Q&A WITH ARNAULT CASTEL ON LANDMARK OPENINGS
in the midst of coronavirus and social issues in Hong Kong, retail business suffers immensely. when brands are downsizing and stores are closing down, kapok has opened two new stores at Landmark, Central. what gives us the courage? and why now? we speak to founder Arnault Castel on company development, store design, retail and buying, and of course, the future of hong kong...
Landmark is literally an iconic landmark in Central, and to some, it came as a surprise from kapok - in terms of location. can you walk us through the story behind?
Landmark is obviously the most prestigious retail location in Hong Kong and it may indeed be a surprising choice for a Hong Kong-born independent retailer like kapok. we have been talking to the Landmark team for many years as they appreciate what kapok is doing in Hong Kong but we could not get it right before.
Hong Kong is very interesting as it’s a very compact city but people tend not to travel so much and create little villages where they organise their work and social life. in recent years, the west of Hong Kong developed very fast with Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town and for some of our customers, our Wan Chai store felt strangely far. the kapok team was also behind the launch of the Buly store in Wyndham street so we got into Central and we wanted more.
finally, there’s always a personal story behind our projects. when I first moved to Hong Kong from 1996 to 2000, my first job was in Exchange Square and I spent a lot of time in Landmark, and it became a place I knew well. it also became a week-end place for me, for dim-sum or coffee. so it feels good to be back there with kapok.
what was the initial design brief you gave to Collective? And how did it develop throughout?
the project is very interesting visually as we are not opening one store but two, side by side, kapok and O.N.S. also, they are located in a corridor, narrow and very long. we had a lot of debates on whether we should make the 2 stores very different or not. since the brands have different characters, the design will use different materials and give a different vibe, but since it will be operated by the same kapok team, a long metal diagonal will unite the two spaces. also, rather than hiding the length and narrowness of the stores, we accentuate it with this metal feature that will hopefully make people stop on their tracks when they pass by.
this is already the 3rd project between kapok and Collective, why are both parties so loyal and fond of each other? how do you share this collaborative relationship?
the way we do business at kapok is much like a family. some of the team members have been working with me for more than 10 years. and some of the brands we work with have become our friends. similarly, we often work with trusted photographers or illustrators. the Sun Street store last year was an important first step in the reinvention of kapok and I work upstairs and always feel so good in the store. so it was natural to keep on working with Collective as we understand each other well and they can navigate all the constraints of working with a small company.
we want each store to be different and bring surprises but also feel connected as part of the kapok family, so working with the same design team feels natural. I know some brands work with a different designer on every project but it’s not really matching kapok family style. There are a lot of talented architects in Hong Kong and we will do projects with them but I am also sure it’s not our last project with Collective.
it has been very tough for the retail industry in HK since last July, with the current situation, why do you choose to open new stores now?
yes, the past year has been very difficult for all of us at kapok, at personal level and professional level, as it’s been the most difficult year for Hong Kong. there are a lot of questions on what is “essential”, which jobs or businesses are essential.
initially I struggled as I felt what we were doing was frivolous and non-essential, but after more thinking, I found meaning in kapok work again : first we are helping a lot of small and young brands and designers and they need our support more than ever. also, our customers still need to find a place to relax, find clothes to make them feel good, and offer gifts to the ones they care about or for themselves. finally my team has been so dedicated and faithful and kapok needs to keep going for them.
this gave me motivation to keep going and explore opportunities. our main customer base has always been men and women of Hong Kong, so we can pay back this support by staying committed to bring the best and freshest experience possible. since the team at Landmark is also very willing to explore new directions, I thought, let’s move full speed without regrets.
how do you decide kapok Landmark to be an accessory store, but not fashion + accessories ?
amongst our two new stores at Landmark, we have decided to focus on O.N.S for fashion, as the brand has been doing very well for us since we opened the first store on Sun Street a year ago. we also feel the brand positioning is quite unique in Landmark: modern, high quality and perfectly priced essentials. whereas our next door store, kapok is quite compact, it made sense to focus on accessories, gifting and grooming.
we have a full proposal for mens and women's fashion brand at our Sun St. and K11 Musea stores. if our Landmark customers are interested in these brands, they can order online at www.ka-pok.com and we will provide pick-up and full return services at our Landmark location.
what is your expectation from these two stores?
we are very confident in the strength of our offering: modern menswear at O.N.S and the best of independent accessories and grooming at kapok. we want to connect with new customers that didn’t have the opportunity to visit our stores in Wan Chai or Tsim Sha Tsui. we expect to create a new central-based fanbase for our two brands.
do you differentiate the crowd between Wan Chai, K11 Musea and Landmark? or are they the same type of kapok customers but different locations?
we started kapok as a reaction to the look-alike cookie cutter chain stores that are populating Hong Kong malls. so when we grow, we are very sensitive to creating different environments and moods for every new store. we adapt to the vibe of each district and we propose some exclusive brands in any of our stores. our customers in different districts have different jobs and personal styles, but they all have something in common : the curiosity to discover and challenge new brands, the appetite for products with soul and personality.
O.N.S has been opened in HK for just over a year, within a year, we already see a lot of support from press, celebrities and KOLs, where do you see the brand is heading? can you describe the typical customer of the brand?
yes, even though the brand is very new in Hong Kong, the response has been overwhelmingly strong. for instance, O.N.S is our #1 brand at our K11 location. i felt big traditional menswear brand have lost their way and relied too much on the traditional Americana style, which is not resonating with younger customers. some brands are pushing a younger, more minimal Scandinavian style, but the quality is not there.
The brand is capturing the mind of young professionals who want to feel comfortable, yet very presentable: they like O.N.S modern style that doesn’t try too hard. Of course, the success of the brand is also rooted in the impeccable quality and the very sharp pricing, which is driving so much repeat business from our new fans.
with EU lockdown and uncertain future, how do you foresee the multi-brand retail and fashion buying in the next years to come?
It’s the first time in 10 years that we are not in Paris for our seasonal buying. it’s usually an extremely busy but exciting time. many of the men and women behind the brands we carry at kapok have become our friends, and we love to meet them every 6 months. it’s also fascinating to visualise the trends, colours, shapes that will invade our stores and Hong Kong streets six months in advance. every brand is very organised to create virtual showrooms and we are getting ready for a ton of Zoom meetings. it’s not ideal because clothes need to be touched, felt, examined normally before being selected, but we will live with that. we just hope that we can be back in Paris in January 2021 !
after 14 years, can you describe in one sentence the difference between the kapok then and now? How do the customers’ profiles and habits change?
kapok was just a small plant 14 years ago, fresh, full of life and ready to grow. now it’s a full grown tree, providing a lot of shade for our customers and brands. luckily, there are new branches growing every month and we are always reaching out higher.
so many things have happened in these 14 years, especially the rise of fast fashion and online shopping. on the positive side, our customers really care now about sustainability and fully support conscious brands. and finally, the need to connect is still there and our stores remain at the core of a wonderful community.
below photo: when Arnault started kapok at the original store in tin hau.