In a major move for East-West fashion relations, Adrian Cheng, the Hong Kong-based founder of K11 Group and C Ventures, has been named the first CFDA global ambassador with the mandate to help emerging and established American designers expand their international businesses.
As part of his four-year ambassadorial role, Cheng, the 39-year-old entrepreneur, will support the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s educational programs and play a key role in helping American designers’ strategies in China, and throughout Asia. The CFDA and Cheng will develop a series of international programs, apprentice programs and scholarships that foster cross-cultural exchanges to create innovative business models and approaches. The relationship is also expected to drive growth for the CFDA across Asia.
“My ambition is to build communities that make a transformative impact through art, culture, architecture, design, heritage, craftsmanship and sustainability,” said Cheng. “So it is an honor to become the CFDA’s first-ever global ambassador to work with them to support, nurture and accelerate the next generations of American fashion talent through a global perspective.”
In 2008, Cheng founded K11 Group, which encompasses a portfolio of companies including retail, luxury residences and working spaces. By 2024, there is expected to be 36 K11 projects in nine major cities across mainland China encompassing 30 million square feet. The latest initiative is K11 Musea, an art-led retail destination in Hong Kong that will house an extensive selection of international brands — many of which will be flagships — and a rotating world-class art collection. Cheng’s most ambitious project to date is Victoria Dockside, a $2.6 billion, 3 million-square-foot complex on the promenade of the Kowloon waterfront. The complex includes an office tower, a 600-room Rosewood Hotel, and K11 Musea.
Cheng’s C Ventures has been aggressive in acquiring and investing in a portfolio of disruptive brands in lifestyle, technology and media. Begun in 2017, the investment portfolio includes companies such as Moda Operandi, YOHO!, Armarium, Threads, Dazed and Beautycon. Cheng is also the executive director of his family’s business, Chow Tai Fook, the world’s largest listed jeweler by market value, and is executive vice chairman of New World Development.
Steven Kolb, president and chief executive officer of the CFDA, called the ambassadorship “a big, major project and relationship for us.”
“As we look at our work at CFDA and understand the importance of globalization and the ability of businesses, it helps us to have people who are on the ground and have the knowledge and experience and interest in working with American designers,” said Kolb. “What we say often at the CFDA is we support the lifeline and career of a designer from student to established. Adrian’s support is helping us along that journey for a designer,” he said.
Kolb said Asia is a market that American designers need the most help navigating. “Adrian’s knowledge and experience and willingness are great for us in terms of connecting American fashion to that knowledge,” said Kolb.
“The CFDA and Adrian Cheng both understand the importance of creativity, culture and innovation. Adrian is a global fashion citizen and bold thinker whose help will support new American talent,” said Diane von Furstenberg, the outgoing chairwoman of the CFDA.
Discussing his new role, Cheng told WWD, “I’m particularly taken by the CFDA’s dedication to incubating the next generation of designers.” He said he has spent the last decade working with creative talent from all industries and continually pushing the boundaries in innovation and creativity. My vision is to really enrich consumers’ daily lives through the power of innovation, creativity and culture, and most importantly, bridging the East and West of the world and building a bigger platform for CFDA, so the talents can have a global platform.”
Asked if he plans to invest in American brands, or help find investors for designers seeking overseas expansion, Cheng said, “I think we’re flexible. We can invest, we can incubate and we can nurture them.”
Overall, there will be four main pillars to Cheng’s CFDA programs in which he will be participating:
• The first is the Adrian Cheng Fellowship for student designers. The CFDA will work with Cheng to set the selection criteria and participate in the selection committee, naming a fellow under their existing CFDA Scholarships program. The application process begins in April 2020 and the recipient will be named at the CFDA Awards in June 2020. Cheng will also serve as a special adviser to the recipient, and there is opportunity for the Adrian Cheng Fellow to collaborate and share design-thinking with Harvard’s Cheng Fellows.
• The second aspect is The Adrian Cheng Apprenticeship for post-graduate designers. Together with the CFDA, Cheng will select one or two emerging designers from a group of 50 students who will reside in Asia for a few months. The recipient will be placed in a design-oriented role within Cheng’s portfolio companies, such as K11 Musea in Hong Kong, Victoria Dockside, or his retail space in China. Cheng will work with the CFDA on selection criteria and the recipients will be selected from the Future Fashion Graduate Program. Recipients will be named in August.
“They need to be immersed in the market and need to understand the market. It’s one of the biggest retail markets in the world,” said Cheng. “They need to understand the Millennials, Gen Z and the Alpha generation. It will be an eye-opening experience to really improve their craft. It will eye-opening to understand markets, business models, customer profiles, the young generation and how they think,” he said.
• A third aspect is the Elaine Gold Launch Pad. Cheng has established the Adrian Cheng Venture Prize for emerging designers. The 23-week creative program for five emerging designers aims to encourage creative entrepreneurship across sustainability, innovation and technology through various workshops and programming in New York. As part of the curriculum, Cheng will be leading workshops. The selection process will start in June and the program begins in September.
• The fourth aspect is the CFDA x K11 Retail Lab for established designers. This will be a pop-up shop hosted at K11 Musea in Hong Kong for four designers, per year. The first Retail Lab will open in November.
“I think it’s great for established designers to be able to have dedicated space. We’ll have four designers per year, and each has an opportunity to drive global brand growth and build a presence in Asia,” said Cheng. “They need to have enough stockkeeping units and products and they have to understand the market. It’s going to be a very entrepreneurial, experimental way for these designers to run the business and produce and cater to the Asian market. After Hong Kong, we can test in China as well. It’s step by step. It’s American fashion living harmoniously with art, design and culture. It’s a great showcase,” he said.
Elaborating on the Asian consumer and which American brands most resonate with Gen Z and Millennials, Cheng said, “Some of them are doing OK. The American brands need to have more exposure in China, and Asia as well. We need to have this bridge; more mutual understanding is crucial, so the American market understands what the Asian market wants, what the Chinese market wants, and are further immersed in that.” He said the Chinese and Asian markets are familiar with some of the older, established brands, but not the emerging ones.
Asked about the process that will determine which designers will participate in the K11 Musea, Cheng said, “At this point, there’s no concrete plan. The key is to take some of the brands that my team and I think are very relevant and suitable for the Asian market. Of course, the CFDA also has to agree to pick the right ones we want to incubate. I don’t know if we’ll have a jury or panel yet. What we need is something that will work in Asia. This is a very good learning process to introduce the American designers into Hong Kong,” he said.
Cheng said he’s eager to help companies establish businesses within his own retail and commercial projects in China, as well as companies that he’s personally not involved with. “I have a fashion distribution company, which will help them expand networks in Asia and China,” he said.
As for whether he would make any personal investments in an American designer brand, Cheng, who plans to attend the CFDA Fashion Awards on Monday night, said, “We have invested in Bandier and some new platforms in the U.S. I’m open to any great potential brands. Why not?”