Hong Kong's indie designers foster fashion, retail renaissance

Soulless supermalls housing luxury labels, traditional suit tailors, and markets full of cheap designer knock-offs, Hong Kong's flaccid fashion scene has long struggled to compete with the sartorial cool of Tokyo's Harajuku, or the street style of Hongdae in Seoul.
Customers browse locally designed fashion label goods in an independent shop in Hong Kong©Anthony WALLACE / AFP

But a new generation of independent designers in Hong Kong is changing all that with creations that are putting the city on the international fashion map.

Eschewing advertising and straplines for Instagram and hashtags, many choose influencers over models, and pop-up events instead of bricks-and-mortar stores, collectively channelling the "Hip Hong Kong" brand -- at home and abroad.

"Social media is the cornerstone to success as a start-up, brands now have the opportunity of being stocked simply based on their Instagram appeal," says Jasmine Smith, founder of lingerie firm Raven + Rose, pointing to the fact she had a wait list by the time she launched her first collection in the city fuelled by online interest in her images and styling.

Smith has since secured a deal with the Four Seasons, where her designs sit next to international giant La Perla. Her local popularity has helped her springboard internationally: her pieces have been worn by Madonna's backing dancers, American grunge star Alana, and featured on Asia's Next Top Model.

- Tired of big brands -

"Style pockets" she says are now dotted around the city -- from trendy SoHo on Hong Kong island to gritty Kwun Tong and arty Sham Shui Po in Kowloon, these are hotspots where the city's style mavens and upcoming local designers reign supreme.

"What sets Raven + Rose apart is its recognition for those that flirt on the outskirts of what is mainstream," adds Smith. Her #OwnYourBody campaign, which features a range of ordinary women in Hong Kong in her designs, has been shared by thousands.

She is not alone in transforming a loyal local following into international interest. Anais Mak's Jourden brand started as a single line collection in Hong Kong, before being hailed in Vogue and is now stocked at Barneys in the US and Isetan in Tokyo.

Last month Polly Ho of Loom Loop won acclaim for her show at New York Fashion Week, while Fiona Lau and Kain Picken of Ffixxed Studios enjoyed similar success in Paris.

Little more than two years after it launched in Hong Kong, start-up retailer Grana secured millions from Alibaba's entrepeneurs fund. It now ships to 11 countries, with plans to expand across Asia.

Ho says: "In the past few years I feel young people are setting up their own brands again. Maybe in response to too much uniform fast fashion."

Luke Grana agrees, suggesting people are tiring of what is on offer from the big brands at both ends of the spectrum.

"We're already beginning to see luxury fashion brands lowering their prices in Hong Kong due to the decline in sales reported over the last six months. Fast fashion brands with lower quality apparel are (also) experiencing a drop in sales," Grana adds.

The government too is keen to capitalise on renewed interest in Hong Kong's fashion scene, allocating around HK$500 million ($65 million) to support local talent in the 2016-2017 budget.

The Trade Development Council (HKTDC) has launched a number of initiatives to showcase emerging brands internationally, collaborating with department stores and staging fashion events in key cities.

"We've noticed lately that the younger generation of fashion designers are rapidly expanding their brands and networks. Many of these talented designers have already built their names locally and are ready to take the next step," says Rebecca Tse of the HKTDC.

Last November the body organised for up and coming Hong Kong designers to showcase their collections at key Tokyo department stores, as well as for a special fashion week show in the city, and in Copenhagen, and New York.

Tse admits it is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

"The international showcases are a chance to show off the hip Hong Kong brand. Showcasing local talented designers is also a great way to show off the city as a fashion metropolis," she explains.

- Creative opportunities -

The combination of a rising localism among the city's youth, and a renewed global interest in Hong Kong's cultural scene -- both inspired by the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests against Beijing -- may also have helped the city's independent fashion scene.

"I think it definitely galvanised certain ideas around the city's identity for a lot of people and this has a really positive flow-on to the creative scenes," says Picken of Ffixxed Studios.

"I think part of the (revival) is that many consumers just want something new and unique. Especially young people who want clothes that speak to them and their lifestyle," he adds.

The city's youth are also turning more to the arts -- including homegrown fashion -- to express their individuality. Cristina Kountiou, a professor at Hong Kong's prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, says there has been a surge in interest in the school's fashion programmes.

She adds: "Now our fashion design students often don't want to leave Hong Kong, choosing to stay on after graduation to make the most of creative opportunities that are growing in the city."
 

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