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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Wiring for the future

Fashion can produce nothing new any more. That is what Mr Masaaki Ogino, chairman of the Hong Kong-based Fenix Group Holdings and its retail subsidiary, Sidefame, which owns the Anteprima fashion label, says.
The Straits Times - March 26, 2013
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Wiring for the future

It is a bold declaration from a man who is in the business of fashion. But, at the age of 72, with more than 40 years of retail experience under his belt, he feels no need to mince his words.

"There are not many things a designer can do these days. There have perhaps been a million designers in the last 50years who have tried almost everything in shape and style for ready-to-wear."

Sitting in the boardroom above the Anteprima office in Milan on a wintry February afternoon, he laments the passing of a time when entire shop windows would be magically outfitted in, say, green, if Paris made the pronouncement that the shade was in fashion.

"But now, everything happens simultaneously, thanks to the Internet, and anything good is immediately copied," he says.

The only alternative, he says, is to offer small twists to designs.

"What is important now is to offer pieces that can be mixed and matched.

"Simplicity works, and what one plays on are new fabric and new colours."

Anteprima, the brand he founded in 1993 with his wife, creative director Izumi Ogino, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year - a longevity perhaps sustained by the brand's adherence to this style philosophy of simplicity and elegance.

A special collection of its iconic Wirebags in real gold and silver will be launched in the second half of the year, but there are no big anniversary celebrations planned.

HOW IT STARTED

Mr Ogino, who was born in Osaka and studied Russian at the Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, moved to Hong Kong in 1966 to head a Japanese trading agency there.

When the company closed, he and a colleague, MrAnthony Keung, founded Fenix Hong Kong in 1972, initially exporting garments made of Japanese materials to the American and European markets.

They noticed later that there was a need in Japan for quality knitwear, so they set up their own knit manufacturing factories in China and Vietnam to meet that demand.

They then ventured into fashion retailing and distribution in the Asian market in the 1980s, and hit a brand that would make their fortunes - Prada.

The 12-year collaboration with Prada, which saw Sidefame distributing the brand in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea as well as Hawaii, ended in 1999, when the Italian label took over its own worldwide distribution.

By this time, Anteprima had been established as Sidefame's own retail fashion brand and Fenix had grown to become a conglomerate called Fenix Group Holdings. Today, it includes a logistics arm as well as a successful chain of supermarkets called CitySuper in Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan.

GETTING THROUGH HARD TIMES

It has not all been plain sailing, though.

Mr Ogino says: "From 1986 to 1991, Japan was booming and even after the bubble burst, its economy did not slide that much. Hong Kong was also booming.

"So what we learnt from Prada was how to work when the market was good. We didn't know how to respond when the market turned bad, which it did after 1998."

The Asian financial crisis hit, the Sept11 attacks happened in New York in 2001 and Asia fell under the deathly grip of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or Sars, between 2002 and 2003.

During that dark period, to keep the business afloat, he borrowed money from relatives and sold an apartment in Hong Kong in 2004.

So, it is with some pride and relief that he announces Anteprima and Sidefame will post historic profits - figures he declines to reveal ahead of their official release next month.

"We have been conservative. Spending is not a key word for us. My personal philosophy is I don't enjoy spending money."

MORE THAN A BAG BRAND

But he knows he will have to soon as Anteprima plans to increase its global footprint by opening new stores in China, as well as its first flagship store in the United States - in New York.

The brand currently has more than 100 shops in Asia and Europe.

He also wants to beef up the ready-to-wear division of Anteprima. Currently, the brand's popular Wirebag makes up more than 50 per cent of its sales, a situation Mr Ogino feels is less than ideal.

"You can't just be a bag brand if you want to be an international fashion label. Look at Louis Vuitton," he says.

He plans to open five more ready-to-wear shops in Shanghai and three or four more in Beijing. Currently, there are three such stores in Shanghai and one in Beijing.

There are also Anteprima boutiques in Taiwan, Macau, Japan and Singapore.

In Italy, the brand has two stores - one in Milan and one in Rome. All these territories also have Wirebag shops, which can be found in Busan, Guam, Jakarta, Hawaii, London and Seoul.

Japan is, by far, the brand's biggest market, making up half of its total sales. The rest is shared among the remaining markets, of which Hong Kong and China make up a hefty 40 per cent.

Mr Ogino plans to grow this 40 per cent pie, especially as Japan looks set to be a declining market, due to the recently devalued yen.

GIVING BACK TO SOCIETY

He will also have to contend with the fact that the fashion business has changed dramatically.

"In the past, fashion was a hobby or a personal business. Now it's an industry, with a huge focus on cash flow."

Smaller independent players, therefore, have to fight harder.

When asked if he would ever sell Anteprima, he says, unsentimentally, that he would not mind.

Retirement, in any case, is already on the cards as he wants to spend more time giving back to society.

He has already given US$1.3 million (S$1.6million) to a youth exchange programme spearheaded by Waseda University and five Chinese universities, which aims to promote cross-cultural understanding between Japan and China.

"Hong Kong has been like a mother to me. It gave me the chance to make my fortune. Now I have to give something back," he says.

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