The Riley jumper: can millennial brand’s Insta-famous cashmere knitwear revive a Hong Kong industry?
- Jumper label Common Thread, whose Riley roll-neck style took off after its launch, makes its pieces in one of Hong Kong’s few remaining knitwear factories
- The founders, two college friends, talk about reviving knitwear manufacturing in Hong Kong
“[Lifestyle guru] Estee Lalonde wore a pink jumper that looked a lot like our Riley [knit] and we saw comments [on social media] saying, ‘Is that the Riley?’,” recounts Kawai Cheng, co-founder of cashmere brand Common Thread.
That’s the moment when 28-year-old Cheng realised the brand had made it on Instagram. “We were like, ‘What?!’ It’s such a little thing, but it’s so exciting for us.”
Cheng launched the online label with her friend Kitty Lau, 30, at the beginning of 2018. And, in under 10 months, their bestselling roll-neck jumper has become instantly recognisable in the fashion world and referred to by a single name.
The pair were housemates at the University of Nottingham, England, where Lau was studying law and Cheng was studying product design and engineering. Nowadays, Cheng splits her time between New York and London, while Lau is based in Hong Kong, where they manufacture their clothes.
“We looked at a whole bunch of countries,” explains Cheng, who handles the brand’s marketing and social media. “We just wanted to make sure that whatever we sourced was sustainable and was manufactured in a good factory. We have a personal relationship with Hong Kong, as my dad is from there and so is Kitty.”
As for Hong Kong's relationship with knitwear, there have been knitters and weavers in the city from as early as the 1900s. At its peak, textile factories could be found in Tsuen Wan, Sham Shui Po, Cheung Sha Wan and Tai Kok Tsui. In 1950, the number of workers in the textile industry accounted for more than 30 per cent of the working population, according to the Hong Kong Memory project. The latest figures from Hong Kong Trade Development Council show that as of March, more than 4,000 people were working in the clothing manufacturing industry.
It was Lau who found their Tuen Mun factory. She remembers reaching out to contractors and visiting countless factories in China, before a tip from an industry acquaintance brought her to the New Territories in Hong Kong. “Initially, I was quite anxious because it was my first time dealing with factories. But when I went there, I knew it was the one. Like us, their values centre around community and that really sets them apart from other manufacturers.”
It’s also one of the last knitting factories in Hong Kong and it works with displaced and retired knitters. There are around 60 workers there, 80 per cent of whom are women, explains Lau.
“I handle all the quality control myself and deal with the factory directly,” she says. “Madam Tse is the boss who manages her team of workers. She makes sure that her team are working in good conditions: not working overtime, enjoying breaks and are paid on time.
“Madam Tse is in her 60s and she’s been working in a knitting factory since she was 19. In her free time, she makes baby clothes for her grandchildren. How cute is that!”
The brand uses Instagram Stories to give customers a behind-the-scenes look at their factory. They rely heavily on social media for marketing.
The duo understand millennials because they are their market. They know that customers want a feel-good tour of the factory, complete with a smiling Madam Tse taking questions. They know the power of social media influencers, but they also know that the power of authenticity is stronger.
“We only work with bloggers that like our stuff, so we don't pay them to talk about us,” reveals Cheng. “At times we'll send them a jumper, but only to people that we feel inspired by and feel like they have a great heart.”
So what’s next for Common Thread? Well, menswear isn’t out of the question and they’d like to expand beyond knitwear. But they both work other full-time jobs, and until recently, Cheng was packing every order herself from home. She adds: “We would love to give our factory bigger quantities.”
When asked whether their brand’s success is a sign of the revival of knitwear manufacturing in Hong Kong, Cheng is cautiously optimistic. “I would love to see that. But if the trend continues as it is at the moment, I don't know what's going to happen to the factory. We would love to just keep on working with them.
“Hopefully one day, we'll create so much momentum that we can have that whole factory run for us and just make really nice jumpers.”