Local designer Johanna Ho opens her first flagship store in Central

Celebrated local designer Johanna Ho opens her first flagship store in Central, writes Jing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 10:29am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 10:32am

One of Hong Kong's pioneering designers reaches another career milestone this month, with the opening of her second space and first flagship store in Central.

Those in the know see the momentum building for Johanna Ho Chi-yan, who has made her name with a quirky aesthetic and innovative knitwear over the past decade. The two-storey 1,700 square foot store at 13 Wyndham Street looks sleek, modern and stocks her contemporary menswear and womenswear.

People are realising local talent is just as good as their Western counterparts 

"This store is a dream come true for me," says Ho. "My store in Tsim Sha Tsui was more of a temporary fixture, more like a trial for us, since we never really did much direct retail business ourselves before, so this is our first flagship,"

When she first came back to Hong Kong a few years ago, after spending five years in Japan developing the brand with Sanyo Shokai (2004-2009), opening a shop was the last thing on her mind.

"Mainly because of the astronomical rent one has to pay in Hong Kong. It really put me off having a physical shop, so I went with the idea of e-commerce, and spent a good year and half developing this," she says.

The far-reaching platform online model had been working well for the label, receiving a good client response. Her blog also allowed customers to understand her style and design sensibilities.

But this latest move, "to have my very first flagship in my place of birth and home means something very special and personal", says Ho.

"Despite having had 11 Johanna Ho stores in Japan before ... it's a new and exciting chapter of my life," she adds.

Despite your standard stress with contractors and pushing back the opening by a month, Ho is pleased with the results. She has become one of the few local names with boutiques occupying Central's expensive retail space.

This new shop in Central is as significant to Ho as opening her first Japan flagship store in Omotesando, Tokyo.

"Central, like Omotesando, is a location known for its high-end fashion brands, where you can find both local fashion giants, such as Commes des Garcons alongside European brands including Prada.

"I hope that I can help create momentum for more local names and talents to follow in my footsteps and have the chance of creating a fresh, cool fashion hub for the already cosmopolitan site.

"I want people to appreciate my clothes as a genuinely 100 per cent Chinese product."

It's obvious this project isn't just a shop for Ho, it is a chance for a local designer to put her stamp on the fashion map in Hong Kong, the mainland and Asia.

As one of the few designers in Hong Kong with true insight into the local industry and the international fashion business, as well as the celebrity scene and street fashion, her ambition makes sense.

Last month, the 2014 HKTDC Fashion Week sought her out to judge three design competitions - a sign of her growing clout in the city's design world.

Many industry insiders think that with a long list of fruitful collaborations in the past two years (including with Liger boutique, owned by her friend - and Eason Chan's wife - Hilary Tsui), Ho is building up to something big.

Late last year, she launched her debut menswear line with the support of pop star Chan.

"I guess it was rather inevitable," says Ho. "I have always enjoyed studying men's clothing, as it tends to have a cleaner silhouette than women's. It's more important to work on proportions, great fit and cut and, most of all, interesting details.

"Then I got asked to design my good pal Eason's Duo concert two years ago, which was the first time I really had to tackle menswear seriously."

She says the collaboration was a fantastic experience, "because he gave me a lot of trust and there was a mutual understanding and respect".

"Duo was about extracting and exhibiting the dual personalities found in most people. And, in Eason's case, I was keen to show people his other side.

"The carefree and slightly mischievous image he known for, is also complimented by a more serious side, someone who is full of depth and sensitivity.

"I was inspired by his background and the Britishness that shaped much of him during his boarding school years in England."

To express this, Ho researched traditional British tailoring, Saville Row methods but sought to integrate a sense of modernity and rock'n'roll cool.

Chan's concert costumes worked so well they became her key inspiration for the autumn-winter 2013 menswear debut, which was all about dapper, tailored knits.

Despite being a major champion of local fashion, Ho credits her time in London studying at Central Saint Martins as a big influence on how she designs. It also taught her the hard realities of the industry.

"Working alongside Stella [McCartney] was another additional bonus to the learning curve," she adds.

Throughout her BA and MA, Ho developed her own style. So when she started her label, in 1992, she had a distinctive look - something not all local designers can say.

"People simply were not interested and not prepared to buy local designers' brands," she says. "It was all about Western labels."

More than a decade later, however, things have changed in Hong Kong and the mainland, where national and cultural pride boosted by economic confidence has made consumers much more open to Chinese brands.

With more Chinese brands being accepted into the rather ruthless international industry, the tide is definitely turning. But Ho won't be rushing into the lucrative mainland market just yet, preferring to wait for the right investors and partners who can help her expand internationally.

"Everyone is looking to get into the China market. Of course, that is inevitably part of my plan, too, but to me it's a very, very big market and developing very quickly. It's not just about talent, but a lot of hard work and meeting the right people at the right place and in the right time."

Ho says the attention Asian designers (such as Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim) have enjoyed in the US and then globally helped this cultural shift in fashion by "creating a path for more fledgling Chinese and Asian designers to follow".

Her own business is a case in point. When asked if the fashion world has become more interested in her as a specifically Chinese designer, she replies "Totally!".

Customers in Asia have slowly come to "realise that local talent might be just as good, and in some cases better, than the Western counterparts," says Ho.

"Who else better understands our own needs, from designs to sizing, colours, and, most of all, the unique cultural thinking that can affect and influence one's style and tastes?"