THE FASHION SCENE ON THE MAINLAND has exploded in recent years, leaving Hong Kong trailing behind. But this is starting to change as more fashion designers are returning home after studying abroad to launch brands of their own. The latest one to watch is the talented Erbert Chong, who recently unveiled his spring-summer 2014 collection. "When you read books about the history of fashion there is no mention of Asia, it's all the West. I wanted to come back because I saw a need for a local luxury designer brand," says the 30-year-old. "There is so much skill and talent in Hong Kong, there is no reason why we can't be a true fashion capital."
The newest kid on the fashion block, Chong moved to Hong Kong officially in February, although he spent some of his childhood in the city. Like many modern Chinese designers, he was educated in the West, studying in England and Los Angeles before landing in New York.
It was a chance encounter with famed pants designer Alvin Valley that led him to pursue a career in fashion. "Fashion found me. I was 18 years old and clubbing in New York when I met Alvin, aka the Lord of the Pants. He taught me one of fashion's most important lessons, which is how to mix art and commerce," says Chong.
Under Valley's mentorship, he went on to study at Parsons, honing his skills making wedding and cocktail dresses on the side. In 2008, he jetted off to Europe to study at Paris' famed Esmod school where he specialised in leather goods, a category he found more "challenging and niche". After completing his studies he joined LVMH as a talent scout, recruiting designers for the conglomerate's various luxury brands. Last year he was offered a role working with one of his favourite brands, but he surprised himself by turning it down. Soon he was on a plane to Hong Kong to launch his eponymous label.
Eight months later, Safari 54 was born. This debut collection of 12 pieces is inspired by the disco culture and Safari nights at New York nightclub Studio 54. While many of the silhouettes hark back to the club's glory days (think wide-legged trousers and broad shoulders), Chong has given them a modern spin with a cool, neutral palette, high quality fabrics and couture detailing.
"My style is gracefully edgy - it has a softness, but I like to incorporate strong, edgy lines, angles and geometry. Asian women usually like to wear oversized silhouettes, so I deliberately went in the opposite direction to create a very fitted, body-conscious silhouette," says Chong.
The collection is a series of clean, sexy designs with modern details. A long beige dress, for example, features peekaboo sheer panels down the sides and a detachable one shoulder cape. More minimalist offerings come in the form of a neoprene cropped bubble jacket and a wide-legged jumpsuit with a drapey top and stiff wide-legged trousers.
Since wearability is high on his list of priorities, he has also included plenty of basics with a twist, like pencil skirts with raw edges and leather trims, a leather bustier, and a pussy bow mesh blouse trimmed with leopard-print silk. There is also a line of handbags made in Italy using fabrics such as crocodile and Italian leather.
Chong wanted to incorporate some of his Asian heritage into the designs, so he chose fabrics like a patterned black brocade; the must-have piece in the collection is a modern qi pao with sporty shoulders à la Balenciaga, featuring leather and sheer fabric panels.
"I am learning from the old European brands who are embracing their heritage and making it modern. I am rediscovering my heritage, but I want to make it more universal by applying my own aesthetic. Even though my work incorporates Asian elements, it's executed in a modern way through silhouette or shape," he says.
As part of his effort to create a truly local brand, Chong insists that everything is made Hong Kong. Prices reflect this: a leather bustier retails for around HK$3,400 and statement pieces like the qi pao and leather cut-out jacket cost HK$5,640 and HK$7,800 (visit erbertchong.com).
"I want to be categorised as a Hong Kong brand. I have no dreams of going overseas. I want to conquer home first, so I am focusing on securing local retailers," he says.
The disco days of Studio 54 in New York was the inspiration for Chong's debut collection, Safari 54.