Revolution often comes from the most unexpected places – even in fashion. As luxury watchers ponder whether or not China will ever produce its own high-end fashion label, thus directing the spending balance away from western brands, some local designers are already making the speculation a reality – though not in women’s wear, as might be expected.
Instead, as Amy Chua was penning Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a growing number of young Asian men defied family expectations and abandoned white-collar jobs to create a new upmarket segment of the local men’s wear industry. Their ages range from 19 to 30, and they have started bringing hand-made ties, custom-made shoes and bespoke shirts to the Asian market.
Mark Cho, 28-year-old co-founder of The Armoury, a Hong Kong haberdasher popular with the online men’s wear community, left his job at a London bank to start his business in Hong Kong last year. Cornell-educated Justin Chang, 24, the scion of Ascot Chang, a Hong Kong-based company known for its bespoke shirts, also abandoned the world of finance after an internship at a stock brokerage. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Gerald Shen didn’t even bother with banking: armed with a degree in finance and economics, he started working full-time on his Singapore-based tie-making business straight after graduation.
All say that their passion for clothing meant that working in the industry was inevitable. “From a frivolous interest, it became a bit of an obsession,” laughs Shen, who makes lightly padded multiple-fold ties using British fabrics. Cho says: “After 10 years of interest, I decided I could enjoy doing something more with it.”
Equally important was a local economic climate conducive to starting a business. Cho’s store launch was promoted by InvestHK, a government agency that promotes investment. “The business was designed specifically to be launched in Hong Kong. I think it would have been impossible elsewhere,” he says.
Chang, whose workshop makes 60,000 bespoke shirts a year, adds: “Hong Kong’s a good climate because there’s no import tax, so [bringing in] materials from Europe [is cheaper].”
It’s a view shared by 30-year-old Edwin Neo, a Singapore-based cobbler-turned-cordwainer who picked up the trade in Budapest and last July co-founded shoemaker Ed et Al: “It would have been a lot more difficult starting up in Europe,” Neo says. “We would face stiff competition from well-established brands.” His Goodyear bespoke shoes start at S$600.
The “made in Asia” label has become far less of a stigma. “We lack the marketing power of ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Savile Row bespoke’,” says Chang. “But [for my generation], locally made products have a bit more cachet because they’re increasingly rare. There’s a nostalgic quality about them.”
Arnold Wong, 19-year-old founder of Colonial Goods, a newly launched men’s wear label that celebrates Hong Kong’s colonial heritage, concurs: “More and more [Hong Kongers] are cultivating their own sense of style and savoir-faire.” For its first collection of T-shirts spun from a vintage loom, which will be released in August, Colonial Goods teamed up with Lee Kung Man, a knitting factory established in 1923.
These men also accept that they were lucky to have entered the market at the right time. Asia’s swift recovery from the financial crisis has made consumers more willing to spend. “Customers originally came in looking for something for the office,” says Cho, whose store sells everything from pocket squares made of kimono fabric to suede loafers from Spain’s Carmina and unstructured jackets from Florentine tailors Liverano & Liverano. “But they are slowly coming around to the fact that [they should] dress well for all occasions.”
Cho and Chang say the tight-knit Asian mens’ wear community has helped their businesses grow. Cho attributes his ability to launch The Armoury to his close relationship with popular Hong Kong tailor WW Chan & Sons. “They provided a good starting base of customers, goodwill and credibility,” says Cho, whose store hosts a corner for the tailor. Business was so good that earlier this year, Cho had to turn some customers away. In July, Arnold Wong commissioned a set of photographs of well-dressed men in Hong Kong. It became a viral hit on mens’ wear websites – and Chang, Cho and his partners at The Armoury feature prominently.
Gerald Shen ties
Ed et Al