Singapore success story Charles & Keith

HONG KONG--A vertically-integrated business, new styles that hit stores every week, and a price-point that rarely ventures beyond $80 for a pair of shoes, Charles & Keith is not a household name in the west but it soon might be as the Asian brand positions itself to be the world’s next global fast fashion giant.

Founded in 1996 by Singaporean brothers Charles and Keith Wong, its accessories-only business has earned it a reputation as the “Zara of shoes”, managing to expand to 35 countries across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, all while keeping a relatively low profile.

That’s because, like Zara founder Armancio Ortega who rarely does interviews, the brothers are intensely private. They were asked to comment for this article but declined. It was only after coaxing from backers L Catterton Asia that the company was willing to have one of its directors talk.

“We take the comparisons to Zara highly as a compliment at Charles & Keith headquarters,” said Emmanuelle Mace-Driskill, executive director of products and strategic planning at Charles & Keith.

Charles & Keith SS17 campaign.

Charles & Keith SS17 campaign.  Courtesy

The company doesn’t reveal its exact size other than to say its network spans 600 stores and has a workforce of 5,000 people, but it’s less shy about its global ambitions. Already present in places as disparate as South Africa, Cambodia, Oman, and Panama, this year the company will open directly in Taiwan and Hong Kong and it is searching for a franchisee partner in Russia, which Mace-Driskill says is a huge market to be tapped. The brand’s on-trend accessories–currently tasseled crossbody bags and open-stone rings are popular–are ubiquitous across Asia and the Middle East. Mainland China, which was opened in 2011 now is the company’s largest market with nearly 100 stores and still growing.

Charles & Keith is adamant to add the U.S. and Europe to that list- eventually. “When you look at international brands like Zara or H&M, you find them anywhere in the world in all the key fashion capital cities. We want to go there too,” Mace-Driskill said.

The company’s mainstay is shoes and bags, most of which are made out of faux leather, but it produces jewelry too and is looking at developing other categories. It recently dabbled in kids’ products but Mace-Driskill said that trends drive the brand’s product development strategy.

“We don’t have eyewear yet but we are now working on what is next for us. The product is part of being in fashion. Scarves could come back in a big way [so] we have to be agile in that sense,” she said. Right now, the company is seeing a return of the loafer, thanks to renewed buzz in Gucci, as shoe trends move away from the sneaker.

The one thing that the Charles & Keith brand would never touch is men’s products- that’s because the company launched a second brand in 2006 called Pedro. With leather products priced about 35 to 40 percent more than the regular Charles & Keith line, it targets a slightly older customer. The brand began with men’s items and added women’s in 2008. Pedro is present in 16 countries through 90 stores.

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But while Charles & Keith has started to make some inroads in western Europe via France, the U.S. remains noticeably absent. The brand got a spike of publicity Stateside when “Game of Thrones” actress Maisie Williams took two of their bags on the Emmys red carpet last September. The styles quickly sold out and were re-produced. Even now, they are still listed under the “trending now” section on Charles & Keith’s online shop.

Actress Maisie Williams holding a Charles & Keith bag at the Emmy Awards last September.

Actress Maisie Williams holding a Charles & Keith bag at the Emmy Awards last September.  Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

“For the company, Maisie Williams has been a milestone for sure,” Mace-Driskill said. Nevertheless she explains that while the U.S. is a must-conquer country for the brand in the long-term, it is not in a rush to get there.

It’s a very competitive market. One, is the celebrity endorsement business. A lot of celebrities have their own product line–it’s really specific to the States, you don’t have it in other countries,” she said, also nodding to a shift in the consumer away from fast fashion and a tough environment to withstand even for American stalwart brands.

“Right now, it is true they have a big shift in the way people are buying less. Macy’s is closing stores. We’ve got to be very strategic the way we want to do it,” she said.