Hong Kong designer’s pocket squares are true works of heritage art you can carry with you

The classic pocket square is given a fashionable twist at the hands of heritage art brand Novel Fineries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 January, 2017, 5:48pm

“Wearable art” is a term many fashion designers use to describe their work, but local fashion label Novel Fineries is taking the concept into new territory with its debut collection of pocket art, which is revolutionising the humble pocket square.

Novel Fineries has made headlines since it was founded by local designer June Lau in April last year. The brand was a winner at Lane Crawford’s Call Out 2016, which searches for the next generation of talented brands and designers. A nod at last year’s Design for Asia Awards and a trip to Paris with the Fashion Farm Foundation followed, as did endorsements from popular lifestyle websites such as Hypebeast.com.

Lau is not a fashion designer by trade. The Hong Kong native studied product design at Loughborough University in England, after turning down a spot at the famed Central Saint Martins. Following stints at brands, including Adidas – where she helped develop uniforms for the British Olympic team – she returned to Hong Kong in 2013. Here she founded her own consultancy and studio offering everything from product and graphic design to sourcing and manufacturing. Her pioneering projects have covered various fields from medicine to industrial design, and have included an award-winning product for eczema sufferers and a paddle board.

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While those pursuits have kept her busy, her mind often returned to fashion, which had been a passion since childhood.

“I always knew I wanted to be in design and people always thought I would go into fashion. For me, the life cycle of fashion is too short – I found it difficult to make money out of it so I was cautious about getting into the business,” says Lau.

“The idea for Novel came about when I started designing a gift for a friend. I didn’t really care for pocket squares because they are so boring, but I saw friend wearing an interesting one that looked like a painting. That got me thinking and inspired me to start Novel Fineries.”

It all came to fruition during a business trip to the mainland, where Lau discovered a small community of craftsmen in Suzhou, in Jiangsu province, specialising in double-sided silk embroideries. Although Su embroideries are a certified heritage art, they only appeared on wall paintings, souvenirs and other knick-knacks. Inspired to take their art to a new audience, Lau designed a series of pocket squares featuring their workmanship.

“Getting the craftsmen on board wasn’t the hard part – getting the quality and colours right was. It took a full year to develop the first collection and in the beginning we created only four styles based on butterfly motifs featuring double-sided embroideries. Eventually we developed 50 designs based on Amazonian butterfly species. The aim is to replicate all the details and characteristics of the butterfly so the final product looks almost real,” says Lau.

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A closer look at each piece attests to this. Each square is made from silk that’s cut into the exact shape of the butterfly’s wings. This is then embroidered by master craftsmen using stitching that is identical on both sides. In many cases, Lau then hand paints each piece to recreate intricate details including the veins, structure and colour. Some styles feature over 400 stitches and take between 30 to 40 hours to complete, a process that is done entirely by hand.

The completed squares are not only beautiful but strikingly fashionable. The Charaxes Schreiber features a distinctive wing shape with twin tails on its back wings that is brought to life with black embroidery, while the Oleria Onega Crispinella is handpainted in vibrant shades of electric blue and orange. The Diaethria Clymena is a species that is highly prized in Asia thanks to an “88” motif on its wings that Lau has recreated with black and red threadwork. Each square can be worn a number of ways, with the butterfly’s shape peeking out from the edges of a jacket pocket to the more traditional triangle fold which highlights the embroidery. Prices range from HK$2,988 to HK$3,588.

While a selection of styles are available to purchase at Lane Crawford, the majority are made to order via Novel Finerie’s website and take two to three weeks to complete. Lau is cautious about expanding her distribution network too quickly, preferring to focus on creating pieces that customers will treasure for more than one season, much like a piece of art.

For her next collection which she hopes to launch in June, Lau will explore a completely new product line based around a colourful sea creature, exclusively for women. Like her previous collection, this will also use heritage art – she is currently exploring everything from block printing in Japan to batik in Indonesia.

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“It’s about creating something we see value in but also that has a social mission, which is to help those artisans continue their art and help them be self-sustaining. We encourage these masters, many of whom are women, to bring the work home, so they can have extra income while taking care of their children. For me Novel embraces two core values – preserving heritage art and creating products that are handmade from beginning to end, which is why I really feel what we are doing is art not fashion,” she says.