Why S.Nine’s Hong Kong designer Susanna Soo is happy to stick to her roots
S.Nine’s autumn-winter 2016 collection has East-meets-West elements, but designer Soo isn’t interested in chasing trends or international fame; she’d rather build out her offering to existing clientele
For many local fashion designers, the ultimate sign of success is going global or getting international recognition. But Hongkonger Susanna Soo is doing things differently. She is determined to find fame on local soil.
The designer has been making waves since she launched her ready-to-wear label S.Nine in 2009. Interestingly she founded the brand in one of the style capitals of the world – New York – where she studied at Parsons School of Design and later worked with the likes of Diane Von Furstenberg.
“After producing my first collection in China, I did what was expected and went back to New York to find a showroom. The whole process was difficult because during my time at Parsons I never thought of fashion as business or the fact that I was now an entrepreneur.
“I got some orders, but as an independent designer with no backing it was expensive to keep going to trade shows and constantly promote the collection. I couldn’t battle the process,” she says.
Rather than give up, she felt a new direction was necessary. After the spring/summer 2011 season, she moved operations back to her native Hong Kong, where she saw an opportunity to bring something new to the market.
“Many people in Hong Kong have a misconception of what an independent designer or brand is. I was constantly being compared to designers such as Barney Cheng and Dorian Ho, who specialise in custom-made evening and cocktail pieces. The type of designer I wanted to be did not exist here, so there was this opportunity to create an entirely new category,” she says.
And so she did. Inspired by her time in New York and Paris, she developed S.Nine, a contemporary collection with versatility in mind. Instead of creating complicated, avant-garde pieces, she focused on designing feminine looks for the confident woman that could transition easily from day to night, be it a tuxedo blazer or draped jersey dress in bold colours and innovative fabrics.
As the brand became more popular, Soo started to get requests from customers looking for custom pieces. In 2013 she opened a showroom/atelier for private clients. A special Atelier collection was launched the following year, and the biannual ready-to-wear collections also evolved.
“My customers seem to be sophisticated and between 30 and 50 years old. This inspired me, so my collection has changed to suit their needs. If I wasn’t so close to them I wouldn’t know what they want to wear,” she says.
Over the years, Soo has added more signature styles to her repertoire. Favourites include her faux leather trousers and party dresses which come with embroidered pockets or leather trims.
This season, she is exploring East-meets-West – albeit through her own lens. The collection features high-necked blouses with lace details or kimono-inspired sleeves. A red jacket with a black trim morphs into a cape. Skintight dresses come with lacing detail that hug the curves of the body. Instead of using zips as a design detail, they serve a more practical purpose and allow the customer to alter or play with the silhouettes for versatility.
And unlike many of her peers who are quick to jump onto new trends, she is sticking to what she does best.
“From what I see on the streets, women are very much into the casual athletic look but that’s not me. I need to be true to myself and not compare myself to other designers,” she says.
While Soo may be enjoying success now, it hasn’t always been easy. Initially her price point was a hard pill for locals to swallow (from HK$1,500 for a silk top to HK$6,000 for a cocktail dress). Her sales channels are also limited due to the fact that she has no retail space and doesn’t wholesale to other retailers.
Soo has developed her own strategy to maximise exposure. From the beginning she has collaborated with like-minded brands, such as Rupert Sanderson, and institutions (she recently held a successful fashion show where a portion of the sales benefited the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital). She frequently collaborates with Hong Kong retailers, offering styling sessions for their customers or exclusive pop-ups.
Earlier this year she ventured into new territory and started hosting private sales and trunk shows throughout Asia, which have turned out to be most lucrative.
“Even the big brands are doing this – they are connecting with their customer on a more personal level and it really works. Of course it would be a dream to get into a big retailer. It’s the greatest compliment to a designer but I also know it’s no longer essential,” she says.
And just because she’s not interested in going global, it doesn’t mean that she’s without ambition and drive.
“I want to build a modern lifestyle brand – well a new definition of it. I am a lifestyle brand in the sense that I am dressing a type of woman. Fashion is not just about clothing – it’s an attitude, a way of life. I can build so much within that, from make-up and skincare to offering services that help you feel good about yourself,” she says.