Moving Forward

Hong Kong should promote itself as hub for design and creativity

Attracting artists and craftsmen to Hong Kong will help foster the city’s design industry, says James Kaplan, chief executive of Tai Ping Carpets

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 9:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 9:40pm

Hong Kong should let its artistic side come out and work towards positioning itself as a major design and creative centre, in the view of James Kaplan, chief executive of Tai Ping Carpets International.

“Hong Kong has been a very successful banking and financial hub while its stock market is one of the world’s largest fund raising centres. However, in terms of design and the creative industry, the city still needs to do more,” Kaplan told the South China Morning Post in an interview at the company’s showroom in the Prince’s Building in Central.

This will encourage more designers to feel comfortable to come and live in Hong Kong to set up their workshop
James Kaplan, chief executive of Tai Ping Carpets International

The government should host more arts shows, exhibitions and events to promote the city as a design hub.

“This will encourage more designers to feel comfortable to come and live in Hong Kong to set up their workshop,” he said.

The Hong Kong government should support more research and development projects to encourage people to develop new fabrics and techniques to create the new products so as to upgrade the creativity of the city, he added.

Tai Ping was founded in 1956 and is majority owned by the Kadoorie family. It has made carpets for royalty, movie stars and governments, and its work can be seen in hotels, including Hong Kong’s storied The Peninsula, and Mandarin Oriental, as well as in casinos in Macau, private jets, yachts and luxury homes.

The Hong Kong government commissioned the company to make a carpet for a wedding gift for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who were shown sitting on it with their two sons William and Harry at Kensington Palace in a television documentary.

Kaplan said the key to success in running a luxury brand was good design, high quality manufacturing and efficient marketing campaigns.

He said that the mainland has very skilled workers for manufacturing high-quality products, while Hong Kong has a lot of marketing talent.

But it is in the area of design where there needs to be more improvement, since Hong Kong has not attracted many top artists and designers to work in the city.

“For the carpet making industry, we need a lot of designers who have creative ideas to design colours and patterns. They need to create unique styles while also having the knowledge of how to turn their designs from paper to products,” he said.

Tai Ping has about 100 designers who have studied fashion, textiles or fine arts. It recruits around the globe because its carpets are selling to the US, Europe, and Asia so it needs a team of designers who can understand local tastes.

“Hong Kong and US customers like more modern designs and new fabrics but they have different tastes in colour. Hong Kong customers like pale colours while US buyers usually prefer brighter ones. European customers prefer more traditional designs,” he said.

Kaplan said Tai Ping, which expanded into Europe in 1980 and then to the US market 14 years ago, is one of the few Hong Kong luxury brands that can go global but he believes more promotion needs to done.

“Many US and European customers are still not familiar with the brand so we have to do more via social networks and events to introduce the Hong Kong brand to younger generations,” he said.

Kaplan, who is from the US and joined Tai Ping 14 years ago, has started to spend five months of each year living in Hong Kong to help focus on the Asian business. The rest of the time he divides between the US and Europe.

He said going global has allowed the company to take advantage of different economic cycles. As an example, when the US market slowed after the 2008 financial crisis, the company’s Asian business was doing well.

Its expansion has also brought in new customers and new sources of income. Its sales increased to US$169 million in 2015 from US$67 million in 2003. Its business is now split roughly equally between the US, Asia and Europe and Latin America.

The company will also need to adapt to the new buying habits of the younger generations.

Kaplan said that traditionally customers preferred made-to-order carpets where they would choose the fabric, colour and patterns, thus making each product unique. But this requires a waiting time of some 14 to 16 weeks.

“Nowadays, many customers do not want to wait that long but prefer to choose at our stores and take their purchase home immediately. This is why we have had to expand stock at our retail shops in recent years,” he said.

Another growing trend is e-commerce, with the younger generation buying carpets online. The firm has to use social media and its website to introduce its products to these customers.

Kaplan plans to expand further in Hong Kong, the mainland and Asia as a whole this year, expanding its marketing team in Hong Kong and enlarging a factory in the city of Xiamen.

“I do not think the Chinese economy is really so bad. It is true that it has slowed down to about 7 per cent growth from 10 per cent some years ago. But the US and Europe have annual growth rates of less than 2 per cent. The slowdown in China is not an excuse to slow down our expansion plans in the region” he said.

“Even though mainland workers’ salaries have increased in recent years, we are still keeping our manufacturing there because Chinese workers are very skillful. We reward them well as we want to retain the best staff to produce quality products. We would not move to cheaper production centres as that may affect the quality of the products,” he said.

While the mainland is the manufacturing base for Tai Ping Carpets, Kaplan believes it will soon be a source of customers.

“As Chinese people get more wealthy, they would appreciate high quality carpets and are likely to spend to decorate their home,” he said.