From a small, quiet village in southern France, the Chungking Express transported retailer Arnault Castel to the busy cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong. While he was at university in Paris, he popped into an old-school neighbourhood movie theatre, thanks to a colourful poster. Chungking Express, a 1994 film written and directed by Wong Kar Wai, the acclaimed auteur of Hong Kong cinema, was showing.
Never mind that he did not understand the mainly Cantonese or Mandarin dialogue (there were French subtitles) of the film set in and around Hong Kong’s seedy Chungking Mansions. By the end of it, he had fallen in love with the city. Still on a high from the movie, he asked to be posted to Hong Kong for work during a job interview the next day with Banque Indosuez.
Castel says: “I didn’t know the director or the actors, but watching it gave me a feeling of freedom. It was nostalgic, but also modern.”
He arrived in the city in 1996 to start work at the bank, but the keen shopper was disappointed by the bland offerings in Hong Kong’s cookie-cutter malls.
It set the wheels in motion for the launch of kapok, a multi-label, design-driven store that opened its first outlet in 2006. A decade later, the 43-year-old has five kapok stores in Hong Kong and two Singapore offshoots – a space in Tangs at Tang Plaza in Orchard Road; and his biggest store, a 200 sqm shop space with a restaurant at the National Design Centre in Middle Road. He also runs French lifestyle label Maison Kitsune’s store in Hong Kong.
Kapok stocks a wide range of clothes and accessories, such as bags and jewellery, as well as homeware items. In both countries, it is also a strong champion of homegrown brands, which sit alongside recognisable names such as Stockholm-based accessories brand Sandqvist.
When he opened his shop at the National Design Centre in 2014, about 40 per cent of his goods had to be by Singapore designers or labels. The Singapore brands that kapok carries include lifestyle brand The Paper Bunny and fashion label In Good Company. Castel was adamant that the store would not draw obvious attention to Singapore-designed wares. Just like at his Hong Kong stores, home-grown products would be displayed right alongside international brands. Highlighting part of kapok’s ethos, he says: “I didn’t want to put up a (display) island with the Singapore flag. The products in kapok are a good mix – local products are on the same level as international brands.
“I want people to buy things because they are well-made. When they discover that an item is from a Singapore label, that’s a bonus.”
Good design, no matter its origins, is a philosophy he has embraced since he opened the first kapok store – a small space in the quiet residential neighbourhood of Tin Hau in Hong Kong.
Being a shopowner was not on the cards, however, when he arrived in the city. It was his first time travelling to Asia and he fell hard for Hong Kong. “The city was buzzing. It was like being at a non-stop party. I got my energy from it.” He also had a job offer to work in Singapore, but he jokes: “I didn’t see a Singapore movie.”
Hong Kong was a vastly different world for Castel, who grew up in Ferrals-les-Corbieres, a town in a wine-producing region with about 1,000 residents. His mother was a teacher and his father owned a garage and repaired tractors. He says: “The village had beautiful weather and landscapes, but there was not much to do. If you had some ambition, you had to go somewhere else.”
His parents would often take him and his younger sister, Audrey, to art shows and on nature walks, especially on Sundays, when all the shops were closed. They also listened to a variety of music genres at home. That exposure had the young Castel hungry for culture, music, fashion and art magazines.
He was accepted into the prestigious Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris, a European business school in the southern suburbs of Paris. As an undergraduate, he did business studies, then completed a master’s in strategic management. He managed to earn a second bachelor’s degree at the same time, in French literature at Sorbonne University in the heart of Paris.
The voracious reader says: “Literature is my passion. Business school was interesting, but it’s practical. I wanted to do something more creative on the side.”
Upsetting customers in a nice way
After graduating, Castel did two internships, including one at a television channel that was fashioned as a French version of MTV. It was a much more fun gig than working as a mergers and acquisitions analyst in Hong Kong. Still, he stayed in the industry for five years – four years at Banque Indosuez, then one year at Bank of America. He knew it was not his calling, but found it hard to pack up and leave as the pay was good. By the age of 27, he was earning about $10,000 a month and was travelling often within Asia.
But he got “lucky” when his department suddenly closed. “I was so happy. The longer you stay, the more you make. Then you never want to leave. In the end, someone made the decision for me.”
While on a break from looking for his next job, he became a resident DJ and played for fun at a club every Saturday. At one session, he met an Austrian who worked for Lomography, a camera brand known for its analogue cameras, film and lenses. The Austrian brand was looking to expand into Asia and Castel was hired as its managing director. He started its Asian operations from scratch – he had to open an office and find a place to sell the cameras – and hired a team of five people and built a distribution network.
“It was almost entrepreneurial. Although I was working for a company, I had lots of freedom to do what I wanted.” To promote Lomography, he threw lots of brand parties, organised exhibitions and built a community of users around the brand. “In 2001, it was a new way to market a brand. Now, ‘community’ is a buzzword, but that was what we were doing then.”
He left Lomography in 2005, after about four years. “I was ready to have my own company,” he says. “I had many ideas planted in my head, that I could do something different from mass-market stores.” On a trip to Paris, he chanced upon Moleskine – an Italian papermaker and stationery brand – in a bookstore. The stationery fan who, as a child, looked forward to a new school year because he could have new writing materials, contacted the company to sell its products in Hong Kong.
“I liked that it had a story to tell with its products. The timing was also right. It was a small company and so were we,” he says.
He started distributing Moleskine in Hong Kong and Taiwan with a business partner, although they no longer work together. Castel did not want to simply display the products to retailers in a regular office space.
The perfect spot turned out to be behind his home – a ground-floor Tin Hau store once occupied by a florist. He decided to take up the space for the Moleskine office, but with just two people working there, it was too big. On a whim, he decided to use part of the space as a store selling “nice products” such as homeware and gifts.
A large banyan tree stood in the middle of the cul-de-sac and he was inspired to name the store after a tree. But “Banyan” was already taken by Singapore-headquartered hospitality brand Banyan Tree.
His sister, who works in Paris as a general manager for Maison Kitsune, suggested he call it kapok. Castel found the name of the tropical tree easy to remember and went with it. The cotton-like fibres from its seed pods are used to fill mattresses, pillows and upholstery.
Tucked away in a quiet spot, the minimally decorated store hardly drew any shoppers at first. It was also sparsely stocked as he could hand-carry only a few items back from each of his trips. He had a limited budget as kapok was self-financed. “Tin Hau was too quiet and not a place where people went to shop. I thought if I built it, people would come. They didn’t,” says Castel, who manned the store while working on the Moleskine account.
He wanted to close the store after three months, but was spurred to keep going by a few Hong Kong designers he met. Like him, they were struggling to catch a break. He then struck upon the idea of holding art exhibitions. He had artist friends who were looking to show their work and the white walls of kapok gave it the feel of an art gallery. The exhibitions shared the space with kapok’s products and he would throw parties that drew crowds.
The brand started to gain traction. Curious journalists visited the store and wrote about kapok in their publications. At the same time, he persuaded many independent and lifestyle brands to stock their wares in his shop. These included Seventy Eight Percent, a Hong Kong men’s bag label; and perfume label Heeley, made by Briton James Heeley.
Castel discovers new brands when he travels, pores over blogs to find well-designed products that people are talking about and also gets recommendations from friends and his kapok team. Castel, who lives with his partner, a paediatrician, says: “Every year, I try to go to a different country. I spend two days hunting (for products) and taking notes about brands. I try to meet the people behind the brand, if I can. For me, a good store is a window to the soul of a city.”
Singapore shoppers started to take notice of kapok, with its online shop getting many orders from customers here. In 2014, he tested the waters with a pop-up at the National Design Centre space – it was the former premises of St Anthony’s Convent – during Singapore Design Week. It went well and he opened a permanent store there.
He says finding Singapore labels to fill the store was not easy because he wanted the products to fit in with the store’s ethos.
What catches his eye are products that have a combination of factors: “It needs to be current and not retro-looking. We prefer products that are more sustainable and are made from natural materials. The design should be understated and warm, not aggressive or loud.”
He has no qualms about saying no to those who “aren’t at the kapok level”.
“It’s not good service to put them here. When I say ‘no’ and ask them to come back later, that’s not me being polite. I’m serious.” One Singapore brand that caught Castel’s eye was fashion and accessories label In Good Company, which is stocked in kapok here and in some of its Hong Kong outlets. Sven Tan, creative director and co-founder of In Good Company, calls Castel “dangerous” for curating a store that makes shoppers want to buy everything.
Tan says: “He has a keen eye for freshness. The design and product might seem simple, but there’s always something desirable about it. There’s also humour and wit in the product design.” Castel soon discovered that Singaporean customers differ from those in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers are impulsive shoppers, who are “obsessed with new things”, he says. Singapore shoppers, in contrast, are a more practical lot. They often stump the retail staff with their questions.
Castel says: “They will ask, for example, if a bag can be washed. When the staff here asks the Hong Kong team, they don’t know how to answer because no one in Hong Kong asks about these things.” While kapok has had collaborations with brands, he recently made the transition from retailer to product designer – launching his clothing line, Future Classics. Its fashion is touted as being “gender-neutral”, with the Scandinavian style of clean, minimalist lines. The clothes are made in China with fabrics from Japan. Castel and kapok’s womenswear buyer work with a Hong Kong designer to come up with the looks.
In recent years, the market has seen a proliferation of similar multi-label, design-driven stores such as Naiise and Gallery & Co. But Castel, who is a Hong Kong resident and visits Singapore every month, is not worried. “It’s nice to have competition and I will say they’re doing a good job. There’s room for indie stores in Singapore and they keep raising the bar for me. I still want to be better than them,” he says with a laugh.
For now, he has no plans to expand. Instead, he is working on making the store experience even more memorable. “I want people to constantly travel to kapok to see what’s new. I want to create an experience that’s not gimmicky,” he says. “I don’t want them to see the same things. My job is to upset customers, in a nice way. I want to shake it up and surprise them.”
This story first appeared in The Straits Times.