By  on September 16, 2008

HONG KONG — Less than a year after stepping down as president of Joyce Boutique Holdings, Adrienne Ma is about to return to Hong Kong’s retail scene.

Ma, chief executive of her own new company, called Amma Holdings, is slated to open the city’s first Y’s Mandarina Duck store on Tuesday in Tsimshatsui, Kowloon. A second shop, at Central’s popular IFC mall, will make its debut in mid-November.

Amma Holdings, named for its owner, has two divisions, retail and consultancy. To followers of Hong Kong’s retail roller-coaster, the scene might seem familiar, but Ma is keen to underscore that there are no plans to make Amma into a new Joyce. “I thoroughly enjoyed what I did at Joyce and I thoroughly enjoyed working with all of the brands and everything else — it was all ‘me’ but not so ‘me.’ Now I can do something that’s ‘Amma,’” she said in an interview at her new offices in Aberdeen, on Hong Kong’s south side.

“Publications want to hear me say, ‘I want to build another Joyce,’ but I think the world has changed, the market has changed, the customers have changed — everything has changed. And I need to see how it is to fly with my own little wings. Otherwise, I would always wonder what I could have done,” said Ma.

“I loved what I did and I learned a lot — it was invaluable, but I don’t want people to compare Amma to Joyce. My mother [Joyce Ma] is a visionary. No one can replace her and I really believe that these are different circumstances,” she continued. “Let’s not compare now with the past, let’s compare now with tomorrow.”

While the future might not be crystal clear, some things are shaping up nicely for Amma. The company’s retail division will take over Hong Kong distribution of Italian handbag and luggage brand Mandarina Duck, which has had a small presence here for years. The new store will showcase both the Mandarina Duck and Y’s Mandarina Duck collections; the latter is the by-product of a collaboration with designer Yohji Yamamoto.

“It’s a new name and a new retail concept, with two brands,” explained Ma. “It includes Y’s and Mandarina Duck under one roof,” she said, explaining the Hong Kong store will have a new concept, with subtle decor and unusual displays.

While the Y’s Mandarina Duck flagship is set to open on Greene Street in New York shortly, Ma says the Hong Kong shop will be quite different. “Our store will not be like the SoHo store, which is a concept store — only the brand owner can do something like that,” said Ma.

Instead, the first Hong Kong shop is situated on the ground floor of the Miramar Shopping Centre on Nathan Road, a location that excites Ma. Neighbors of the 1,700-square-foot Y’s Mandarina Duck will include trendy stores such as C by Chloé and multibrand fashion outlet I.T.

She declined to estimate sales for the store.

Ma said Amma has the option to open double-brand or single-brand stores for Mandarina Duck; the decision will depend on location and customer mix. “Both brands have potential. We’re looking at four to five points of sale in Hong Kong eventually, but we’ll open these two shops first and give them some time,” said Ma.

Expansion into China might also be in the cards, but Ma is taking a wait-and-see approach for now.

Ma said Amma has also inked a deal with another brand to open stores in Hong Kong, but she will wait until December to reveal details. The only thing she will confirm is that she is not looking at luxury fashion labels. “[There is] way more supply than demand and customers are getting less loyal — they switch brands like changing clothes and good locations are almost impossible to get,” she said, adding the world’s current economic climate also makes it a risky time to enter into high-fashion retail.

“It’s a volatile global economic situation. Around the world retailers are saying, ‘Oh, we’re crying,’ but it’s so volatile that before you dry your tear, it’s up again. It’s good to be small in this climate,” said Ma, whose payroll totals 12 people, including the just-hired salespeople at Y’s Mandarina Duck.

While Amma Holdings’ main focus is on retail at the moment, its other main business is brand consultancy, something Ma believes must come with hands-on retail experience. “I do feel that consulting and retail go hand-in-hand. If you don’t have a ‘brick,’ so to speak, it will be difficult to be on the ball. You’ll phase out early and never know the market,” she said.

In the meantime, Ma hopes to put speculation to rest about the Ma family’s sudden departure from Joyce in November of last year. “I’d like to put it on the record that it was a very amicable departure. It was, of course, a historical and monumental change. Half the world, if not more, thought I was fired or we must have had a fight or it wouldn’t have been so abrupt, but no. It’s been a thought we were having for a while,” said Ma.

Hong Kong businessman Peter Woo, chairman of Wheelock & Co, privatized Joyce Boutique Holdings when the Ma family stepped down. Andrew Keith, vice president of merchandising at Lane Crawford, succeeded Adrienne Ma as president of Joyce Boutique Holdings.

While Ma is keen to emphasize Amma is her project, she doesn’t hesitate to praise her mother, whose influence can be seen in the artwork displayed throughout Amma’s offices. “She worked hard for 40 years. She’s done more than her share for fashion in the world — she deserves to enjoy life while she’s still young,” said Ma, adding the two of them are constantly in touch. “She still advises me and cautions me, but the big thing is that she is more at arm’s length than before.”

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