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Fashion

A Zara for shoes and bags, Singapore’s Charles & Keith has reached Hong Kong at last

  • City’s would-be Carrie Bradshaws don’t have to go to Singapore for trendy, affordable accessories fix any more
  • LVMH-invested brand opening two stores
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 9:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 8:18pm

For years, aspiring Carrie Bradshaws in Hong Kong had to lug an extra suitcase when travelling to Singapore, Bangkok or other neighbouring cities to stock up on the latest trendy shoes and bags by Charles & Keith. Well, not any more.

The Singapore-based fast-fashion brand, which is known for its stylish accessories sold at affordable high street prices, has a strong regional presence in Asia-Pacific, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Cambodia. Now, it is finally in Hong Kong too. The first outlet in New Town Plaza, Sha Tin, opened in late September, while its Central boutique at Parker House in Queen’s Road Central is due to open soon.

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With limestone fixtures and minimalist dark grey furnishing, the stores’ sleek interior design is a perfect backdrop for the brand’s latest winter 2018 pre-collection, which ranges from beaded fringe mules and thigh-high boots to lace-trimmed bucket bags and elongated clutches. Most of the items cost less than US$100.

“Our decision to enter the Hong Kong market was supported by positive market sentiment and consumer intelligence,” says Carol Fok, country general manager for Hong Kong and Macau. “We saw the potential of reaching out to fashion-conscious women that value self-expression. They are experimental with fashion and desire contemporary and trends-focused designs.”

Founded by brothers Charles and Keith Wong in Singapore in 1996, the accessories brand began as a small shoe store in a hotel shopping arcade, and soon expanded across multiple locations thanks to its variety of cheap yet fashionable shoes.

In 2011, the company made headlines when L Capital (now known as L Catterton Asia), the investment arm of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, bought a 20 per cent stake in the business for a reported S$30 million.

The investment was used to fuel the brand’s global expansion with significant success – there are now boutiques in 36 markets in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe.

It is not difficult to figure out the brand’s appeal. While there are plenty of apparel brands, such as H&M, Zara and Mango offering cheaper versions of runway trends from fashion weeks in New York, Milan, London and Paris, there are much fewer that focus on shoes and bags.

“Charles & Keith is the Asian version of Nine West – back when the American shoe brand was synonymous with affordable trendy footwear,” says Sharon Lim, a fashion lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore and a former editor-in-chief of Elle Singapore.

The Wong brothers, who continue to be closely involved in the day-to-day business of the brand, were also canny enough to invest in glossy-magazine-worthy marketing campaigns. For example, in the mid-2000s, Lim says the brand hired celebrity fashion photography duo Chuando & Frey to shoot their ad campaigns.

“The high-fashion, often edgy imagery immediately elevated perceptions of the brand,” she observes. “All of a sudden, Charles & Keith was ‘fashion’ rather than ‘cheap and cheerful’.”

These days, celebrities such as actress Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, and ‘It” girls like fashion influencer Yoyo Cao have been spotted with Charles & Keith items. Williams chose a black pyramid-shaped wristlet to go with her Markus Lupfer gown for the 2016 Emmy Awards.

Still, Charles & Keith has not gone without controversy. One of the most common criticisms levelled against it is that its products sometimes look too similar to designs by top luxury brands. But in an era where just about every brand – whether luxury or high street – has drawn “inspiration” from other labels, does this even matter?

Lin Xiao Jing, a communications specialist who shops at Charles & Keith every few months, says she has not noticed blatant imitations among the trendy designs.

“I personally sit on the fence [about catwalk-inspired designs]. However, blatant counterfeiting would bother me as a consumer and if that comes to pass, I would consider buying my shoes somewhere else,” she says. “Copying designs seems unsustainable in the long run and a waste of a good opportunity to create a brand with its own identity.”

London-based Singaporean footwear designer Firdaos Pidau agrees that runway-to-real-world interpretations can be a grey area.

“I feel high-street brands should capture the spirit of the trend and reinterpret it in a new way,” he says. “As a designer, I would personally be flattered to be copied within reason.

“Realistically not many people are going to buy S$1,000 [US$725] shoes, and a designer can gauge how their work resonates by observing how their designs have infiltrated the high street.

“But ethics come into question – stealing from a young designer or a new brand is off limits. Rather, it would be nice if high street brands reach out to these young designers for a collaboration.”

Shoppers and fashion experts alike agree that the brand has rehabilitated its image over the years, perhaps with a little help from an unexpected source.

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“Ironically, the internet and its slew of dodgy blog shops and indie Instagram shops have elevated brands like H&M, Zara and Charles & Keith,” observes Lim. “With these brands, you know what you’re getting. There’s a certain assurance of quality.”