Irish hatmaker takes Hong Kong by storm

October 16, 2017 09:42
Noeleen Armstrong Kish, from Dublin, designs and handcrafts all the hats herself, using traditional millinery techniques in a studio in Kowloon Bay. Photo: Noeleen Armstrong Kish

On November 5th, the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) is hosting the Sasa Ladies Purse Day at the Shatin racecourse, the biggest hat-wearing event on the Hong Kong social calendar.

Sasa has for the first time chosen a local hatmaker as the lead milliner and designer of all the hats for the fashion show.

Noeleen Armstrong Kish, from Dublin, launched her own brand – NOELEEN – in Hong Kong in 2014. She designs and handcrafts all the hats herself using traditional millinery techniques in a studio in Kowloon Bay. Each hat is one-of-a-kind; they cost between HK$2,700 and HK$9,000.

Most of her clients are Hong Kong ladies she has met at the HKJC. “Special occasion hat wearing is still relatively new to the local scene. As local ladies ease their way into hat wearing they generally prefer more sophisticated, elegant and feminine styles. In comparison, expat ladies wear a vast array of hat styles from ‘wow factor’ hats to statement artistic pieces. As a milliner, I design and create hats for women of all tastes. All the clients love the designs and hand work.”

The biggest challenge is changing mindsets to prefering a luxury product made in Hong Kong to one made in France or Italy.

Noeleen has been supported by the HKJC and, in particular, Sherrie Kong, the first female apprentice jockey in Hong Kong.

“It was she who introduced me into the world of racing here. She is very glamorous and wears a lot of hats. She invited me to the Longines event at Shatin in 2014, where I was chosen as ‘the most elegant lady’ and received a luxury Longines watch. I wear it often as a reminder of the potential to bring a hat-wearing culture to Hong Kong.”

Her luxury lifestyle hats are on sale at the Four Seasons in Central.

All this is a long way from the modest family in Dublin, where she was born on Christmas Day. She was one of eight children; her father was the owner of a small business where Noeleen started learning entrepreneurship at a young age.

“Despite a modest income and raising eight children, my mother dressed like Joan Collins in Dynasty. On Sunday evenings, I watched her preparing to go out – she was glamorous and sparkling. I've always loved fashion and creating something out of nothing – essential in such a large family,” she recalled.

Her first job after leaving school was in a Dutch flower company. It sent her to work in the world’s third largest flower auction in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. “I love flowers and colors as well as fashion.”

In 1999, she moved to Fremantle in Western Australia, where she worked for a South African shipping company. She made her first hat in 2000 and started wearing them at horse-racing events where she received many compliments on her designs. In 2005, she brought a group of clients to Hong Kong for the Rugby Sevens for a week.

“I fell in love with the city at once and applied for a job here with my company. A single girl, I did not know a soul here. It was a brave decision.”

She moved to the city in 2005 and worked for the shipping company, Maersk. She married her American husband who is an executive of Under Armour, a Baltimore-based company that is one of the world’s biggest makers of footwear, sports and casual wear. It has annual revenues of over US$5 billion.

From 2009 to 2013, the couple lived in Maryland, a state with a strong horse-racing and hat culture. Noeleen improved her skills by taking hat courses, making her own products, and selling hats to her first customers and still existing clients. They returned to Hong Kong in 2013.

“Hong Kong is a world-class tourist city and shopping capital,” she said. “It has a very diverse culture with a unique mix of local and expatriate clientele. The city has an entrepreneurial spirit and incredibly strong work ethic – not to mention a favorable tax system with simple and efficient government services.”

In 2014, she opened a showroom for her work on Hysan Avenue in Causeway Bay. But rents were too high and the space was too small to use as a work studio.

So, in 2016, she rented a space in an industrial building in Kowloon Bay to serve as her work studio and showroom. “I was afraid that my customers would not want to come to Kowloon Bay. I was wrong. The ladies arrive in their chauffeur-driven cars, dressed in designer clothes and with a Chanel handbag, and take the lift with the shirtless delivery men. This is Hong Kong!”

Most of her bespoke clients are Chinese ladies. “Being in Hong Kong people expect things very quickly; they want the hat fast and now, sometimes within one to two days. I need to change expectations, explaining to them that the design time, hand moulding and hand crafting can sometimes take much longer. In the end, the clients love the entire experience; from seeing how the pieces are made to how they feel when they see their product in my signature hat-box packaging.”

One of her clients is Winnie, the Chinese wife of HKJC chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.

She uses wooden hat moulds imported from England and Australia; she sews everything by hand. “I like silk and high-end fabrics. I have taken my hats to racing events in Dubai and Ascot (England).”

The fashion show at the Shatin event on November 5th will see the release of her debut Spring-Summer 2018 Collection and is the biggest day of her professional career so far. She hopes the interest it generates will enable her to hire a small team and expand her growing business.

“I love Hong Kong and the opportunities it has provided me. I want to build a brand that represents the spirit of this great city and its people.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.