SHANGHAI — Friday marks 25 years since the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. Under a deal China signed with the U.K. in 1997, the former British colony could keep its capitalist system for 50 years.
Under the “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine, Hong Kong continues to be a global financial and business hub. But the city has also experienced a rough last couple of years.
As one of the first cities experiencing havoc from COVID-19, prolonged pandemic measures drove financial elites away and hurt business. Hong Kong’s economy contracted by 4 percent in the first quarter of this year, while the unemployment rate rose to 5 percent.
Waves of social unrest have also torn the people in the city apart, with many immigrating elsewhere after the introduction of the Hong Kong national security law in 2020. More than 180 people have been detained, and 115 suspects prosecuted, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily.
The 25th anniversary marked Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit outside mainland China since the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020. It’s also his first time visiting Hong Kong in five years.
Arriving by train, Xi greeted onlookers at West Kowloon station by saying, “After the storm, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes. It is showing vibrant vitality.”
So far Hong Kong’s status as a fashion capital with a rich hybrid culture remains intact. The city gave birth to fashion icons such as filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, legendary singer Leslie Zhang, and lyricist and fashion columnist Wyman Wong. These superstars had a tight connection to the fashion industry, giving birth to renowned multibrand boutiques such as Lane Crawford, Joyce, and I.T.
In the eyes of young homegrown designers, the rich culture of Hong Kong still serves as the city’s biggest draw.
Philip Chu, designer of one of the original Hong Kong streetwear fashion brands Groundzero, said what attracts them is “the cultural pluralism of Hong Kong.”
“Chinese and Western cultures mingle here and permeate everyone’s life, we are under the influence as well. I see interesting design ideas all over the city,” Chu said. For Chu, the city’s charm lies in the tension between the dichotomy of a super elitist fashion circle and a gritty underground scene, which inspired his design in previous collections.
But for Fiona Lau, one-half of the design duo behind Ffixxed Studios, rent pressures have dampened the emergence of more creative subcultural elements. “There are very few underground music venues, independent art galleries, and smaller concept stores, which results in less creative expression in personal styles,” said Lau.
For designer Puilam Lau, government-issued funds such as the Fashion Incubation Programme and the Design Incubation Programme were the biggest draw when she launched her womenswear brand John in 2017.
“Nevertheless, doing a fashion brand in Hong Kong is a bit challenging since the market is still dominated by many European brands,” said Lau. She sees a lack of a mature fashion industry ecosystem as one of the downfalls of starting a brand here.
“For example, Hong Kong lacks PR firms willing to support designer brands. It also lacks local showrooms, internationally recognized magazines and media, and platforms such as independent select shops,” she said.
But for The World Is Your Oyster’s cofounder Calvin Chan, a menswear label founded in 2014, developing the Hong Kong local market is still important to them emotionally. “It is great to have our designs selling in our city,” said Chan.
“In recent years, the market focus has been shifting toward diversity, we see more local customers supporting local brands and platforms,” said Derek Cheng, one half of Ponder.er, the Hong Kong-based gender-inclusive label. The brand recently scooped the top award at Yu Prize, taking home a 1 million renminbi cash prize, plus a collaboration opportunity with Li-Ning, a showroom slot in Paris, retailing at Harrods, and mentorship from OTB.
“But after Hong Kong lockdown measures eased, I don’t think fashion retail will bounce back so quickly. It’s non-essentials,” said Percy Lau, who launched her eponymous eyewear brand in 2013.
Karmuel Young, designer of his namesake brand, sees the advantage of being based in a free port city. “We can source different global materials easily,” said Young. “Meanwhile, mainland China provides great professional manufacturing and production resources.”
Wilsonkaki designer Wilson Yip also found it easier to work with manufacturers in southern mainland China, “We do samples and small production in Hong Kong,” said Yip. “However, our production partners in South China can quickly respond to our requests when our demand exceeds local capacity.”
Young sees Hong Kong as a useful launchpad to venture into the global market. Starting from the spring 2023 collection, he began to showcase his brand during Paris Men’s Fashion Week.
Some designers also found the Hong Kong aesthetic a goldmine for design inspiration. Driven by ’90s nostalgia, the aesthetic has gained momentum in the mainland China market in recent years. The hashtag “Hong Kong aesthetics” garnered over 360 million clicks on Weibo. “It’s a metaphor that nicely describes the combination of the Chinese and Western styles,” said Cheng.
In recent years many designers have moved their studios to mainland China to be closer to production facilities and a growing market. Shanghai became an obvious choice for brands like Ffixxed Studios, Groundzero, and John. But designers remain hopeful about Hong Kong’s future.
“Like a lot of important historical moments, it [the anniversary] means different things to different people for different reasons,” said Fixxed Studios’ Lau. “A lot has changed, but a lot has also stayed the same depending on your perspective. We like to stay positive and open-minded towards the future.”
“Seeing all the changes happening here as you grow up does give you a complicated feeling. However, we can appreciate that Hong Kong people are constantly striving for progress,” said Cheng.
“In the long run, the handover is a good thing,” said Percy Lau. “Before Hong Kong’s return, the sense of belonging was fragile, but establishing the new system is not something easy to achieve. After all, we were under Britain’s rule for over 100 years.”
And for Wilsonkaki’s Yip, an extra holiday for an extended weekend is also something to relish.
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