Fashion markets of Hong Kong’s poorest district adapt to survive, but are still the beating heart of local industry
Sham Shui Po’s streets sell everything from fabric and ribbons to buttons and beads, inspiring local fashion designers such as Hayley Lyla, who even offers tours of the colourful, vibrant but fast-changing area
Step into Sham Shui Po, a district six kilometres north across the harbour from Hong Kong’s Central business district, and you’ll be engulfed by the buzz of street vendors squeezed between ramshackle apartment blocks and bamboo scaffolding.
Recent government figures show it is the poorest of Hong Kong’s 18 districts, with nearly a quarter of its population living below the poverty line. It is also one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the city and home to large numbers of ethnic minorities and immigrants, many of whom live in tiny subdivided flats.
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But despite the apparent chaos, the neighbourhood is known as the place to go for everything from fake trainers and electronic goods to toys and phone accessories, sold either in the rows of permanent stores or from pack-away stalls roofed by plastic sheets.
Particularly famous among local designers are a few streets that serve as the inspirational heart behind Hong Kong’s fashion industry.
This is where Hayley Lyla, 34, has been coming multiple times a week since she was a student. Now, the shop owners greet her as a regular customer.
“This is the showroom of, and a door to, the fashion room that is the factories,” says Lyla, a designer and blogger. “The capacity of things you can create is massive, as long as you come with an open mind. The possibilities are unlimited.”
While walking down Yu Chau Street, the right-hand side of which is lined with shops selling ribbons, buttons and beads, Lyla explains that Sham Shui Po is colourful and has a rich culture. “This is true Hong Kong to me, the very grass roots. I get inspired from here. To be able to get material and play around with it helps me get ideas.”
The street-style blogger turned influencer, consultant and designer grew up in Hong Kong’s New Territories. She discovered Sham Shui Po’s fabric streets while building her own collection as a fashion design and merchandise student at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
After graduating from university, she worked as a fashion buyer and in 2013 set herself up on e-commerce platform Etsy, selling handmade accessories for HK$200 to HK$300. Now she splits her time between creating e-commerce stores via her online design studio, organising events, and guiding fashion tours around Sham Shui Po. She hopes to one day set up her own collection.
Today Lyla sports a hoodie carrying the branding of a start-up – its logo covered with hand-sewn multicoloured flower patches – and self-adorned sunglasses. “Most people like to go shopping where they can get things easily, but I like to DIY my outfit a bit,” she says, pulling out a denim jacket decorated in patches, and a clutch with her name sewn on in purple. “It adds value to the item, I will wear it again and I feel less guilty about adding more items to my wardrobe.”
While the cheap neighbourhood is “the perfect place for people who are interested in making their own collections”, it is also popular with designers – including New York-based Vivienne Tam, who went to the same university as Lyla and styles her works around Chinese culture.
The area has been the centre of Hong Kong’s garment industry since the 1970s, housing thousands of wholesalers, factories and shops. Although many factories have now relocated across the border into China, streets like Yu Chau and Ki Lung still house an abundance of wholesale shops that Lyla visits on her hour-long tours that cater mainly to tourists who want to see the “true” Hong Kong.
Yu Chau Street is a good example of the change in the industry: while both sides used to be full of design shops, the left-hand side has given way to more profitable restaurant businesses.
As factories have shifted to China, production companies are starting to skip the “middle man” of sourcing materials and inspiration from Sham Shui Po. Instead, they are moving all operations to China in an effort to cut costs, meaning wholesale shops are closing amid increasing competition.
“When I first started working, the [Hong Kong] trading office’s operations were in Hong Kong, but they slowly opened other operations in Shenzhen because it is more cost effective and direct,” Lyla says. “Slowly you see they are moving to China.”
Some Sham Shui Po shops now hire English-speaking staff to cater to tourists and expats, and others have corners dedicated to design tools such as hammers, glue guns and pins. A few years ago neither of these existed, Lyla says, showing how individual customers are becoming increasingly important.
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Alongside this change, Hong Kong’s local youngsters are becoming more creative and slowly moving away from following big trends, Lyla says, much like herself.
“I’m more about breaking the system and making it my own,” she says. “I had to do a lot of convincing to my parents and tell them why I am doing it – I try to make them understand I do it for a reason, and can make my own way without following the traditional career path.
“Now they don’t ask too many questions … so I guess they’re used to it.”