Fashion designer Cynthia Mak on her Hong Kong-based knitwear brand, Cynthia & Xiao
One of the Look from the Cynthia & Xiao autumn:winter 2019 collection
Launched in 2014, Cynthia & Xiao is a Hong Kong-based knitwear label founded by two female designers – Cynthia Mak and Xiao Xiao, who are from Hong Kong and Beijing, respectively. The duo met while studying at London’s Central Saint Martins. Distinguished by its bold and playful style, the label was selected as being one of the Ten Asian Designers to Watch at Fashion Asia Hong Kong 2018. For the spring/summer 2019 collection, called The Bad Habit, Cynthia & Xiao collaborated with Korean illustrator Minkyung Lee to create quirky and vibrant iconography. CDLP spoke with Mak about the challenges of cracking the Chinese market and why Hong Kong shoppers don’t always support their local designers.
Is the Mainland China the main focus for your brand these days?
Well, we were showing in Paris, London and New York, but three years ago we went into the Mainland. We luckily found a showroom that could help us. The Mainland’s market is hard, because stores are very new; brands might not have a website, just WeChat. But sales have grown from our first season to now and it has been significant. The Mainland has overtaken my orders from Europe. And of course, the scale is different. We have around 25 points of sale there now. So yes, we’re focusing more and more on the Mainland.
Do you design especially for the Mainland market?
We do tailor some of our designs, yes. I sometimes follow trends, but we care more about ourselves and our feedback from the buyers, who will tell us what sold well last season. We take that and move forward. But if the buyer says a particular fit works, or a certain colour, we will expand on those things. So we take about 50% of outside advice and add 50% of our own ideas.
The media seems to portray the brand as being for fashionistas, yet Cynthia & Xiao doesn’t feel entirely that way. Would you agree?
Yes. It’s for fun kinds of girls who feel comfortable with themselves. We do get some cool fashionistas who might wear our stuff and some Hong Kong KOLs [key opinion leaders]. But I don’t see our brand as a KOL thing. I’d rather have more people wearing and touching the product than a KOL endorsement. I also don’t have a massive inventory of stuff, so I don’t need some super high-profile KOL. It’s about the right balance.
The Mainland is also such a different kind of vibe from Hong Kong. They like that “girl-next-door” look, which is very relatable. These influencers are really successful, but you don’t know who they are. It’s a different type of visibility.
What do they like about Cynthia & Xiao?
We find colour just works. When we started out, the palette was more muted, with navy and grey – the idea being that pieces could be mixed and matched. But as we’ve grown, we’ve incorporated more colour – lots of it! [laughs] – like yellow, red, orange, neon green… stuff that’s really in-your-face. And they sell really well for us. The consumers seem to love it.
Looks from the Cynthia & Xiao autumn:winter 2019 collection
What’s your best-selling piece?
Our favourite shape is something we call “oversize”. For some girls, it could literally be a dress, but you would have to wear something underneath. Let’s just say it covers the bottoms and is our best-selling shape no matter what we do. Then again, they also don’t want something too long. They like above the knee. If you cover the knee, you look short. And of course, the aim is to look both short and thin. In Shanghai, we always go shorter – a more fitted shape. Sometimes we make longer pieces, too.
Hongkongers don’t really seem to support their local designers – or their artists for that matter, either. But isn’t the current digital age meant to be all about disruption, inclusion and youth?
I think there are very good designers in Hong Kong, but they struggle to get visibility. Is that because of the people who read the papers or the advertisers; is it that people only want to read about Gucci? Is it just money? Or is there a genuine lack of curiosity? There’s also a feeling among local consumers that if they buy a Hong Kong designer’s clothes, it should cost less than HK$1,000. So the economics of that equation can just make it hard to survive for local designers, because the quality of fabric and design we produce can’t be sold too cheaply either. And if the designers don’t think the locals will buy their stuff, then perhaps that stops them from being so creative. It’s a catch-22.
Also, many Hong Kong designers are creative, but they don’t go out of the city. I think you have to force yourself to do stuff out of your comfort zone; it helps you see more, get more exposure and get to know more people. In contrast, if you go to Shanghai, you will find the designers are very creative and dynamic. But then, the Mainland in some ways feels much more advanced than Hong Kong in terms of fashion and art. They are bold, eccentric and fun, and they have strong convictions.
Would you say that Hong Kong’s consumer taste is changing?
Yes in that it’s so much easier to buy clothes, with more choices – and that doesn’t necessarily mean buying on the high street, but from Taobao. So getting clothes is easier than it was; people can buy more and try more. But if Hong Kong people have the money to buy name brands, they will; they won’t run away from big brands.
What are the signature pieces of Cynthia & Xiao?
The rabbit and tiger prints. Right from the start, they have been selling well. In Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, there’s a really old man who teaches people how to crochet dolls. He did some for us recently, so now it’s like an evolution of the tiger and the rabbit. These are like alien rabbits, if you will.
The signature Cynthia & Xiao rabbit and tiger characters, based on the personalities of the two designers, are also reimagined as they explore underwater worlds
Images provided to China Daily
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