The Chinese Australian architect who fashion retailers go to for his trendy and innovative designs

When it comes to fashion retail design, Sydney architect Kelvin Ho is on speed dial for many of the industry’s biggest names, having created interiors for some 300 boutiques that run the gamut of styles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 7:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 7:18am

Over the past 13 years Kelvin Ho has created interiors for some 300 boutiques for 30 leading independent Australian fashion names. He has been involved with New York Fashion Week regular Dion Lee, Camilla and Marc, Willow, Lover, Sass & Bide and luxury basics line Bassike, including Bassike’s 100 sq m store in Venice Beach, Los Angeles.

Ho’s Akin Creative agency also designed the Incu Group’s chain of 12 stores, which includes four local flagships for international brands Rag & Bone and A.P.C. that are operated in Australia in partnership with the group; as well as two stores in Sydney and Melbourne for New York menswear brand Saturdays NYC.

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“I think that is been probably the strength of our business – it’s really about working with the right brands,” says Ho of his fashion work, which accounts for 50 per cent of Akin Creative’s turnover, with budgets for boutique fitouts ranging from A$200,000 (US$153,000) to A$2 million.

“There’s so many different brands we work with, it’s really about [saying] ‘OK, how do we shape each response to work for the brand?” says Ho.

His portfolio runs the gamut of styles. From the lush curves and neo-classicism of six Camilla and Marc boutiques in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, rendered in marble, French oak and velvet to seven futuristic Dion Lee boutiques fashioned from pre-cast concrete and gleaming mirror-polished stainless steel and glass in Sydney, Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Brisbane – the latter is due to open in September.

Ho’s international footprint is expanding rapidly thanks to Australian cosmetics manufacturer Jurlique. Intrinsic to Jurlique’s rebranding in 2015 is Ho’s new store concept for the natural skincare brand, which was founded in South Australia in 1985 and acquired by Japan’s Pola Orbis Holdings Inc in 2011 for A$300 million.

“We did a global strategy, everything from flagships to concept stores, store-in-stores, travel retail – a whole kind of multi-tiered design response to their product,” says Ho.

Materials such as silver travertine and oak for Jurlique’s new minimalist store concept can be seen in 50 of its new-look stores in Australia, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Singapore, London, the US and Europe, with the concept due to eventually roll out to all 279 global stores.

The new design was intended to emulate a consultation room and create a “seamless” transition between Jurlique’s retail and treatment spaces, according to Ho.

“Before it was very much segmented, going from the retail space to product to a treatment space, to the sale space – everyone is so time poor, it’s about blurring the lines between all of those main retail experiences,” says Ho, who is also calibrating the stores’ design to their global locations.

“There’s a huge amount of research that is going into the Chinese, Japanese and Korean markets, so we’re tailoring each Jurlique store to those markets,” says Ho.

Even Akin Creative’s residential and hospitality work boasts a hipster edge. Ho has transformed the interiors of two Sydney trophy homes for Sass & Bide co-founder Sarah-Jane Clarke, including her latest in Watsons Bay, which was bought in 2014 for A$12 million.

Akin Creative has also designed 13 of the ultra fashionable bars and restaurants owned by Sydney “bar tsar” Justin Hemmes’ Merivale Group and internationally, two Super Loco restaurants in Singapore and Jakarta for Julian and Christian Tan’s The Loco Group, and the Amilla Fushi luxury resort in the Maldives.

The latter was singled out by both Kate Winslet and Kate Moss in separate Condé Nast Traveller coverage in 2015 and 2016 respectively, as their favourite island getaway.

The son of Hong Kong Chinese migrants, who came to Australia in 1969, Sydney-born Ho speaks no Cantonese (or Mandarin), but stays close to his roots by visiting Hong Kong at least twice a year – including an annual pilgrimage to his paternal grandfather’s grave in Chai Wan with his father, a mechanical engineer and builder.

Ho graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Sydney University in 2003, before working for two Sydney architectural firms, Woods Bagot and Andrew Burges Architects.

Striking out on his own in 2005, his entrée into fashion retail came later that year via a recommendation from a stylist friend to high-profile Sydney fashion retailer Belinda Seper, who was looking to open a second outlet for her emerging designer concept The Corner Shop in the Sydney central business district.

A champion of new design talent, Seper tapped Ho for not only the design of that store, but another three of her Belinda multibrand boutiques in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The nod from Seper brought Ho to the attention of the wider industry, which would soon be grappling with global financial crisis jitters.

Ho’s other early clients included Sass & Bide, which was rescued from near collapse in 2009 by two Melbourne investors, who eventually sold the business to the Myer department store chain for A$72 million in two lots, after scaling it up through the opening of over 20 stores in Australia and one in New York, all designed by Akin Creative.

Ho sees a similar opportunity stateside right now – apparently unfazed by the so-called “retail apocalypse” there, which has witnessed the closure of tens of thousands of stores.

“In Australia, working with the likes of the Belindas and the Sass & Bides, who were really ambitious and said ‘OK, we’re going to take risks, we’re doing to work with a new designer, someone who is unknown’, I was able to capitalise on a market that was in a bit of a downturn,” says Ho, who admires the retail design work of Peter Marino and David Chipperfield Architects for luxury brands such as Chanel, Dior, Brioni and Valentino, as well as Family New York’s more avant-garde boutiques for Off-White.

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“So I feel like anywhere like New York, it’s a really good opportunity because [at times like these] rents are lower, there’s a need for people. Consumers want a great retail experience. They want to go out into the stores, they want to have that, they need a kind of new energy.”