How did your fashion journey begin?
The cringey line of, “I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer since I was six,” is true because I hated school and wasn’t academic. When I was little my mum used to try to get me to school in the morning, and she would find me hiding under the table drawing and daydreaming away. I’m most grateful to my mother though who saw talent in that daydream girl early on. She got me into a lot of drawing classes and then later on I went to England to study.
When you first started out creating clothes, you had to travel to America to gain recognition as an Asian designer. Is this still a problem designers here are facing?
I would say it’s improved a lot since I’ve first started. It was like banging my head against a wall when I began because I had to make it big outside of my home country before anyone would take me seriously.
I returned to Hong Kong soon after I graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1997. 14 years ago, people weren’t really ready for any local brands as they were still pretty much into luxury brands like Armani, Prada, and Gucci. They weren’t ready for me, so I went to London. I showed my first collection during London Fashion Week and sold my first collection to Barney’s. That’s when people started noticing my brand. I had HK buyers, Japanese buyers and all the big department stores buying from me, like Lane Crawford etc.
But one thing that was scary was that they insisted on me being a British designer; even though everything was made in and shipped out from China and HK and I’m 100% Chinese! That took me by surprise but I’m glad things have changed since then.
Any tips for budding designers?
I think the most important thing is to have integrity. The only reason I’ve survived for all these years is because I held my ground and stayed true to my signature aesthetic. I try my best not to change too much although it’s very, very easy and tempting – especially when you’re a young, up and coming designer.
Who are your mentors?
One of my biggest mentors is my mom. She never really pushed me too hard at school, she just accepted that I was creative. My other mentor is a lady called Marjorie Yang who I met at the start of my career. She’s the first wife of Mr Dickson Poon and the owner of Esquel, which is probably one of the biggest cotton manufacturers in Asia. I met her through my gym instructor and it turned out that she’s a big supporter of home grown talent. She took a liking to my work and me, and she came on board as my advisor. I was very grateful and still am to this day for everything she’s done for me. I would say I owe 100% of my business success to her. She’s given me so many tutorials over the years and told me what I should and shouldn’t do. She’s always right!
What was your best career moment?
When Barney’s came in and bought my first collection in 1997, because that was the breaking point for me as a designer.
What are some of your favourite places for budget buys in HK and some hidden hot spots to shop?
Because I live in Kowloon, I love going to Granville Circuit. It’s a very small street but there’s this treasure of a building. It opens around 3pm and goes until about 11pm. It’s a bit like Kensington Market when it first started. That’s also how Galliano started in London, and it’s where all these little designers are hidden. But because of financial limits and all that, they make money by copying what the trend is, based on what’s around. But they do a hell of a good job. And then of course there’s a lot of hidden stuff from the factories.
What other Hong Kong designers do you admire?
Recently, I’ve discovered Jordan. She’s actually trained in Paris and she recently came back to Hong Kong to start her brand. There’s another local brand—more local than anything else I’ve seen. The founder just graduated from a design school in HK and it’s called Heaven Please. They have a very small shop up in TST near Granville Circuit and they have really interesting and affordable stuff.
Where do you shop for vintage and second hand fashion in Hong Kong?
It’s difficult here. There’s one shop that I really like called Microwave in Tai Hang. I’ve got to know the owners and I even do crossover projects with them, like up-cycling the second hand clothing they sell into something new.
Do you have a secret seamstress you go to?
There’s a little haven called Ann & Bon in Central in Melbourne Plaza. My mother and my grandmother went there too, years ago. I only go to Ann, who owns the place. Now they’ve grown from a little cubbyhole to two little shops in Melbourne Plaza – but a lot of expats go there too. They do the best alterations… they always seem to know exactly what to do with no hesitation whatsoever.
Where is your favourite date night dinner?
We just go to Aqua in TST because that’s where I first met my husband. Other than that, I’m quite a cheap date because I just love cheap and cheerful places as long as the food is nice! I would say a good ramen place is also top of my list. My husband’s from Hokkaido, Sapporo, and he always knows the best spots!
Any secrets to looking stylish, regardless of your shape and size?
The most important thing is to know who you are. It’s like trying to find out your personality and the way to do that is to experiment. Go to shops and try things on and see what looks good on you. It’s always nice to go with a reliable friend who can tell you the truth. Go for things that you don’t usually go for… sometimes it gives you interesting outcomes. That’s how I got into knit work.
Do you still get a buzz when you’re in magazines?
Not really. I get more of a buzz when customers come in or I see people wearing my clothes on the streets and I have no idea who they are. That’s more than money can buy – that’s more than any magazine can do for me.
Check out Johanna’s flagship store here:
Johanna Ho, G/F, 13 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong, 2722 6776, www.johannaho.com
All of the beautiful images were taken by the amazing Beatrice Lee. For more of her work check out her website www.beatricelee.com.