Shanghai tang head honcho raphael le masne de chermont on donkey rides, wanderlust and polo’s return to the city
Named after the monkey in the Babar children’s books and television series, Zephir was an obstinate ass that enjoyed an idyllic life on the rural estate of the Le Masne de Chermont family just outside Nantes in Brittany, France.
His dreamy existence, however, came at a price. Each weekend young Raphael, the eldest of the four Le Masne de Chermont brothers, would return from boarding school intent on teaching Zephir to play polo, the thrilling sport played by his father. With a scaled-down mallet and ball, and the anything-is-possible attitude of a 12-yearold boy, Raphael would force the beast to trot up and down the grounds of the family’s castle as he walloped winners into makeshift goals.
Perhaps luckily, the polo ponies of Raphael’s engineer father, the vice-mayor of Nantes and proprietor of a construction business, were off limits to the tempestuous tween. “I learnt a lot from Zephir because donkeys are impossible to ride,” says the charismatic Breton as we sip fruit punch on the terrace at Duddell’s. After more than 22 years in Hong Kong, the affable executive chairman of Shanghai Tang has maintained a remarkably strong French accent. “They’re so stubborn; you can’t move them unless they want to be moved, and when they’ve had enough, they kick you off. When I finally made it on to a horse, it was as if I was gliding.”
After a few years tormenting Zephir, Raphael graduated to horses. Flexibility and great balance made him a natural at showjumping and polo, and he competed in the sports with local teams. By the time he finished school, he was determined to be a professional. He dreamed of going to Argentina, the modern-day heartland of polo, and dedicating his life to this game of speed and agility. Nothing, it seemed, would shake his resolve—not even a mallet in the face, an accident that shattered his right cheekbone when he was 16. “My eye was basically falling out of its socket on the field. All I wanted to do was finish the match, but they forced me to stop and I spent three months in hospital undergoing reconstructions. But there was no coma or anything,” he adds matter-of-factly. The ligaments in his right leg were also badly damaged. Unsurprisingly, his mother and his wife of 23 years are squeamish spectators when he plays.
Polo is a violent sport. Raphael whips out his mobile and plays a Youtube clip of the most nail-biting falls and collisions—of players riding each other off and horses crashing to the ground. I can’t help but wonder what brand of thrill trumps the fear of shattering one’s spine, so I ask why he always gets back on the horse. “Okay,” he pauses. “Think about the best sex you’ve ever had.” He lets that percolate. “That’s the feeling you get every time you hit that ball.”
It’s no wonder, then, that he wanted to play professionally, but his father was adamant that he should attend business school first, which he did, gaining qualifications in finance and management. “It was a good decision because now I can do both.”
Both he does: as the chairman of China’s first luxury brand by day and as a jet-setting polo player by weekend. Raphael is one of the original players on the Hong Kong Polo Team, which came into being just over a year ago. He and a handful of die-hard players, including Harilela Group chief Aron Harilela and banker Patrick Furlong, have teamed up with David Savage, founder and president of Asia World Polo, to play in tournaments around Asia, and, ultimately, to return polo to Hong Kong. They are currently lobbying the government to provide land to build a home for an official polo club in the city. “Hong Kong is probably the only city in the world not to have a polo club,” says Raphael, listing London, Paris, Singapore and even Bangkok as hubs for the sport.
game face Jacket, shirt and pocket square by Shanghai Tang