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The Drapers Interview: Deborah Cheng

Although a relative unknown in the UK, Hong Kong fashion giant IT and its cluster of brands is one to watch.

For a business with more than 700 points of sales globally, more than 6,000 members of staff and turnover for the six months to August 31, 2014, exceeding HK$3.3bn (£270m), Hong Kong’s IT Limited is currently somewhat below the radar in the UK. But is that about to change?

“IT is a very unique business model and a very unique fashion retailer,” explains vice-president of international business Deborah Cheng. “It’s a very dynamic matrix that IT offers in terms of brand mix and the way that we participate in all different kinds of channels.”

Unique is certainly a good word for IT, a publicly listed, multi-layered, multichannel business that straddles many different areas of the fashion industry, ranging from top-end luxury and directional avant garde labels through to streetwear and mass-market lifestyle product. Founded in 1988 by Sham Kar Wai as a small 200 sq ft store in the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong, IT now runs several different multi-brand and mono-brand stores. This includes nine multi-brand IT stores in Hong Kong and 36 across mainland China (stocking luxury and directional brands such as Céline, Ann Demeulemeester and Saint Laurent and positioning itself alongside concept stores such as Colette in Paris, Dover Street Market in London and New York’s Jeffrey), with the latest set to open in Chengdu, China, in June 2015. It also runs 50 ‘it’ stores across China, catering for a younger casual shopper (stocking brands such as Camper and Fred Perry) and 35 of its more streetwear-focused Double-park stores (which stock brands such as Carhartt and Billionaire Boys Club).

On top of this, IT has a collection of 11 successful in-house and licensed brands aimed at the mass market (5cm, AAPE, B+ab, Chocoolate, Ete!, Fingercroxx, Izzue, Mini Cream, Musium Div, Venilla Suite and Tout àCoup). The biggest is the streetwear-inspired young fashion brand Izzue, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary and has 125 points of sale worldwide. It also made its first brand acquisition in 2011, buying cult Japanese streetwear brand A Bathing Ape.

In addition, IT also runs partnerships with big international names within China, including joint ventures with French Connection and French contemporary retailer Zadig & Voltaire in Hong Kong, running mono-brand stores for directional luxury brands like Gareth Pugh and Maison Margiela, plus a 50/50 joint venture with French department store Galeries Lafayette, resulting in the opening of the vast 500,000 sq ft Galeries Lafayette Beijing department store in October 2013.

Another unique element of IT, and a component of its stores’ success, is its approach to new openings and expansion. Having started life as a humble shop selling British brands such as Dr Martens to shoppers hungry for hard-to-find foreign labels, it continued to push boundaries with its mix of directional labels and emerging names, as well as moving into innovative and inspirational store design. Every new IT opening is a completely new, entirely bespoke proposition, including unique fixtures, fittings and store layouts, as well as a targeted and personalised brand mix that means each new store is specifically tailored to its geographical location and local shoppers’ preferences.

I.T at Selfridges

IT at Selfridges

“Other stores, like 10 Corso Como [which has stores in Milan, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing], tend to have very similar presentation and brand mix in different locations, but IT makes everything different and bespoke to each location,” explains Cheng. “It’s actually a process that we sometimes reconsider because it involves so much effort. It’s easy to replicate and duplicate ideas and concepts, but the challenge is to have new ideas every time you open a store. It’s very time-consuming and money-consuming, but it’s important that we have a distinctive niche to make [each store] special.”

Although possibly best known for its eponymous multi-brand stores, IT’s own labels now make up more than 50% of its turnover. However, the labels’ presence in the UK is minimal, having slowly dipped its toe into the market. Launched as a pop-up at Oxford Street department store Selfridges in 2013, IT brands Musium Div, A Bathing Ape, AAPE, 5cm, Chocoolate, Mini Cream and Izzue are now sold exclusively through a 1,504 sq ft permanent space there. Izzue menswear is also soldonline via Asos.com.

“The IT brands aren’t stocked [elsewhere] in the UK, which makes them desirable and continues Asos’ reputation as a retailer with a platform for unique and unusual global brands,” says David Clark, buying manager for men’s brands at Asos. “AAPE – A Bathing Ape’s little brother – is the most interesting. Through Asos it’s bringing that limited-edition streetwear look to a wider audience and it gives an edge to everyday wear that makes it extremely accessible for the customer while still maintaining a distinctive aesthetic.”

“I think IT and Selfridges share a similar approach to balancing the commercial and the creative, as well as both understanding a really fast-moving retail environment, which means we can work well together,” says Selfridges buying manager Lydia King. IT offers our customers something unique and affordable that they can’t find anywhere else.”

“The idea of launching a roster of new Hong Kong brands was exciting for the Selfridges team. These labels were well-known – cult even – and very influential within their own market, yet pretty much unknown outside of Asia at the time,” she adds. “It has been interesting to see IT sit between two of the world’s biggest high street retailers – Topshop and H&M – within our women’s street department and perform incredibly well as a complement and point of difference.”

While Cheng is tight-lipped on details, with the successes seen at Selfridges and Asos, as well as the company’s track record for expansion, it seems like only a matter of time until IT grows its presence in the UK and wider European market.

“I think London has the most diversified tourist space because of the language and geographic location, so it’s a very natural choice for us to get a feel for how the world will accept our brands,” explains Cheng.

“We started to understand what the [UK] shopper needs, so it has been a learning process for us. We realised we had to change the sizes, as fit for Asians and Europeans are very different. And the need for garments is very different according to the weather. In Hong Kong and mainland China the majority buys in line with the weather, but in Europe for some reason they buy ahead. We don’t launch our down jackets until October, but in Europe you might need them in early September,” she adds.

“So we’re accumulating all the data and information that we can get from the UK market. Eventually, when the brand has enough awareness and we have enough data, we might be ready to roll out free-standing stores or other kinds of channels.”

Admitting that she is in no rush, Cheng does concede that IT has its eyes on introducing its family of brands to the rest of the world. “One of [IT founder] Sham Kar Wai’s biggest dreams is that, one day, when people talk about fashion China and Hong Kong will be mentioned as well. And he will be very happy if his brand is on that list.”

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