Sneaker reboot: Hong Kong brands Clot, Gram and Cipher push luxury trend

The luxury sneaker market is growing in Hong Kong and three local companies are pushing the agenda here and abroad

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 9:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 9:47pm

In men's fashion, the trend for expensive bespoke formal footwear has risen alongside that of luxury or design-led sports shoes. These two polarising aesthetics speak to how mixing and matching in the modern man's wardrobe has become all but mainstream.

Hong Kong is not the traditional creative stomping ground for the "sophisticated sneaker" niche, although it remains a huge commercial market. But several interesting independent labels here, although different in business models, price points and aesthetics, have carved out a tidy position.

Hong Kong-based designer Alexis Holm says the luxury sneaker market is blooming. "I think the world is tired of flirting with the past and would rather look toward the future, which means more experimental footwear will come into play utilising modern materials, clean cuts and simple yet striking colours," he says.

Kevin Poon, owner of Clot and a local casual/streetwear powerhouse, is also a talented designer. Through his company, which is celebrating its 10th year, Poon has almost completely cornered the Hong Kong collaborations market with the biggest global names in the sports shoe business, such as Nike, Vans and Converse.

"I think the first one we did was in 2004 or 2005, the Air Max with Nike," Poon says. "We were all sneaker heads anyway, we'd been collecting sneakers for a long, long time, and we knew that there were a few people around the world doing collaborations. We really wanted to do one, we kept on pushing for it; and the timing was right when they [Nike] were looking to push more into Asia."

The "Clot x Nike Air Max 1" collaboration in 2013 is considered by streetwear blogs as one of the best of the year; another is coming this winter. An East-meets-West Converse All Star Chuck Taylor collaboration with Clot (the fifth between the brands), featuring shoes with traditional Chang-Pao style button details, also gained traction. And the latest of Clot's sneakers collaborations, with Adidas Consortium Stan Smith, was released in February.

These limited-edition collaborations usually sell for a bit more than the standard price of the regular models, but can gain thousands of Hong Kong dollars in the secondary resale market, says Poon, who's an avid collector of sneakers.

Collaborations offer a fresh perspective and limited-edition exclusivity on popular and classic styles, as well as tapping into a new market. In addition to Clot, Asian brands such as A Bathing Ape (Bape) are also active in this arena.

"There is a resurgence of interest in [design-led] sneakers," says Poon. "It goes in waves… now you even have all the high fashion brands getting in on it.

"Lanvin was one of the early ones, then the Balenciagas, now even Christian Louboutin."

Poon thinks that the luxury sneaker trend is "kind of cool in a way", but at the same time has become mainstream.

"It's not necessarily good or bad, its just evolution."

Men's luxury trainer brand Cipher has been making local fashion headlines since Canadian Collin Thompson founded the label in Hong Kong in 2007. Britons Gregg Murfin and Matt Arrowsmith later acquired the label and are rebooting it with very ambitious plans.

"The design direction and aesthetic for Cipher will continue to follow the principals of semi-formality and modernity of design," says Arrowsmith, who is also the brand's creative director.

Retail prices have risen to between US$500 and US$800 a pair (from US$350 to US$600) because, Murfin says, the products are now all handmade in Tuscany, in "one of the best shoe factories in the world". Each pair takes two days to make and the brand has shifted towards producing limited numbers, says Murfin.

"For me, 'Made in Italy' is not a marketing tool, but a prerequisite," says Arrowsmith, who previously headed up sourcing at British high street label All Saints.

Working with the best factories means a sharp rise in costs. "Even Givenchy and Lanvin have moved large parts of their sneaker production to Portugal," Arrowsmith says. "I understand the commercial reasoning but it is not something I will ever do."

And unlike the obvious bling of Giuseppe Zanotti's men's trainers or Riccardo Tisci's bold collaboration with Nike, Cipher is going with a "subtle, monochromatic branding, both on the interior and exterior of each piece".

Branding on the outside is still restricted only to the sole of the shoe - a touch which Arrowsmith believes gives them a platform for longevity.

Asian customers are most likely the largest buying group of fashion-forward sneakers and casual footwear in the world

And although the brand's base remains in Hong Kong, the two are constantly travelling, which, in Arrowsmith's words, makes Cipher "an international brand based on British design, Italian production and Asian inspiration".

Its autumn-winter 2014 collection, titled "Journey to Wakkanai" is inspired by the Japanese winter.

"There's a distinct movement [with sports shoes] towards design-led collections, which is more understated," Murfin says of the men's luxury trainer market. "Just look at Lanvin, Balmain and Valentino."

Although Cipher has good accounts in Asia, including Galeries LaFayette in Beijing and Konzepp in Hong Kong, the US will be its biggest market in the future. The plan is to evolve Cipher from purely footwear into a modern men's lifestyle brand by slowly adding more product categories. The pair have high hopes and eventually want to open their own stand-alone stores, which will offer a level of bespoke servicing.

As menswear spending, especially in accessories, continues to be strong in Asia, retailers such as I.T and Lane Crawford have led the way in sectors like the luxury sneaker market with a strong mix of brands. Smaller, hip "curated" stores have also done their part. The mix of high and low, luxury and affordable is precisely what makes this sector so interesting.

Hong Kong consumers are definitely more interested in fashion, says Poon, adding that people are more willing to step out of their comfort zones.

"I think men seem to be happier and more comfortable in their own individual styles," Murfin says. "And they're willing to pay for quality. We see men spending on footwear, bags, watches - accessories that complement an outfit."

In the past two years, Holm's Swedish shoe label Gram has gone through major changes: new internal structures, new investors, as well as another chief executive and brand manager.

"Perhaps more importantly, we pulled out of the rat race completely when it comes to cheap, mass-produced sneakers," says Holm.

"When I started Gram back in 2005, the main goal was to bring something new to the market, but over the years the brand has slowly shifted to a more commercial aesthetic that we've now done away with entirely, something that I, as a designer, am very proud of."

Returning to the experimental side of the market has been a relief creatively for Holm. His autumn-winter 2014 collection features muted, dark colourways, a raw, rugged edge and a slim elegant fit on the foot. Textural contrasts between micro-dots, smooth leathers, canvas and snake make for subtle and sophisticated variations.

The team's latest reports from Copenhagen's Gallery Fashion Fair had buyers saying that the spring-summer 2015 shoes looked twice their price.

Gram's biggest markets are Scandinavia and South Korea, but stockists include Bloomingdales, I.T and Fred Segal in Los Angeles. The intent, like with Cipher, is to branch off into other product categories, as well as another flagship store.

Being based in Hong Kong and parts of Asia, those like Clot, Gram and Cipher are poised to exploit niches within a captive market. Expectations run high.

"I'd say Asian customers as a whole are most likely the largest buying group of fashion-forward sneakers and casual footwear in the world right now," Holm says. "Not only are they willing to spend, they're interested in new brands and anxious to express themselves.

"It also seems that this type of footwear enjoys permanent popularity in Asian fashion," he says.