Late Greg Derham's fancy dress shop lives on

GalaThe late Greg Derham's fancy dress shop is to continue as a venue for corporate events and parties. And his costumes will not be going to waste, reportsJames King

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 July, 2013, 5:46pm

There is a corner of Hong Kong that is forever the Berlin of the burlesque 1930s and the Sahara of Lawrence of Arabia, and the Caribbean of Jack Sparrow and Elvis '68 comeback-era Las Vegas. It is the flamboyant fantasy land of the late, lamented Greg Derham - and it is coming back to life with a wink, a pout and an insouciant sashay through the dressing-up boxes of the ages.

Not that House of Siren, his labour-of-love tribute to the allure of couture, ever completely went away, even after the unexpected death of Derham, 44, last October.

The House was a colourful, if chaotic, portal to a world of make-believe powered by Derham's devotion to costume design - the more outrageous the better. Whether you wanted to be Madonna or an Orthodox Russian bishop for the evening, House of Siren was your access-all areas pass.

Since its inception in 1994, the company had maintained a considerable presence at fashion shows, gala bashes, corporate shindigs and private parties.

In 2010, Derham, who had arrived in Hong Kong from Victoria, Australia, in 1989, moved House of Siren's dazzling collection of glittering threads to Robinson Road, Mid-Levels.

Derham was primed for success at his new headquarters, but fate had other plans.

With Derham's death, House of Siren has inevitably changed its personality - and it is poised to become a beacon in the perpetuation of his legacy through its new interior design aesthetic, as much as through the costumes with which it is synonymous.

Treasure may have dangled from its hangers, but it was also a crowded house cluttered with furniture and fittings, as Hong Kong-based make-up artist Steven Harvey recalls.

"Greg was a magpie," says Harvey. "He was very much into salvaging whatever he could; that was his style, as it was back in Australia, before it was eco-friendly. He collected slightly opulent, heavy wooden stuff that had a bit of history and you either loved or hated it.

"He was a hoarder. If something caught his eye he would get it for the sake of getting it, thinking it would come in useful later."

Harvey, who "knew Greg from the early days at [hospitality chain] 97 Group", co-founded House of Siren. He served as account manager and event producer, working for 10 years alongside Derham, who was "management and creative".

Harvey's flexible role also saw him take part in some of the Derham expeditions that would directly influence all House of Siren premises.

"Some of the things Greg collected were hand-me-downs from friends; others, like lamps and knick-knacks, he bought from Cat Street, or on visits home. But the furniture we salvaged from old buildings.

"You don't see so many of them now but in the mid-'90s there were still lots of tong lau walk-ups in the Sai Ying Pun area. When Greg knew they were coming down, there would be a two-month window of opportunity," says Harvey.

"The buildings were all condemned, so it was never an issue. The demolition people just saw this extrovert, giggling. We'd take bannisters and rip up floorboards, and they thought it was a joke. You can't get away with that nowadays," he says.

"We went on missions on Sundays and holidays. Once we crossed the roofs of two herbal shops in Sheung Wan for some Chinese furniture. The two big mirrors [in the new premises] are original. They came from another shop in Sheung Wan - and began falling apart as we took them downstairs."

As serendipitous as many of Derham's finds were, he left behind many headaches that required radical solutions. Step forward Eckhard Liebert, creative director of EL Design, who bought the House of Siren business after Derham's death and revamped the Robinson Road premises.

"I wanted to put fresh air into the venue," says Liebert, "to open it up, give it a luxurious feeling. Greg, bless him, was bohemian and liked it crowded; I didn't, and we gave lots of furniture to charity. We want to keep refreshing House of Siren, to keep things turning over."

One constant, however, will be the extraordinary costume collection. "I made a bid and was selected by Greg's parents, in Melbourne, who were very nice," he says. "If I hadn't bought it, the whole business would have been totally fragmented. Now the heart of it is still banging away, but through a different artery."

So while costume hire remains a mainstay - and masquerading for a weekend as a man of the Russian cloth will cost you HK$4,000 - Liebert's plans for House of Siren call for its Mid-Levels premises to be used as a corporate function, cocktails-and-canapés and party venue. Derham's outfits will be available to complement events.

These plans are overseen on a day-to-day basis by Charlot Kryza and Gillian Sharp, who recognise that costume and context need each other.

Sharp is also responsible for lending the sequined, tasseled and brocaded creations to television companies, production houses and event planners.

"Let them be seen!" she says. "It's a crime if they're not seen and appreciated by the public. Greg had an amazing team of seamstresses, but he was a genius with God-given talent. People are always welcome to come and see the hundreds of costumes, and to use them when renting the venue."

The house's main room, while retaining more than a whiff of a madame's boudoir, is now "viable as a venue and can comfortably take 100 guests, because it's been stripped down and is much more orderly" than it was before, adds Sharp.

Among the surviving fixtures are 19 large, glass-fronted cabinet doors rescued by Derham from a Sai Ying Pun hospital and used as the basis of the House's wardrobes, and a blackjack table.

"That was bought in about 2005 for a staff gala dinner, from a hire company that had too many," says Harvey. "It was a popular theme at the time."

Derham would not, however, recognise his kitchen. That now sports "catering-standard fittings" says Sharp, and a bright, largely monochrome reception area dominated by a granite-topped bar - whose base is decorated by layers of gilt picture-frame edges.

"I'd like to think Greg would agree with what we've done," says Liebert. "But then he might be a little angry," he adds, laughing ironically. "He might say, 'Where's that gone? What happened to this?' The kitchen was always very busy and it used to be a deep green, glossy colour. Sorry, Greg - it wasn't nice," he says.

As for the main salon, as Harvey says: "Greg would have liked it, but he might have wanted more feathers. Before, it was like walking into [TV character] Mr Benn's wardrobe."

House of Siren, 64 Robinson Road, Mid-Levels, Hong Kong. Tel: 2530 2371.