Hong Kong’s got talent, but its cultural deficit and history as a sourcing hub holds back fashion designers, says professor

SCAD professor Robert Meeder, who quit fashion industry to teach, stresses to his students in city the importance of grasping the business side of fashion

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2017, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2017, 7:00pm

Robert Meeder is professor of luxury marketing and fashion management at SCAD Hong Kong. Prior to joining SCAD, he served as a marketing consultant for various luxury brands including Gucci and Burberry in Scandinavia and the Middle East.

How did you get involved in the luxury industry?

I grew up in Australia and studied international business like every good son should. I wanted to study design but my parents were concerned I would never make money. After a stint working in banking, I ended up in Europe doing a BA in women’s wear at Design School Kolding in Denmark, followed by a masters. I had no choice because back then there was no such thing as a fashion marketing course. After graduating I set up a company where we did various things, from producing magazines to PR and marketing consultancy.

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How did you make the jump from working as a consultant to becoming an educator?

I was always exposed to interns and students and the trouble was they either knew about fashion and nothing about business, or vice versa. I sold my shares in the company, and worked in-house for a while before being approached to do a PhD in fashion management in Sweden. After the first year I had written a master’s programme in fashion management that also covers the business of fashion because I saw a real need in the market.

A [fashion] designer is a technical pattern maker, curator, art director and businessman ... It’s not just champagne and bubbles
Robert Meeder

I became increasingly frustrated that my colleagues were purely academics who followed theory but did not engage in the industry. I postponed my studies and worked for a luxury brand distributor in the Middle East for two years while consulting. SCAD approached me two years later and I realised how their approach to education was exactly what I was missing in academia, so joined them in early 2016.

Why is business education important to students pursuing fashion careers?

In part because the industry is becoming extremely competitive. We are living in a very disruptive era and digital has a big part to play in that. Every Tom, Dick and Harry can become a journalist if they have a blog, or a designer because they have Instagram. Given that the landscape is changing a lot, you have to arm yourself with knowledge. We have yet to see the full impact the digital world will have on the fashion industry and so we teach students to address these topics. We ask them to solve real industry problems and apply their knowledge.

How do you see Hong Kong’s role in the global fashion industry evolving?

Hong Kong is going through an interesting period because they really need to put themselves back on the fashion map. It’s no longer the back door to China and needs to be a leader on its own. The government has recognised this need and allocated budgets towards it, which is the first step. We’ve also seen incentives programmes offering four to six students the chance to go to fashion week abroad, and promote themselves under the umbrella of Hong Kong fashion and design. Initiatives like that are great but internally we still have a lot to do.

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There’s a perception that Hong Kong designers are not as talented as their global counterparts. What do you think about this?

Hong Kong designers are as talented as designers any other country. See, for example, the work of Polly Ho or Janet Wong. The problem is Hong Kong has been known as a sourcing hub for so many years and we need to break away from that. Hong Kong also seems to lag behind when it comes to culture. We are going through a period where we are trying to define who are we. Along with this discourse, opinions are being formed and we are seeing something take place. This can be positive if we can channel this energy and formulate our own opinions rather than just conforming. This brings out more creativity. We may need a few more years but we are on track.

Which designers do you admire in terms of how they’ve built their brands?

Aesthetically I’ve always loved Raf Simons, not only because he makes beautiful clothing, but because of the way he has grown his brand. He hasn’t sold out to any big players, and always controlled the growth. He’s also very humble, which is also very admirable. I love his understatedness and that is reflected in the clothes. You know it’s Raf Simons but doesn’t scream it.

What’s the best advice you can give students wanting to pursue a career in fashion?

It’s important to question why you want to join the industry. You also need to consider what your vision is. A lot of people presume fashion is about making clothes, but it is also about what you want to say to the world, your opinion. The truth is that it’s a lot of hard work and more competitive than ever before. Fashion designers are more than just designers – there are so many facets involved. A designer is a technical pattern maker, curator, art director and businessman. You need to be fully aware that it’s not all champagne and caviar.