For fashion designer Johanna Ho, the future is home in Hong Kong

Johanna Ho admits that she is currently in a transitional phase of her fashion design career. Despite having all production aspects rooted in Hong Kong since the conception of her company in 1999, the lingering perception is that hers is a British label.

The situation is understandable considering Ho’s primary schooling in England, then her subsequent fashion design degrees at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London, where she was classmates with Stella McCartney. But shortly after graduation, she realized that she had to look to the West to get her start.

“At that time, Hong Kong consumers – Chinese consumers – were still very much looking to the West,” Ho said at the inaugural THE HUB Hong Kong trade show, where she hoped to make business contacts in the Asia-Pacific region. “So in that sense, I made everything, designed everything, based out of Hong Kong. But then I went back to London where I lived for more than 11 years.”

From there, Ho, who is known for her delightfully offbeat knitwear, unusual cuts and draping, caught the attention of Barneys New York at London Fashion Week and business took off. She later headed back east, right past Hong Kong and straight to fashion-conscious Japan which comprised the bulk of her customers. But after two years in a country where the gap is seemingly widening between the youthful energy of neighborhoods such as Harajuku and the Park Avenue stylings of Ginza, the company Ho worked with pressured her to tailor her designs for a younger audience.

That was when she bowed out. “The Japanese market, as we all know, has really gone down a lot,” Ho said. “Of course, Japan is still in the radar for my business. I would love to go back, but now I’m rediscovering my brand and looking into different opportunities in Asia.”

As a result, Ho is focusing on home, and those efforts have been buoyed by a changing in the tide as far as locals’ tastes are concerned. She has a namesake boutique on Nathan Road in Hong Kong and considers e-commerce to be a vital spoke in her business wheel. Hong Kongers’ preferences toward well-known luxury brands in the late ’90s when Ho just started have shifted, thanks to the proliferation of Asian names among the top designers across the world.

“Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang for Balenciaga, Derek Lam [formerly] for Tod’s – all these Asian designers flourishing, it kind of helps to bring a lot of Asian focus back here to Hong Kong, China or simply Asia,” Ho said in response to a question by Meniscus Magazine about the change in consumer behavior over time. “Of course, in terms of retailing and wholesaling, there is definitely also a huge opportunity here in Hong Kong and in Asia.”

Furthermore, an unexpected series of events prompted Ho to create a menswear range. One of Ho’s best friends, the actress and singer Karen Mok, introduced her to local fashionista Hilary Tsui, who owns the selectively curated, fashion-forward boutique Liger in Causeway Bay. Tsui just so happens to be married to Cantopop star Eason Chan, and Ho asked Chan a simple question two years ago: Did he have a designer picked out for his upcoming concert tour attire?

The answer was no, and the designer found herself having to create menswear for the first time. “That was quite interesting for someone like him,” Ho told Meniscus with a laugh, making a round motion with her hands to indicate the challenge of designing for Chan’s physique.

After two concert tour collaborations, some of Chan’s fellow male celebrity friends, such as Wyman Wong, kept asking Ho when she would launch a menswear collection.

“They all kind of looked at my knitwear for women and were like, ‘I can get into that!’,” Ho marveled. “So I thought, ‘Okay, okay – I’ll do menswear.'” Her first such collection begins with the Fall/Winter 2013 season.

Taking back creative control of her company and experiencing the winds of change has brought Ho full circle.

“I’m just really happy starting back here in Asia now,” Ho added.

Video: Q&A with Johanna Ho – THE HUB Hong Kong, Aug. 28, 2013
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine