Sold on a name

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2006, 12:00am

IN A CITY where supermarkets are endorsed by celebrities, it's difficult for fashionable brands to stand out from the crowd. So in a twist on the fame game, companies are recruiting stars as 'designers' - although the degree of such stellar input varies.

Actor-singer Edison Chen Koon-hei is among the most active participants. Sneaker-crazy Chen is responsible for Nike's new limited line of shoes featuring Chinese elements such as pressure-point diagrams and calligraphy grids.

While Chen, who has wanted to make his mark on a Nike shoe since starting a fashion store two years ago, concedes he's no design master, he says he is a creator. 'I think of ways to make the sneakers new and exciting.'

The Nike project isn't his first foray into design: the 25-year-old oversaw outfits for casual wear label Lacoste, and a limited line of Levi's 501 jeans being issued in Taiwan next week is his third collaboration with the denim company. 'I don't use Photoshop and Illustrator. I don't draw very well. But I tell the design people what to do - then I check and finalise it,' says Chen, who will launch his own clothing line next month.

In designing the sneaker, however, Chen tapped the talents of street artist and rapper MC Yan (Chan Kwong-yan), who studied fine art in France.

'I got Yan's help because he's read all the Chinese books,' Chen says. 'I gave him the outline - I wanted the shoe to be very Chinese, with a Chinese influence and concept - and kind of let him run with it.'

Canto-pop singer Yan Ng Yat-yin's contribution to clothing chain Two Per Cent is more peripheral. Asked to create a women's collection for its new line, 512%, Ng says she shares ideas and lets the professionals come up with the actual designs. 'I don't do sketches. I just tell the design team my ideas from reading local and Japanese fashion magazines.'

Despite its star-struck market, Hong Kong is a late bloomer in the world of celebrity designers. International brands have been doing it for decades. In 1986, Adidas signed the rap group Run DMC to create its Superstar sneakers, and two years ago it launched the Respect ME clothing line with hip-hop star Missy Elliott.

Locally, fashion chain Izzue was among the first to take the plunge, appointing actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk as its image consultant and designer from 2002 to last year. Since then, the claims to celebrity creativity have proliferated. Adidas has featured three sneakers by actor-singer Andy Lau Tak-wah. And Levi Strauss recently invited pop singers Fiona Sit Hoi-kei, Shawn Yue Man-lok and Ronald Cheng Chung-kei to add their touches to its jeans.

Brands are clearly tapping stars for their fame rather than creativity, says Frankie Ng Man-ching, an associate professor of Polytechnic University's Institute of Textiles & Clothing.

'Most artists know how to look good. It's like runway models,' he says. 'But design isn't just about how to dress well - it should be innovative. And designers should have their own perspective.'

Horace Leung Wan-pun, a collector who runs a sneaker enthusiasts' website (, agrees that the use of celebrity designers is a marketing ploy. It reaches a broader market - people who are into the star rather than the product, he says. But Leung says that Chen has done a good job on the sneakers. 'You can see he has put a lot of effort in designing the shoes.'

Leung concedes the results can be hit-or-miss. 'Not everyone is so talented. Designing a sneaker isn't just about drawing some patterns. It's functional,' he says. 'It's hard for celebrities to handle the material and technology. [Basketball star] Michael Jordan can't design a shoe by himself; he needs a lot of shoemakers to help him.'

Florance Yip Tsz-ying, the marketing director for Nike Hong Kong, insists the project isn't about riding on Chen's popularity. 'It's not about whether the designer is a star or not. It's how the story of the design can bring innovation and inspiration,' she says. 'We found an interesting angle in the story, and decided to work on a collaboration shoe.'

At Two Per Cent, designer Kelvin Sun Wing-kong says singer Ng's participation has benefited both parties. She gains a higher profile and the label gets a boost in its teenage market. 'Ng is creative and her rough ideas are quite different from those of professional designers. It's challenging to transform her ideas and make them work,' he says. 'We had fun.'

The entertainers enjoy it too. DJ and actor Eric Kot Man-fai, who was invited to design a pair of sneakers for New Balance four years ago, wants to learn more about design through working with different brands and apply the knowledge to his own products. 'It's something I love to do,' he says. 'I sometimes turn down performances or movies to find time for these projects.'

For street-fashion brand Subcrew, recruiting actor Sam Lee Chan-sum to its design team last year hasn't just been about raising its profile. The firm was using Lee's underground sensitivities to refine its range for the youth market.

'He has a lot of ideas and a good sense of street fashion, maybe because of his background,' says Subcrew designer Frankie Cheung Chin-pang. (Lee was plucked from obscurity to star in Fruit Chan Kuo's Made in Hong Kong after the director spotted him skateboarding in the street.) 'Our designs are more underground. After Sam joined, we got a better balance,' Cheung says.

Despite helping Chen on the Nike project, MC Yan takes a jaundiced view of such collaborations. 'It's just hype. The celebrities themselves have no design talent,' says the rapper who founded the now-defunct hip-hop collective LMF. 'There's no exchange of creativity.'

Maybe. But most fans are too entranced to care. A skateboarding shoe featuring Chinese characters from Nike barely raised a ripple among buyers last year. But when Chen's sneakers were released last week, devotees and speculators queued for days outside the company's Paterson Street store in Causeway Bay to grab one of the 200 pairs that went on sale.

They appealed to university student Jason Hon Tsz-chun, 21, as representing Hong Kong. 'They have a very special design,' says Hon, who picked up a pair for $2,600 in an online auction. Hon concedes he might not have bought them if they hadn't been put together by Chen, whom he considers a style leader. 'Trends in Hong Kong and Taiwan are led by [Chen] now,' he says.

Evidently others share his view: the $1,299 sneakers are already fetching up to $3,000 on eBay.