Finding riches in the rag trade

by Ella Lee

Ike Wong, general manager, Moiselle (Hong Kong) Limited

If you want to make it to the top in any profession, a few things are absolutely essential. Vision, commitment and determination all rank highly, but in the opinion of Ike Wong, general manager of Moiselle (Hong Kong) Limited, what you need above everything else is a real passion for the work you do. That is something which has characterised his own rise from a position as assistant designer in a small boutique in Tsim Sha Tsui's Kimberly Road to running a publicly listed company that is also one of Hong Kong's best known high-fashion brands.

Mr Wong has had an interest in fashion design as long as he can remember. "I have always liked drawing and love beauty," he says. In fact, he even tried to design and tailor his own clothes when he was still in secondary school. Compared with other kinds of graphic design work, he was particularly attracted by the greater variety found in the fashion business and that made his choice of career comparatively straightforward.

He was taking a design course and supporting himself by working as a clerk, when his first big break arrived. "On the way to class, I used to pass a boutique which designed and sold fashionable ladies' wear, and I always stopped to stare at their window displays," Mr Wong recalls. One day, having just quit his job because of boredom, he was standing on his usual spot dreaming the usual dream. Before he knew it, the owner came out and offered him the chance to work there! "They were actually looking for an assistant and had noticed me before," says Mr Wong, who still remains grateful for that initial opportunity.

He began as an unpaid part-time assistant but, even so, enjoyed the work. "It was good enough just to be involved in some way in the work of fashion design and production," he says. The duties were varied and occasionally tedious, ranging from cleaning the floor and fixing window displays to coordinating with apparel workshops, handling sales and attending to customer service. Overall, it taught him the basics of how the fashion industry worked, as well as the principles of retailing.

Early success

When promoted to assistant designer, Mr Wong was able to get involved in the sourcing of materials and, at that point, was also asked to come up with his own design sketches. He still remembers the feeling of achievement when some of his early ideas were incorporated into the final version of a new item. In those days, he came to realise the importance of learning through observation and frequently reviewed his own work to get a better understanding of why his concepts were not always accepted.

In his current position, Mr Wong oversees design, development and production of Moiselle's ladies' apparel. He keeps a close eye on workflow arrangements and time management within the company and sees his role as a bridge between marketing, design, merchandising and sales.

As a designer, he must focus on creativity and beauty, while as a merchandiser, practicality rules the day. Innovative ideas must be turned into sellable products. The working day therefore involves monitoring production, liaising with suppliers, managing budgets, ensuring quality and delivery schedules, and checking the manufacturing process.

Mr Wong's advice to anyone going into merchandising is that they need an eye for detail, self-discipline and the ability to coordinate numerous activities efficiently and on time. Difficulties have to be expected, so merchandisers should also be calm, quick-thinking and resourceful. A sense of anticipation, which comes from fully understanding the business, helps in avoiding or minimising potential problems. This usually develops as a result of experience and application.

Balancing point

The ultimate goal and the biggest reward, he believes, is to be recognised within the market and to achieve consistent sales. That indicates the right balance has been struck between creativity and practicality, and that you are providing something that customers really appreciate.

In order to track fashion trends and find new inspiration, Mr Wong and the company's team of designers travel about six times a year to events around the world. For merchandisers, travel nowadays is mainly to China to deal with production-related matters. Whatever individual jobs may entail, he regularly emphasises to all staff the importance of keeping their eyes open and being aware of the latest trends and of what is happening throughout the industry.

The most challenging thing is still "time to market"-getting the right products into stores at the right time to match fashion trends and meet market demand. With the life cycle of products getting shorter and investors always expecting larger returns, the task does not get any easier.

For Mr Wong, though, that is one of the factors that makes the industry so dynamic. His advice to the younger generation is to remember that they are going into a business and that, ultimately, success will be judged not by what you design but by whether it sells.

Fashion pointers

  • Working for high-fashion brands requires having a passion for the business
  • Success comes from a combination of creativity and practicality
  • Designers should remember that the business depends on having products that sell
  • It is important to keep a close eye on international trends

Taken from Career Times 29 April 2005
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