Local designers are challenging the industry's status quo

A wave of local labels are daring to take on an industry built on tradition and history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 November, 2014, 10:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 November, 2014, 10:31am

Tucked away on a clothes rack at The Talent Shop at PMQ in Central is a menswear collection by emerging label The World Is Your Oyster. Founded in 2014 by Calvin Chan and Joyce Kun, the label uses elements of traditional tailoring with a boyish sportswear twist.

Although inspired by and, in many ways, echoing the history of Western tailoring, the label eschews tradition to chart new aesthetic territory. Pieces include a sleeveless trench coat with exaggerated lapels, a pinstripe T-shirt with oversized sleeves, and a pair of crisp shorts that fall just above the knee.

Together with a series of other emerging Chinese labels, The World Is Your Oyster is part of a dissenting movement that seeks to break free from menswear's status quo.

"We are fond of traditional suiting and tailoring. But as the world has been ever-changing, the style of dressing for men has been developed into a rather less formal way," says Kun.

"Men do not always dress in a suit and tie. So we wanted to redefine traditional menswear and suiting in a modern way. Our vision of menswear embraces the characteristic of formal tailoring with a touch of street wear elements from a youngsters' influence."

Locally produced menswear in Hong Kong has historically followed suit from Western aesthetics. In a variety of price points from the affordable to the exorbitant, the city was once littered with tailors to produce tailored jackets and pants with Chinese speed and precision.

Yet the rising cost of labour and rent have turned these tailors into a dying breed here, and the profession has migrated to the mainland.

One prominent survivor is Ascot Chang, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. The company has carved out a niche that provides traditional menswear in luxury fabrics and fittings with bespoke service. It prides itself on preserving a manufacturing process that is some 80 to 90 years old.

But there is a divide between the young and the old in the industry. A younger generation of designers has appeared who are not satisfied with copying from the past. For this new wave, West does not mean best. They are producing collections that are experimental and daring.

"When I was 17 and starting to understand fashion design, menswear seemed boring," says Hong Kong-born designer Kay Kwok. "So when I started my label, I wanted to push the boundaries of menswear by trying different things like materials, silhouettes, colours and prints."

Kwok, who earned his MA at London College of Fashion, has an aesthetic that marries the supernatural and surreal.

Creating his label in 2013 with a debut collection sponsored by GQ China, the brand creates avant-garde looks that stand out in the sometimes stuffy and regimented menswear market. Other notable fashion-forward labels include kenaxleung, with its signature vivid prints, Wan & Wong Fashion, with its sustainable, razor sharp philosophy, and Injury, with its edgy futuristic aesthetic. All of these brands possess a fearless sensitivity.

I wanted to push the boundaries of menswear by trying different things
Kay Kwok, designer

Kept out of a saturated luxury tier dominated by Western conglomerates, and feeling the pinch from high street and bridge-tiered brands such as Zara and COS, these designers are trying to find a way to stand out. As Kwok says: "The media and the general public are quite curious about Kay Kwok, as the label's aesthetic is contemporary-futuristic. This contradicts major trends."

To stand out in the crowded marketplace means injecting conventional garments with a large dose of innovation.

Menswear designer Six Lee echoes the need for new ideas: "My approach is defined by the constant quest for innovation. My designs are always looking for the now and tomorrow, even if they are inspired by historical or classical references [such as British tailoring]."

All of this leads to the important question: what sort of customers do these designers attract? Kwok appeals to young men from the ages of 22 to 35 from a variety of professions.

He describes them as "not only fashionistas, but also artists, and even those from the financial field". The Six Lee label also finds a client base of a similar age group from a variety of professions.

Not surprisingly, women have also been eager patrons of the brand, following the trend of hijacking menswear pieces for their own wardrobe.

Although the experimental pieces from these labels have helped to establish the spirit of these brands, their conventional garments constitute the large majority of their sales.

Accessories are also a huge draw. Lee finds that his line of geometrically quirky eyewear are crowd pleasers. He has also found success creating a unisex jewellery line in collaboration with Belgian company Diamanti Per Tutti, and is now developing a line of sneakers as well.

Tapping into accessories and fragrances are proven and popular business strategies adopted by luxury companies hungry to generate growth.

But how can fledgling labels defend their territory in such a saturated industry? Will these brands find acceptance from a larger mainstream segment of the male population? Will the China market be interested enough in these fledgling brands? Only time will tell.

As Lee says: "We are trying to put our vision on the table every day. Whether people like it or don't like it is down to fate. I stay true to myself when it comes to my creative process. I am simply looking for people who can connect with my work."