"West is best" used to be a common mantra among Hong Kong's fashion community. Young designers dreamed of making it in Paris, New York, London or Milan at one of the big fashion houses or, if they were lucky, striking out with their own label. But in recent years, as the industry matures, more young designers are choosing Hong Kong as a base for their start-ups. In particular, a flood of Hong Kong hai gui - "sea turtles", or Hongkongers living abroad - are returning to make their mark.
The cultural capital of Hong Kong fashion has moved beyond manufacturing and sourcing, with local labels making international waves. Last year Ground Zero became the first Hong Kong label to be on the official Paris Fashion Week schedule. A few weeks ago local label ffiXXed (by Fiona Lau and Kain Picken) won the Asia leg of the prestigious Woolmark Prize. Both have hai gui co-founders who returned to the city. Other independent brands, such as Daydream Nation, Jourden, Niin, Mischa, Johanna Ho and S.Nine by Susanna Soo, also fit the bill. The trend is gaining momentum, and a growing number of fashion start-ups by returnees have helped diversify the industry.
"The freedom and possibilities here have been the strongest appeal," says one of the city's most promising young returnee designers, Anais Jourden Mak Chun-ting of label Jourden.
"I also find it interesting how everyone is more or less interested in fashion, and how shopping is a big part of people's lives here. There's a unique vibe in Hong Kong that I am totally obsessed with."
The support of fashion-forward, risk-taking, multi-brand retailers such as Edit on Hollywood Road, and Dorothy Hui and Hilary Tsui's Liger stores, have been crucial platforms for young designers to engage with the right customer. Local brands such as Créature de Keis, Johanna Ho and Jourden are stocked by Liger, alongside South Korean label pushBUTTON, and international labels Chalayan Black, Giuseppe Zanotti and House of Holland. But unlike at retail giants Lane Crawford, I.T or Harvey Nichols, where they are easily lost among the sea of famous brands, the boutique nature of stores such as Liger can give young designers more intimate exposure.
Mak's first stockist was Liger, when she worked on pieces while studying in Paris at Studio Berçot. She will launch her first full collection next month under her new Jourden brand.
"I am addicted to Hong Kong's pace," Mak says. "I love the responsiveness and accessibility of the city. I am often inspired by a lot of the people I come across and my work always reacts to my surroundings."
Mak says returning was a difficult decision to make. "I had to choose between pursuing a career in these traditional big fashion houses and starting up my own label here. As much as I missed Paris, I seized that impulsiveness within and I decided to go for it, even if it could mean a lot of unknowns and a lot of extra hard work.
"My miniseries of rare leather collections was sold at Liger while I was studying in Paris, and the moderate success and support I received from it made me realise what I wanted to work on was something personal, honest and refined here."
A greater sense of pride has played a significant role in making Hong Kong more fashionable. Growing sophistication in consumer tastes has also been a big factor. No longer are shoppers just buying Gucci and Louis Vuitton to stand out; wealthy fashionistas and a burgeoning middle class are taking more risks and dressing more independently.
Designers such as Johanna Ho, who returned from Britain to start her eponymous label in 1998, have witnessed the scene changing in the past few years. A more recent returnee is Susanna Soo, who founded S.Nine in 2009. Soo made her name here with glamorous evening ensembles, gaining celebrity supporters including singer-actress Kelly Chen Wai-lam. The Parsons alumni founded her label in New York, but within a year moved back to her native Hong Kong.
"When I was in New York, a lot of my friends couldn't get a job," she says. "So it was a natural decision to go back to Hong Kong and see what's going on. I visited some manufacturers and found one that would do low-quantity, high-quality pieces for my label, and it was a natural progression to be based here."
It's not just ready-to-wear labels that are caught up in this trend. Accessories designer Michelle Lai lived in Canada and London before returning to Hong Kong to launch Mischa. The brand's popular geometric print travel series and her vintage obi evening bags have become instantly recognisable.
"It is the headquarters for many international businesses, so you get to meet the decision makers, and we're on the doorstep of the mainland, where everyone wants to be at the moment," Lai says.
"In my experience, Hong Kong is like a trading post; we can access all the materials, suppliers, technical know-how, and find sophisticated manufacturers able to execute our ideas. It's virtually tax-free. It's also a great place for creative entrepreneurs, as it's teeming with dynamic people with great ideas and the gumption to make things happen."
Lai also argues that her generation realised that local fashion in Asia is still relatively new and unchartered. And despite competition from established brands, customers are now more willing to break the Western luxury stronghold in favour of independent local labels. And advice from like-minded entrepreneurs here has been invaluable. "People always get drawn to where the action is," she adds. "So coming here to start a business [is] the natural thing to do."
Jeanine Hsu, founder of Niin jewellery, has a similar story. After studying in Britain, and then had stints in Vienna workshops and at Vivienne Westwood, she started her line in 2005 and relocated to Hong Kong soon after.
"I wanted to be closer to Asia, where the manufacturing of my designs takes place, and to be closer to my family," Hsu says. "I also felt that the market here was not as saturated as in Britain, and that the climate better suited my jewellery, which often sells well at resorts."
Hsu's existing local network meant that people were helpful in connecting her with the right contacts. Hong Kong's "can-do" attitude helps, she says. But despite its appeal, many designers believe that Hong Kong still has a way to go.
"I feel a lot of the start-ups here prefer to show collections that are loud," Mak says. "I'm hoping to see something more sophisticated and subtle, which can still make a strong statement in the future."
Hsu acknowledges that although the scene has become more eclectic, rents are still high and there is not much support for smaller brands.
Soo says that although support is growing, convincing buyers to place significant orders is still a challenge - Hong Kong's close proximity to manufacturing is a big draw, but even so, building a brand isn't always simple. There is help available from the government and private sector, says Soo, who benefited from the Fashion Farm Foundation started by Edith Law, which sponsored a local designer showroom at Paris Fashion Week.
InvestHK, the investment arm of the government, is also playing a role. Collin Thompson, a Canadian expat who launched and sold his own footwear label in the city, has been an investment promotions ambassador for InvestHK for the past two years.
"My mandate is to help local brands grow through their development by attracting businesses and investors that support the local economy," he says. This includes the fashion and creative sectors, as well as design, technology, media and venture capital and "all things that are important to the growth and development of modern fashion and culture-driven companies", Thompson says.
The success stories are growing, he says, and so is Hong Kong's appeal for these type of businesses. Among his favourite brands are local labels such as Sheer, S.Nine, Niin and Iter Hominis.
Homegrown fashion is on the rise, and Thompson says that the hai gui have played a big role in this shift.
"They are an important demographic on a cultural production level, as well as on a marketing level," he says.
"They are probably the most sought-after demographic in the world right now. They typically come from comfortable backgrounds, are well educated, mainly from schools in America and Britain, are well travelled, and have a diverse spectrum of cultural references. But they also understand the regional culture."
The impact, in the short term, is a growing number of successful homegrown fashion businesses. But the impact in the long run will be cultural. As Hsu says: "We are at a tipping point."