ON LAN STREET was once one of Central's quieter lanes, with a few nail salons and maternity wear shops. Now, it's a hip shopping destination with boutiques such as Maison Martin Margiela (MMM) and Ann Demeulemeester.
Free-standing stores dedicated to edgier, more avant-garde labels have opened across Hong Kong since Comme des Garcons and Undercover set up shop in Chai Wan a year ago. And more are coming, with the likes of Belgian label Raf Simons due to open next month. The local fashion scene is very different from what it was 10 years ago, when most brands were on consignment at multi-brand boutiques such as I.T, Lane Crawford and Joyce.
These days, an increasing number of retailers are abandoning shopping malls and branching out on their own to give their customers a new shopping experience. Each new place draws a different shopper, from high-spending tai-tais to young customers yearning for character-defining fashion that isn't Gucci, Prada or Louis Vuitton.
Adele Cheung, a 24-year-old cafe operator, is part of this new generation of shoppers. Since magazines piqued her interest in off-the-radar Belgian brands about a year ago, Cheung says she now spends as much as $2,000 on clothes every month. She's particularly drawn to the deconstructionist approach of MMM.
'I like the fact that MMM is trying to break the rules,' she says. 'They hate trends because they repeat the same concept for years. Even after the details are reconstructed, it still fits your body [despite the fact that] a new form has been created.'
Cheung is one of many women who want fashion that's different. With the increase of such demand, it's only natural that many of these brands should set up shop on their own.
Anita Wong, vice-president of merchandising at Joyce boutique, one of the pioneers in avant-garde fashion, says that up-and-coming brands such as Libertine, Mastermind, and Number Nine are growing increasingly popular with local shoppers. 'Some customers are tired of looking alike,' she says. 'They're starting to look for something that's more aesthetic and creative.'
Wong says customers can include anyone from members of creative fields to professionals, bankers and doctors.
Deborah Cheng Ching-shan, marketing and communications director at I.T, which runs the Demeulemeester and MMM boutiques, says that local shoppers are becoming less brand-conscious. Customers are no longer buying clothes for the sake of showing off, and are beginning to appreciate the concept behind the brand, the subtlety of the design as well as the quality of the fabric, she says.
'They're no longer at the stage when they think wearing a certain established brand will make them look cool,' Cheng says. 'They're starting to think whether these brands fit their personality and identity. We've got solid statistics to prove that [these cutting-edge brands have] potential.'
Cassian Lau Kai-shun, the owner of Sistyr Moon, says more customers are making a conscious effort to be different.
'That's why designers like Robert Cary-Williams and Marjan Pejoski are able to make a living. The only way to make that money is to create a niche,' he says. 'Why would you pay a premium for a sweater if you can get a similar style at Marks & Spencer or Giordano?'
Cheng and Lau agree that the media has significantly shaped the way people now view fashion. More customers are reading magazines such as Gap Press and getting updates from the internet, Cheng says. A simple Google search will tell fashionistas what their counterparts in London, Paris, Milan, New York or Tokyo are wearing. Positive reviews from the foreign press also generate interest among the local media, who in turn influence shoppers.
'This is a natural progression for retail profiles as the market becomes more mature and informed,' says Lau. 'Our customers are willing to take more risks when they choose clothes. They're not as conservative as before.'
The power of the media has certainly led to the success of the Comme des Garcons Guerilla store in Chai Wan. Since it opened last summer, local magazines such as Milk and Tea have given it extensive coverage.
Store organiser Irene Leung Sze-man says that these new boutiques have created a greater diversity and more individuality in the local market. She also says Guerilla's style is an attraction.
'We have put a lot of creative thought into the interior and display,' says Leung. 'When customers enter the shop, they can feel the spirit of the brand. This experience isn't something you always get in a commercial shopping area.'
Although the demand for a new shopping experience is growing rapidly, experts say it's still in its infancy. Colliers International research director Simon Lo Wing-fai says that traditional malls with good infrastructure will continue to thrive because the culture of multi-purpose shopping shows no signs of slowing down.
'Those alternative brand names are usually supported by a confined group of shoppers who have good knowledge of the products,' he says. 'They've no need to make price and quality comparison.'