THINK HONG KONG couture, and names such as Barney Cheng and Vivienne Tam probably spring to mind. A number of the city's homegrown designers have made their mark internationally in high-end fashion. But now some enterprising talents are trying to put Hong Kong on the map in street vogue.
Highly influenced by skateboarding culture, ephemeral youth fads and the hip-hop scene, street fashion is rapidly evolving, predominantly involving casual wear such as T-shirts, tank tops and jeans.
New York and Tokyo have long led the field, with Stussy, X-large and Zoo York from the US, and Bathing Ape and Fiberops from Japan among the leading brands. And in the past year or so, Hong Kong names such as Knowledge, Double Dog of Double Brother and Dusty have begun to register with buyers in the west.
Knowledge is perhaps the best known of the group. Launched by skate shop 8Five2 last summer, the brand is fast making a name for itself. That's due in part to owner-designer Julius Brian Siswojo's strong industry connections.
A skateboarder himself and strategically plugged into the community, he invited several prominent artists to design five T-shirts for his debut collection: Alyasha Owerka Moore, of Fiberops; Arai of Hex Antistyle; Eli Morgan Gesner from Zoo York; Peter Huynh of UXA; and Eric Haze, the man behind the eponymous Haze brand who's also designed album covers for the Beastie Boys.
Siswojo and his wife, Annie Lee, added four T-shirts that hark back to the brand's Hong Kong roots, including designs featuring kung fu hero Bruce Lee and Guan Gung, the legendary Chinese general revered for his righteousness. Although the savvy entrepreneur concedes that recruiting famous street artists has helped raise the Knowledge profile, he says it's the quality and detailing of the clothing that established its reputation. 'If the graphics are cool, make good sense and have nice colouring, people will like it,' he says.
The public seems to agree with him. His debut T-shirt collection - which was sold in South Korea and Australia, as well major outlets such as In4mation in Hawaii and FTC in San Francisco - was sold out within a month.
Since then, the brand has expanded its range to include jeans, caps and jackets, and the distribution network has extended to Taiwan, Japan, Denmark and Canada. For now, Siswojo will stick to his successful strategy of attention to detailing. Certainly, creative use of lining and stitching in the denim collection last season made it one of the brand's fastest-selling items. Next on the drawing board are crystals instead of buttons.
Paul Ma, the designer for established street brand Dusty, has also noticed greater interest from overseas buyers. Back from a recent visit to London, he reports an encouraging response. 'They found street fashion from Hong Kong refreshing and special - something that Hong Kong people may not notice,' he says. Local fashion group I.T cites similar interest for its Fingercross street line from British distributors.
Established in 1996, Dusty began tapping markets in Singapore, Taiwan and Japan five years ago. Since then, it's also expanded to Canada, France, the US and the mainland.
Hong Kong street brands have yet to establish much of a profile internationally. But that may not be a major hurdle for their development, says Sven Fortmann, the editor of German street culture magazine Lodown.
'I think by now there's something like a common urban grammar that's relevant for almost every city,' he says. 'It's just encoded specifically.'
As people become inundated with material from Japan, he says, they're starting to notice products from other places - and Hong Kong could be next.
'People are going to realise that there's much more to discover [in Hong Kong] than just the toy market,' says Fortmann.
And as with other industries in Hong Kong, street fashion entrepreneurs here have an edge because of the strong production backup from the mainland.
Double Dog of Double Brother is counting on that as it explores markets in North America and Europe. Originally a Tsim Sha Tsui store distributing US street style, Double Dog launched its own brand four years ago, aiming to produce clothes of similar quality at a lower cost. It now sells on the mainland and in Taiwan.
According to co-founder and designer Jim Cheung Wing-hang, the bulk of Double Dog material is made on the mainland, with small volumes of items, such as trousers and shirts, stitched locally. That's why it can sell its T-shirts for between $100 and $200, compared with $300 to $400 for an item of comparable quality from a foreign rival, he says.
Although many US brands are also made on the mainland, Cheung says Hong Kong has the advantage of better connections and proximity to the factories. 'We can do things quicker and with more variety,' he says.
For all the benefits of lower pricing, Cheung says local designs have distinctive characteristics that help differentiate them from the rest.
'US culture is different,' he says. 'They usually play with fonts and use words to convey different messages. In Hong Kong, people like cool graphics. There are very few fonts on T-shirts here. People think it's too simple.'
Hong Kong had many more street brands a few years ago, but few managed to carve niches for themselves locally or abroad. Cheung blames this on the poor quality of the brands, many of which have now vanished.
Prospects seem better for the survivors. Fortmann says Hong Kong street fashion could well enjoy a surge overseas because its costs are reasonable and local designers are gaining recognition abroad. But it may pay for local street brands to strike up strategic alliances, he says, sharing ideas to develop networks in influential markets such as Osaka.
'I hope the local cats are smart enough to join their creative talent instead of fighting for their individual five minutes of fame,' says Fortmann. It's tough turf out there.