Whenever anybody has asked me about the fashion scene in Hong Kong and to name check a few of my favourite designers, I’m afraid I’ve had to draw an embarrassing blank. Patriotic failure. Well, I might be able to name five lonesome names on a hand but not many where people in the industry beyond Hong Kong would have heard of. It’s always been befuddling to visit this shopper’s paradise of a city on a regular basis, where fashion is so overtly everywhere, and then find that independent design isn’t nurtured on a similarly accelerated level. The predicament of many Hong Kong fashion design graduates, who have either studied abroad or at the very excellent Institute Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is that they’ll go and work for bigger companies in the numerous merchandising, design and buying positions that are available in Hong Kong, because of its proximity to the manufacturing hubs of Southern China, where high street fashion is churned out at an unbelievable pace. They’re the stable money jobs with security. And to put a cliche out there, in Hong Kong, money talks.
Add to that graduate job lure are Hong Kong’s astronomic rents and lack of domestic retail support for homegrown designers and you get that initial mind blank out I was talking about. Hong Kong is about to get a shake-up though to its design scene. Last week I quickly dropped by PMQ, a building that was once the former Police Married Quarters on Aberdeen Street and Hollywood Road in Central, that has now been converted into a hub for Hong Kong designers of all disciplines that spans ready to wear, leather goods, jewellery, product, furniture, architecture and branding. I had already heard some talk about PMQ a while back and was intrigued to see how Hong Kong would approach such a leftfield project – well left field for Hong Kong anyway. Smack bang in the middle of Soho and in Hong Kong’s prime real estate area, PMQ could so easily have been solely marketed to big brands to pay the sky high rents that the area demands. Instead the set-up is that whilst the ground and 1st floor spaces have been let out more established brands like Bread and Butter and Vivienne Tam, the majority of the 100 studio/shop units have been rented at a discounted rate to young Hong Kong-based designers and creatives, with a very stringent vetting and interview process.
In fact PMQ seems to have unleashed and galvanised many a design business into kickstarting as it offers the much-needed studio and retail space combined, and ultimately a place where one can showcase their work. Made in Hong Kong isn’t a nostalgic concept here but a tangible reality and something that hopefully designers are coming to terms with as something to be proud of. Designers are required to be present for a certain amount of hours during the day so that it opports up an opportunity for would be customers can interact with them directly, something of a rarity in Hong Kong.
When I went to visit, about thirty percent of units were up and running with something to see so this is merely just a snapshot of the very beginnings of PMQ with the official proper opening not until June. Already, there’s quite an eclectic array that makes PMQ worth a gander, a change-up from the usual run of glossy malls where you never see a glimpse of sunlight. There are industrial-based leather accessories tooled and casted in-store by POMCH. There is a bespoke creative agency Delication creating “Jungles in a Bottle”. Smith and Norbu craft glasses out of yak and buffalo horn. Jewellery label AOGP designed by Mag Tse is looking to explore wearable jewellery. YC Yeung Chin‘s experimental fashion line combines installation and costume together. 513 Paint Shop seeks to be the first designer paint shop in Hong Kong, something akin to Farrow and Ball.
There were some familiar names to be found. In the store called Hashtag, I encountered Hoiming’s asymmetric hand-crafted handbags as they have set up their studio in the shop. They share the space with a really cute Hong Kong-based childrens line Hailey’s.
I was really impressed with jewellery studio and shop The Little Finger, designed by Pinky Wong. Through in-store collaborative workshops and exhibitions, The Little Finger seeks to showcase handcrafted contemporary jewellery to a new audience.
Newcomer Hak seeks to promote the idea of Made in Hong Kong by ensuring all of her accessories, shoes and clothes are made by truly local craftsmen and seamstresses. In fact Hak has worked with a socially conscious enterprise that gathers up retired seamstresses, who would have worked in Hong Kong’s garment manufacturing heyday – loosely translated as “sewing sisters” – to undertake production.
Loom Loop is another fashion start-up that has sustainable and organic aspirations as they use leftover denim and knitwear from garment factories as well as looking to ancient fabrication techniques in Guangzhou to create interesting non creased treated silk and plant-based dyeing colour effects. It’s tradition balanced out with contemporary design that leaves you curious. And discovering the story will be half the fun and ultimately the point of a place like PMQ, where consumers will not just be getting a retail experience but an educational one as well.
There was a vaguely biased reason for visiting PMQ though. My cousin designer Elizabeth Lau, who some of you might be familiar with, has moved to Hong Kong and has begun her brand new retail venture called The Refinery on the 4th floor of PMQ. It’s one of the very few multi-brand boutiques that have been allowed to reside in PMQ, a space dedicated to mostly mono-brands and individual designers. Elizabeth has selected some of her favourite brands – mostly British – such as Bernstock Speirs, Alex Monroe jewellery, Kate Sheridan bags, Antoni & Alison, Lulu & Co, Marios – as well as her own line of knitwear pieces to be housed in a really distinctive wave-edged cardboard shop interior. The selection is largely exclusive to The Refinery and is the anomaly in PMQ, where design not from Hong Kong, is promoted. The Refinery adds to the mix at PMQ, where the draw isn’t just Hong Kong born-and-bred design, but as a lifestyle destination. Food additions like Jason Atherton’s Aberdeen Street Social will amplify this mix as well as other yet to be announced “major” additions to PMQ. This space is worth watching whether you’re vested in Hong Kong design or not. It’s a model that could well be mimicked elsewhere.