When Kate Davies and Tammy To decided Hong Kong needed more European antiques, they flew to Belgium and Britain to hunt for pieces they thought would appeal to buyers from Hong Kong and the mainland.
"I like antiques and was frustrated I couldn't get them here," Davies says. "They add so much depth to the home."
It wasn't hard to fill up a shipping container with Louis XIV games tables and English chests of drawers, and it was easy enough to start a business, Authentiques, to import them. What was difficult, however, was finding a place to sell the furniture: high rents meant a shop would be burdened with an unappealing level of risk. So, they decided on a pop-up shop.
"We thought about having a showroom, but we realised we were more comfortable doing an event, especially because it gives us the flexibility to start and stop, and change the look and feel of the space," says Davies, a former investment banker. The pop-up event will take place from April 6-10 at The Space, a gallery and event space in Sheung Wan. Two similar events at the gallery will follow soon afterwards.
In a city with high rents, limited space and fickle shoppers, pop-up retail is an increasingly attractive option for business owners who want to do something different without having to sign a lease.
"It's a way to give people a taste, to gauge their interest without going to the vast expense of signing a lease and setting up a permanent business," says Mandy d'Abo, owner of The Space and the nearby Cat Street Gallery. "I think that's why people love pop-ups. They're fun. It works on both sides, for the customer and the business."
The concept has been around for more than a decade. It became popular after the financial crisis of 2008, with retail markets unsettled and prime commercial spaces vacant in cities around the world. In 2009, fashion journal Women's Wear Daily dismissed pop-ups as a "novelty" whose attraction would quickly fade.
If anything, they have become more popular than ever. "It's a very easy way to dip your toe in," says Tyler Brule, editor of Monocle magazine, which hosted a pop-up at Lane Crawford in 2010. "You might be able to measure online sales, but before you commit to signing a lease you know you'll always get fresh PR. You can see how people react to your brand - get eye-to-eye feedback from consumers. That's why it's lasted. It's not just a blip."
Joe Lin, a retail analyst at property services firm CBRE, says Hong Kong's high rents make pop-ups an especially attractive option. He notes they are popular not just on the high street, but also in department stores and shopping malls.
"For shopping malls, it's a win-win arrangement, with their wide corridors and empty spaces. If brands can accept that they'll only have 100 or 200 square feet for a few months, it creates novelty for shoppers."
Authentiques will include furniture that has never been sold in Hong Kong, for prices between HK$8,000 and HK$200,000, with both a retail component and an auction. "It's antiques, not vintage, which means 18th and 19th century, with a couple of 17th century pieces," says Davies, who is going the extra mile by having stylist David Roden decorate the interior and act as host.
Shortly after Authentiques, The Space will host a pop-up shop for London vintage retailer Circa, which will feature hundreds of European objects from the 1950s to the '70s: an ice bucket from a Venice hotel, gold cocktail chairs from a jazz club in Berlin, a Guzzini arc lamp that was a stage prop for Paul McCartney. Prices will range from HK$1,000 to HK$60,000.
"It's going to be like a salon," says d'Abo, who invited Circa to Hong Kong after seeing the shop in London. "We want you to walk in and feel like you're in someone's house. There's going to be art, flowers ... I've got a girl who sources amazing silver [cutlery], so she's going to put in a few pieces."
In May, an event called Fete on Hollywood will rent The Space for a pop-up that brings together 11 designers and retailers, including jewellery by Tay, British tableware by Oenone Ware and handbags by Vicious Venom. "We're only charging the vendors the space cost," says organiser Amanda Loehnis. "Everyone benefits from the exposure."
One of the reasons pop-ups have become popular is that they are less akin to browsing through a shop and more like the opening of an art exhibition, with food, drinks and a buzzing atmosphere. "That sense of event is what adds value," says Brule. "It's also interesting that there's a beginning, a middle and an end."
Besides the magazine, Monocle is a lifestyle brand of homewear, fashion and accessories made in collaboration with a range of established and emerging designers. Items include a walnut magazine rack designed by Hugo Passos, a library lamp by Andreas Martin-Löf and woollen throws woven on traditional Victorian dobby looms. Its pop-up at Lane Crawford drew such an enthusiastic crowd that Monocle opened a permanent shop in St Francis Yard in Wan Chai.
"We were overwhelmed," Brule says. "We were so surprised by the turnout and the success of that space. It really prompted some conversations in the boardroom about whether we should accelerate our ambitions in Hong Kong." The Wan Chai shop has lived up to expectations.
"It's always peppered with visitors who came from Seoul or Singapore or Taipei. It's as much a place for a local audience as it is a hub, very much like the city is," Brule says.
Authentiques hopes its pop-up will attract enough attention to keep bringing in more antiques from Europe. "A lot of expats are starved for antiques. They're used to being able to go down to the village and potter around and find a chest of drawers," says Davies. "They blend very well with Chinese antiques, and they mix with modern, too."
But Davies still isn't sure they'll take Monocle's approach and use the pop-up as a springboard into a permanent space. "It's not easy to find a good space," she says, especially one with a reasonable rent and a location that appeals to a wide range of customers. Hosting regular pop-ups might be a more sustainable solution: "We can build a brand without a storefront." firstname.lastname@example.org
Authentiques will be at The Space from April 6-10. Circa will run from April 15-21. Fete on Hollywood will take place on May 15. Visit thespace.hk for details.