Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Hong Kong: The Shops

A few weeks ago I asked if any reader of this site wanted to take me shopping in Hong Kong during my one-day stop-over and by great good fortune I got a reply from Sarah Wyatt, who grew up in the city and knows it like the back of her hand. This morning she came to the hotel with a bag full of Hong Kong gifts, including a small silk bag she made herself. An artist, mother of two and thoughtful dresser, Sarah took me on a tour of the city that only an extreme insider could offer.

We got a cab and headed off for an anonymous high rise office building in an anonymous suburb, or rather it seemed like an office building, but wasn't. On every floor were outlet stores, where they sell the unsold stock from the previous season: not just fashion but toys, interiors, you name it. We ascended in the lift to the 25th floor to the Joyce warehouse. Inside? Alexander McQueen. Dries van Noten. Issey Mayake. Jil Sander. Chloe. Marni. I only end the list there because frankly I can't remember any more, so dizzying was the sight of all those designers. Menswear, womenswear, bags, shoes, jewellery. The tags showed a descending list of prices, over a period of several months into the future, so if you can hold your nerve and wait two months, it will be even cheaper still. I bought a small silver Jil Sander bag at 75% off and an Etro scarf. I was tempted by a McQueen bag, but in the end the colour wasn't quite right.
Then we went down ten floors or so to another outlet, even larger: Armani. Pal Zileri. I couldn't take it all in. All this is real stuff, no fakes here.

Next we got a cab to Central District, and one of the most crowded, humid and polluted spots on earth, where stunningly beautiful women carrying every designer bag known to the accessories department of Barneys surged along in blacks, grey and other neutrals. Juxtaposition of wealth and intense urban jostle. Quick Vietnamese lunch in a kind of alley full of tables with hundreds of people eating, smoking, densely humanly many.

A block away, we go to a shop that sells second-hand designer bags, Chanel 2:55's, Hermes Birkins. In Hong Kong women discard their It bags every season. The owner was interviewed and asked if he sold fakes, they try, he said, but never get away with it. Across the street we climb some rundown stairs, ring a bell, a man answers, lets us into a little outer room. He pulls the sleeve of a red kimono and out of it pops a key on a string, he opens the next door and in we walk into an Aladdin's cave of designer fake bags. I won't buy fakes, I don't approve of fakes, but as Sarah points out., some of these bags are being made in the same factories and on the same machines as the originals: because as we now all know, a Prada bag isn't made in Italy, it's made in China. I see a fake Anya Hindmarch Elrod, similar apart from the lining which is fabric, not suede, and it still doesn't have the same production qualities. But the place is full of satisfied customers who come back over and over again, and will do, until the store is raided by the police.

Out on the street I am suddenly overcome by the pollution, can hardly breathe. Some people are wearing facemasks. So we ascend the longest escalator in the world, a moving walkway that takes us up and up through the sides of a densely inhabited hill and come to an area called Soho, narrow lanes of small shops and cafes, more European than anything I've seen so far. Sarah shows me some of the Hong Kong designers. Then I see something absolutely fascinating. A clutch made of the same silver distressed leather that Anya Hindmarch has been using for the past two or three seasons, and using the same leather-covered magnetic snaps except this is is not a fake, not even a copy: it's a bag by a Hong Kong designer who simply has access to the same materials. The bag has a sensational red silk lining and I would have bought it on the spot had it not been ruined by a garish cheap-looking gold fastening which is completely the wrong colour for the bag.

As Sarah points out, if the designers are using Chinese factories to make their products, then inevitably some of the materials will end up out of the designers hands, and later I will see fabrics I recognise being used to made dresses with the labels of Hong Kong designers.

We finished up at Shanghai Tang. My head was full of everything Sarah had told me about the ambiguous world of designer production, of what is real and what is not, and how they can overlap. And also the history of Hong Kong, its government, its relation to the mainland, its economy and its architecture. I told her that she would make a fantastic tour guide for anyone who wanted to see a Hong Kong unavailable to to those with a guide book. She was the most fascinating, informed and warm shopping companion. If anyone would like to engage Sarah's services for a similar trip, let me know and I'll pass on her details. I told her she should charge. It will be worth every penny.