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Monday, January 25, 2016, 08:29

Forever Young, forever Hong Kong

By Sophie He

The co-founder and CEO of lifestyle brand and chain store G.O.D. says local culture is its driving force and it has proved to be a winner. Sophie He reports.

Staying in touch with the local culture has proved to be a very successful business strategy for Douglas Young, co-founder and chief executive officer of Goods of Desire (G.O.D.), a local boutique retail chain selling souvenirs, premium gifts, quirky clothing and home furnishings with a distinct Hong Kong flair.

He founded G.O.D. in 1996 with business partner Benjamin Lau, when Young was all of 25. “The reason why we started it had something to do with the fact that I am a Hong Kong person, I was born in Hong Kong, educated partly in Hong Kong and partly overseas,” Young told China Daily.

“I felt that my time outside of Hong Kong made me realize that the city is a very special place, has a lot of special identities, which is very different from the rest of the world.”

He noted that the company’s name also means “to live better” in Cantonese, phonetically rendered as “jyu hou di”.

Young left Hong Kong for the UK at the age of 14 and later studied architecture there.

He points out how architects are also designers, their work is about functionality and economic use of material, as it is with design.

It is just that the materials are different but the discipline is very similar. And Young still considers himself an architect in a way.

“I found that Hong Kong was a huge source of inspiration for design, and it inspired me to start my business, to do something that would take things of Hong Kong and make them into a series of products and into a brand,” he added.

Young came back to Hong Kong about 20 years ago and was freelancing as an architect or interior designer. “I came back on holiday and started a number of freelance projects and decided to stay because of the efficient work environment,” he said.

Then through a mutual designer friend he met Lau, who had trained as an architect in Sydney. They found they shared the same aesthetic sense and decided to go into business together.

With the help of their personal savings and some support from their families, the pair started by opening a store in Ap Lei Chau, on the south side of Hong Kong Island.

“My partner (Lau) and I founded the company together, he takes care more of the business side, and what I do is the visual and artistic direction, (which has) also to do with the long-term vision of the company,” Young explained.

He said that he wanted to create a unique style that in essence is Hong Kong-style or Chinese-style, but an updated version — and he also gave it a modern twist.

“In the beginning we sourced a lot from trade fairs in Europe and in Asia, but we discovered that a lot was actually made on the mainland or even Shenzhen. We now have products made in Shenzhen to our designs.”

“We took some of the traditions and added in contemporary elements and style. As a result, you have something that is both old and new. I consider it a revolution of tradition. It is something new to Hong Kong people, as in Hong Kong, if something is old, it will be thrown away … we have accumulated so much history and it is time to rethink that and to see what we can pass on to the next generation.”

Forever Young, forever Hong Kong
Douglas Young, the helmsman of popular lifestyle brand G.O.D. and a trained architect, has built up the brand by channeling quintessenti ally Hong Kong characteristics and giving them a quirky twist. (Parker Zheng / China Daily)

Old reborn as new

Young said he often starts with something that is old, like a newspaper. He has a certain memory of these products from his childhood, but because he was away from Hong Kong, from these products, for a very long time, when he saw these again after he returned, they suddenly seemed to acquire for him a new look.

“As if it were an old friend I had not seen for a long time. When I see the friend again, the feeling is both familiar and strange at the same time. This feeling is what I want to create, it is a feeling of intimacy. But I don’t want to just reproduce it, I want to give it a twist. I may take a newspaper, and print it on a cushion. And if you can read the characters on the newspaper, you would see that the wording is different and it’s our humor, which is also something I really like.”

The first store did not cost them a lot of money as they started at a rather remote location and managed to control costs. They were also lucky to have many supporters including their landlords when they were just starting out.

“The landlords were supportive of what we did and they believed that we could bring in some special and different elements to their properties,” he recalled.

The first store was very experimental, Young said, as at the time he was not sure if this concept of selling local culture to locals would work.

Forever Young, forever Hong Kong “People were very skeptical. Many people have the idea that Hong Kong people like foreign things, that’s why a lot of Hong Kong brands would rather pretend to be foreign brands when they started, they would give themselves some fancy Western names. The fact that we would call ourselves G.O.D., which is very local for Hong Kong, a lot of people questioned if that would work. We are very honest about (the fact that) we are a Hong Kong brand.”

Naughty but nice

The first store did very well and when the business stabilized, G.O.D. expanded to more central locations, growing to six stores around Hong Kong today, and as many as three in Taiwan.

“Once we established a style and corporate agenda, it was easy to recruit,” Young said of their design staff.

Young said that at the moment G.O.D. mostly sells homeware, things that either Young designed or personally selected.

But they also have a small range of products designed by others, mostly Hong Kong designers who share the vision of Young.

G.O.D. is very appealing for tourists, he noted, as many visitors to Hong Kong find it difficult to buy something that is unique to the city. Hong Kong has a lot of shops, but a lot of these shops also exist in other parts of the world. These visitors are eager to find something that is unique to Hong Kong that they can take away as a memento or present, so G.O.D. is considered an ideal destination to shop for Hong Kong souvenirs.

“Local people love to shop in our stores too,” Young added. “A lot of our products remind people of old Hong Kong, and not necessarily old folks — young people find our products very trendy and they get our sense of humor. It is very naughty, so they can also identify with us,” he added.

They also sell to “a lot of the world’s big department stores and museum stores”.

In Europe, G.O.D. has at various times sold to such big names as Selfridges, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Bonmarche in Paris and Globus in Switzerland. US clients include the luxury departmental store chain Bloomingdale’s and the Museum of Modern Art in New York city.

Young admitted that he would love to take his store further overseas in the future, because he believes people from all over the world are looking forward to more products from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, and there will be an increasing appetite for Chinese culture.

So G.O.D. would like to help fill that space.

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Collective designs on creative pride

Douglas Young, Goods of Desire (G.O.D.) co-founder and chief executive officer, believes it is very important to keep employees motivated in order to run a successful business.

“I often ask myself, how to keep myself motivated? For me the most rewarding and fulfilling thing I got from my business is to see my dream happen, so I try to allow my staff and my colleagues to enable some of their concepts to be developed into our final products,” Young told China Daily.

G.O.D. currently employs about 80 design staff in Hong Kong. During meetings on product development with his staff, Young always tries to seek as many opinions as possible. He asks employees to contribute their points of view and then the company will try to incorporate their ideas into the final product, so the final product would contain the DNA of many of the employees of G.O.D.

“I feel that when the end product has part of their contribution, they will feel a sense of pride and they will feel fulfilled, which would get them motivated.”

Young admitted that it is getting increasingly difficult for young people to start a business in Hong Kong, as startup costs in the city has been increasing rapidly. To rent a location like the G.O.D. store on Sharp Street East in Causeway Bay is very expensive.

“I wish we could do something about that, if we don’t, people would be more afraid of the failure of their startups and seek the easy way out. It is not a good thing for innovation and creativity.”

Hong Kong should be a place where entrepreneurs want to take risks in starting their own business, they should suffer less if they fail, which will be a good thing for Hong Kong eventually, he said.

Young suggested that youngsters looking to start their own business should try to do something that did not exist before. He said his business is very personal to him and he believes in bringing to the world something new, as opposed to watching a business model that works and seeing somebody else succeed at something and wanting to imitate or copy that. He started his business because such a business did not exist.

“I was looking for something that is very personal to me,” Young said.

“I would advise people who want to start a business to really question their business model, is it giving this world something new? You can do something that is unique, which will be your selling point.”

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