Brand your ground

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 December, 2009, 12:00am

Actor Sam Lee Chan-sam's parents used to worry that their son was turning into a fei jai (bad boy): as a skateboard-obsessed teenager, Lee spent a lot of time cruising the streets in the baggy, flashy outfits that became the uniform of the subculture. Now, the 34-year-old has his own line of streetwear, Subcrew, with an annual turnover of several million dollars.

'I never imagined streetwear would become so popular,' says Lee. 'Nowadays, not only is it accepted in the mainstream, but it can get really expensive, too. You can find shirts which cost HK$3,000 or jackets for HK$7,000. I don't know how youths can afford it; maybe money from their parents?'

Evolved from US skateboarding culture in the 1980s, the oversized T-shirts, caps and fancy sneakers that characterise streetwear can now be seen on red carpets and in nightclubs. And although the US and Japan continue to drive most streetwear trends, a handful of local labels are beginning to emerge internationally. That's thanks to a mix of internet buzz, high-profile design collaborations and a little celebrity endorsement, with stars such as Kanye West and John Mayer seen wearing local skater threads.

'Hong Kong has taken a major leap in Asia compared to years ago, when the major players were coming from Japan,' says Jason Chow Wing-fai, CEO of online marketing and design firm Boxset Creative, who is also working on his own line of streetwear. 'Many local brands are making their mark and it will be interesting to see how they continue to expand overseas.'

Eugene Kan Pak-shui, managing editor of Hong Kong-based online fashion magazine, Hypebeast (, reckons there are cultural underpinnings to some of the overseas interest in Hong Kong streetwear brands. 'There are large Chinese communities everywhere with some sort of root in Hong Kong. By that virtue, the popularity is global.'

Subcrew, which Lee founded with partners Frankie Cheung Chin-pang and Kobe Chan Ho-cheung in 2004, got off to a good start, partly because of the actor's high profile. After making his name in Made in Hong Kong, director Fruit Chan Kuo's 1997 watershed film, Lee carved a niche in youth-oriented action flicks and developed a small underground music following on the mainland, where he occasionally tours as a deejay.

'Because I was sort of a celebrity to begin with, it was much easier to spread the Subcrew name,' he says. 'If I went to an event or movie premiere, I'd be photographed wearing my own stuff. I'm grateful for that because it's very hard for streetwear companies to survive.'

Subcrew now sells about HK$2 million abroad for each of its spring/summer and autumn/winter collections but Lee aims to concentrate expansion efforts in Taiwan and the mainland, where he's better known.

Lee has found local rentals too high to set up a retail network for Subcrew in Hong Kong, preferring instead to distribute his gear through other streetwear shops, but last year opened outlets in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Taipei under the name Unity.

Clot, an upmarket lifestyle brand founded in 2003 by sometime actor Edison Chen Koon-hei and his friend Kevin Poon Sai-han, probably has the most overseas recognition among the local street labels.

Thanks to trendsetters such as Kanye West and DJ AM donning their gear, Poon says 'a lot of big companies are interested in China right now, and they're coming through us to see what they can do'.

Six years ago, there was no perception of Hong Kong streetwear, Poon says, and Clot's local identity initially made it difficult to break into overseas markets. But the team's strong marketing connections have led to collaborations with brands such as adidas, Levi's and Bearbrick.

The company has also been expanding its retail network: after setting up its Juice stores here and in Kuala Lumpur, Clot recently opened a third outlet in Shanghai and is set to launch a fourth in Taipei.

'Japanese brands have been around for a long time but we're doing something that's uniquely Chinese,' Poon says. 'We're trying to infuse some Chinese elements, like adding a silk treatment.'

Clot's first collaboration with Nike, for instance, was a sneaker with soles that showed pressure points related to the flow of chi, the vital energy said to influence our well-being in traditional Chinese medicine.

Julian Brian Siswojo, who founded the mid-range streetwear brand Know1edge with his wife Annie Lee in 2004, doesn't enjoy the benefits of having a celebrity showbiz partner.

Even so, the 36-year-old Indonesian is something of a skateboarding ambassador for Hong Kong. Siswojo took up skateboarding when he was 14, shortly after moving to Hong Kong to learn English, and within five years was receiving sponsorship from Airwalk shoes.

He shot skateboarding documentaries and served as a regional marketer for US streetwear brand Alphanumeric until 2001, when he opened his own store. A tiny outlet in Causeway Bay, 8Five2Shop stocks a collection of mostly foreign skatewear labels in addition to his Know1edge line.

Although his name is well-known in skateboarding circles, Siswojo recalls years of difficulty trying to market a Hong Kong label overseas. 'Back then, Hong Kong street fashion brands never said they were from Hong Kong. They faked being from the States or Japan or something,' he says. 'I'm like, 'Are you serious dude? Be proud of being in Hong Kong!''

Sam Lee agrees. 'It was hard to establish a brand from Hong Kong when everyone felt the best streetwear was from Japan and the US,' he says. 'We had to work hard to prove our quality and attention to detail were good, but now people know that things can be made in China and be of good quality.'

Blogs such as Hypebeast have had an enormous impact in changing perceptions of local brands in the past three years, Siswojo says. 'People are paying more attention to the whole design, the fabric used and the attention to detail in the clothes.'

Know1edge clothing is now distributed in dozens of locations around the world, with most going to Japan, its biggest export market. The label exports about HK$1.5 million overseas per season, but Siswojo says he and his wife are careful not to expand too quickly and risk losing control of the quality.

'Of course, we want to expand our business but we don't want to be making, like, 5,000 pairs of jeans per style,' he says. 'We're a mom and pop operation, a small company. But we believe our products are now up to par with what people are making outside.'

However, Hong Kong still has a long way to go before catching up to trendsetting Japanese labels in penetrating global markets, Kan says. 'But it helps that a lot of local brands have strong [international] connections,' he says. 'Hong Kong is a destination city and the gateway to production [on the mainland], so you see a lot of relationships being built on that note.'