Dee Poon

Sustainability champion Dee Poon has an intercontinental, behind-the-scenes perspective of the fashion industry.

In advance of her being honored at tonight’s China Fashion Gala, the Hong Kong-based executive spoke with WWD about her environmental efforts and humanistic business approach. Her father, Dickson Poon, owns the upscale specialty retailer Harvey Nichols and her mother Marjorie Yang runs Esquel, where Poon works on the men’s shirting brand PYE and the primarily direct-to-consumer brand Determinant. Traces of her college degree philosophy studies surfaced in her involved and often big-picture responses.

“How do you know when to understand the full set of problems? How do figure out what your point where you are really going to be able to make a difference is? That’s what I’m constantly trying to do in fashion,” she said. “When is it a question of marketing? When is it a product problem or a design problem?’”

Poon said she also continually asks, “How do you leverage what you’ve got and then communicate that into action and change? But it requires for you to think through so many different things.”

Last year she started Project Loopie (a working name) inspired by the circular economy that focused on a companywide mechanical shredding platform. One element is to collect all cutting-room scraps to re-spin them into new clothes. In January, Esquel launched a platform for recycled content yarn and fabric with a knit collection, which included a selection of jersey, pique, and French terry fabrications. Woven fabrications will be presented off this platform in July, she said. Several brands have adopted this for development.

Once all of the leftover fabric is collected, it is separated into 18 colors. From there, dye can be recaptured and re-blended into about 2,500 colors. With expertise in seed research, spinning, ginning, knitting, weaving and cut-and-sew, the company has a better grasp of the start-to-finish process. Several business-to-business customers have adopted this for development for new products, she said. Starting out with a few knit products, there are plans for a few wovens to be introduced in two months. “Half of being environmental requires buying less and wearing more,” Poon sad. “If you’re doing hyper-fashion, it doesn’t really buy into that. We wanted to go after core or basic items.”

Rather than create a barrage of products, Poon prefers a more studied, edited approach creating a sampling of sustainable basics that are meant to be worn again and again. PYE recently introduced packaging with a tote bag made of 50 percent reclaimed cotton and a shirt bag made of 30 percent reclaimed cotton. This summer and fall, the brand will launch T-shirts and woven shirts with 30 percent recycled cotton. Launched 18 months ago, Determinant offers wrinkle-free styles and its etho was inspired by a remark then-President Obama made to Vanity Fair in 2014 explaining he only wears gray or blue suits to pare down decisions in order to focus on other ones.

“I realized that is so true. Unless you are very passionate about fashion, and I have many friends who are, most people actually need a solution. You don’t need to be expressing themselves through fashion. That’s why Determinant is a minimalist brand,” she said.

There will be a few new products in the future, but it will never be a huge line. With two stores in Beijing and Guangzhou, the brand is primarily direct-to-consumer. Citing Marie Kondo’s popularity, Poon said, “We’re over-messaged and we’re not necessarily giving ourselves the time to think about what we want to think about or do the things that we actually care about. That’s the premise of my brand — we can make you exactly what you need and you don’t actually need that many things. But are you willing to think like that? That’s the moment we’re at now. People need to start thinking or noticing the messages that the world is pushing at them, and think through the choices they make.”

Esquel has completed the first phase of building an eco-industrial tourist park — a sustainability factory that executives chose not to have LEED, WWF or other certifications. While those are great, Poon said, “We’re not a public company. We don’t need to prove to people that we’re green. We set up a system of measuring. The amount of resources that could have been used to get all of these certifications could have been put somewhere else. So you have to really think, what does it mean to actually be doing the thing that you think is right?”

Noting how her great-grandfather Tsai Shengbai studied mining engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Poon said he realized that by providing good jobs and using scientific management, industry can change a country and the people who live in it. His foresightedness included building dorms for workers and ensuring they were clean. He also arranged for workers to be educated in reading, writing, math and other subjects. “It was very proto-social. The view was given the historical context and everything, we want to rebuild China and this nation. What could we be? That idea of development and industry being there to help grow a society has been a part of my family for that many generations.”

Poon also noted how the company practices that ideology in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and everywhere else it goes. “We’re trying to understand not just to come because there’s labor that’s cheap. That’s why we’re not in certain countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh. We’re in places and we’re committed to them. We want to try to grow with the place, and take our management philosophy to try to make it work for us and for them,” she said.

With nearly 55,000 employees, the company is committed to taking care of them. When flash floods washed through one of Esquel’s factories, she traveled there to help. She also noted how the company has tried several tactics to persuade workers in one factory, who prefer not to wear shoes, that they should for safety reasons. “One of the things we believe at our company is that people are as important, if not more important, to us than the environment. And the reason we need to save the environment and solve climate change is so that people can have a better life,” she said, adding that learning how to balance the different aspects of business “without doing one thing at the expense of every other thing” is also key.

Referring to how the familial vision took over and defined the industry or the business going forward, she said, “Obviously, it’s a recognition. ‘Do you believe in capitalism?’ If you believe in capitalism then you use businesses to create the change you want to see in society.…Businesses are a large part of our society and they should be doing good. Are they? Why are they? Why are they not? That is sort of our whole thing. We want to be a positive active player. We believe that all companies should be positive active players.“

Aside from her in-depth familiarity of the fashion cycle, Poon is friendly with some influencers and such designers as Mary Ping, Jason Wu and Zang Toi. But she hangs out with architects, doctors, public health workers and friends in a range of other professions. Poon is also on the committee for the Oxford Ownership Project, a Ford Foundation-funded project that examines how family businesses might or might not be effective in affecting positive change like the Sustainable Development Goals. She also serves on the international councils of the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Gallery, as well as the board for West Kowloon Cultural District, a multibillion-dollar arts and culture development.

In January, a Chinese opera house was the first building to open there. A black-box-theater complex, a contemporary art museum M+, and a museum with artifacts from Beijing’s Forbidden Palace and a Lyric Theater for dance will also be housed at what is a picturesque crossroads with a high-speed rail terminal.

“This is the ultimate gift for Hong Kong,” she said. “At this moment, and the world feels it, there’s a real need for art and culture. And not just art for the 1 percent. With the explosion of the art market and art as a commodity, you forget what art actually is. It’s the purest celebration of the humanities and the human experience. As Hong Kong goes forward, this is going to be an important part of it.”

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