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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

How a backpacking holiday in Marrakech inspired a lifestyle brand

  • Hongkonger Tiffany Chan was unsure what to expect when she visited Morocco
  • When she found an artisan making embroidered sandals called babouches it sparked an idea for a business selling the handmade footwear
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 8:46am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 8:26pm

Last year Tiffany Chan Hiu-yung quit her job as the editor of a food magazine and decided to travel for a year. She went to places like Italy, Nepal, Australia and Canada to recharge and challenge herself, travelling with only a backpack, and even lived in a van for a month in New Zealand with a woman she met on the plane.

In September in Marrakech, Morocco, Chan, 29, was entranced by the souks, or open-air markets where she met many artisans, not necessarily offering their products for sale but also whatever was on their stove in the shop, from tagine to mint tea.

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“Before I got there I was scared to go because I had heard it can be unsafe for a solo female traveller, but when I arrived everyone was so hospitable and generous,” she says. “They invited me to literally break bread with them, and one time I had tea with a stranger, talking for five hours.”

She noticed shoemakers making traditional shoes called babouches, colourful embroidered sandals, but wanted something more practical and found a shoemaker who was producing more modern designs.

He catered to her request to change the quality of the leather and modify the design to her specifications, and soon she found herself asking if he would make 50 or 100 pairs.

“When I was in the shop I was calculating how much of my cash could cover the shoes,” she recalls, adding she didn’t have any plan for what to do.

It was the beginning of Lei, her lifestyle brand.Lei in Chinese means “tired”, and she explains how Hong Kong’s fast pace can tire people out but that her travel experiences taught her she can live life differently.

Originally she thought of selling rugs, blankets and leather benches, but she soon discovered the difficulties shipping those large items, and decided shoes would be a good start.

That same month she started an Instagram account (@thelei.co) and a website (thelei.co) that weaves her narrative about travel and slow fashion. “I believe in these handmade products that you have to wait for, so that’s why it’s so easy to go to places like Zara and Cos, but I like the idea these are handmade.

“They aren’t the most innovative design – they are leather slides – but what I like this that they’re timeless, they have a story and they are comfortable to wear every day,” she says.

The shoes retail for HK$850 a pair, with two different styles and colours that include tan, sand, taupe and black.

The first-time entrepreneur is on a fast learning curve. She also has to deal with the perils of being half a world away from her suppliers.

“I’ve had a few hiccups with consistency and quality. I have to communicate with one shoemaker on WhatsApp, and I even tried to learn French to talk to another shoemaker. Before I left Marrakech, I could pick the leather myself, but when he shipped me the second batch, I wasn’t there to choose the leather and the quality wasn’t as good and some of the sizes were wrong,” she says.

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“My friends say why don’t you just have them made in China, but I like the idea of them being handmade,” Chan says.

The shoes are part of what she describes as a capsule collection, with the intention of having other items made from her travels. Her wish list includes Indonesia, the Philippines, and Mongolia.

Nevertheless, since she launched Lei in November, Chan has sold 65 per cent of her shoes to family, friends and friends of friends, in Hong Kong, as well as at pop-up events in Vancouver.

Recently, when she was crossing a street in Hong Kong’s Central business district, she noticed a young woman wearing a pair of sandals that looked like hers.

“When I saw the heel and recognised it was mine, I was so emotional,” Chan says. “This is what it has all come down to. At that moment I wondered how she felt about the shoes, that they came all the way from a shoe shop in Marrakech that I lugged all the way to Vancouver and then Hong Kong.”