HONG KONG—True to this city’s reputation as a major retail destination, Lulu Guinness is shopping around this week for potential partners to expand her brand in Asia.

The award-winning handbag designer was feted here Tuesday night with a party at the British Consulate that saw the deputy consul general, Iain Lindsay, refer to Guinness as an inexorable “part of British fashion history.” But Guinness, along with her Hong Kong-based investment partner First Eastern, is not resting on historical achievements. Instead the coming week will see back-to-back meetings with a slew of potential business partners.

“The right partner is what really matters. There are a lot of people in the fashion business and we want to get it right,” said Guinness, surrounded by her whimsical designs like lip-shaped clutches and a dainty bag in the form of a pot of roses.

Lulu Guinness chief executive Martin Mason agreed. “We have already established the brand in Japan, going back 14 years.  When I joined the company I was keen to expand in markets we had no coverage in, but we need someone with local knowledge and support,” he said, explaining that the company relies on First Eastern to vet potential partners in the region.

So far, the company is finalizing a deal with a partner in South Korea. Mason said that Lulu Guinness plans to open five stores in the country over the next five years. The company is also in final negotiations with a Malaysian partner that will see the opening of the first Lulu Guinness flagship in Kuala Lumpur, in all likelihood debuting in early 2012. Executives declined to name either partner.

But the real test of the week will be whether Lulu Guinness comes away from the week with a deal – or deals- to roll out in Hong Kong and China, where heretofore, the brand has only had a small wholesale business.

Victor Chu, chief executive of First Eastern, which owns a 15 percent stake in Lulu Guinness, said that he does not see the need for dozens of freestanding Lulu Guinness stores in China.
“Out of 1.3 billion shoppers, 900 million live in rural areas. You don’t need shops in every city,” he said, pointing out that they were still assessing whether it would be better to go with one partner for all of China or to work regionally.

In either case, Mason said that he expects to see a Lulu Guinness shop-in-shop or stand-alone store in Hong Kong or China in 2012.

As deals are made, Guinness herself points out that her company won’t be taking the same retail route preferred by many major brands, which have opened cookie-cutter stores across Asia.

“We have a unique brand and I want to keep it original and up-to-date. The big brands –and we won’t name names – are creating other brands within their stable to make themselves look interesting. There is a lot of brand fatigue out there and we’re here to reduce it,” she said.

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