The Candle Company in Lyndhurst Terrace had been open for four years when its owner, Ian Carroll, asked Vivian Fung to take a critical look at the shop. "The business was run very haphazardly," says Carroll, and he asked Fung to suggest ways to improve it.
She didn't need much convincing. "I just really love candles," she says "It's something about the flame, the ambience it gives, the relaxation."
At the time, the Candle Company was buying its candles from wholesalers, but Fung suggested it start making its own scents and candles. Fung had just moved to Hong Kong from London, where she worked in fashion marketing and product development, which had given her experience in dealing with factories. She went to the mainland to find one that could produce a line of candles tailor-made for the Hong Kong market.
That was in 2006. Today, the Candle Company is Hong Kong's largest candle retailer and wholesaler, with a range of candles and essential oils that are sold in shops across the city. Fung says the secret is the candles are designed with local customers in mind.
"We're East meets West," she says. Whereas white candles are most popular in Europe, red candles sell better here. Subtle floral scents like the Candle Company's "ginger lily" do better than scents like cinnamon. "In Hong Kong, we have a mixed culture and our candles adapt to that."
Those words are echoed by an emerging crop of homeware design brands that are producing Hong Kong products for Hong Kong's often unique tastes - and in the process expanding the local market for such goods. Just down Hollywood Road from the Candle Company is Loveramics, a dishware brand begun in 2009 by Lynns Concepts, a 49-year-old import/export firm.
"My family's company really represents the story of Hong Kong," says William Lee, grandson of the company's founder, Lam Tsz-yung. As the business grew, it expanded to the mainland, the United States and Britain as family members emigrated from Hong Kong. "When I joined in 2003 it was still doing a lot of manufacturing and was very supply-based," says Lee. "I decided it was boring to just do what everyone else wants to do, so I decided to go into ceramics, which I love." Rather than selling other companies' products, Lee wanted to create his own.
The result is colourful, distinctive dishware designed for young Hongkongers who are just as likely to eat sushi and steak as they are steamed pork cake and blanched vegetables. "When I go to dinner at my friends' places they always have a baguette with some cheese, even if they're cooking Chinese food," says Lee.
It's that lifestyle that Loveramics has in mind with Er-Go, a collection by British designer Simon Stevens. Each of its bowls, plates, cups and teapots interacts with one another; so plates also serve as lids, for instance, to cover a cup of hot water or to seal a bowl of leftovers in the fridge.
Another response to local needs is I'mperfect, a crossover project with local design house CoLab that addresses Hong Kong's culture of waste. When CoLab's Eddy Yu and Hung Lam were hired to do graphic design work for Loveramics, they discovered that 25 per cent of the company's ceramics were discarded because of blemishes created during the firing process. They decided to build a brand around those very imperfections - like using firing spots as the apostrophe in the I'mperfect logo.
"We're always looking for the perfect life, perfect products, perfect relationships, but in the process we end up doing a lot of damage to ourselves and the environment," says Hung.
Another local brand that focuses on sustainability is ECOLS, founded by former marketing executive Phoebe Yuen, who opened a shop in Gough Street in 2008. Last year it moved across the harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui. "Here we serve more local people compared with our previous location," says marketing executive Vivian Lee. "There are office workers, families that come on the weekend."
The company's range of products has grown in response to the more varied customer base to include jewellery, furniture and home decor items such as vertically hanging plants rooted in a soil substitute that more efficiently retains water. "Four or five years ago you saw sustainable design overseas but not in Hong Kong," says Lee. "Now more designers here are willing to put sustainable elements in their designs, which people like because they are more affordable than imported products and there's a smaller carbon footprint." When the shop first opened, just 1 per cent of the products it sold were designed in Hong Kong. "Now 10 to 15 per cent are local," says Lee.
That growth is part of a deliberate strategy to cultivate more sustainable design in Hong Kong. ECOLS hosts workshops with local designers, in one case providing them with discarded advertising posters for furniture and fashion inspiration; Kacama's Kay Chan used the posters to make a dress for a performance by Cantopop star Kay Tse. It also scouts local design schools for new talent.
One product of this system is Kacama Design Lab, a young studio that produces Eggy Candles made from egg shells discarded by local bakeries. Lee says the first batch of candles was too smoky, so ECOLS asked Kacama to use a cleaner-burning wick and wax. "Customers like it because they ... discover, oh hey, it's eco-friendly too," says Lee.
The Candle Company has also introduced a line of clean-burning soy wax candles that burn longer and whose drippings can be cleaned up with soap and water. Fung says the company is also trying to reduce packaging; its essential oil refill bottles are made of biodegradable plastic.
This adaptability has won the Candle Company a band of loyal customers. "We have people stop in all the time to see what's new," says Fung. Now the shop is 10 years old, she and Carroll finally hope to rethink its layout.
"It hasn't had a fit-out in 10 years," says Carroll. "When you're building a brand there's a whole atmosphere you need to have."