Hong Kong is a hive for handbags of every description, from high to low price points, and certainly reflects an array of international labels. But the city’s product offering isn’t just about those famous names. Several enterprising designers have launched their own businesses to bring something different — and local — to the market.
This story first appeared in the March 9, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“There are quite a few of us in Hong Kong,” observed Michelle Lai, who runs an eight-year-old brand called Mischa. “We’re in the same city as a lot of decision-makers. It’s at the gateway of sourcing and production — which is the supply chain of the fashion world.”
Here are three brands to watch.
(nickname of designer Michelle Lai)
The Story: Lai’s love of travel and creative pursuits drew her to handbag design. In 2004, she launched hand-stitched clutches made from Japanese obis. She established her brand Mischa in 2008 and subsequently specialized in travel-friendly bags made from coated cotton canvas featuring a hexagon print similar to those typically featured in traditional Japanese textiles.
The Creative: Born and raised in Toronto, Lai earned a degree in biomedical sciences at Kings College London and started her career in education before moving into the world of handbags. From an early age, she developed a fascination with exotic cultures, especially Japan. Lai’s godmother gave her a kimono, a gift that sparked her initial interest in the country. The designer studied Japanese in high school; as a young woman, she started traveling to Japan, collecting kimonos and obis. “It’s been an obsession,” she said. “Maybe it was a past life connection, I don’t know.”
Design Philosophy: Lai said she strives to create bags that are timeless rather than chasing trends each season, and practical. “It has to be functional. It has to travel well. It has to match with whatever climate I’m in and also the style of the cities that I go to.”
Mark of Distinction: “I try to make them functional so I use cotton canvas that’s coated so it’s very light, but it’s durable,” Lai said, adding that the leather trim she uses is designed to age well with time. Mischa’s bags could appeal to women who like the ease of Louis Vuitton or Goyard canvas bags but want a more affordable alternative with an Asian twist.
Core Clientele: Lai said much of her key clients are expats and Western-educated women with a strong sense of individuality. “They’re independent, style-savvy, not trend-driven,” Lai said. “They’re well-informed and well-traveled, with disposal income and confidence in their own taste.”
Distribution: More than 30 points of sale across Asia, including Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, and Kapok in Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. The brand also sells through its own online store.
Retail Prices: 1,090 Hong Kong dollars, or $140, for a travel clutch to 1,790 Hong Kong dollars, or $230, for a shopper tote.
(a Portuguese word from Brazil that means “playing with a lover’s hair.”)
The Story: Childhood friends and Hong Kong natives Queenie Fan and Day Lau made a promise to one another to launch a label together before they went their separate ways to study abroad. They started up Cafuné in August. “We wanted to take advantage of [Hong Kong’s] favorable start-up environment,” Lau said.
The Creatives: An industrial design graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, creative director Fan spent four years in New York working as a handbag designer at 3.1 Phillip Lim, Coach and Rag & Bone. Lau, who holds a media and communications degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, worked as a communications consultant in the architecture and real estate industries before becoming managing director of Cafuné.
Design Philosophy: “With my industrial design background, I’m always drawn to how form informs functionality,” Fan said. “I also love people-watching, the way they express their style gives me a lot of insight into designing. It’s always fun to see how they handle their bags, and I look forward to seeing how people will carry our bags.”
Mark of Distinction: Cafuné’s bags have a sleek, minimalistic look reminiscent of Céline, crafted from Italian leather, with thin slabs of China-sourced marble as trim.
Core Clientele: “Women who enjoy shopping emerging labels, and people who are looking for affordable leather goods that are minimal and well-considered,” Lau said.
Distribution: Ethos and Kapok in Hong Kong. The brand is also selling through its own Web site, ca-fune.com, and online stores Popmap and iStyleup.
Retail prices: $370 for a small cross-body to $585 for a large satchel.
The Story: While studying accessories design in London, Leung decided to launch her own brand in 2012. “The insight I found is [that] universal designs with basic shapes and colors outlast the fickle ups and downs of the fashion market,” said the Hong Konger. “So, even with no stable income and virtually no connections, I decided to strike out on my own.”
The Creative: Leung studied graphic design at Birmingham City University and accessories design at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. She worked as a buyer for a vintage accessories store and as a freelance graphic designer and art director for advertising agencies. “Geometric shapes and bright colors have fascinated me since my teens,” she said. “They are simple, eye-catching and make me happy.”
Design Philosophy: A confluence of Eighties Memphis, Art Deco and Bauhaus influence Leung’s aesthetic. “I wonder why people have to carry a bag that’s black or brown or some really conservative color. To me, that’s boring,” Leung said. “The philosophy of the Memphis movement aims to challenge the idea that products had to follow conventional shapes, colors and textures.”
Mark of Distinction: Leung puts a big emphasis on original hardware, and many of her bags feature large circular resin feet. “We took some time with the factory to find a way to make them,” she said. The chain handles on some models are spray-painted with a matte finish.
Core Clientele: Women who work in the arts or creative fields who want something edgy and unique. “Not those fashion bloggers,” clarified Leung.
Distribution: Sales points include Le Bon Marché in Paris, Yoox.com, Dongliang in Shanghai and the brand’s own concept store at K11 Select in Hong Kong.
RetailPrices: From 249 British pounds, or $357, for a small clutch to 413 pounds, or $591, for a structured satchel.