Heritage rules: Kent & Curwen and its Hong Kong connection
Kent & Curwen might be the epitome of all things British, but the brand has a strong Hong Kong connection, writes Jing Zhang
It might have surprised many at the Kent & Curwen Royal Charity Polo Cup in the rolling green fields of Berkshire to see Hong Kong superstar Aaron Kwok standing beside Sabrina Fung (of the Li & Fung family) as she handed the winner's trophy to a dapper Prince Harry. Three golden lions, the very British insignia of men's fashion label, stand out in the background.
It exemplifies Hong Kong logistics giant Li & Fung's foray into front-of-house fashion in recent years, acquiring several sleepy European heritage brands under subsidiaries such as Trinity Ltd. The latter has run Kent & Curwen - founded in 1926 by Eric Kent and Dorothy Curwen and run by their family for two generations - following its purchase in 2006. And the storied men's (and now women's) fashion label has since grown steadily due to collaborations with major international charities, the Jockey Club and one of our biggest local stars, Aaron Kwok, who is the brand's face in Asia.
Ambitious plans to raise the Kent & Curwen profile have seen it sponsor July's charity polo event, which benefited Prince Harry and Prince William's respective charities, Sentebale and Tusk Trust, and Hugh Grant's "Flannels for Heroes" cricket match, which aims to help war veterans from Afghanistan.
Former banker Sabrina Fung, who is now managing brand director of Kent & Curwen, reviews her trip to London for the polo event and the 2012 Olympics when the label sponsored the Hong Kong team. "They looked very good and fared quite well compared to some of the other teams," jokes Fung as we perch on a girly sofa in her large corner office. Poor Spain, we agree.
The label's debut sponsorship of the Royal Polo Cup at Andrew Lloyd Webber's estate Watership Down, is in line with the family's aim of getting the brand back in touch with it's British sporting heritage, says Fung.
"The reception went well. In five months we've had three events [in Britain] and it has resonated well with the small polo community, with the position we're trying to find."
Fung says even Victoria and David Beckham allegedly wanted to chopper down to the estate to attend the event, but one of the organisers had to turn them down.
The Hong Kong company has managed to generate a lot of interest considering, Fung admits, "that Kent & Curwen is not well known globally. So I'm happy with the amount of noise we've created within three months."
Trinity chief marketing officer, David Au, who has previously led marketing and communications in Asia for the likes of LVMH and the Zegna Group, was also pleased with how this event has helped raised the label's international profile.
"With the brand's roots in English sporting culture, we wanted to reconnect with its origins," says Au. "We wanted to do something very British and connected to the royals," he adds. The polo cup was the first time a charity has been allowed to use the Lloyd Webbers' private grounds. The tie-in with the equestrian event was important for the brand's sporting heritage, says Au, as it has sponsored teams from as early as the 1930s.
The menswear label originally made club, college and regimental ties for Oxford and Cambridge Universities, before expanding to ready-to-wear, knitwear and a long relationship with provision of sporting apparel for traditional British sports like cricket, then golf and finally equestrian sports.
Now under Li & Fung, Kent & Curwen has also become the first men's fashion brand to sponsor a cup for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which supports its charity work while raising the label's profile in Asia. The Centennial Sprint Cup, held in January, was also perfect timing for Chinese New Year, when many Chinese people like to buy clothes. And for the first three years, there was a limited Kent & Curwen capsule collection for the Jockey Club sold in stores and at the Club.
The brand has mastered a smart casual look that retains a nod to its 86-year heritage. The sports and casual wear sector is growing as the global customer becomes more casual, Au says. At the same time, there's a formal side to the brand; and development in the manufacture of fabrics and yarns is improving comfort and wearability.
During the '60s in London, the label also lent itself to the celebrity scene, dressing the likes of Mick Jagger and Michael Cane.
With stories like this, the special traction that heritage brands have in China, South Korea and Japan has allowed revived brands to do particularly well in the region.
"Traditionally, they like brands that have heritage, history and authenticity," says Au, a point with which Fung agrees.
Reviving the storied British fashion house to a more glorious status, Li & Fung opened up a new concept flagship store for the brand in London's Piccadilly Arcade in Mayfair in 2010.
We also soon discover from its Polo event, that Kent & Curwen is partnering with designers from Tommy Hilfiger in New York to create collections for the huge US market, which is comparatively lacking in heritage labels. "For us, it's no secret, and there is no concrete plan yet, but we've been talking about going global [with this brand] - that's always been the plan," says Fung, "Maybe even India, Russia, Middle East in the future."
"We always talk about China being the major market but going forward, we can also be strong in America, Europe and Japan.
"If you take Kent & Curwen," adds Fung, "I think it could work well in India, with the cricket and former British heritage. To be a successful brand, it's got to be international."
The fashion world is taking notice.
This year there was the acquisition of flailing British heritage brand Aquascutum by Hong Kong company YGM. Labels like Cerruti, Hardy Amies, D'Urban and Gieves & Hawkes (of Savile Row) are also owned now by Li & Fung. Does this mark the shift from manufacturing to brand building in Hong Kong?
"Hong Kong provided a home for many Chinese industrialists who entered as refugees. Some were renowned Shanghainese garment people, weavers, dyers, spinners, manufacturers," explains Au. "The territory became known for its clothing manufacturers, however, during the '70s and '80s fashion shows started appearing and a local fashion industry began to develop. Recently, though, Hong Kong businesses are also becoming brand owners," says Au, and for Li & Fung is part of their business expansion strategy. Heritage, and the value it brings to a brand, is something not easily come by in fashion, and investing in them can prove a smart move. In menswear, and especially within Asia, a renewed interest in sartorial traditions has seen much change and excitement in the industry. "The reason that American brands have not been so successful in Asia or Europe is that they are new," says Au. "They have celebrity designers but lack the history of two or three generations," he adds.
Heritage is key, but marketing is important, too.
"We're not really a Chinese company, and we're not like a New York company," says Fung about her family's success in renewing the relevance of European heritage labels for the growing international market. Many of these fashion labels choose Li & Fung over Western or mainland Chinese companies because of its internationalism, she says.
"Perhaps it's because we are the best of both worlds."
There are few people who at 49 years old can be described as fresh-faced. Canto-pop star Aaron Kwok, one of our city's Four Heavenly Kings, is one of those lucky people.
Kwok's decades in the limelight have yielded surprisingly little scandal. He's a prominent actor and pop star who has managed to keep his theatrics mainly on the stage, an almost impossible feat in this day, and his famous dance moves, influenced by Michael Jackson, have kept fans excited.
His wholesome image lends itself to the classic preppy English styles espoused by the British heritage brand Kent & Curwen, which appointed him its ambassador. In turn, the sharp sartorial expertise the label has garnered over 86 years appeals to a man living under constant public scrutiny.
"It's important to dress appropriately for the event you are attending," says Kwok, who was stylishly turned out in a crisp linen suit for Kent & Curwen's Royal Charity Polo Cup match held at Watership Down, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Berkshire country estate.
"I will usually attend a glamorous event or film premiere in a formal evening outfit whether it be a tuxedo or formal suit. During my leisure time, I normally wear simple casual wear, like a T-shirt, sweater and jeans. And if I have to join a horse racing event or garden party, I will go smart casual, always."
Known for major stylistic influences on and off the stage (he popularised the centre parting in Hong Kong in the 1990s) Kwok has long been a men's style icon in the city.
"I started my entertainment career as a dancer," Kwok says, "so my fashion style was mostly casual wear and sportswear that provided flexibility and maneuverability. I had an affinity towards a plain cotton tee and pair of pants at that stage in my life."
Nowadays, however, his lifestyle is different. As one of Hong Kong's top celebrities the majority of his time involves dressing up for both social events and work.
His growing taste for traditional menswear has seen him donning more bespoke pieces in recent years - a flattering look for his impressive physique, and a distinguished aesthetic amongst his contemporaries in Hong Kong.
"Tailoring is a kind of art," Kwok says. "We must learn to admire and treasure it. Especially tailor-made menswear; I love how every suit is a work of art. It's like a collector's item that you can actually wear and feel confident in."
Kwok cites the "top quality materials" and fabrics used by Kent & Curwen as a major appealing factor.
"I am influenced by British style," he adds, "and [this label] is an ambassador of British sartorial traditions."
The relationship with Kwok is a coup for Trinity Ltd - the luxury menswear retail subsidiary of Li & Fung - since taking over the label and running targeted marketing campaigns across Asia. The tie-ins with equestrian events such as the Jockey Club cup in Hong Kong and this summer's Royal Polo event, fit closely with Kwok's passion for horses.
"I love to watch horse racing and polo matches," he says, citing an international horsemanship event in Beijing earlier this year, as well as meeting and watching Prince Harry compete in the Kent & Curwen Royal Charity Polo Cup. Kwok presented the winning trophy to Prince Harry and his teammates (a task he called "an honour"), and enjoyed the equestrian showmanship on display on the rolling greens of Lloyd Webber's estate.
"I recently started training my own horse in hopes of racing!" says Kwok. "It has always been a dream of mine". In Hong Kong, he says, it is very difficult to get a purchase draw from Hong Kong Jockey Club. But this past year, Kwok was fortunate to get an import permit for a privately purchased horse, so he enlisted a friend and expert to help him find a horse he "truly loved".
"After looking for six months, I purchased a three-year-old horse from New Zealand and arranged training at the Sha Tin Racecourse," says Kwok, "I decided to name my horse 'Calling of Love' inspired by my hit song."
This equestrian enthusiast has had an exciting time seeing his steed grow to be a professional racer.
"I am hoping that I have a champion horse to add to the line up of other stellar horses," Kwok adds.
Whatever the result, he'll always be first passed the style line, a photo finish unto himself.