Getting out of the Bubble
Macau’s developing fashion industry rose to prominence at Centrestage 2018 in Hong Kong
For Macau’s local fashion design talent, participating in Centrestage 2018 Hong Kong, one of Asia’s top fashion events, is seen as a first crucial step to entering other markets, particularly Mainland China.
“We really want to get out of our bubble where we are comfortable, and see if there are other markets for us,” says Isabella Choi, the designer behind Nega C., one of 12 Macau brands selected to attend Centrestage 2018, that took place from September 5 to 8.
Over four days, the international fashion event gathered about 230 designers from more than 20 countries and territories. Macau was featured in a show dedicated to the best of what the city has to offer. And for most of the local designers, it was also an opportunity to spread their wings and define new destinations.
“Centrestage gave me the opportunity to contact many buyers, here from Hong Kong and Mainland China, but also from Dubai and Turkey,” says Kitty Ng, the designer behind the La Mode Désir brand.
“We met a lot of buyers from abroad, for example from India and Dubai,” confirms Kris Chan, one of the partners of the I.N.K. label. “They asked for our catalogue and said that our prices and our style are very suitable for their markets,” says Kris, who admits to being “very surprised” by the positive responses.
Currently I.N.K. only sells to Taiwan and Mainland China, but other Macau brands are starting to break into to more distant markets.
“We just sold our first order to Amazon in Europe and to Celadon,” a North American platform, says Alvin Fung, one of the ANIFA brand representatives.
Still, for most Macau designers, the future resides firmly in China. ANIFA is currently setting up its own store on WeChat, the most popular Chinese social media platform, explains Alvin Fung. On the other hand, the partners are considering opening stores in Macau or Hong Kong, cities that last year alone received more than 77 million visitors from the mainland.
“To build a brand you need to have a presence on the Internet and on the streets, otherwise the customers will not realize the true value or history of the brand,” the designer believes.
However, Vincent Cheang, whose brand Worker Playground has had stores in Chengdu and Beijing, disagrees. “Nowadays people are always buying everything via the Internet,” says the designer.
For Vincent, the emergence of e-commerce has opened up new opportunities to escape the Macau bubble.
“There’s no point being afraid that Macau is too small a market. An independent brand like ours always has a restricted group of potential customers, but through the Internet, suddenly they are not so few,” he says.
Half an hour in the limelight
The Macau Productivity and Technology Transfer Center (CPTTM) – with sponsorship from the Cultural Institute - began preparing for the city’s participation at Centrestage 2018 “shortly after Chinese New Year,” recalls Deputy Director General Victoria Alexa Kuan Chan.
At that time, officials from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKDTC), which organizes the event, came to Macau for a promotional activity to attract local designers.
“We helped the local designers with administrative work and logistics, but they were the ones who had to sign up,” says Victoria.
In total, 15 designers and brands from Macau applied for this year’s Centrestage and 12 were selected by a committee that included executives from the Hong Kong fashion industry, academics and the press, explains Shuen Ka Hung, Executive Director of CPTTM.
“They only accept 200 or so exhibitors and almost 5 percent come from Macau. I think this alone means that this year’s participation was a success,” notes Shuen.
After the selection process was completed, creating the show became the main goal.
“The designers have been preparing for this moment for maybe half a year,” says Shuen Ka Hung. A long journey that culminated in a 30-minute show, where every brand was able to show just six of its creations.
“Of course I wish I could have shown more,” confesses Vincent Cheang. “Six is so few, just a small part of our style,” says the Worker Playground designer.
“The show is only half an hour, but there is a lot of press present and a single moment of social media can take a brand to a huge audience,” stresses Victoria Kuan Chan.
Centrestage “is one of the most influential fashion events in Asia,” says the head of CPTTM. The organization “is very strong” in regards to the connection between designers and distributors she adds. The HKDTC “studies the brand, its characteristics and finds suitable buyers.”
A process that has already borne fruit for local fashion brand Nega C: “We met some potential buyers that fit our requirements. We do not want to mass produce, we want distributors looking for unique creations,” says Isabella Choi.
On the other hand, adds Victoria, “it’s a great opportunity” for designers to take photos of their collections with professional models, make-up and lighting. “These images are vital for the promotion of a brand,” she explains.
In fact, both CPTTM officials and the designers emphasized that the priority for Centrestage was not to close deals, but to publicize the creations and make contacts. The brand Clássico Moderno, for example, organized a buyers-only event, “to be able to show more styles and also the possible combinations of different creations,” says designer Victor Lao.
“A designer told us that a potential buyer came to talk to her three times. This is a place to establish contacts and create relationships, for distributors to do market research. It may not be the right place to place orders,” says Victoria.
Vincent Cheang has been a regular participant in these types of international events since 2012 and believes that the relationships that are created can sometimes help in unexpected ways.
“This year I am collaborating with Shark Watches,” a North American watch brand with a presence on Amazon, the head of Worker Playground says. “I draw the watches and they produce them, along with a host of other accessories,” he explains.
Chantelle Cheang has also found an alternative for promoting her clothing brand, Chavin, through a connection to cinema. Over the past seven years, the local designer has collaborated with films from Portugal, Hong Kong, Mainland China and even Now You See Me 2, a Hollywood production filmed in Macau.
Kitty Ng, who has taught fashion design at CPTTM and the Polytechnic Institute of Macau for more than 30 years, looks with pride at the stands of younger generations from Macau and confesses: “Some of them were my students and I even helped them to prepare” for Centrestage.
At the time the veteran seamstress was beginning to venture to create her own pieces, “no one knew Macau, I had to learn how to present the city,” recalls the designer behind the brand La Mode Désir. The situation has changed though, and at last year’s edition of Centrestage “there were even two Macau brands among the 20 most popular,” Shuen Ka Hung shares.
Alvin Fung believes that the multicultural nature of the city can be a huge advantage: “Our design is from Macau and we want to show people the best of Macau because we have a very rich culture, a mixture of Western and Chinese cultures,” the ANIFA associate explains.
Even I.N.K., which specializes in casual fashion with ‘punk’ influences, has not forgotten the uniqueness of the city. Kris Chan smiles as he magically turns the sleeves of a coat in metallic tones to reveal the Macau SAR flag stamped in black and white on the inside.
The Chavin brand also seeks to combine “more Western” styles and fabrics such as denim, with Chinese sewing and embroidery details and techniques. For the Centrestage collection, presented to the music of Chinese folk singer Sa Ding Ding, designer Chantelle Cheang was inspired by the masks of Chinese opera and the Qing Dynasty, whose look is currently fashionable in Mainland China thanks to the success of the soap opera Story of Yangxi Palace. The growing interest of Westerners in Chinese culture has also translated into a greater demand for fashion design ‘made in China’, she explains.
On the other hand, according to Alvin Fung, Chinese consumers are “increasingly interested” in “original” Chinese style designs, as evidenced by the success of Shanghai Tang, a Hong Kong luxury fashion brand.
“It was not like this in the past, people thought that everything that was made in China did not have quality,” laments the ANIFA partner. “But I really believe now is the best time to try to launch a fashion brand in Mainland China,” the designer concludes.
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