Fashion can be a wasteful industry. And Jeanine Hsu, who started in the industry, was so bothered by the waste that she decided to launch a sustainable accessories label more than a decade ago.
Her hand-crafted jewelry, whether it costs hundreds or hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece, are all made with offcuts from furniture factories, recycled precious metals, and abalone shells collected from local restaurants.
The designer, who honed her skills at theater arts workshops, as well as with fashion houses such as Alice Temperley, Diesel and Vivienne Westwood, is also exploring unconventional raw materials: fish skin and faux leather made out of vegetables.
“The goal is 100 percent recycled material and zero waste,” the half- Austrian, half-Chinese founder of jewelry label Niin said. With plans to enter China next year, the Hong Kong label has a global retail network, as well as celebrity fans, such as supermodel Kate Moss.
It’s hard to imagine it had its start as a flea market stall, where Hsu sold bone and wood jewelries that she had found in Paris.
“I would go and queue up at the Portobello market every Saturday at 5am to make sure that I got the corner spot that I wanted. And on Sunday, I would do the Spitalfields market in east London,” Hsu recalled.
“The switch from fashion to jewelry design was a subconscious thing. After working for years in fashion, the waste really bothered me. I lived near the Portobello market so I thought I could sell something and make my own cash.”
Although Hsu grew up in an artistic environment with her parents being avid art collectors, and her grandmother being a fashion designer as well, her choice of occupation had always worried her father, a Hongkonger who owns a private security systems company.
Hsu’s Austrian mother is now married to former Hong Kong stock exchange chairman Ronald Arculli. “My mum has a good sense of style and her home is always beautifully finished. Attention to details is something that my sister and I got from our parents,” Hsu said.
Interestingly, Hsu’s sister Claire also picked a career in the arts. She co-founded Asia Art Archive, a non-profit organization that preserves and makes accessible reference materials on contemporary Chinese art, and sits on the museum and acquisition boards of the M+ museum.
“My dad came to visit me once. He was horrified – after all the money they spent on my education, I was a market stall trader,” Hsu added, explaining that she spent her formative years at the German Swiss International School, and later attended a boarding school in Surrey, and eventually graduated from Central Saint Martins with a degree in womenswear.
Hsu took a leap of faith, opening her first physical store in Sheung Wan three years ago. The shop has since attracted a steady stream of customers who share a belief in ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion.
A case in point is the recently launched collection named Alaria. Hsu partnered with Austrian label Aenea Jewellery to produce nine seaweed-inspired designs made with conflict-free gemstones and recycled palladium.
“The challenge to be eco-friendly is authenticity – where you are buying from, and how to be transparent in your production process. Transparency is the hardest. It can come down to even just to keep my wood separated from the others’ in a workshop,” she said.
Hsu said her creative inspiration comes from everything in her daily life: spirituality, female identity, modernity and solidarity. She also draws on the amalgam of Austrian, British and Cantonese cultures, incorporating in her design crystals that bear an auspicious connotation or are deemed to have a healing power.
That said, she does not work with materials from endangered animals such as ivory and rhino horn. She also does not pick those that conflict with the cultures of the source country – for example, cow bones from India.
“I am designing an emblem for an American family living in Hong Kong. The dad appreciates all the materials that I use, and he wants to have a family crest for his family. It will be made into rings and necklaces,” Hsu said.
The article first appeared in the Standard on September 1, 2017.