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Swimming Against the Hong Kong Tide

Five years since Konzepp helped transform the sleepy Sheung Wan district into a hipster zone, owner Geoff Tsui is crossing the harbour to the buzzing quarter of Tsim Sha Tsui with his fourth niche boutique, located in Hong Kong’s K11 ‘art mall.’
Konzepp storefront in Sheung Wan | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

HONG KONG, China — When Konzepp first opened at 50 Tung Street, Sheung Wan was a desolate area inhabited by local craftsmen and small workshops. Since then, it has become one the coolest and most creative areas in the city, filled with young designers' studios, galleries and coffee shops, and exuding a vibe that juxtaposes the corporate gloss found next-door in Hong Kong's Central district.

“Back in 2010, there was nothing there and even Willie said, ‘Why are you choosing this place? It’s awful,’” recalls Konzepp’s co-founder Geoff Tsui, referring to his business partner Willie Chan, the film producer famed for launching Jackie Chan’s career. “I mean, it was really bad. It used to be a meat packing warehouse and it really reeked. It was mouldy, the pipes were broken — but I loved the space.”

Tsui’s decision to put down roots in a neighbourhood like Sheung Wan, where a hodgepodge of tiny stores stand defiant, surrounded by vast indoor shopping centres, only served to cement his reputation as a retail pioneer. The design of the Konzepp store’s bright yellow entrance is based on the angular lines of origami and alludes to the various meanings of the word ‘hatch’.

Tsui says he wanted “to suck people into the entrance” like a hatch and then create a place where the creative community that the store attracts would “hatch” conversations.

Some of the other multi-brand boutiques can't afford to take a chance on new and emerging brands, so we wanted to do something about that.

“I loved the fact that the original store is up a hill, so people are forced to slow down before they arrive at the store. Hong Kong is too fast, and people need to slow down and enjoy life. When I go into stores here, the store assistants rush me, pressurise me to buy, but often I just want to [chill out while I shop], so I was sure other people felt the same way too,” he says.

Konzepp’s original Tung Street location and its second outpost across the street are both just off Hollywood Road, which is full of antique stores, art galleries and home to a thriving expat community.

“The area [is] a nice break away from the big malls and luxury labels that Hong Kong is usually associated with. It's a great neighbourhood to explore and wander around during weekends,” says Justine Lee, fashion editor of the Hong Kong edition of Tatler magazine. “Konzepp offers a cool and creative environment, as well as a unique edit of new labels including some of my personal favourites — Surface to Air and Spektre.”

At the heart of the store is a dedication to stocking Asian and European menswear and womenswear not readily stocked at multi-brand competitors like I.T and Shine or much larger retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Joyce and Lane Crawford.

Most of the brands at Konzepp are exclusive to the store and under five years old, like the trendy South Korean labels KYE and Faye Woo, Thai womenswear collection TandT Bangkok, Bali-made Vitaly accessories and German-designed Ziiiro watches. Such hard-to-find merchandise and one-of-a-kind items appeal in particular to the boutique’s many celebrity clients — which include actors and Cantopop stars Louis Koo, Miriam Yeung, Gigi Leung and Hins Cheung. Award-winning actor and film producer Gordon Lam Ka-Tung calls Konzepp “one of the coolest stores in town” and credits owner Geoff Tsui with “choosing brands that can’t be found anywhere else in Hong Kong”.

Tsui is a self-proclaimed “CBC” (Canadian-born Chinese) who moved back to Hong Kong fifteen years ago and had a successful career in film marketing and design before launching Konzepp.

“I’ve always been interested in style, but as my family is very traditional — like many other Asian families — I studied pre-med in Canada and chose dentistry. The course code for dentistry at college is DE and so is design, so after six months I [surreptitiously] switched degrees. Let’s just say it didn’t go down well with my family, which was tough,” says Tsui, who went on to get an MA in architecture.

“When we first opened Konzepp, I was in Seoul, and there was the most amazing craftsman working on the street selling pillowcases and accessories. So I bought a lot back to the store and they sold out straight away. You never know what people want until you give it to them. Some of the other multi-brand boutiques can’t afford to take a chance on new and emerging brands, so we wanted to do something about that.”

Although Konzepp retains its indie spirit, Tsui has had to come to terms with the magnetism of mall culture. After trialling a six-month pop-up store in the luxury mall Landmark, where the interiors were designed in collaboration with Rem D Koolhaas, before Christmas he opened a branch of Konzepp in K11, the world's first so-called ‘art mall’, a space in which art exhibitions exist alongside stores.

“Every location I open, I see it as a site-specific project. I don’t want to make a mould of our first store and just replicate it everywhere. This new K11 space is a nice, beautiful and has high ceilings. We also have a big table here that I want people to come and hang out at, which is also a key design element of our Sheung Wan store.”

To that end, the playful boutique will have an ice cream bar, explosive candies and cupcakes for guests. “We should put in the machine from Wheel of Fortune and then film it all,” teases Tsui.

Grace Lam, a renowned Hong Kong stylist and the former senior fashion style editor at Vogue China, believes that such diversity in retail is key if the city is to keep attracting visitors from the region — especially the all-important shoppers from the Chinese mainland.

“Hong Kong is getting more and more commercial as the ridiculously expensive shop rents are killing lots of small businesses. Eventually, tourists will lose interest as it doesn't offer as wide a range of retailers compared to Seoul or Tokyo, especially when Hong Kong is supposed to be Asia’s 'shopping paradise,’” says Lam.

“But Konzepp’s owner is not afraid of supporting local talents, which is rare, because Hong Kong is all about big brands with no local characteristics — this is a very sad and unhealthy situation. I hope there will be more stores like his in the near future.”

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