Johanna Ho on her path as a designer

Johanna Ho puts a colourful spin on the local fashion scene, writes Vivian Chen

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 9:42am

At a glance, Johanna Ho has the sort of life any fashion designer could aspire to - she recently opened her first boutique in the heart of the city, last week she launched a series of collaborative collections with celebrity designers and she's happily married with two daughters.

However, her advice to young designers is to think twice about embarking on the career path she chose - unless they're prepared to battle for it like she did.

"People see photos of me at parties in the press and probably think what a glamorous life I have," she says from her small boutique in the basement of Woodhouse mall, Tsim Sha Tsui. "They see the fun part of me but not the bad part."

A Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design alumna, Ho moved back to Hong Kong after graduating in 1997 because she saw the potential of the city, given the long history of its garment industry and its proximity to the mainland's market and manufacturers.

"Why can't Hong Kong be a fashion hub instead of always following trends from elsewhere?" she asks. "Hong Kong has a lot of talent but [artists and designers] are forced by the market to give up their dreams."

When she first started the business, her sample room was based in Hong Kong, despite cheaper cost of labour and rent across the border. Her collections were soon selling at Hong Kong's Harvey Nichols, as well as Barneys in New York and Browns in London.

In 2004, she was hit hard during the economic downturn, when major clients from Japan cut orders by half. She sold her business to a Japanese garment company and worked in Tokyo for almost a year, before reclaiming her brand two years ago.

Ho says she doesn't rely on anyone but herself in business.

"Established retailer chains are often guided by trends or big designer labels," she says. "When they seek up-and-coming fresh names, they rarely look for the local ones and, even if they do, they don't do a very good job promoting them."

Now her products are sold at her Tsim Sha Tsui boutique, her e-store as well as local multi-label buyer shops including Ztampz, Cocktail and Liger (operated by her close friend Hilary Tsui Ho-ying).

She has recently worked with Liger founders Tsui and Dorothy Hui to develop a new collection of cashmere jumpers in a rainbow of colours, as well as a "Johanna Ho X Oh My God" line, mixing Ho's signature soft ruffles and bright colours with Liger's house label.

She has also been collaborating with Leanne Claxton, her textile design friend from college for her second "Ho: Claxton" collection (the first was a spring-summer collection this year), featuring Claxton's creative prints on silk and Ho's feminine and colourful knits.

Since Ho opened her own store in June, she has restocked it with new designs almost every two weeks.

She says she was inspired by her Central Saint Martins tutor Louise Wilson (who taught the likes of Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane) to focus on developing knitwear.

"She told me that my designs are feminine but with a little edge, and that's exactly what I do," says Ho. "Take this chunky knit I'm wearing today: I wanted to challenge the stereotype that a chunky knit must be bulky and granny-like; so I overlayed with this tulle to soften it."

Ho hopes her designs can lift people's spirits and focuses on the use of bright colours, contrasting textures and flattering cuttings.

"In Hong Kong I feel that we are insecure and worry about how people judge us, so we settle for the safer options, even in fashion. I hope that can change," she says.

To execute this idea, Ho has initiated a service in her store called "Change". For HK$1,400, you get a head-to-toe personal styling, including a makeover from Australian beauty brand Becca's artist (redeemable for Ho and Becca products).

"This comes from my own educated consumer perspective that every girl wants to look good," she says. "If you don't try it out, you will never know how good you could look."