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Hong Kong designers in Paris show city’s potential

Beyond the famous European brands, this Paris Fashion Week runway circuit hosted four Hong Kong independent labels vying for eyes and wallets in the City of Light. It was an impressive season for these talented designers, who are hoping to build a global following and at the same time help shift attention from the city’s consumerism to its creativity.

“Of course taking a bow at the end of a runway show during Paris Fashion Week is always a dream for any designer, and it’s no different for us,” says Cyrus Wong Hang-ki, one half of design duo Id (the other being Julio Ng Chun-bong), who made their debut on a Paris runway as part of a show hosted by Fashion Farm Foundation (FFF) and held in the hallowed halls of L’Université Paris Descartes.

These runway shows are the cumulation, or “a beautiful disguise” as Wong calls it, of months of hard work, late nights, struggle and chaotic backstage preparation. “But it’s all worth it at the end,” he says. “We have to thank FFF for making this happen.”

A Hong Kong non-profit, FFF sponsors a Paris show for three local brands selected by a judging panel (I was on that panel this season) and a showroom for local labels. Before the programme was set up, it was the Ground Zero label that pioneered Hong Kong’s runway presence in Paris, but they have since moved on to New York Fashion Week.

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For any designer in Hong Kong’s nascent fashion industry, a Paris show is a great way to generate press and, more importantly, sales. The hope is that at least one will grow into a true international fashion brand (think Vivienne Tam) all the while elevating Hong Kong’s cultural clout, which is in dire need of a boost.

Injury and ffiXXed Studios returned as two of this season’s three winning labels, and newcomer Id (formerly J.E.W.D) was the breakout star on this Paris runway. With a bevy of small labels vying for a spot, each of the trio had to show strong design aesthetics, consistency, sophistication of ideas, and a certain level of commercial maturity in order to win their place.

On their second Paris show with FFF, creative director couple Fiona Lau Wein-sie and Kain Picken of ffiXXed say that a repeat performance has helped underline the impact they made the first time around.

“It raises the profile of the brand and also sharpens and tidies up our approach to styling and collection development,” says Australian Picken, who, with Lau, won the Asia leg of the 2013 Woolmark Prize and counts Lane Crawford, Japanese retailer Beams and edgy Chinese boutiques Triple-Major and Dongliang among its stockists.

Lau adds that it’s affirming to have “a lot of buyers and press who came to see us for the first show come back again – it feels as if there’s a lot of momentum”.

The label has built on the record orders it received last season thanks to returning and new clients, especially Japanese buyers.

Picken says this time around they created a “really laid back” collection, balanced with ties and belts that give a sense of control and structure to otherwise “undone”, relaxed forms made up of twisted, slouched and folded fabrics.

“We are really trying to keep in this direction, creating a balanced collection that works well for runways as well as for sales. There’s a lot more desire and demand after the show,” says Lau.

Injury’s Eugene Leung adds, “As a niche designer label that speaks to smaller groups, we need good worldwide sales to support us.”

One young brand has been in Paris for several seasons, presenting shows independently and seeing relatively fast growth. Jourden, founded in 2012 by Studio Berçot alumni, Hong Kong born-and-raised Anais Mak Chun-ting, has evolved rapidly from tiny local line to one sold at key inter­national retailers Colette, Opening Ceremony, Isetan and Barneys New York. Her independent presentation in Paris had models draped around installations made from colourful, high-piled school chairs.

“For a few seasons we’ve been building up a lot of codes, a language for the brand and now people really recognise the volumes and textures of the pieces,” says Mak. “This spring-summer 2017, we’re keeping the same formula but using a different approach.”

The young designer has impressed with sophisticated fabrications, this season focusing on traditional artisan techniques such as embroidery, smocking and pleating but in a new context. Her signature textures and girlish silhouettes have struck gold with local fashionistas and celebrities but have also shown broader appeal to a generation of young women who like their styles experimental yet feminine. The collection is particularly animated, with fabrics such as fil coupé providing feathery textures to asymmetric ruffled hems on skirts.

“I’m trying to eliminate weight while pushing up the volume,” she says. “That’s why I’m using so many transparent and lightweight fabrics.”

The line shows just how much Jourden has matured, with a more daring and varied wardrobe, ranging from maxi skirts to mini shorts, bold textures to transparencies. We adored the jacquard denim jackets, criss-cross halter tops and pretty undulating hems. And there’s a striking collaboration with French footwear brand Carel for a capsule of eight styles, including, in a daring turn of confidence, a ballerina-style, lace-up, thigh-high boot.

Defining a distinctive set of brand values is something many local labels struggle with and that can make them look flippant. Luckily, each of these four labels has an unusual and arresting point of view.

Injury’s futuristic spring-summer 2017 line is inspired by rebellious, fearless characters from American cult movies. Founder Leung talks about a remix of subculture films, from 1971’s Vanishing Pointto 1994’s Natural Born Killers. It was a red, black and white palette for thigh-high PVC boots, biker-inspired gear, hoodies and sporty panelling.

“Id is a psychoanalysis term that represents basic human needs and attraction,” says Ng, explaining what’s behind his brand. Ng and Wong play heavily on the idea of “basic”, sensual fashion pieces while avoiding digital prints, laser cuts and hi-tech techniques. The result is strikingly ethereal but urban, and there’s an element of sustainability (increasingly resonant with local designers) here as they pick fabrics that age well “such as denim, leather and coated materials”.

The FFF Paris show is just one of the programmes being funded by a HK$500 million injection to promote local fashion, outlined by Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah in this year’s budget. A designer-incubation scheme and a resource centre for technical training aim to tackle different parts of the fashion chain. But, what else can be done?

“I think there’s been a real shift towards young designers and established manu­facturers being more connected with each other,” Picken says. “In China, there’s a movement away from cheap mass production, and manufacturers are actively seeking to work with independent designers. There’s a real space where the two can overlap and forge a new way forward.”

Some kind of matchmaking platform would certainly provide a technical and business boost to cash-strapped emerging labels (we’re not talking about the Bossinis and G2000s of the market). Building a integrated community is important, yet it does take time.

Based between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, ffiXXed is well placed to compare both sides of the border.

Succeeding in fashion today means “understanding where we should fit in a global market, having an outward-looking attitude”, says Picken, “but you see this happening more rapidly in China. They have a better perspective than those in Hong Kong.”

Injury’s Leung thinks the issue is a wider one for the creative community. “Hong Kong is lacking in fashion publications that sell a cool vision of local life, like i-D magazine did for London youth culture,” he says.

“What we need isn’t just good designers with good designs, I think we have that, but a channel or platform to let the world know about us and to create demand and interest.”

It’s a fair point but, in the short term, the prestige of successfully showing in Paris can help boost these Hong Kong brands. For developing labels, it’s momentum that’s needed.

The success of Hong Kong fashion can’t rely solely on government and commercial support. The onus is on the brands to push themselves to be competitive alongside those from the United States, Europe and the rest of Asia. While Hong Kong’s fashion power might still lie in its consumption, there’s big hope of fostering a creative agenda – where rewards reaped will be long lasting.

“First things first,” says Id’s Ng, “designers need to stop being lazy and relying too much on factory resources.”

Ng estimates that 90 per cent of designers in local studios rely on factories to do the pattern making, the flat shapes into which fabrics are cut for garments, so “they end up working in front of a computer just following orders”. The argument is that so few local design jobs give opportunities for fresh graduates to build practical creative skills.

“We shouldn’t be relying too much on social media or press,” adds his design partner, Wong. “In the future, I hope Hong Kong fashion will be led by creatives who really know how to make garments and appreciate good things, instead of a bunch of fashionistas who are all very good at chasing trends. We have so many resources, we shouldn’t be just following; we need to be known for creating the new. Then, our designers will start to be loved.”