By  on November 15, 2007

HONG KONG — Joyce Ma, a pillar of the Asian fashion business and one of the industry's most admired merchants, is retiring as chief executive officer from Joyce Boutique Holdings Ltd., effective Monday.

Ma's husband, Walter, who was chairman, and daughter Adrienne, president of Joyce, are also stepping down, marking a changing of the guard at one of the Far East's most iconic and influential fashion retailers.

"There comes a time when one wants to pursue other interests and take life more leisurely," Adrienne Ma said about her mother's decision. She denied speculation here that her mother is in ill health, or that there were any tensions between the Ma family and Peter Woo, who took a majority stake in Joyce in 2000. Ma described their parting from the company as "an amicable separation."

As for herself, Ma, 42, said, "I've done what I'm doing now for 10 years and I have been running the whole company for 17 years. Naturally, it comes to me to ask, 'Would I be anyone without this big umbrella shielding me?' I want to answer that.

"My father is chairman, but if my mother decides to retire and I decide to spread my wings, he's not staying without us."

Ma added that although her parents are both retiring, she would not. "I'm taking a break, then trying something new," she said. "It will definitely be in the world of brands, but nothing's concrete yet. I am definitely not going to work 20 hours a day next week. I'll take at least two months off."

Trading of Joyce shares was suspended on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Wednesday, pending an announcement from the company in relation to a proposed privatization.

It is understood Peter Woo, who controls parent company Lane Crawford Joyce Group, will launch an offer to buy the remaining outstanding shares, some of which are held by the Ma family.

Lane Crawford has made significant investments in Joyce and doubled the business in the past few years, according to market sources.

Recently the company has been expanding its China business with the opening of several monobrand stores as well as a Joyce multibrand boutique, which opened in Shanghai in May. Also last May, the company unveiled a new, expanded Joyce flagship in Hong Kong. Currently there are four Joyce stores and 44 monobrand shops operated by the company. It is understood management has a five-year plan to continue expanding Joyce, particularly with monobrand stores in the region.Joyce sells more than 200 brands in its stores, including Stella McCartney, Jil Sander, Pucci, Comme des Garçons, Balenciaga, Ann Demeulemeester, Undercover, Neil Barrett and Hugo Boss.

In a statement, Joyce Ma said, "My family and I are grateful to Peter Woo for his unwavering support of our retail vision and we have valued our successful business partnership. We know that he will continue to build on the legacy of the Joyce brand."

For his part, Woo said, "We are pleased to have spent the past seven years working as partners with the founders of the legendary Joyce business. We certainly want to thank the Ma family, as we appreciate greatly their contributions to the company since the acquisition in 2000. We had not anticipated this change, but respect their decision. We wish them a wonderful retirement with health and prosperity."

All three members of the Ma family will remain on the board as nonexecutive directors of the company. Stephen T.H. Ng, deputy chairman of Wheelock and Company Ltd., will assume the nonexecutive chairmanship of the board.

Since 2004, the role of chairman of the executive committee of Joyce Boutique Holdings Ltd. has been held by Bonnie Brooks, president of Lane Crawford Joyce Group. Effective next week, Horace Lee, chief operating officer of the company, will replace Adrienne Ma and serve as interim coordinator of the management team reporting to the executive chairman of the board.

Joyce Ma founded her business in Hong Kong in the early Seventies and has been responsible for introducing many international designers and brands to the market, including Giorgio Armani, Yohji Yamamoto and Dries Van Noten.

Ma embraced fashion wholeheartedly, and was never blasé when she encountered a blast of design creativity. Earlier this year after an invigorating John Galliano fashion spectacle in Paris, she leapt to her feet, eyes moist with emotion, and proclaimed: "Don't you feel like dancing!"

On Wednesday, retailers and designers praised Ma's unerring eye for talent, unfailing personal elegance and deep passion for the business.

"She is a woman and a buyer enjoying her work with the aim of selling. When she rushes backstage and greets me, she cries sometimes, very moved. It comes from her heart. She is sincere," said Yamamoto, lauding Ma's sharp ability to choose the very best from each designer.Yamamoto described her impact in Asia as "huge. She has been an authentic pioneer in the market."

"She opened the gate of China to all of the fashion industry," said Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz. "The level of style and sophistication she introduced pushed so many other people to come and explore China. She's not just a business lady: She's a true innovator. She inspires everyone to dream."

Elbaz also lauded her modesty and kindness. "It's no coincidence her name is Ma. She's almost like a mother to so many people...taking care of everyone. I'm very sad about [her retiring]. I will miss her a lot in the business, but hopefully see more of her in my life."

"She was the first one to detect all the important design talents and take them all to Asia," said Ralph Toledano, chairman and ceo of Chloé. "She's a major, major figure."

And mentor. Toledano said Ma groomed countless fashion executives working across Asia today. "There is a very big Joyce family," he said.

Rosita Missoni recalled meeting Ma in the Sixties at a trade fair in Florence.

"Joyce, wearing a superb Mandarin coat in the most divine colors, was sitting on some empty boxes outside our stand, determined to buy our collection while [my husband] Tai pretended we could not afford new customers because our production had sold out," she recalled. "Joyce put on her sweetest smile and said, 'Mr. Missoni, you already told me that last season. Now I will sit here and not move until I will place my order.' And that was the beginning of a long, prosperous business relation and a precious friendship that we will continue to enjoy. Her style, her sense of fashion, her Oriental beauty and gentleness made Joyce the most charming presence in the fashion world."

Italian designer Alessandro Dell'Acqua credited Ma as being one of his earliest supporters. "She was a woman always ahead of her time and her curiosity in terms of discovering new designers made her stand out," he said.

Marni's Consuelo Castiglioni said, "Thirty years ago, before anyone else, Joyce Ma with her unique fashion sensibility started to introduce off-stream European designers in Asia. Marni owes her a lot."Derek Lam has known Ma practically since launching his own line, and she has remained a supporter. "She has been one of our early champions," he recalled. "It's sad, it's a changing of the guard, and I love the store and love what Joyce and Adrienne have done to represent the designers. She educated several generations of people in Hong Kong, and in Asia in general, to fashion — she is one of the reasons why Hong Kong is considered to have one of the most knowledgeable and sophisticated [consumers]."

Lam added he was always inspired by the personal touch the Mas put into their stores, pointing to a recent expansion of the Hong Kong flagship, which now offers sculptures, artwork, taxidermy and two large soup tureens from her personal collection on the main floor. "She is so multidimensional at this point in her life; the retail aspect was just a part of her life at this point," Lam added. "She has the gallery in Paris, and this will allow her to spend time to be with her family."

Anne Chapelle, the general manager of BVBA 32, the Antwerp, Belgium-based holding company of Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann, said Ma "has always been a woman with a heart in this industry. Besides being interested in the product, she was mostly interested and moved by the designer....She tried to understand the philosophy of the designer and to translate this to the end consumer.

"It's [a rare thing] these days where the product is the leader," she continued. "Through the years, [she has] always been loyal to her own taste and beliefs, no matter how difficult it was for the sales....She [taught] people to look, love, buy and wear fashion and design."

Italian designer Maurizio Pecoraro praised Ma's intuition and loyalty. "Her taste and her style remain extraordinary compared to what we even see today," he said. "It's difficult to remain at the top for 30 years, but her personal style, based on a combination of Western and Eastern taste, her sense of measure, her refined luxury, the way she selects the brands she carries, are really unique. And the way she has been following her customers with top service is special."The Joyce story has not always been a happy one. At the height of its first Asian expansion — which took the store banner to Taiwan, the Philippines and beyond — came the economic crisis of 1997-1998, which forced Ma to pull up stakes and pay down a debt that had ballooned to some $200 million.

She eventually paid it down by cost cutting, while gradually rebuilding her Hong Kong franchise.

In 2005, Ma was decorated as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, during which she credited Paris for giving her "insight into the soul of fashion," and thanked her husband for being her "pillar of support."

— With contributions from Miles Socha and Katya Foreman, Paris; Marc Karimzadeh, New York, and Alessandra Ilari, Amanda Kaiser and Luisa Zargani, Milan

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