After two years of waiting, Hong Kong's army of well-heeled fashionistas can now enjoy a visit to Harvey Nichols without taking a trip to London or the Middle East. The iconic store - the first in Asia - occupies 60,000 square feet and five floors of Central's Landmark building and had its soft opening on Sunday. According to its engagingly direct Executive Director, Kevin Ching, it also promises to shake up Hong Kong's retail offering.
A household name in the UK, "Harvey Nicks" as it is affectionately known, is something of a London institution. Its reputation for being just that little bit different was cemented through its award-winning window displays and an association with the anarchic and irreverent hit-TV show, "Absolutely Fabulous". According to Ching, it is this reputation for being cutting-edge combined with a certain "playfulness and informality" which marks the store out from competitors.
Bought by Dickson Poon in 2003, Harvey Nichols has been spreading its wings beyond London over recent years with its five UK-based stores joined by outlets in Riyadh and Dublin, and now Hong Kong, and soon Dubai and Istanbul. Its innovative displays, array of brands (many of which are new to Hong Kong), a sense of fun and the unique Harvey Nichols heritage offer a different kind of retail experience, says Ching.
Playful and British
This reputation for playfulness is an image that the Dickson Group hopes to replicate in Hong Kong says Ching. "I don't think that there is anything in Hong Kong or elsewhere in Asia which is comparable. Until now most of the boutiques in Hong Kong are very cool, almost stark. For instance, I don't think you see anywhere else with the crazy colours we have in Harvey Nichols." Neither is it exclusively premium price-point offer, he adds, with brands like Diesel featuring strongly. "As you have seen, to have a hip and cutting-edge aspect you require things that are not just top, top price."
At a glance, Harvey Nichols is, indeed, a breath of fresh air from the Hong Kong norm. Original displays and an abundance of space contrast it with most Hong Kong boutiques which utilize every square inch of available space. Elsewhere, the successful "Fifth Floor" restaurant concept has been borrowed from London though in Hong Kong it has been reincarnated as the "Fourth Floor".
"I think it's important because as soon as people knew there was going to be a Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong they immediately asked whether there would be a restaurant and bar," says Ching.
Replicating the original historic Knightsbridge premises was clearly not an option in Hong Kong, but the store's British origins are clear all the same, even if they have been given an added twist. The French architect, Christian Biecher, whose theme of "a view of England from abroad", drew on an eclectic mix of inspirations from English gardens to the Sex Pistols; to psychedelic prints, pop colours and liberty flowers. There is a strong British content with almost 20 British brands on display, and Ching says a close eye will be kept on fashion developments in Europe to keep the offer fresh.
The result is a mix of innovative displays and space with a contemporary British feel - certainly unmatched by any other stores to be found in Hong Kong.
"Britain moves on," says Ching. "Britain is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. It's a kind of evolving 'Britishness' which we hope we can maintain and develop," he says. "It's not the size of the store that distinguishes us but the merchandising, the layout, the exclusive brands that we have introduced and the British feel to it."
Ching accepts that for how long the Hong Kong Harvey Nichols retains its differences is a moot point. He is resigned to some of the concepts being emulated elsewhere - though perhaps not with the intended results, he says. "I hope not, but from now I think you will see stores copying us. Even so, while they can copy the colours, the Harvey Nichols input and the Britishness will be more difficult for them."
Across the border
A lawyer by training, Ching handled legal affairs for the Dickson Group after joining the company in 1993. Ching also oversees the Dickson Group's other mainland retail operations involving 149 retail outlets ranging from boutiques to corners and "shop-in-shops". Owning outright or having the franchise rights to an impressive portfolio of brands including Polo Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, Michael Kors and S.T. Dupont, Ching says that the Dickson Group will be "aggressively expanding" its operations, including its lifestyle Seibu stores on the mainland. Two Seibu outlets are already in operation in Shenzhen and another will be opening in Chengdu, Sichuan, towards the end of the year with four or five more planned over the next few years.
However, the mainland may not be ready for the Harvey Nichols experience just yet says Ching. "We will be looking into expanding not just into China's mainland but also other parts of South East Asia like Singapore and also Taiwan and Japan is a possibility. But to be honest, if you look at the China market, while they are familiar with names like Louis Vuitton and S.T. Dupont, they are not familiar with less developed brands. If you look at the top brands in China, the household names in upper class brands probably number no more than ten. The cutting-edge brands we are now introducing to Hong Kong, I think Hong Kong is now ready for. Hong Kong has a long history of retail and fashion and consumers are more mature and are ready at this stage for Harvey Nichols. For China we will wait and see." Even so, increased numbers of mainlanders visiting Hong Kong may help build brand awareness on the mainland, meaning the group may re-evaluate the situation in a year or two, says Ching.
After just two days of business (albeit far exceeding expectations), it is far too early to start drawing conclusions. But representing something new and exciting in Hong Kong's retail experience, Harvey Nichols looks likely to make quite a splash in Hong Kong's somewhat formulaic premium fashion market.
(HK Edition 09/08/2005 page4)