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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Joanne Ooi takes Hong Kong jeweller Plukka international

Online retailer has its sights set on US market as it prepares to list on the Australian stock exchange

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 August, 2015, 12:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 7:13pm

On the first floor of the Landmark atrium in Central, in a corner beside global brands such as Louis Vuitton and Fendi, you'll find a small Plukka boutique that houses several striking independent designer jewellery collections.

It's a trove of shimmering coloured diamonds, innovative rings and earrings, lustrous pearls and inspired lines. Work by artisans from around the globe - Lebanon, India, Hungary, Italy and the US - are sold under the aegis of this brand. Now, three years after its inception, its founder and chief executive, Joanne Ooi, has plans to expand - big time.

"We are doing a IPO on the Australian stock exchange [ASX]," says Ooi, who has almost 20 years of experience in the luxury industry. "We considered that an expedient vehicle for raising a much larger amount of money deemed necessary to expand globally and, specifically, to tackle the US market."

So this expansion isn't about knocking down walls and tackling the prohibitive rents of retail in the city. "No, after doing this for three years, it has become evident to me that this is a scale business in order to flourish," Ooi says.

"We are building a global luxury retail brand which requires a continuous and systematic marketing effort that only a big infusion of capital can achieve."

The brand chose to list on the ASX - it will happen mid-October - because it encourages small cap listings and is relatively inexpensive. And while many brands are looking for salvation in the East, and China in particular, Ooi is heading West.

"We are going to focus primarily on the United States," says Ooi. "The US has the most developed fine jewellery e-commerce customer base. In terms of fashion opinion leader buy-in, this will come back to roost on all the international markets which look to the US as being a pivotal influence globally in what's cool, what's hot and creative. It gives us global branding benediction."

In additional to a busy US trunk show schedule, Plukka is in negotiations to take on a prominent retail space in London and will do a pop-up in Manhattan later this year.

The brand has been successful at placing its jewellery on the lobes, hands and around some of Hollywood's most famous necks. But for many clients, the concept of buying fine jewellery online is still new - with big potential for growth - whereas fashion and accessories are tried and tested e-commerce sectors.

So how would you describe Plukka to new customers; moreover, to new investors?

"We are the first international omni-channel - bricks and clicks - fine designer jewellery retailer," says Ooi. "It might sound ridiculous that it's the first international one, but only 12 per cent of the jewellery industry is dominated by big traditional brands like Tiffany and Cartier. That is a little known fact.

"Of course, there are very localised players that are gigantic such as Chow Tai Fook," which generates huge sales, dominates the China market but doesn't have any distribution outside of the country, says Ooi, Or Zales which is a behemoth in North America, or American company Giant, ubiquitous in middle-American shopping mall stores, but, again, has no global presence.

While the business model that Ooi has created is different from many others in the market, it harnesses her logistical location.

"The power of what we are doing is based on taking the manufacturing base of the Pearl River Delta and the jewellery industry together. Hong Kong is at the epicentre of the jewellery industry globally because it's in the backyard of Thailand, China and India - where 90 per cent of the world's jewellery is made."

But surely the gap in the market that Ooi has spotted is because it's dominated by a cartel of rich, well-established brands that won't take kindly to newcomers.

"It's a culture of firsts. It's a very family- and trust-driven business. It's expensive to start a jewellery retail operation. You typically need about a US$2 million inventory just to start off. So that is why it's family dominated, because if you're a young person trying to find your way into retail - unless you're a billionaire - it is daunting. In terms of internationalisation in businesses such as this, you have to have the systems and the will to move jewellery around and pay tariffs. Then there's customs and physical security. Unless you have a scale-type business, it doesn't make any sense."

Ooi also faces the challenge of chipping away at the brand loyalty of old houses that have been around for centuries and developed a relationship with customers.

"One reason we're raising capital is because we need a higher level of brand visibility. Cartier and Tiffany took decades to get where they are today. There is no reason why we can't attain the same level of trust, authoritativeness and prestige within three to five years."

The assumption has always been that the ever-escalating rental costs for retail space prevents sales-related businesses from flourishing.

"Jewellery retail can be very attractive - we have high sales per square foot for the surface area actually required to operate a boutique. At any given time, US$2 million worth of inventory, compressed into a small space, is around. That massively diminishes my rental cost."

Surprisingly, approximately 70 per cent of Plukka's online sales come from the US. "We seek to establish dominance in branded jewellery sales online. The overall jewellery industry is worth US$100 billion; online is only worth US$5 billion - very small but it's expected to double by 2020."

Numbers and figures aside, there are the designers and their pieces that Ooi chooses herself.

"I pick people who are genuinely original, especially as the industry is rife with copying.

"Many people are unwilling to try something avant-garde and new. I'm looking for true originality, which is hard to find. I need to know there's a genuine talent there. I need to see that the quantity of their work is sufficiently large... so I won't typically pick a designer who's just done 12 pieces. Generally, I want so see 30 to 50 pieces - that's usually the accretion over a few years, not a flash in the pan. We are not in the business of being a flash in the pan."