SHANGHAI— Friday marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to the People’s Republic of China. Under an agreement signed by China with the United Kingdom in 1997, the former British colony could keep its capitalist system for 50 years.
According to the “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine, Hong Kong continues to be a global financial and trading center. But the city has also had difficult years in recent years.
As one of the first cities to experience the ravages of COVID-19, the prolonged pandemic measures have driven out financial elites and hurt business. Hong Kong’s economy contracted by 4% in the first quarter of this year, while the unemployment rate rose to 5%.
Waves of social unrest have also torn city residents apart, with many immigrating elsewhere after the introduction of Hong Kong’s national security law in 2020. MMore than 180 people have been arrested and 115 suspects prosecuted, including media mogul Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily.
The 25th anniversary marked Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit outside mainland China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. It is also his first visit to Hong Kong in five years.
Arriving by train, Xi greeted onlookers at the West Kowloon station saying, “After the storm, Hong Kong rose from the ashes. It shows a vibrant vitality.
So far, Hong Kong’s status as a fashion capital with a rich hybrid culture remains intact. The city has given 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 strong connection to the fashion industry, giving rise to renowned multi-brand boutiques such as Lane Crawford, Joyce and IT.
For young local designers, Hong Kong’s rich culture remains the city’s biggest draw.
Philip Chu, designer of one of Hong Kong’s first streetwear fashion brands, Groundzero, said what appealed to them was “Hong Kong’s cultural pluralism”.
“Chinese and Western cultures mingle here and permeate everyone’s life, we are also under the influence. I see interesting design ideas all over the city,” Chu said. For Chu, the charm of the city lies in the tension between the dichotomy of a super elite fashion circle and a gritty underground scene, which has inspired her design in previous collections.
But for Fiona Lau, one half of the design duo behind Ffixxed Studios, rent pressures have stymied the emergence of more creative subcultural elements. “There are very few underground music venues, independent art galleries, and smaller concept stores, which limits the creative expression of personal styles,” Lau said.
For designer Puilam Lau, public funds such as the Fashion Incubation Program and the Design Incubation Program were the biggest draw when she launched her womenswear brand John in 2017.
“Nevertheless, building a fashion brand in Hong Kong is a bit difficult as the market is still dominated by many European brands,” Lau said. She sees the lack of a mature fashion industry ecosystem as one of the downsides of starting a brand here.
“For example, Hong Kong lacks PR firms willing to support designer brands. It also lacks local showrooms, internationally renowned magazines and media, and platforms such as select independent boutiques,” she said.
But for co-founder of The World Is Your Oyster, Calvin Chan, a menswear brand founded in 2014, the development of Hong Kong’s local market is still important to them emotionally. “It’s great that our designs are selling in our city,” Chan said.
“In recent years the market focus has shifted towards diversity, we are seeing more local customers supporting local brands and platforms,” said Derek Cheng, one half of Ponder.er, the gender-neutral label based in Hong Kong. The brand recently won the first prize in the Yu Prize, winning a cash prize of 1 million renminbi, as well as an opportunity to collaborate with Li-Ning, a showroom in Paris, retail at Harrods and mentoring from OTB.
“But after the easing of lockdown measures in Hong Kong, I don’t think fashion retail will rebound so quickly. It’s not essential,” said Percy Lau, who launched his eponymous eyewear brand in 2013.
Karmuel Young, designer of his eponymous label, sees the advantage of being based in a free port city. “We can easily source different materials from around the world,” Young said. “Meanwhile, mainland China provides excellent professional manufacturing and production resources.”
Wilsonkaki designer Wilson Yip also found it easier to work with makers in southern mainland China: “We do sample and small production in Hong Kong,” Yip said. “However, our production partners in southern China can respond quickly to our requests when our demand exceeds local capacity.”
Young sees Hong Kong as a useful launching pad for venturing into the global market. Starting with the Spring 2023 collection, he began showcasing his brand during Paris Men’s Fashion Week.
Some designers have also found the Hong Kong aesthetic to be a goldmine of design inspiration. Driven by 90s nostalgia, the aesthetic has gained momentum in the mainland Chinese market in recent years. The hashtag “Aesthetics of Hong Kong” garnered over 360 million clicks on Weibo. “It’s a metaphor that describes the combination of Chinese and Western styles well,” Cheng said.
In recent years, many designers have moved their studios to mainland China to be closer to production facilities and a growing market. Shanghai has become an obvious choice for brands like Ffixxed Studios, Groundzero and John. But designers remain hopeful about Hong Kong’s future.
“Like many 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 about the future.
“Seeing all the changes happening here as you grow up gives you a complicated feeling. However, we can understand that Hong Kong people are constantly striving for progress,” Cheng said.
“In the long run, the transfer is a good thing,” said Percy Lau. “Before the return of Hong Kong, the sense of belonging was fragile, but the implementation of the new system is not easy. After all, we had been under British rule for over 100 years.
And for Wilsonkaki’s Yip, an extra vacation for a long weekend is also something to savor.
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