Pop-up markets a godsend for independent fashion labels

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 4:55pm

There's no shortage of fashion pop up markets these days, especially in the run-up to the Christmas shopping season. The Fashion Collective, for example, which starts today and runs until tomorrow at the Space in Sheung Wan, is gathering home-grown design favourites such as A Boy Named Sue, Square Street and Cameo all under one roof.

These events not only give consumers a chance to escape the cookie-cutter mall environment and discover new brands, but also give independent fashion labels chance to test the waters.

The city's killer rents which, last year, overtook those of New York to claim Hong Kong the title as the city with the most expensive commercial rents, have long been an obstacle to fashion start-ups. But in this age of the internet, an e-commerce website complemented by an occasional pop-up presence is sometimes all a brand needs to get a break.

"A lot of independent brands in Hong Kong don't necessarily have the resources to open their own shop or even have their own studio somewhere that's more accessible to shoppers. It gives them the platform to be around other like-minded creatives and show their designs to customers," says handbag designer Michelle Lai of Mischa.

Lai's brand is proof of the power of pop-up markets. She started participating in Hong Kong pop-ups in 2004, when there were far fewer of them around, featuring her now signature Japanese-inspired hexagonal print. Although her company is now established enough to be stocked at desirable retailers such as Lane Crawford and Kapok and she keeps a showroom office on Wyndham Street, Lai credits the many pop-up appearances with raising brand awareness. "I don't know where the brand would be," she says.

Rishi Chullani, who set up The Dark Knot, a collection of ties that come with matching recommendations for shoes and shirts, is fundraising through a Kickstarter campaign and plans to launch his website next month. In the meantime, he is doing direct sales at pop ups.

"It certainly helps," Chullani says. "The goal if you're starting a business is to use as many distribution channels as possible and, if you're able, to leverage another big concept's audience without any upfront costs. I get exposure to someone else's audience. I get to showcase the brand."

Digital sales and pop ups can be so effective that some brands, like Chullani's, are not planning to have a physical store even three to four years down the line.

"Physical stores usually help really big companies... but even if you're mid-tier company, why would you pay storefront costs? I'd rather pay to build traffic to the site."

New accessories brand Louella Odie is run by mother-daughter pair Karen and Lauren Mead. The Pawn's rooftop market two Sundays ago was the first time they set up a pop-up booth, having launched the brand just three days prior. The collection of silk pocket squares and bags, which sell for about HK$300 and HK$1,000 respectively, are designed by Karen while daughter Lauren takes care of the marketing.

"If we don't sell anything then we get information and feedback. But we have had a couple of sales so we're quite happy. You can look at it as a research opportunity as well," says Karen.

Often the sales that happen at the markets are secondary to the marketing and customer feedback opportunity. It gives labels an opportunity to gauge clientele's reactions to designs and test out product concepts.

"On one side, it's designing a piece of clothing or shoe, the other is actually the commercial to see if it sells and gels with customers," says Lai.

That's not to say independent labels should ignore the numbers. The Pawn's rooftop market was a charity initiative that only took 20 per cent of sales, but most charge a flat booth fee that brands must pay regardless of whether they make a sale.

Jeanine Hsu, who set up Niin jewellery in 2005, has organised several of her own fashion pop-up events in Hong Kong, including one last Wednesday.

"It is difficult because not everyone is happy," says Hsu about trying to organise brands together. "You can never secure that. We worry whether they sell enough or at least break even. A lot of times you can't measure the success numerically."

Lai says: "We did some dire fairs in the beginning and they were a bit of a waste of time. We've paid some expensive rents. I didn't know what was good, what was not. We'd just pretty much do any fair."

The scene for pop-up markets has expanded to different price points, locations and clientele, and although it's not a one-size-fits-all situation for brands, there is probably a place for everyone.

Lai's advice? "See if the brand mix is right for you, the location and people that they're targeting are the people you're looking for. I would always ask who else is participating."