Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Why Shanghai beckons for Hong Kong fashion designer, winner of Woolmark Asia prize

Menswear designer Six Lee mothballed his own-brand label two years ago to rethink his direction. Now, boosted by his regional Woolmark International win, he’s moving to Shanghai to relaunch in the much bigger China market

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2018, 12:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 9:53pm

“For the Six Lee man, I’m still using the classical tailoring elements, but with the contemporary and modern twist,” says Hong Kong menswear designer Six Lee. “I think old tailoring is great, but centuries old. I want to use those elements to make something more fun and modern.”

Lee’s aesthetic and expert finishing led him to win the 2018 Asia region Woolmark International Prize (along with womenswear brand Kye from South Korea) with an impressive contrast of contemporary, checked tailoring and ’50s-inspired knitted undergarments.

“I didn’t expect to win the Asian regional, as I tried last year and I didn’t succeed,” says the impeccably suited and mustachioed Lee. “Plus the menswear contestants were really strong.”

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Lee was in Florence at Pitti Uomo for the global Woolmark finals. And although he didn’t secure the overall prize, whose past winners include Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, his brand earned a serious boost in the global fashion circuit.

Six Lee was previously stocked at boutiques in Paris, Antwerp, South Korea, Dubai, Beijing and Hong Kong’s Joyce, but he has put his brand on hold for the past two seasons, after five years of operating in Hong Kong.

“We’re a small company, and after I didn’t win the Woolmark Asia prize the first year, I wanted to rethink my brand and my creativity,” he explains. “What I can do to move further? I can break even but not get that far, and every season is a cycle … I thought, ‘Do I really want to have that kind of life?’ In a way, I haven’t had a life since I started my brand.”

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Lee started the label when he returned to Hong Kong after working in London and graduating from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. The ups and downs have not been helped by being in a small market like Hong Kong, where local shoppers still prefer Western to home-grown brands. The crisis Lee had will sound familiar to many independent Hong Kong designers.

On the topic of the Hong Kong’s government initiative to grow the city’s nascent fashion industry, Lee is less than enthusiastic.

“Actually I don’t know if it helps that much, honestly … The older generation still working for TDC [Trade Development Council] or these kinds of organisations aren’t open-minded enough to know how the modern fashion industry works and how to really support designers … You can see the most successful Hong Kong designer brand now is Jourden, and she didn’t really rely on the government for anything.”

The result of his rethink, explains Lee, is an imminent move to Shanghai to be closer to the massive Chinese menswear market while he plots a commercial relaunch of his label. Meanwhile, he is also consulting for a Chinese commercial fashion company, advising on its investments in small boutique designer labels such as Sirloin while developing their business, production and supply chains.

“Before, my dream for my brand was to have a show in Paris, to have good stockists etc, but now, these kinds of things don’t matter to me much any more,” Lee says. “The consultant job is actually very interesting; it’s not designing, but more business, allowing me to learn what I didn’t know before.”

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“I have been in Hong Kong for seven years … for me as creative person, I can’t live in one place for too long. I need some excitement and challenge, I can’t feel too comfortable otherwise I’ll have no motivation.”

“Shanghai just makes sense for me,” he adds. “I want to get to know the market and when I do my brand commercially again, I’ll know how.”

The China market holds many possibilities, especially since men are sartorially less conservative compared to most Europeans. As for his menswear, Lee is still committed to quirky, invigorated tailoring. “Even though casualwear is trendy today, for men tailoring will always matter.”