each other. Five years ago, the two metropolises were 130 kilometers apart, but sprawl is inching them closer together – and eating away the small fields, forests and ponds that separate them. Together the populations of Beijing and Tanjin add up to about 35 million of people. The cities are connected by blue and white high speed trains that leave every 10 minutes and make the journey in 25.

Florentia Village is strategically located, close to a train station, from which visitors begin arriving in the late morning. They wear Western clothes, are young, wealthy, and obviously Chinese. They drink green tea from little flasks. In the afternoon, women driving SUVs arrive at the outlet. They wear only labeled clothes. They prefer to come here during the week, to avoid the weekend crowds. Many girls are here as well – with their parents, dreaming of a job in a famous brand's store.

Florentia is a strange composite of all things Italian. Art, culture and fashion, Venice, Florence and Rome are all mixed up in few hectares. Purists will no doubt dismiss it as kitsch, something akin to a Las Vegas on the Yellow Sea. But for many Chinese, this is the closest they'll ever get to the Italian peninsula. Those who do end up making the trip to Europe might be disappointed with the real Italy, where they're unlikely to find the same welcoming treatment, attention to detail, efficient hotels and public transportation.

Ivano Poma, CEO of Rdm Asia, has been living and working in China for 17 years and knows the market well. "This district has the fastest growing GDP per person in all of China. Our marketing campaign is focused on Tianjin, where during the weekends there are fewer entertainment options than in Beijing," he says.

The goal of the Florentia venture, he says, is to eventually enjoy a turnover of 100 million euros per year. "Today we have between 10,000 and 25,000 visitors a day. Compared to Chinese malls, we have many original brands that the new wealthy class loves," Poma says. They are marketing the outlet in the surrounding residential areas. From the look of things, reaching the 100 million-euro mark shouldn't pose much of a problem.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - Florentia Village website

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!