Last Sunday, protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong for the first time since plans for a new national security law were announced. They targeted I.T, one of Hong Kong’s most established multi-brand fashion stores and retail conglomerates, and specifically its Comme des Garçons and Bathing Ape outlet in Causeway Bay.
Protesters weren’t retaliating to anything the avant-garde Japanese label and Paris fashion week regular Comme des Garçons had done itself, but instead, protesters were targeting the label’s local partner – the I.T group, and specifically one of its founders Sham Kar Wai, as this thread details, due to his attendance at a police officer dinner earlier this year.
Although luxury malls have been sites for pro-democracy sing-alongs and scenes of police violence, up to this point international luxury brand storefronts have been left pristine whilst protesters have targeted banks, ATMs and Starbucks outlets for various pro-government alignments.
But now, for the first time, a globally renowned fashion store is a key target; a prestigious label is being drawn into a potential cultural and political mine-field due to the actions of its local partner.
I.T is a Hong Kong home-grown heritage brand, a local success story in many ways. Sham founded I.T in 1988, as a small boutique targeting younger consumers keen to purchase edgy and avant-garde labels. The store set itself apart from luxury rivals Lane Crawford and Joyce, and found success expanding into the Mainland Chinese market.
Currently, the retail conglomerate boasts a mix of several multi-brand stores such as I.T, i.t and ete!, over ten in-house and licensed brands including b+ab, Chocoolate, Izzue, as well as a wide array of mono-brand stores including Comme des Garçons.
According to the group’s interim report 2019-20, the group now offers around 200 stores, and total retail sales in Hong Kong and Macau have decreased by 6.2 per cent to HK$1,463.3 million.
I.T’s network includes many globally renowned brands including Ann Demeulemeester, Junya Watanabe, Fred Perry, Simone Rocha, McQ, Off-White C/O Virgil Abloh and Style Nanda.
Should protesters decide to target each outlet, this could mean hundreds of locations damaged across Hong Kong, and in light of the Comme des Garçons store damage, most of these global brands must surely be entering another stage in crisis management – what to do if your local partner forces you into the political crosshairs?
Hong Kong has positioned itself as a hub of luxury retail for decades, offering a glamorous base for international brands’ expansive Asian flagship stores and subsequently boasting some of the highest retail rents in the world.
Wealthy consumers from China have driven global luxury consumption and brand growth for years; for many brands the financial rewards of being apolitical outweigh the implications of taking a stance or sharing support.
This is especially important right now as the global fashion industry faces huge challenges during the post-coronavirus recovery era, after market disruptions and store lockdowns.
In Hong Kong, it seems that consumers are exercising the power of their wallets and rewarding companies who take a pro-protester stance, referred to as the “yellow economy,” in line with the recent global trend towards more conscious luxury consumption.
Not only are protesters buying yellow as an act of consumer activism and to reflect their distinctly Hong Kong identity, but protesters are also undertaking a deep level of research into brands and their owners.
Brands that are seen as “blue” are avoided and boycotted and the strategy of bringing apolitical fashion names into a political situation has impact. It makes for international news and forces wealthy decision-makers to take a stance.
To this date, I.T has not issued a statement in response to the store damage, but its social media channels continue to be flooded with comments calling for brand boycotts, reflecting a deep discontent with the company.
Brands like cult fashion favourite Comme des Garçons are being drawn into a highly politicised situation whether they want to be or not. Interestingly, multi-brand stores Lane Crawford and Joyce have not been targeted yet, despite Peter Woo Kwong-Ching’s links to the Lane Crawford Joyce Group, his publicly stated defence of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and attendance at a pro-police rally.
So will this be another nail in the coffin for Hong Kong’s reputation for ease of doing business? On top of high rents and lack of mainland Chinese consumers, international brands will surely now be asking if it is worth the high costs of having a Hong Kong location.
As consumers continue to reward brands that reflect their values, and punish those who don’t, consumer activism is not only paving the way for a new face of Hong Kong retail, but a different Hong Kong identity – one that values freedom over financial gain and where wearing yellow is always on trend.