The Hong Kong designer, Cecilia Ma, tells Jin Wong what inspires her to set up her eponymous brand with modern mixed vintage style, how a ticket to Paris fashion week changed her life and the current scene of independent fashion in the city. Knowing that not everything can be planned, Cecilia builds her brand up with a “just do it” attitude despite the lack of support to independent designers in the city.
J: Jin Wong
C: Cecilia Ma
J: How would you define the style of your garments and jewellery?
C: Mixing vintage with modern elements. I like materials that are unconventional and vintage, like wood, then mix it with something unusual together like Swarovski crystals and neon colors. I like this kind of unique way of mixing materials and colors.
For example, for a cape jacket, I use vintage-style buttons, then use the wooden wine cloth make the straps of a jacket. I like to use unusual materials on garments.
For accessories, I like to mix subtle vintage colors with bright neon colors because I like the contrast.
J: Give me some words to describe such combination of your mixing different colors together?
C: I’m very simple like the subtle vintage colors, while very bold like the neon colors. It’s like my split personality. It’s a modern, contemporary style mixed with vintage.
J: Can you name another brand that resembles your style?
C: Um… Not really.
J: What made you want to set up your eponymous brand? Was it always what you dreamed of before?
C: I was working for two fashion brands for a total of 10 years before. The first one was Moiselle, the other is Vivienne Tam where I was the womenswear designer. They had their own philosophy, clients and themes. There were things that I couldn’t agree with sometimes. As someone in a team, I have to follow the instructions; if I had my own opinions then I had to create my own brand rather than rejecting other people’s ideas. So I was thinking I had to create my own brand that I have 100% say of what I want to do so that I don’t need to report to anyone.
But I didn’t dream of creating my own brand while I was working for others because as a designer for a brand you had no time to think of something else as you would work for 10 hours a day. It was until I resigned that I had extra time to think about my own business as I already had more experience in the fashion industry.
Actually when I told my boss to quit and start my own business, he didn’t let me go until 2 or 3 months afterwards when he found a new designer.
J: Did you get into any fashion shows for your brand that you’re really proud of?
C: It was the HKTDC Young Designer Show more than 10 years ago when I graduated from Hong Kong Polytechnic University for 2 years. It was so unbelievable. I was the winner of the show and someone called me saying “would you like to work for us?”
I think the best thing about the show is not the money or the prize, it’s the flight ticket to Paris Fashion Week. That’s the best thing ever happened to me!
As a fresh graduate working in Hong Kong, you would never get into fashion weeks for business because my job was based in Hong Kong. But that flight ticket got me all the way to Paris to visit the shows.
J: How did you tell your boss about the ticket to Paris Fashion Weeks?
C: said, “why not?” He never sent anyone to Paris as a buyer before. I saw different brands’ presentation and met a lot of buyers. It was the first time ever for me to visit a fashion trade shows! All I knew before was from the magazine; I never saw anything backstage before. That show really changed my life!
Since then I asked my boss to send me to Paris every season so that I could get to know more people and grow the business. I would go there as a buyer and bought different products to be sold at the store in Hong Kong.
I really learned a lot from my boss. He was so ambitious, smart and has good sense of business.
J: Are Hong Kong fashion brands successful?
C: Independent designers are very rare in Hong Kong. There are too many international high street brands like H&M and Zara for impulse customers who just want to release their stress from work, while for those people who are more high-profile, they would rather go to Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu or Prada. It’s so hard for independent brands to survive in Hong Kong.
J: What plans are you making to survive?
C: if the quality of the design is good, people will come back to you.
It’s fundamental that as a designer, you need to make sure your design is unique and high quality. In the first or second years, you still need to build up your brand presence and portfolio. If you’re successful, in 2 or 3 years you can hire someone to do the marketing.
I’m still at the first two years. Luckily I have my sister living in Paris who helps me contact the buyers in Europe and do some marketing work.
J: What’s your advice to those soon-to-be designers who want to get into fashion weeks?
C: Just do it. Just start it. It’s like shit ever day. If you can overcome this, it’s fine. Trying to plan something wouldn’t work because nothing can be planned.
For example, I planned to go to a show in January last time for my own collection, I made all the appointments and planned everything with the buyers. However the airport was shut down because of the snowstorm. So many appointments got cancelled because of the weather. But I didn’t plan for the weather.
Therefore sometimes you cannot plan stuff like this. There are too many stuff like this.
I think what one needs to launch a brand is to be hardworking, aggressive and very lucky. If you want to get into fashion shows, just buy a ticket, it’s easy. But first of all, you need to build the brand first and make sure you have a website where people can see your collection. Buyers from international trade shows wouldn’t come to Gough Street (where Cecilia’s store is) or Central. They don’t even take phone calls. They just read the emails and go on your website. Make sure you have a stunning website with good pictures and images. You also need to set up the prices, business registration and the portfolio presentation because the buyers from Europe and US would go there to check things out.
J: How do you find the fashion scene in Hong Kong?
C: It’s very competitive in Hong Kong. There are so many chain stores and international brands competing with independent designers like me. We don’t have enough independent designers to provide more choices in the market.
In Japan or Singapore, there are groups of independent designers, say 20 to 50 designers, that would unit together and ask for help from the government. But in Hong Kong, if there are only 2 or 3 designers like me, we wouldn’t be strong enough to give pressure to the government to support us. The government can provide funding and financial support but not the design support because not many designers are asking for this.
When I go to international trade shows, there are maybe 100 Japanese designers, 20 Chinese designers, 15 Singaporean designers on the catalog of the shows. But for Hong Kong designers, there are only 2 pages – and they always put these 2 Hong Kong designers in the “China” section.
J: Name a street in Hong Kong where you like the style of people’s outfits?
C: I love Gough Street here a lot. I can always find something new every weeks: new shops, new people, bloggers. There are just many good-looking people on this street. That’s why I pick here as the location for my store.
J: What type of people are your main customers?
C: They are normally 30-35, usually single women, a mix of locals, tourists and expats.
I used to have a store in Kowloon Tong and an e-shop where some customers knew us. When we moved they still find us here on Gough Street.
J: What’s your best seller at the store?
C: Necklace with neon colors.
J: What do you see your brand is going in 5 years’ time?
C: I hope to open more shops in Hong Kong, either in Central or Causeway Bay area. The rents are crazy there but I will try.
Cecilia Ma Concept Store:
A, 1/F, Gough Street, Sheung Wan, Central, Hong Kong
Mon – Sat: 12-8pm
Contact: + 852 3690 2900