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As luxury consumer spending power shifts east, Asian designers are leveraging their heritage to appeal to the region’s growing middle class — while at the same time attracting new audiences around the globe.
“People are seeking something new,” says Korean-American Yoon Ahn, co-founder and creative director of 10-year-old Tokyo-based Ambush, whose designs include slogans and unusual motifs such as crushed cans. “And something different that their friends don’t have.”
Ms Ahn is now head of jewellery design at Dior Homme. She is one of several designers raising their profile outside the Asian market.
The work of Hong Kong-based designer Michelle Ong, who co-founded the brand Carnet in 1998, is being celebrated in a new book, published in Asia this month, followed by the UK and US in April and June. Ms Ong built a 10-strong workshop of trained craftsmen in the region to create her east-meets-west ethereal designs. “It has helped me achieve whatever I wanted to because I can realise my vision,” she says.
Last year Taiwanese jeweller Anna Hu became the first contemporary Asian jeweller to exhibit at Moscow Kremlin’s State Historical Museum and have a piece included in its permanent collection — a China Red Magpie Brooch inspired by an 18th century silk artwork from the Imperial Qing court.
Having a base in Asia brings its own set of benefits, particularly in an international hub like Hong Kong, says designer Dickson Yewn. “Having my headquarters here helps from a luxury retail point of view because lots of rich people come here to shop because it’s tax-free — no sales tax, no VAT, no anything,” says the designer, whose flagship store stands in Hong Kong’s central shopping mall, the Landmark.
There were more than 30m visitors to Hong Kong in the six months to June, according to the region’s tourist board, 10 per cent higher than the same period in 2017. While most of these came from mainland China, visitor numbers from the US grew 5.8 per cent, while those from Russia and the Gulf states rose 14.6 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively.
Differences in Asian working culture compared with Europe can bring business advantages. Designer Wendy Yue believes she runs a more effective client service system from Asia. “In Paris, after 6pm people want to go home. In Hong Kong, if a client has a query we reply right away [even at 11pm],” she says. Being so readily available helps win new clients, she adds. “With the new generation they want an answer right now, so if you want to be competitive you have to provide an efficient service as they have less patience to close the sale.”
Singaporean jeweller and creative director for Swiss jewellery house Boghossian, Edmond Chin, saw his diamond and pearl floral bracelet for Boghossian sell for £3.3m at Christie’s Hong Kong sale in May. Mr Chin, who is also managing director of Etcetera, a brand he founded in 2000, believes his Hong Kong base brings value to his role at Boghossian. “When we do bespoke pieces I am able to directly connect with their [Asian] clients,” he says.
Yet there are some drawbacks for jewellers based in Asia. Japanese jeweller Yuta Ishihara believes his function-meets-design jewellery line, Shihara, has had a slower international expansion as expensive long-haul travel limits visits and direct communication with overseas stockists and customers.
It is also more difficult to attract first-time clients, says Ms Ong, because people tend to lean towards the more familiar, globally recognised brands.
Prejudice also remains, Mr Chin believes. “Certain clients in the west and maybe some Asian clients feel that something Hong Kong-made is necessarily lower-quality than something made in Paris or London,” he says.
China is the largest jewellery market in the world with sales volumes of more than $100bn compared with about $60bn for the US, according to Statista, the data provider, and Asia’s designers might have an edge in this vast market. “Among Asian collectors there is pride in wanting to buy something from someone Asian rather than following what comes from the west,” says Mr Chin.
Mr Yewn and Mr Ishihara estimate that about a fifth of clients come from the US or Europe, with the number of higher-spending Middle Eastern clients rising. “Europeans are not buying so much high jewellery today anyway, because it’s not relevant to their lifestyle any more,” Mr Chin adds, pointing to lower spending on wedding jewellery and other family events.
Nevertheless, breaking into western markets is still a top priority for many. Mr Yewn plans to open a shop in London in the next five years to complement his shop in Hong Kong because, he says, these are “the two most strategic locations for people who have money and do business — even with Brexit going on”. Ambush’s Ms Ahn is planning stores in Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York or Los Angeles in the next three years as “these are the major cities”.
Asia’s growing pool of world-class designers looks set to become a force to be reckoned with.
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