Wear it with pride

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 October, 2010, 12:00am

A few years ago hardly any home-grown brands graced the pages of Vogue or shared retail space with luxury labels such as Prada and Yves Saint Laurent. But today it is a different story. Just visit hip boutiques such as Fred Segal in Los Angeles or Scoop in New York and you'll find must-have pieces from The Perfect Tangent, Kotur or Tabla, three brands that call Hong Kong home. In Britain and the Middle East, local jewellery brand Carat has multiple free-standing boutiques and has plans for several more, while DayDream Nation recently received Vogue Italia's Vogue Talent 2010 award. These are just a few of the brands solidifying Hong Kong's reputation as an incubator of talent and creativity, and not just a manufacturing hub.

Not since Vivienne Tam has Hong Kong nurtured such a strong group of designers. But unlike Tam, who had to move to New York before she found worldwide success, the current crop of labels is making a stamp on the international fashion landscape from their very own backyard. They've set up operations here in the belief that Hong Kong is exactly what it claims to be, a fashion capital that can hold its own against Paris, London, Milan, New York and Tokyo.

Pacman Lee is the designer behind the menswear label The Perfect Tangent, a line of updated classics crafted using the proportions of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Lee's brand, which features handsome and modern jackets with hidden closures and knitwear made from edamame [soya bean], has received rave reviews from international buyers and the press since it was launched earlier this year.

'The French and American buyers have been really appreciative of my point of view,' he says, adding that his two-season-old label is now sold at American Rag in Los Angeles and Fred Segal Man in Santa Monica, although he has yet to find a retailer in Hong Kong. 'When they first saw my collection, the buyers, who have seen everything before, said it was new and innovative.'

Lee says that part of The Perfect Tangent's appeal is its universal aesthetic. A blazer from his current collection looks as though it was sketched by a young British designer and produced by master tailors in Naples, although in reality it was manufactured in Hong Kong with fabrics from Japan. Lee's background as a former assistant designer and menswear buyer for Fred Segal in Los Angeles, coupled with his exposure to luxury brands, means that he knows what international buyers are looking for.

'Having all that experience and seeing all those clothes from the best labels helped me find my niche. My clothes have a story. They are for a man whose girlfriend likes to wear Chlo? A man who seems to resist fashion but is inherently stylish. My clothes are about quality and function. And because they are based on scientific measurements, there is logic behind every detail,' he says.

Tania Mohan, owner and creative director of Tabla, a lifestyle label started in Hong Kong, with merchandise produced entirely in India, is also changing old perceptions of Hong Kong fashion. Her resort collections have been snapped up by major retailers, including London's luxury emporium Harrods, where her dresses and tunics are displayed alongside pieces from Diane von Furstenberg, Pucci, Etro and Matthew Williamson.

'This is the first time I've made a resort line. I didn't think I would be selling to Harrods so soon, but my pieces are selling very well. We've been at Harrods since this July and we have already received a re-order. Next year I hope to take the line further. What makes Tabla unique is that it's timeless, classic and seasonless,' explains Mohan, who is celebrating the 10th anniversary of her label this November with a party at her boutique in the Prince's Building.

Carat, which was founded by Hong-Kong-born-and-raised Scott Thompson, is making impressive strides in Britain, with outlets in Canary Wharf, Covent Garden, Leeds and, in the near future, Harrods. Carat's pieces can be likened to European heirloom jewellery and are free of the 'double happiness' and chinoiserie motifs associated with jewellery from Hong Kong.

'The appeal of Carat comes from the idea that fashion jewellery does not have to be disposable and poorly made with bad materials. Our pieces are timeless and not disposable like many others,' he says.

Thompson also hopes to revisit his plans of opening in the US, which were curtailed when the financial crisis hit.

'We have been doing extremely well in London and we want to keep that growing. We also want to expand to China. Having our offices in Hong Kong puts us at the centre of where most of our future growth will happen - Asia. We chose Hong Kong because government regulation is light. It's tax-friendly, corruption-free and extremely efficient. Being here we can literally manage our operations around the region and the world. After opening offices around the world, I can flatly say Hong Kong is the greatest business city on earth.'

The fact that China is getting so much attention as a new economy and the new market for luxury goods is good news for these local names. Hong Kong is the gateway to China and aspiring designers need to make use of this and exploit it to their benefit. Diane von Furstenberg, the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, has said a number of times that China is the future. Plus, having the spotlight focused on the new breed of Asian-American designers such as Phillip Lim, Jason Wu and Derek Lam, is helping, directly or indirectly, to promote a creative phase for China post-communism and post-industrialism. More Chinese are graduating from fashion schools in New York and London each year and, coming from a formerly closed and very industrial society, they bring a new perspective.

'There is a lot of buzz about China. The world is paying attention to what is coming from here. We really should take advantage of this and run with it,' Mohan says.

'I think Hong Kong is at the crossroads between East and West. We have the advantage of having one foot in each world here in Hong Kong,' says Jay Wong, one half of the brother and sister act behind the contemporary clothing and accessory label DayDream Nation. The siblings graduated from Central Saint Martin's and started their label in London, but eventually moved their base to Hong Kong where they were born and raised.

Jay admits that being 'made in Hong Kong' was a challenge in the beginning 'because Hong Kong is not exactly known for producing world-class designers.' But they've transcended the prejudice with their talent and designs, which are sold in more than 20 countries at retailers like Selfridges, Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie.

'A lot of people assume we're a British brand, even though we keep insisting we're a Hong Kong one,' Jay says. 'London is such a creative and inspiring city, but it is so expensive and therefore difficult for small indie brands like us to survive. That's what brought us back to Hong Kong.'

Easy access to factories and materials are the reasons why Collin Thompson, a former filmmaker from Canada, chose to make Hong Kong the headquarters for his urban footwear label Cipher.

'If we weren't in Hong Kong, I don't know where else we could produce the collection. The factory's right [across the border]. And if we want to make changes or special orders, it can easily be done because we are so close. That cuts the delivery time too.'

Cipher's style echoes funky high-top shoes from Lanvin, Raf Simons and Kris Van Assche, and are sold at Lane Crawford and Kapok in Hong Kong, Les Printemps in Paris and boutiques in Tokyo.

Perhaps the biggest advance is the change in perception of international buyers and press. The terms 'local' and 'home-grown' are no longer relevant, the fashion world is getting smaller.

'In the design arena, I have noticed a bias against things that are considered 'local'. The term 'local' implies 'provincial', which is really at odds with how I perceive Hong Kong, that of an international city on par with New York, London and Paris,' says handbag designer Fiona Kotur Marin.