Right after graduation, fashion designer Cecilia Yau Suet-ki established her own brand of haute couture.
The bold move is both a sign of her confidence in her talent and a manifestation of her desire to change the attitude of many Hongkongers, who tend to follow foreign fashion trends at the expense of local designs.
“Being responsive and flexible is both the Hongkonger’s strength and weakness,” says Yau, who was chosen as one of the 2013 Ten Outstanding Young Persons by Junior Chamber International Hong Kong.
“Most people just follow the trend but seldom ask themselves about their own values.”
She thinks it’s high time local fashion designers started considering creating their own trends. “In my opinion, the deep-rooted problem is we lack confidence in ourselves.”
Back in her college days, Yau started off by taking a diploma in photographic design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “I was interested in both photography and fashion design at that time. I believed that I could have a blend of both, expressing my thoughts through fashion photography.”
However, it didn’t work out that way. So she headed to Paris and pursued a summer course at ESMOD International, a prestigious school of fashion.
“I have fallen in love with Paris since. It is a hub of top-class fashion designers around the world with an artistic atmosphere.”
Not only did she like the place, she also enjoyed the new direction her life was taking. Her grades were quite good in the summer class, and her application to pursue a degree in haute couture was accepted.
“I jumped in and began my bachelor degree in high fashion from the second year.”
Studying in Paris might be a spur-of-the-moment thing for her, but it’s not cheap. Fortunately, her family fully supported her decision.
“I have to thank my mum, in particular. Without her I just couldn’t make it. She believes in me always. She says I should do something that I enjoy.”
Yau only had a smattering of French. But she did manage to introduce herself briefly in simple French. Classes were difficult as they were all in French.
However, Yau eventually overcame the language barrier with her talent and passion.
“To a certain extent, design is a global language. Beautiful designs are appreciated by people of different cultural backgrounds. Nevertheless, I had to pay extra effort in keeping up. I often asked my teachers and classmates questions after class. When you are eager to do something well, you will make all kinds of efforts in achieving it.”
With her determination and dedication, Yau obtained her degree with distinction and a scholarship. Later, she was able to stage her own fashion show in Paris.
Yau says fashion design training in France is quite different from the classroom-oriented style of education in Hong Kong. At ESMOD, teachers give more importance to the student’s internship experience.
“I had to work as an intern in different fashion designing companies, where I had to obtain the employers’ recognition in order to finish my degree course.”
Working in a fashion consulting agency as an intern and later as full-time designer in Paris, Yau had designed clothes for top fashion brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein and Marks & Spencer.
As she started to pursue a career in Paris, Yau struggled with the question of whether to stay or return to Hong Kong.
“If I only considered fashion as a job, of course staying Paris would be best. However, as I would like to develop fashion as my lifelong career, I decided to return to Hong Kong.”
It proved to be a wise decision.
Yau won as overall winner of the the Hong Kong Fashion Designers’ Contest and the Hong Kong Fashions Association Creative Award in Hong Kong Young Fashion Designers’ Contest organized by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in 1999.
Her designs started attracting the attention of celebrities as well.
Although an award-winning designer, Yau had a tough start to her fashion business. Her designs for evening and bridal gowns were only appreciated by a small crowd in the local market.
The year 2003, with the SARS outbreak, was particularly trying. “No one, regardless of how experienced he or she is, could tell when the hardship would end,” Yau recalls.
Yau saved her business by promoting her brand in foreign markets with the help of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. Eventually, she received orders from as far as the Middle East.
“Whether you’re designing or doing business, you’ve got to welcome new challenges every day. They can be your springboard to success.”
Yau laments that local designers are not well-appreciated by their own people, and this is one reason why Hong Kong’s growth in the creative industry is slow compared with others in the region.
South Korea’s entertainment and fashion industries are booming because of the support of the government and other sectors of society.
“The celebrities will dress in clothes designed by South Korean designers. The technology and manufacturing industries are also assisting and cooperating closely with their product designers.”
Yau believes that the Hong Kong government and the various industries can play bigger roles in enhancing Hong Kong’s creative industry.
“Hong Kong government can offer more funding and be the facilitator that connects different business fields and promotes the use of Hong Kong designs.”
Meanwhile, she says, Hong Kong designers should stop acting as trend followers and start creating trends.
“Be yourself. Inject enthusiasm into your works. Then your production will become more lively and be able to connect to other people.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 22.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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