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Business profile: The Armoury

Passion and attention to detail make The Armoury a fortress of indie retail in Hong Kong.

In a city dominated by brands’ standalone stores and international high street giants, what Hong Kong does not have is a broad selection of independent retailers selling multiple brands.

And to entice consumers away from the opulent malls choc-full of the kind of luxury names that get most landlords salivating, those indies that do exist have to offer something special, especially if they operate from what can safely be described as off the beaten track.

Set up three years ago this month, the original The Armoury store is at the end of a corridor on the third floor of the Pedder Building, which although in central Hong Kong, is dominated by art galleries and other creative businesses, making it virtually impossible to find and, according to its founders, defying all the usual rules of feng shui.

But the trio that run the business - Mark Cho, Alan See and Ethan Newton - have turned it into something of a virtue, creating a store that feels as much like a private members’ club as it does a shop. The selectively positioned bottles of whisky - which are for shoppers to take a tipple from as well as nifty visual merchandising tools - only serve to emphasise this.

The Armoury is not about novelties though.

The reason it attracts a cult following among Hong Kong’s sartorially savvy is the knowledge and passion Cho, See and Newton bring to it.

All three live and breathe the world of luxury menswear - Australian Newton is currently writing a book on it - and it shows as British-born Cho walks me through the store picking out the fine details in everything from the luxury leather goods to its high-end own-label denim. The obsession goes further, with blog posts updating its 100,000 readers a month of the team’s international product missions and, possibly most geeky of all, a series of videos on its website discussing the best way to knot a tie.

“We operate in a very specific niche,” Cho says. “We like our products and we do the best we can to sell them. Hong Kong doesn’t have anything like us. It’s a terrible thing to scale, though.”

However, the business is actually in the midst of expansion. It opened a second, marginally easier to find, store just around the corner in Hong Kong’s luxury Landmark Shopping Mall just over a year ago, and December will see the doors open on a New York branch.

The store, on Tribeca’s 168 Duane Street, promises to have the same character as its Hong Kong siblings but has been supersized, taking 1,600 sq ft - twice the size of The Armoury’s current largest store at the Pedder Building.

With 60% of sales from its transactional website, www.thearmourystore.com, made to the US, the retailer will also move that part of its operation Stateside, hiring two digital experts to take on day-to-day running of the site, which they hope will continue to expand.

One of the reasons for expanding is that the present stores have reached maximum capacity, which makes it even harder for new brands to pass the trio’s taste test - the brand mix rarely changes because the team are so particular when they first buy, so “we have started to run out of space”, says Cho .

The retailer also simply wants more space to showcase the mix of brands the trio have scoured the globe to put together. There are, naturally, some recognisable names - John Smedley, Ettinger and Orlebar Brown - alongside artisanal brands that are real finds.

Ortus, for example, is a one-man Tokyo-based leather bespoke brand with an 18-month waiting list and a four-figure price tag. “This is the crème de la crème,” says Cho, pointing at all the details that make an Ortus bag stand out from the (already very impressive) crowd.

See gives me a crash course in the ready-to-wear suits offered alongside the made-to-measure service. Cesare Attolini makes “power suits” while Orazio Luciano is “more casual”. Liverano & Liverano is the best though, he says. “When he retires, that’ll be it for a generation.”

“We are very product driven,” Cho adds. “Everything we sell in The Armoury is closely tied to our personalities - that’s how you set yourselves apart.”

The team behind The Armoury have expanded their interests in recent years, acquiring upmarket British men’s accessories brand Drake’s three years ago. Since the takeover, Drake’s collection has been expanded beyond its original tie, scarves and handkerchiefs remit, and in 2011 the brand opened a store on Clifford Street, just off Savile Row.

“In the past Drake’s has been very well known in the tie market, but now it has lots of different products. Having our own store gives us the chance to show that off,” Cho says.

The Drake’s factory was also recently relocated from Clerkenwell to the appropriately named Haberdasher Street, near Old Street. The factory covers three floors and nearly 18,000 sq ft, with capacity for 4,000 ties to be made each
week. It also has a 775 sq ft factory shop at the same address, which will officially open its doors next week.

Earlier this year Cho acquired the Rayner & Sturges shirt factory in Chard, Somerset, from Robert Boyd-Bowman, in a deal that included the shirtmaker’s order book, the equipment,the factory lease and luxury shirt brand Cleeve of London.

Although he says it was difficult to pass up because of its heritage, Cho describes Rayner & Sturges as a “fixer-upper”, noting its former managers had “let down” customers and lost some talented staff.

“It will take a bit of time to put it right,” he says. “We need to stabilise the business - serve its existing customers properly - before we can look at the next stage.”

With that stage at least a year off, Cho already has plans for both a private label and bespoke shirts that he says will be sold alongside Drake’s ties in The Armoury.

Ultimately, he wants to “bring the Drake’s culture” to Rayner & Sturges but admits that will take time, and until it happens he may slow things down on the investment trail.

However, Cho is ploughing ahead with his existing interests, and it’s not only The Armoury that is set to open more stores. Having developed the Drake’s output to include shirts, jackets and other accessories, Cho is now considering opening standalone stores overseas by tapping into the growth of its international business - the likes of Hong Kong, South Korea and Scandinavia have become an increasingly important part of the wholesale mix alongside Japan, Italy, the UK and US.

Customers include both small boutique shops, with a similar culture to The Armoury, and large department stores such as Selfridges, as well as etailer Mr Porter.

“At the moment, [London] is the only place you can see the whole lot together. The store is truly ours - but I think we could have a couple more around the world.”


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