Amuse Bouche

Lai Yuen amusement park scion wants a bite of the restaurant business

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Before smartphones transformed treasured moments into pixels to be glazed over, local businessman Deacon Chiu Te-ken dedicated himself to entertaining a generation of people, and along the way, created numerous collective memories that will last.

“My father was a man of strong character, always inventing new ideas to run his cinemas and television station,” said Duncan Chiu Tat-kun, 42, the Far East Consortium founder’s youngest of eight children. “He has been a big influence on me. I am quite like him in a way.”

Of all his entertainment ventures, an amusement park in Lai Chi Kok, known colloquially as Lai Yuen, was a source of pride to the elder Chiu. The park was demolished in 1997, but lives on as an emblem of nostalgia, evoking many cherished memories.

In 2015, the Chiu family revived Lai Yuen as a summer carnival in the Central promenade. The carnival ran for 70 days and attracted 1.2 million visitors. Sadly, the elder Chiu did not see the HK$70 million project to fruition. He died in March at the age of 90.

“We intended to bring Lai Yuen back as an one-off project, but were overwhelmed daily with requests to keep it running,” the junior Chiu said.

“That convinced me to set up a company and find new ways to re-launch the brand. We cannot rely only on selling nostalgia.”

The past year saw a new Lai Yuen emerging: a mobile theme park that has pitched camp at Asia World-Expo, and at a trade exhibition in Guangzhou.

Two weeks ago, Chiu added a cha chaan teng in Tsim Sha Tsui under Lai Yuen’s name.

The tea restaurant serves the carnival food sold at the old Lai Yuen. Classic drinks, such as cream soda with fresh milk and coconut red bean ice, are also on the menu. Paintings of the tiger cub mascot and a carousel chandelier echo the amusement park connection.

“Lai Yuen was not a full restaurant but food was part of the fun. There were many stores selling frozen pineapple slices. As kids, we would buy deep-fried chicken drumsticks after riding bumper cars,” he said.

“We’ve tried to keep up with the times by offering different cuisine, more healthy vegetable dishes and nicer presentation at the restaurant. We are not going to host a carnival this year. We have to focus on running the new cha chaan teng, which will be a permanent project.”

Although Chiu assisted his late father at work after university, assuming the chairman’s role of Lai Yuen was unintended. His full-time job is that of a tech investor. He manages a private investment firm, Radiant Venture Capital, which he co-founded in 2014.

“When I got back from the United States in 1996, the investment holding company that I looked after for the family had a bit of everything – entertainment, shops, factories in China, stocks, and a golf resort. These assets were worth some money, but they were losing money as well,” he recalled.

“In 1999, I started looking into different possible investments. I thought, as a business, the tech sector had a future. Hong Kong and China could be a start-up launchpad. Luckily enough, some of the companies I invested in survived the bust of the dot-com bubble the year later.”

His first profitable tech investment was Chinasoft International. The internet business services provider was floated in 2003, and now has a market capitalization of US$10.14 billion (HK$79.09 billion). Chiu, an early investor, sold all his shares when the company entered the main board.

Venture capital fund and amusement park are two vastly different businesses. However, they require the same taste for innovation and originality, Chiu said.

He does not intend to be only an old guard of his father’s theme park but sees himself as a business founder like his father.

“A business is easy to start, but a brand is difficult to maintain and grow. Lai Yuen is more than a theme park. It’s a homegrown label, and we intend to make it last. To do that, you cannot do away with the spirit of inventing,” Chiu said.

“That’s why, in every project, we tried to make something new based on the old elements, right down to the last decoration details. And these new ideas have to be original. Create or perish – that is the rule we have to live by in the modern world.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 23, 2017.

Golden Heritage

Father-daughter team of jewelers shares about forging a gem of a partnership

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The rings made by Patrick Yuen Hin-tai and Vanessa Yuen Lai-lam are as unique as their relationship. Plenty of love has gone into producing the bands – a reflection of the bond that the father and daughter share.

In times when most jewelry is fashioned by machines, the Yuens belong to a tiny group of local goldsmiths who are still designing and crafting their pieces by hand. Most of the tools used for chipping and engraving are rudimentary. Only a few are electric.

“Not many people in Hong Kong are still making jewelry full-time like my dad does. Many goldsmiths have either passed away or switched to becoming security guards or taxi drivers to make a better living,” Vanessa said.

The senior Yuen, now in his late 60s, entered the goldsmithing profession through a cousin’s introduction five decades ago. He is a bench jeweler, specializing in patterning jadeite, diamond and pearl pieces.

“In the old days, we needed to pay the boss a guarantee to work as apprentice. As apprentice, we received a pittance of HK$10 a month. That was one- tenth of what I made when I was still working in a textile factory in 1966 or 1967,” he recalled.

Entry barriers were high, but the trade promised good prospects before its decline in late 1980s. Tse Sui-luen, founder of the eponymous label, made his fortune as a bench jeweler. The jewelry chain is now a listed company, with a market capitalization of HK$620 million.

Two other success stories are David Sin Wai-kin, chairman of Myer Jewelry Manufacturer, and Cheng Yu-tung, the late patriarch of Chow Tai Fook. Both expanded their reach to properties and hotels.

“Goldsmiths were considered prime husband material,” the senior Yuen joked. “During the most prosperous years in 1987 and 1988, I was making HK$30,000 to HK$40,000 a fortnight. A two-room flat in Tuen Mun then cost about HK$400,000.”

He now runs his own workshop. His daughter, a fashion and carpet designer, joined the family business and started an in-house label, Vanessa Bell, two years ago.

“I quit my job in 2014 to go on a working holiday. When I was in London, I became an apprentice at a shop selling hand-crafted jewelry. That made me realize an interest in my dad’s work,” Vanessa said.

“I named the label after a park built in remembrance of the painter Vanessa Bell. I walked past that park every day in London. My customers and I have very similar tastes. We like simple, affordable, vintage-inspired 18-karat pieces that can be worn daily.”

Vanessa designs all the pieces, and her father realizes her creative visions. The Vanessa Bell series comprises mostly rings set with gemstones, with a few bracelets and earrings. All are made to order. A simple ring, priced from HK$1,400, can be made in one day.

Her father also makes crowns, pendants, bridal bangles, and engagement rings – which can come to HK$600,000 a piece. More intricate designs can take six months to finish.

“My dad and I have vastly different tastes in jewelry. But he never second guesses my vision.” Vanessa said. “We do argue about the design. He might think that the stones I choose are too small, or the ring is not chunky enough. But I will press on with my ideas.”

The two complement each other. He contributes artistry and experience while she brings in fashion sense and online marketing skills.

“I get anxious when business is bad,” she said. “My dad taught me two things. First, it takes a full year for results to show and second, some will like my design, some won’t.”

Vanessa is full of praise for her father. “My dad is a shy person. He never tells others what he has done. I know he is secretly hiding away some bridal bracelets,” she said. “He made me a ring when I was 18. Since then, my sister and I get a birthday gift from him every year. His gifts will be our dowry.”

He said: “I am a goldsmith. Naturally, I want the best jewelry for my daughters.”

“If my boyfriend proposes, I will want my dad to make my engagement ring,” she said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 16, 2017.

Time in a Bottle

In life, as in wine making, patience is a virtue

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Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Christophe Salin started life with a drop of wine, thanks to his grandfather. The champagne vintner reminded his daughter-in-law: “Don’t give him too much milk. We don’t want to raise him like an animal.”

The Frenchman, born in Epernay, grew up to deviate slightly from his grandfather’s expectations. He became the president and chief executive of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), owner of world-famous wine label Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

The first-growth estate in Bordeaux has been in the Rothschild family since 1868. Banker Eric de Rothschild, now acting as chairman, is the fifth generation.

Salin joined the winemaker in 1985 after a stint in construction. Thanks to his job, he has developed a sophisticated palate for red. He only drinks good wines. His most memorable was a non-selling vintage bottled in 1959.

“Bad wines should be illegal. If you find one, you should call the police. Wines have to be good,” the Champagne native joked. “I also like to enjoy a Cuban cigar from time to time. This is my contribution to communism.”

It’s often said that the vintner’s personality has a big effect on how the wine turns out. If that is true, the richness of Lafite will come from Salin’s dry sense of humor.

“Eric de Rothschild went to engineering school. As an engineer, he likes to be precise and as a wine lover, he knows exactly the style he likes,” Salin said.

“But we did not change Lafite. Lafite changed us. You have to listen to the vineyard and follow its advice. Viticulture is a long term business. To get the best out of a vineyard, you have to wait 25 years. We are only viticulturists. God decides and we execute.”

The 30-odd years of Salin’s career has been spent building the Domaines Barons de Rothschild business and its brands. The business has expanded beyond Bordeaux, and now owns chateaux in other wine regions in France, Chile, Argentina, and China.

In those years, the industry has gone through dramatic changes, marked by the rise of China and its voracious appetite for wine. A taste for fine wine, introduced by British merchants two centuries ago to the country, has become a widespread phenomenon.

In 2000, Eric de Rothschild consigned his private collection to Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Three bottles of 1869 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, sold at US$233,972 (HK$1.82 million) each, became the world’s most expensive wine ever auctioned. The entire lot fetched over US$8 million.

However, that fascination has evolved. “Before, people were buying labels. Now, they are drinking the wines. They are not buying to offer as business gifts. That happened in Japan and Korea. It’s a normal evolution,” Salin said.

“Hongkongers are very knowledgeable about wine. And the mainlanders are fast learners. I have seen them, especially those under 35, moving from all the top chateaux in the 1990s and 2000s to the cheaper wines.”

In 2008, Domaines Barons de Rothschild bought its first Chinese vineyard in Penglai, Shandong province, in partnership with state-owned enterprise, CITIC Group.

“We did our first harvest in September. The quality, so far, meets our standards. Hopefully, we will release our 2016 vintage next year.”

The weather conditions in the past year saw a heavenly opportunity for all Bordeaux winemakers. On the fine wine front, Salin said the 2016 vintage will be a highlight in the history of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Affordable wines from other Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s vineyards will also be carried in local restaurants and wine shops. A case in point are Chateau Duhart- Milon and Chateau Moulin de Duhart – produced in a vineyard near Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Salin has learnt to enjoy a good life through winemaking. And like making good wine, the secret is being true to yourself and having the patience to wait for plans to come to fruition.

“Be honest, be open to opportunities and be balanced,” he said of his philosophy in life. “Whatever you do, don’t be in a hurry. Think twice, and always make your plans long term.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 9, 2017.

Providing the Right Support

The Truth about Teenage Suicide – and How to Prevent it

 

A disturbing wave of suicides among students has made local headlines again. In February, six young people tried to take their own lives. Five succeeded. These recent cases add to a tally of 71 student suicides reported in the past three years.

A survey that came out last week estimates that 31.6 percent of primary school children and 40.3 percent of those in secondary school are at risk of suicide. The new findings match a number of other reports which have looked into the issue of teenage suicide.

Senior primary school children and junior secondary school pupils are more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts as they are in critical transition periods at school.

That said, academic pressure is not the only reason why youngsters decided to end their lives. Other common triggers include breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, conflict with family members, mental illness and troubled friendships.

The good news is statistics have been dropping since the peak in 2003. While there were more male than female suicide cases, the overall numbers are lower than what were recorded in developed countries.

Suicide is preventable but requires everybody’s effort to recognize the importance of mental well-being, said Leesa Tinney, psychologist and lecturer at Monash University in Australia.

“Friends and teachers are in a good position to know whether a young person is in distress because they know the person really well. They can see small changes. Parents do too. But parents sometimes can be too close,” she added. “Noticing depression is key to picking up suicide.

“For depression, you will be looking for signs, such as a person wanting to be on his own, not doing fun things that he used to like doing, and withdrawing from his friends. Other indicators include teary eyes, and changes in sleeping and eating habits. Sometimes, kids come across as agitated or angry. But it’s usually about feeling sad or losing hope. Take note of comments like ‘there is no future’ or ‘there is no point.’ ”

Timely intervention can save lives. Three out of four victims will seek help either implicitly or explicitly before actual suicide attempts, a report submitted to the Education Bureau in November found.

Another local study in 2006 pinpointed the golden hour of intervention, with 16 percent dying within 24 hours of showing suicidal tendencies, 14 percent within a week, 10 percent within a month, 11.3 percent in two months, and 23.3 percent for two months or more before the act.

Based on experiences, Tinney concludes that the types of therapeutic technique used, while all are effective, make a small difference in the counseling outcomes. A large part depends on the young person and his or her relationship with a confidant.

Young people who are more willing to seek help and believe their initiative will help tend to benefit more from a counseling session.

And an adviser who is able to build rapport and a genuinely trusting relationship is more effective than a stranger to talk someone out of suicide.

“You don’t need to have special skills. You just need to be calm, be open, be ready to listen, and be logical to figure out what to do next,” she said.

“Asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide is not going to put the idea into their heads. They are already thinking about it. Asking that question says you are brave enough to have this conversation and hear all the stuff that they are going through.”

“One thing that you should not do is ignore it. Being left alone is pretty awful. And the longer an at-risk young person is left alone is not going to be good.”

If you don’t know how to do a risk assessment, begin with simple questions, such as: “Are you okay?”

Avoid phrasing a question jokingly – such as “Don’t do anything silly,” – because that will put a young person down, Tinney said.

If you feel clumsy doing it, inform a family friend, the child’s school, a counsellor or a family doctor to have that conversation. But that person should be someone the child is familiar with.

With older adolescents, their personalities are already well-formed. They have developed their own set of coping skills to deal with adverse situations. Some children see cutting a wrist or suicide as a way to cope and it’s normal.

Even so, building resilience is possible. A confidant’s role is to create lots of different coping options when a young person feels awful, Tinney said.

Establishing a connection beyond academia, giving a young person a sense of belonging and purpose, helping them structure their daily lives, assisting them to learn how to make good choices, and teaching them to laugh can shield a young person from negative experiences.

An online resource compiled by Australian clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller is a good starting point for parents and teachers to learn more about building resilience in children.

The article first appeared in the Standard on May 23, 2017.

Sole Bearing

Italian shoe label Sergio Rossi new CEO wants to bring sexy back

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Riccardo Sciutto understands the profound relationship between a woman and her shoes. That’s why, to know a woman, he will glance at her feet. Her choice of footwear reveals more than where she is going or where she has been to.

“You can understand a lady a lot with her shoes,” Sciutto said. To illustrate his point, he pointed at a working woman wearing white moccasins. “For a lady to wear flats, she is projecting self confidence. She dares to break the mold.”

The almost psychic ability to decipher a woman’s mind is a necessary occupational hazard. Sciutto is chief executive of the Milan-based footwear company Sergio Rossi.

The label is known for its high-octane creations that add oomph and unabashed glamor to the female wardrobe. Its iconic monotone stilettos and thigh-high boots are must-haves for the well-heeled.

Sex appeal is the name of the game, and Sergio Rossi excels in it. However, Sciutto is attempting to redefine sexy.

“Wearing short skirts and high heels was the definition of sexy. We need to destroy that preconception,” he said. “Today the ladies are much more confident and ready to live life. They can wear pants and shorter heels and still look sexy.”

The past year saw great changes at Sergio Rossi, with ownership changing hands from the Kering Group to Investindustrial in December 2015. The private equity firm also retains the car manufacturer Aston Martin and furniture company B&B Italia in its investment portfolio.

Sciutto was appointed in April 2016. A fashion veteran, Sciutto brought with him a wealth of senior managerial experience he gained at the jeweler Pomellato.

His credentials in clothes are equally impressive. Born in Bra, Piedmont — an Italian city famous for its wine and truffles — Sciutto came from a family whose company had produced merchandise for Max Mara.

Sciutto has also worked for leather goods and footwear label Hogan, where he pushed forward a project to continue the label’s tradition of making luxury sneakers.

Sciutto had been working with the new owner a year to relaunch the footwear label. He started with a bold proposition: rather than betting on a celebrity designer, he and a team of young designers would lead the creative vision.

“My idea was for customers to fall back in love again with Sergio Rossi. We looked at our DNA, but at the same time, we are thinking about the future in order to establish a new line that would represent a new family of shoes and the rebirth of the label.”

The new collection, called sr1, was conceived with innovative concepts. Exotic sky-high pumps were replaced with wearer-friendly daywear. An example is a new creation that merges the design of moccasin and slipper, and features an elongated tongue.

The collection is evergreen. It will keep expanding every season. But all the pieces added are meant to be season-less.

“Squared-toe is the direction but pointed-toe will be added. There will be different proportions and lower heels. Our shoes are meant for walking,” Sciutto said.

“Modern women are revolving every day. They no longer carry many pairs of shoes for different occasions. They love to have one style that they can wear to work for the entire day. Our heels were 10 or 11 centimeters high. Now, we make more six-centimeter heels.”

While balancing femininity and functionality is the goal, it is a challenge for a company that takes a couture-like approach to footwear. The “beauty is pain” mentality still lingers in high-street fashion. And Sciutto will need to rewrite the book.

“The risk about being a visionary is that at the beginning you may be seen as a little bit crazy. I see what is going to happen in the next one or two years but I need to explain it to the team and get their trust before I can tell it to the customers,” he said.

“For me, shoes are where the magic happens. I can put three ladies in front of you, and by dressing them with different shoes, they will each show a different mentality and attitude. It’s a kind of magic that a dress and a bag cannot give you.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on May 19, 2017.

Brilliant Tactician

Folli Follie’s numbers man has descended from Greek warrior and swapped spears for spreadsheets

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Ioannis (John) Begietis may be known as the numbers man for FF Group, a family-run fashion company that owns the Folli Follie and Links of London labels. He’s the company’s global chief financial officer, and chief operating officer at its Asia-Pacific headquarters.

But little do people know that the Greek is, literally, a present-day Spartan warrior.

He’s descended from a historical military family that can trace its roots back to the reign under Leonidas, the Spartan king portrayed by Gerard Butler in the 2006 film, 300.

Begietis and his brother are the first generation in the family who have exchanged spears and shields for spreadsheets. “Some say my forefathers were the descendants of King Leonidas. My grandfather was an army general. My father was an admiral in the navy,” he said.

“I joined the national service right after my studies in the United States. I was in the air force as a finance officer for two years. I got to try some new anti-aircraft weapons and really cool guns,” the 50-year-old recalled.

Undergoing a different rite of passage – marked by expat assignments in the business world – Begietis relocated to Hong Kong in 2011.

He now oversees about 320 retail stores in East and Southeast Asia, and his main responsibilities include the overseas expansion of Folli Follie.

Folli Follie has been expanding rapidly in Asia, with the Asian market now contributing significant revenues to the Athens-based FF Group. Its annual sales have risen from 300 million euros (HK$2.54 billion) to 1.3 billion euros in the 11 years since Begietis climbed aboard.

In Hong Kong, the label has accelerated the pace of setting up stores in prime shopping districts. Last October, it opened a new outlet store at E-Max WearHouse in Kowloon Bay, followed by another at Florentia Village in Kwai Chung in March. This summer, it plans to add two or three regular stores in the SAR.

Including locations at Horizon Plaza in Ap Lei Chau and Plaza Hollywood in Diamond Hill, Folli Follie now has four outlet stores in Hong Kong.

In the past, brands opened such stores to liquidate unsold inventory but modern practices are changing. Outlet shops form a part of the present-day omni-channel retail strategy of top fashion labels. They stock not only past-season items, but also special collections.

An example is Japan, where Begietis has restructured the Folli Follie brand after the acquisition of a joint venture partner in 2008. A new marketing image and merchandise offers helped the label recruit young female office workers as loyal customers.

“In Japan, we have a sizable number – 16 outlet stores. They are located far away from the main cities. They have not overtaken the local market sales, but are a very profitable segment,” Begietis said. “The most successful outlet venture usually happens in a mature market. You have to have a clientele who knows what the full price items are, and can differentiate them from the special lines or discounted items.”

In the local outlet stores, past-season items account for only 15 percent of the entire catalog. They are sold at a minimum 30 percent discount. The rest are specialty products: for example, men’s watches exclusive to the outlets.

Begietis intends to use the stores to tap a new clientele, and slowly lead them into adopting the habit of purchasing full-price items.

“Everybody talks about the retail business going down, but nobody talks about the local people as a shopping power,” he said. “They are all looking at the tens of millions of travelers coming, which is fantastic. But it’s a chance business. So local customers are always our target.”

Begietis relies on his staff to keep a finger on the pulse of the market. He is one of the few expatriate managers who work at the group’s Asia-Pacific headquarters in Hong Kong.

“I am a tactician. Retail is like chess. You should always make the right steps to go to the top. Of course, when you play a game, you should prepare to lose. But nobody plans to lose. Everybody plans to win.

“I think you have a better chance of winning if you involve the local people. This is true, not just in Hong Kong but everywhere.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on May 12, 2017.

A-List Couple

Meet the couple every Hong Kong fashionistas want to be friends with

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Shopping is a national sport of Hong Kong. So is lining up. If you merge the two together, you will get a recipe for success — at least according Diego Dultzin Lacoste and Delphine Lefay.

The French couple, who moved to the SAR three years ago, founded a flash sale business, On The List, a little more than a year ago, and have carved out a niche in a city which provides a staggering array of shopping options.

A recent event that Dultzin Lacoste and Lefay organized for British fashion label Ted Baker attracted 1,100 people in just two hours. Bargain hunters started to queue up as early as 6.30 am, waiting for an hour and a half to enter.

“The first time we did Ted Baker was during typhoon signal No 8. We really thought it would be a disaster,” Lefay recalled. “But we received phone calls throughout the day asking when we would open. The queue stretched two blocks.”

“We didn’t expect people would come out and shop but we discovered that Hong Kong people are really shopaholics,” added Dultzin Lacoste.

On The List operates on a business model different from traditional flash sale organizers. It does not have online retail but employs a bricks-and-mortar concept similar to outlet operators.

And rather than opening a store in the outskirts, they eyed prime shopping locations.

Two months ago, they set up a two- story shop on Duddell Street in Central, after a trial run of pop-up events. They plan to have other locations in central Kowloon and the mainland next year.

Another key concept is that On The List serves only registered customers. It currently has a membership base of 50,000 and has worked with many fashion and lifestyle labels – including Armani, Calvin Klein, Ferragamo, and Ports 1961.

Members have access to discounted past-season clothing, fashion accessories, electronics, and wines every week. The markdown averages about 75 percent.

“Each flash sale lasts three to four days. The time period protects the brand’s image. And from the brands’ point of view, they are able to sell all the inventory that they have in the warehouse,” Dultzin Lacoste explained.

The store can move a large volume of goods in days. They once helped Brazilian label Havaianas sell 13,000 pairs of flip flops in four days. “Some companies have stopped organizing flash sales themselves because we can sell a lot more,” Lefay said. “We are not competing with their outlets because we have items that can’t be found there.”

The business model that bridges luxury and mass market retail is not new. Dultzin Lacoste and Lefay got their idea from the success cases in France and the United States. But implementing the idea in a foreign market can be tricky.

It took Dultzin Lacoste and Lefay time to find the right strategy. The pair don’t always agree with one another.

In fact, when Dultzin Lacoste first met Lefay, they had a philosophical debate about rational and impulse purchase. Coming from a background in luxury retail, he valued sensibility over sense while she was in the mass marketing industry and preferred rationality.

“Delphine said her industry had much more figures to work with,” Dultzin Lacoste recalled the night they met. “I told her my industry made people dream. It was not only about the products, but the whole package and storytelling. So we had a big argument.”

Said Lefay: “I was not attracted by luxury brands because I could not afford them. I was 23 when we met, freshly out of university. Now, I can see why people are attracted to luxury products – with a good price. Diego has convinced me.”

Even so, the response from Hongkongers was a surprise. Brands have consigned expensive items, such as jewelry and watches. The most costly was a Frederique Constant watch priced at HK$450,000 before discount.

“The biggest order came from a woman who spent HK$92,000,” Dultzin Lacoste said. “She bought five items: a jacket and some jewelry. If she had bought them at the store, she would have paid a lot more for any one of those items.”

The married couple still fight over their own area of expertise. Said Dultzin Lacoste: “We argue about everything, which is good. But it’s more like we are brainstorming.”

Lefay agreed. “When we want to implement a new process, it always starts with an argument. When I want to insist on my idea, I sometimes don’t listen to Diego. But we are complementary.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on May 5, 2017.