Johanna Ho spring/summer 2014
It’s always a proud moment when a designer opens their own boutique, and even more so in Hong Kong where the ridiculous rents make it so difficult. But if anyone has the credibility and talent to do it, it’s knitwear designer Johanna Ho.
Johanna’s success story is inspiring especially to the many young designers in Hong Kong who are struggling to carve a path to success. Western brands have always enjoyed immense success in the city, but unfortunately local talents haven’t always reaped the same rewards. Johanna is one of the few that have made the leap.
Born in Hong Kong, she emigrated to the UK as a teenager and later graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1997. Her first collection was snapped up by Barneys, before she returned to Hong Kong to launch her own couture collection. Over the years she built a successful label, especially in Japan, where she had 11 stores.
Family brought her back to Hong Kong in 2011 where she had her second daughter and continued building her business. The 1,700 square foot, two storey boutique, which officially opens today, is a huge milestone for her. To celebrate we chatted exclusively about her evolution, love for knitwear and the challenges of being a designer in Hong Kong.
This is your first store in Hong Kong – why has it taken this long?
My very first Johanna Ho store(s) were in Japan. It was a dream come true and I was lucky, really lucky. I signed a five year contract with [company] Sanyo, but decided not to continue as the market was suffering and they wanted me to change to a cheaper and younger line, which was not what I was about.
We came back to Hong Kong and then a year and a half ago a local developer, who had a mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, invited me to open a shop. Six months ago we were kicked out due to new developers. This new boutique means a lot to me – it’s telling the world that a local brand should be taken seriously.
How has the Johanna Ho label evolved since you started?
I started my brand soon after I graduated from Saint Martins. I dabbled with knitwear design, but never liked it much, didn’t do it and didn’t think I wanted to do it. My MA course head tutor, Louise Wilson, tried to convince me that I should do knits in my grad collection and I fought hard against it.
Even when I first started my brand I was a 100 per cent woven designer, until I started wholesaling my collections to Japan where they suggested I should do more knit designs. From zero interest I am now a knit fanatic!
How would you describe the Johanna Ho style?
It’s all about people. People inspire me. I like to design clothes that people can realistically wear and look great in. It’s about how the design works with the human body, how it fits and how it creates a beautiful shape. It’s also about interesting details, whether it’s in the yarns I use, or the patterns which are knitted a certain way to create a special slimming effect. The outcome is classic styles with a modern twist. I also have a soft spot for ruffles, but they are never girly and always with an edge.
What makes your knits special?
I am very lucky as I have worked with an amazing factory from day one, who also produces for brands like Celine and Dries Van Noten. Many people think knitwear is all about granny knits, that are bulky and unflattering. I am also working closely with Woolmark, who has such amazing techniques and inventions. I had no idea wool could be so light and airy.
Tell us about your current spring collection – it’s dreamy but also quite quirky…
It’s about summer and colours – happy ones like reds, candy and marshmallow pinks and electric blue. I wanted to keep challenging myself, so I have combined rayon with nylon yarns, knitting it in a way where its lightweight and airy, but stiff in appearance which helps to create interesting details and shapes. I was also inspired by the works of American photographer, Deborah Turbeville, which is romantic, feminine, elegant, unconventional and dreamy.
You’ve enjoyed success in your career but what obstacles do you still see for local designers?
Hong Kong is no doubt a cosmopolitan city, but the culture is also very driven if not influenced by the West. Therefore consumers are still very attached to western designs and what’s happening there in terms of trends. But as the world focuses on Asian designers in New York, Paris and London, it paints a better picture for us to enjoy a slightly better future, especially when everyone is looking to get into the giant world of China.
What advice can you give aspiring designers wanting to break into the fashion industry?
Hard work! It’s important to have an open mind. Being talented doesn’t mean instant success: It’s about who you meet, where you are and when you meet them. It’s about grasping opportunities and also a lot of sacrifices.
How would you like to be remembered?
It has always been my dream for Johanna Ho to be remembered as an internationally known Hong Kong designer brand and design house. I hope I can pass my name onto my designers and create extra lines for them, just like how Junya Watanabe has been supported by Commes des Garcons.
Johanna Ho is at 31 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong. www.johannaho.com