On the cusp of expanding the Joyce empire to mainland China, an emboldened Adrienne Ma gives an inside view on the world of luxury retail.
The scion of Hong Kong luxury retail, and one of Asia's great business minds, talks talents, tactics and taking on China
Growing up in the shadow of one of the most respected and stylish women in Hong Kong seems not to have exerted too much pressure on the young Adrienne Ma. After all, it appears female strength is a given in the Ma household. Joyce Ma, who along with her husband Walter founded Joyce, the eponymous chain of fashion stores that started life in Hong Kong in 1971, has always been an influential visionary. She introduced European and Japanese designers into the colony's market and helped shape Hong Kong the fashion destination it remains today as part of rapidly-developing China.
Adrienne Ma, who inherited her father's business brains and her mother's pioneering daring, entered the family firm in 1989. Today, she is President, alongside her CEO mother, of a company that has outposts throughout South-East Asia and is taking its first steps into the still-young luxury market of mainland China. Her far-sighted planning has steered the company through the move into lifestyle retailing, art, economic downturns, new markets, and now into the age of luxury on the internet. She speaks to us about growing up in a merchant family, about her understanding of luxury, and her plans for the future.
What is your definition of luxury?
In materialistic terms, 'luxury' is having the pleasure to own or finding something unique. In a philosophical sense, it's having the confidence to live a life with contentment and integrity, staying true to yourself and your life values.
It's impressive that you should inherit your mother's taste and entrepreneurial flair. Was this genetic or something learned during childhood growing up in the luxury retail universe?
Taste, I believe, is in-born. In this respect, I can never measure up to my mother. But I have rubbed off some of her sense of taste through her guidance and travelling the world with her. Being well-exposed and having a broad horizon also help in shaping one's taste.
I have not only my mother, but also my father to thank for my entrepreneurial flair. While my mother has a great vision in picking out the 'winners' in the fashion world, I owe my business acumen to my father. While I like the creative side of the fashion world, it is the business side of our industry that really excites me.
As a child, was there any question as to whether you would one day work alongside your parents? Did you envisage yourself where you are today?
My parents have always been very liberal and have never burdened us with their expectation. They have always been keen to cultivate our interests. As I am an outgoing extravert, my interest has always been in marketing, working with different groups of people and doing short-term projects. The fashion cycle suits me well as I take every season as a project.
What did your mother teach you of her challenges as a women entrepreneur in the 1970s that help guide your decisions today?
My mother has always been a positive and forward thinker, her views in life or in business has never been 'traditional'. As such, I don't think she has ever honed in on the additional difficulties or challenges a woman would face in a business world. I suppose, the fashion industry may be easier for a woman to break into as it is not so male-dominated as say the financial world.
What is the dynamic of a mother and daughter working together to steer a company like yours? How have you resolved to divide responsibilities?
My mother and I are really quite complementary to each other's talents. As said, she is a visionary for picking out the winners in designers while I excel on the business side. Put us together, and we make quite an ideal team.
Steering the brand out of Asia's economic crisis you then turned Joyce into a 21st century luxury lifestyle brand. When did you recognize that luxury retailing would develop into a lifestyle retailing and how did you approach this new opportunity?
Brands have always been a status symbol to the Hong Kong Chinese, since decades. This status symbol is also very highly regarded by Asians at large and now to the mainland Chinese customers. Being a Hong Kong Chinese, I have always understood the 'value' of brands in our culture. With the modernization of China, it is not at all surprising that this value is quickly embraced by the affluent individuals. Our approach to this new opportunity is the same as what we did to Hong Kong over 30 years ago – we serve as the curator of luxury brands, the interpreter in the language of luxury; we teach the new customer to differentiate between fashion and what's merely fashionable and we provide a personal level of service to which they are completely unaccustomed. We feel that the new customers deserve the highest education in matters of style.
How have your travels and experiences around the world helped shape your vision and direction for Joyce?
Though our retail network is concentrated in Greater China, we are a very international luxury retailer. We have always worked with international talents in our store designs to provide a unique and niche shopping experience to our customers and have always introduced exclusive artisans' creation to our customers. This is part of our company's culture and DNA, which we will relentlessly pursue.
Is the ethos of Joyce one of a continuing search for new talent or do you prefer to find and develop a number of labels over the long term?
Scouting new talents is always important to us as the small stars of today may become the mega brands of tomorrow. We have always had the vision to pick winning designers at their upsurge, then incubate them into businesses over the long term. To name a few, we have exclusively launched Gucci, Prada, Miu Miu, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Fendi, YSL, Bottega Venetta, Dolce & Gabbana, Balenciaga, Donna Karan to Hong Kong over the years.
Are there any newer names that you're particularly excited about at the moment and projecting for future greatness?
We are very happy to be working with Giambattista Valli, Oscar de la Renta, Moncler Gamme Rouge, Lanvin Garderobe, to name a few of the new designers we are getting for the new Spring/Summer 2007 season.
The buoyant luxury industry is fast expanding into mainland China. With such incredible developments in the sector over the last few years, how do you anticipate what the changing tastes of consumers will be?
The mainland Chinese customers are learning very fast about the luxury world. While prominent mega brands are still the 'entry choice' of new customers, more and more customers are experienced and confident enough to search and desire for more niche and alternative brands. We anticipate this movement to be gaining strength and speed over time.
With a Shanghai concept store opening in February, and others in the pipeline for Beijing and Chengdu, what are the difficulties or dangers for foreign luxury retailing in breaking into and establishing in the mainland Chinese market?
I believe the biggest challenge in introducing new brands into the China market is the marketing of the new brand names and the education of their brand value and uniqueness to the potential consumers. China is a very huge market and building brand awareness is not so easy.