Design Mart a showcase of fresh ideas

Showcase for independent designers reflects growing ambitionin Hong Kong, writes Christopher DeWolf

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 6:40pm

Korean sisters Kim Hyo-mi and Kim Seul-gi left Hong Kong more than a year ago, but one thing always brings them back: Design Mart, the Hong Kong Design Centre's showcase for independent designers.

"I've always bought many things from Design Mart - necklaces, leather bags, sunglasses," Hyo-mi says. "I love the concepts, the way [the designers] think."

It's not just a shopping trip. Three years ago, when they were both living in Hong Kong, the Kim sisters launched ARA, a jewellery line inspired by
norigae - traditional Korean pendants worn for both fashion and good luck.

Design Mart was where they introduced their first collection in 2010 and they have been loyal participants since, even after returning to their hometown of Busan.

"It was a 'mini' Design Mart when we first attended, but it's not mini any more," Hyo-mi says. "The products are getting more professional and the packaging, promotion and name cards are much better than before."

While many of the products at the inaugural event could be described as homespun - leather goods and handmade jewellery were abundant - this year's event will feature a diverse range of local brands, selling goods from cameras to home accessories.

"We try to give opportunities to as many people as possible," says Edmund Lee Tak-yue, the Hong Kong Design Centre's executive director. "Some are at a crossroads, deciding whether to do it part time or become a full-time, committed designer.

"Design Mart gives them a taste of the market and a chance to experiment."

The latest Design Mart takes place this weekend at the K11 shopping centre in Tsim Sha Tsui. Four years after the art mall's opening in 2009, Hong Kong's independent design scene has flourished as local brands have become more established, sophisticated and ambitious.

Brands such as eco-conscious KaCaMa, concrete-lovers Deco Outfitter and Huzi now offer homeware and furniture to complement the fashion accessories and souvenirs that have long been the mainstay of new designers.

"The community is embracing design," says Lee.

"Their sense of design is increasingly sophisticated - people are going after things that are subtle, that carry a message, that have a legacy, something functional but with an aesthetic that reflects Hong Kong's sensibility."

Returning to the mart is Marco King Chan's Dust Productions, which makes 3-D printed jewellery and accessories.

"The name comes from the powder used by the most common 3-D printers, which is hardened by UV light," he says.

When he showed his organic, web-like creations at Design Mart last year, Chan spent a lot of time explaining to customers what 3-D printing was. "They were amazed," he says.

Huzi, a line of high-end children's toys, furniture and accessories begun in 2011 by Cindy Ng, is joining Design Mart for the first time.

"It's a serious world and we can benefit from things that bring some warmth to the home," she says. "That's why I wanted to do home products for kids."

Although Ng's background is in engineering, she spent a year studying business design at the Domus Academy in Milan, Italy, where she met an international group of designers that she recruited to make products for Huzi.

Her collection includes the Forever Blanket, a combination pillow, blanket and mattress made by Dutch-Japanese studio BCXSY, and Ping Pong, which is a small coffee table that doubles as a surface for kids' table tennis.

While most of Ng's customers are in the United States and Europe, her products are also available at two local stores, Play Punch and Tiny Footprints.

Geared more specifically for Hong Kong customers is Genic Eyewear, launched last year at Design Mart by Emily Tai Mei-yee and Gobi Chui Tak-yu.

"Not many Hong Kong designers are doing eyewear, so people were interested in what we had," Tai says. Genic's line of 40 unisex frames feature retro shapes with flamboyant colours and patterns. "Most of our customers have five to 10 pairs," Tai says. "They're like accessories. I don't need to wear glasses - I don't have any lenses. Same for half our customers."

Lensless glasses aren't the only local quirk Genic caters to. "We make our nose pads a lot higher for Asians because our noses are more flat," says Tai, whose frames are made at her family's factory, which manufactures glasses for clients such as Esprit.

Like many of Design Mart's participants, Tai says she has trouble finding shelf space in regular stores: "They always ask, 'What brand is it?'"

Even with Design Mart, Lee says, that attitude may be slow to change.

"The day will come when we have more visible home-grown designers and brands, but the journey will take a long time. Hong Kong is a shopping paradise for luxury and international brands. But for cultural development, to have a sense of ourselves, we need more Hong Kong designers."

Lee is optimistic, partly because Hong Kong's historic role as an entrepôt makes it convenient for designers.

"I think it's a perfect base," says Ng. "We're close to China, so I can go over to the factory on a one-day trip and return at night. I have friends in design in Europe and they manufacture in Poland, but the quality is not as good as in China."

Hyo-mi says Design Mart gives her exposure to a more diverse range of customers than she has in South Korea.

"Hong Kong is a hub for Asia, so we get valuable feedback from international people, which helps us go forward and sometimes rethink [what we do]."

Design Mart also offers its participants advice on managing and growing their businesses.

"Last week, they brought in an accountant to speak with us," says Chan.

"Accessories are only the starting point for me. In the future, I want to do home decor, furniture, and more industrial design.

"I want to make designs that have never been seen before. That's the potential of 3-D printing."

Design Mart, October 4-6, K11, 18 Hanoi Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui; designmart.hkdesigncentre.o