Hong Kong fashion buyer Gary Wong opened his first boutique, Shine, in Beijing eight years ago, selling high-end foreign designer brands like Y's, Undercover, Comme des Garcons and Neil Barrett. The 35-year-old has since expanded to Shanghai, Hangzhou, Shenyang and Guangzhou as mainland consumers' thirst for fashion grows. He told the Sunday Morning Post how the market had changed and how customers' tastes evolved in recent years.
How did you get into fashion?
I used to study finance and business management at university in Canada. In my spare time, I loved reading foreign fashion magazines, especially those from Japan, and thinking over how to mix and match clothing. After I graduated in 2000, I decided to go out and see the world. After travelling in France and Britain, I found there were many nice European brands that had not entered Hong Kong. It appeared to me like a good business opportunity and I founded my first boutique in Tsim Sha Tsui. Some time later, my first store, Shine, opened in Fashion Walk, Causeway Bay. Many celebrities and film stars are our loyal customers.
What's your life like as a fashion buyer?
There are some fashion weeks that we cannot miss throughout the year. In January, we go to Milan and Paris, where there are fashion weeks for men's wear. In February, there are fashion weeks for women's wear in both cities. Aside from that, I also visit Tokyo five to six times a year to join the trade fairs. My assistants go there more often.
At these events we get to look at the brands' latest collections, collect information about the order-making period, and take pictures and notes for the products. Then we need to decide on the styles, colours and sizes we are going to purchase based on our sales statistics.
Aside from merchandising, I also need to maintain a good relationship with our VIP customers, analyse our sales data and give training to salespeople. When I am in the shops, I will take time to chat with our VIPs, learning what they like or dislike.
Shine now has three stores in Hong Kong and five on the mainland. How different are the two markets?
Mainland customers' spending is often higher than that of Hong Kong customers. It's quite normal that a Beijing or Shanghai shopper would splash thousands or tens of thousands of yuan in our shops in one go. In Hong Kong, more people spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a top.
Most of our customers are between 25 and 45 years old. The majority of them are actors, housewives and young people from well-off families, and business executives who usually do not need to wear formal suits when working.
One thing that is common among them is that they all love fashion. They are open-minded about new brands and are looking for something special when dressing up. Most of our customers also like big luxury brands like Gucci and Prada. Some of them prefer to mix and match our clothes with those from big brands. Our edge is that we are a multi-brand store and people can dress themselves up from top to toe in one go.
Have you seen any changes in the tastes of Beijing consumers?
When we opened the first shop in Beijing eight years ago, people knew little about the brands we sold, [but] their desire for our products was strong. It was easier to do business then.
Now, shoppers are getting more sensible, picky and cautious. So we've turned more cautious in merchandising. As far as I have observed, rich women in their 30s and 40s prefer to wear something comfortable with good cuts. They care more about the materials. Younger people care more about brand names.
[Chinese customers] wear the latest hot items almost at the same time as they are launched in Europe or the United States. That was impossible some years ago. But my personal view is that there's still a huge gap between big cities in China and other world fashion cities like Paris or New York. Fashion is an attitude towards life and there's much room for China to improve.
How do you choose among the designers' brands?
We don't follow fashion trends very closely. We don't want it to limit our creativity. What we actually do is to pick the collections we are fond of among the brands we appreciate. One criterion for me is to see whether it's a fun piece or not. It's a feeling. For example, if we buy a white shirt, there must be some special details or, say, selling points.
We have to be very realistic, or even cruel, when making decisions. Otherwise, our customers would tell us why they don't like it through words or just by their look.
How has the fashion market changed in Hong Kong and the mainland in recent years?
It's getting tougher year by year. We are competing not only against other buyers' boutiques, but also many fast-fashion retailers such as Zara, H&M and Topshop. Meanwhile, we are also rivals of luxury brands, which are investing heavily in marketing in China.
Our prices are not cheap. A top is usually sold for 2,000 yuan [HK$2,470] to 5,000 yuan and a winter coat costs up to 15,000 yuan. We cannot take too much risk like some other budding boutiques in this industry.
How are you affected by more foreign designer brands opening their own stores in China?
For me, it's like raising a baby and helping him grow up. It's normal to see him go when the time comes. We've already had such experiences with [American] brands like Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang and [Canadian brand] DSquared.
What are your latest finds?
We are looking hard for new brands that are likely to succeed in the world in three years' time. But they are hard to find nowadays. Some buyer friends have the same feeling as I do: there's nothing new, nothing exciting. There are many young designer brands in China. But I think they are still not getting to the level of an international brand. Many of [the designers] established their own brands soon after leaving school. They lack experience in working for big brands.
What strategies do you have to expand your customer base?
Getting new customers actually mainly depends on the power of word of mouth. We also do promotions on social media platforms.
Online shopping is a big challenge for us. In addition, Chinese people are also travelling overseas more frequently than before. They are shopping more in Europe and the US and less in the domestic market. So we must spend more time and effort on maintaining our customer relationship.
Back to the basic line, what is most important is whether our products look nice or not and whether they can attract customers.
What brands do you personally like to wear?
For this spring and summer, I love Kenzo and Undercover.
Gary Wong spoke to Celine Sun