Minimalist Hong Kong Bag Maker Cafuné Sets Sights on China’s Niche-Minded Fashionistas

It’s a classic Instagram photo for those with an eye for minimalism: designer sunglasses, a cup of coffee, and a small black clutch, all arranged neatly on a polished marble surface. Queenie Fan brings this vibe into a single handbag collection for her brand Cafuné, which she and co-founder Day Lau debuted online and in Hong Kong stores late last year. Cafuné’s soft leather bags boast ultra-thin marble slabs, an unusual characteristic for a handbag accessory that Fan is confident will help Cafuné stand out in a highly-competitive independent designer bag market. They’re ready as they can be—their first round of marble bags, which are currently sold online and at a K11 boutique in Hong Kong, sold out, and they’ve caught the attention of buyers from the United States all the way to Australia. They’re also currently showcasing their Spring/Summer ’17 collection at New York Fashion Week’s Capsule Show, and they’re soon headed for a trade show at Shanghai Fashion Week to explore the Chinese market.

Fan brings an industrial design background to Cafuné, as well as experience working with designers in New York, including Phillip Lim, Rag & Bone, and Coach. For her fall capsule collection, she brings the handcrafted marble panels back in oxblood and other neutrals, in addition to structured bucket bags. She keeps her forms simple, preferring that a luxury accessory be less about flashiness and more about the “emotion and attachment” her customers have with her bags. As she gears up to head to the Shanghai Fashion Week Ontimeshow in October, Jing Daily caught up with Fan to find out how she plans on finding her “Cafuné girl” in China.

What inspired you to start a handbag brand? What do you think is missing in the Hong Kong market?

I’ve always wanted to do something on my own, and start my own brand. Having worked a couple of years in New York, I feel like I’m ready. In the Hong Kong market, there are a lot of mid-price point handbags, but I feel like there is still opportunity out there. People are developing their individuality right now, especially Hong Kong shoppers. The younger generation wants something that is unique, so there is still an appetite in Hong Kong for a minimal, well-considered handbag.

Is minimalism something that you personally adopt in your day-to-day life?

Yes. I like things that are very clean and minimal, but not something that doesn’t have any detail. I like things that are smart. I think in terms of fashion, or in terms of product design or any type of design, I like something better when it’s simple, but grows on you from time to time.

A handbag from Cafuné's Fall/Winter 2016 collection. (Courtesy Photo)

A handbag from Cafuné’s Fall/Winter 2016 collection. (Courtesy Photo)

What has been the response so far?

For the first two months, we debuted the collection through word-of-mouth and through a lot of support from friends. Then, after we debuted, we started to reach out to boutiques, and then we were selling in three boutiques in Hong Kong. From there, we started attracting customers and shoppers that were window-shopping. Surprisingly, we did sell a bit online as well. Our only marketing was through Instagram and Facebook, but I think I kind of underestimated the power of social media because didn’t we really do a lot. We just did daily posts on Facebook and Instagram, and we gained international customers, mostly from the United States and some from Australia.

Because you’re an independent Hong Kong brand, do you feel like Chinese consumers around the globe will take more notice?

It’s funny because last week we received an email from Hong Kong customers asking if we shipped to Hong Kong because they didn’t realize we were a Hong Kong brand. That made me realize that maybe it’s a good thing that our brand is just seen as international or kind of anonymous. But yes, for Chinese costumers, I feel like they are more comfortable buying local designers because there are a lot more exciting designers and designs out there now. I guess they’re more comfortable supporting local designers and buying unique designs.

Do you anticipate any challenges in terms of getting Chinese consumers in particular to see value in Cafune compared to big-name handbag brands?

Yeah, there definitely will be challenges. People have told us it’s a little more normal to save up a little more money to buy a branded bag from a high-end brand or a contemporary brand. So it’s definitely a challenge, especially in the handbag market, which is so saturated. Handbags are a status symbol for people, and we have to stand out in terms of continuing to build our brand identity. It takes time—a few more seasons, a few more designs, and a campaign for people to know who we are.

We do think that luxury does not only have to do with how the handbag is priced, but it also encompasses everything from the design to how well we’ve considered the brand, to the craftsmanship behind it. This is a learning curve for everyone. It starts with the first crowd, people who are more fashion-forward or people who like new designers. It needs that first crowd of customers to drive that momentum.

A stone-colored handbag from Cafuné's capsule collection. (Courtesy Photo)

A stone-colored handbag from Cafuné’s capsule collection. (Courtesy Photo)

What do you hope to get out of the Ontimeshow at Shanghai Fashion Week?

It will definitely be an eye-opening experience for us because this is going to be our first time learning about the Chinese market. I know what’s it’s like in the New York market because I’ve been working there and I’ve always been shopping. I know the style and the retailers. But in China, I feel like it’s changing and growing so much. I’ve learned that there is already a list of new retailers out there, a change from just a year ago. In China, there are likely so many cool, artistic brands and designers I might not have even heard of. I want to meet with them and the buyers and learn what Chinese customers actually want. We’d definitely like to be in stores that really support Chinese designers and also have an eye for unique independent designers, such as Triple Major or Dongliang.

Which designers do you like to buy or get inspired by?

In terms of designers I shop, I like Rachel Comey, and I actually like Tibi. In terms of bags, I prefer vintage pieces. For vintage branded handbags, it’s definitely really good leather and really good craftsmanship. They are also more simple. In terms of brands that inspire me, I really like the Row and I really like Raf Simons’ work.

When you worked as an accessories designer in New York for Phillip Lim, Rag & Bone, and Coach, what did you learn that you’re applying now?

At Coach, I learned a lot about the importance of keeping a brand identity and truly keeping your market. Because Coach is such a big company and they work with so many SKUs and have so many collections for each season, for each collection, they have a specific girl in mind. From that, I was trained to know that you need to have a girl in your mind to build around the brand. That really helped me in terms of building my line, in terms of a whole collection, to figure out what’s missing, what more do we need. In terms of Phillip Lim and rag & bone, I was trained more to be a well-rounded designer because it’s a smaller team. You get to do everything from sourcing to production. Learning and working with Phillip and working with Rag & Bone I understand how all their design thoughts come together as a full collection, talking about from clothing to accessories. I think that was a good experience for me and will benefit me a lot in the future.

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