Michael is well known in the denim world because he was and still is a trend-setter and, after so many years in the trade, his passion for indigo remains unabated. He has recently moved to China, a country he sees as the new frontier of fashion. Michael, during his long career, had been going through highs and lows – in the eighties he was living in a large villa on the peak going around in a vintage Vicarage remodelled Jaguar and he has wonderful stories to tell about that time. His enthusiasm for art, fashion and life is still contagious but it took me years to convince him to be interviewed. We meet in a small French bar in Hollywood Road, on Hong Kong island, where we have a long conversation.
Michael, where are you from?
I was born in a small village in southern China, in 1948, near Guangzhou in Guangdong province. My father was a businessman who had spent more than 20 years away, opening a grocery business in British Guiana – today, independent Guyana – before I was born. He returned to China, after the Japanese war, to re-build our home. But our family moved to Hong Kong in 1950, and then back to British Guiana in 1952. My mother was a farmer and a simple housewife who took care of our family during my father’s frequent absences.
How was life in British Guiana?
I was there from 1952 until 1962 and growing up as a child in British Guiana was a blast! There was much to explore in Georgetown – the capital City – and the virgin jungles which surrounded it. We were going fishing along the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, or in the Essequibo river, which is a tributary of the great Amazon. We were living immersed in that primitive nature, and we had no fears as children…only the desire to explore and seek adventure everywhere! Schooling was according to the British system, and very disciplined! We were taught Latin and the Scriptures from an early age when everything was ‘beaten’ into us, sometimes quite literally! Caning was the common way. Each wrong spelling was a ‘whack’ of the cane on our little hands! By the age of 13, I was already primed for writing the GCE ‘O’ Levels exam, at Oxford, England. Then all that Paradise came to an abrupt end in 1961: a civil war broke out in the Country between the East Indian population who supported Cheddi Jagan’s political party and the Black population who supported the Burnham party. Looting and burning was everywhere before Britain could dispatch troops from the UK to take back common all over the country! My family’s business was looted and I left with my mother to London, England, in 1962.
Quite a change for you!
Yes, indeed and then began ‘a decade’ of my life which most people only read about in magazines, but I guarantee they cannot even imagine half of those realities and experiences! That was the ‘swinging London’ years, the fabulous Sixties! Once a ‘Chinese Jungle Bunny’ I was suddenly transformed into a MOD (short form for modern, and indicating the unconventional way of dress in London: my note) there I was immersed deeply into the ‘youth movement’ and lifestyle which had revolutionized the World, and tore apart the old establishment! Old values were challenged or over-turned by this generation of youth…and by ‘fashion, music, sex and drugs’ those were the new religion! Everything moved super-fast. The schools were, well, ‘loads of fun’– to tell you the truth I was satisfied that I had already received some formal education beaten into my skull back in Guyana. Then in 1967 I enrolled into the London College of Fashion for a 3-year course in Men’s Fashion design and tailoring. I loved it so much that school that I pushed myself into completing the course in a hurry and took the City & Guilds exam after 2 years only. My tailoring teachers were all from Saville Row, and I was making Cashmere jackets to my liking! I started to work part-time at Stanley Adams boutique in King’s Road, and one shop next to Carnaby Street. Stanley became my mentor and he took me to visit the Sehm Trade Shows in Paris, as well as shops in all the best boutiques of St.Germain Des Pres area for learning about new trends and ideas. I remember MacKeen, Bob Shop, Daily Blue, Lothars, New Man, just to quote a few. Then, back in London I would design and cut our own styles exclusively for our boutiques. We were competing with the best shops of Carnaby St. in its heyday! The like of Lord John, John Stephens, Take 6 , Village Gate, Mr.Fish, Irvine Sellars and, mind you, they were the best clothing shops in the world. In 1971 I was offered a prime position by a wholesale Company called Just Jon in the Great Portland Street area to design Girl’s pants, jeans to sell to Top Shop and Miss Selfridge primarily. Every week we would take new offerings to them and solicit orders – for private labels – to be produced domestically and usually within 2 weeks!. The Company also had an import division which brought in tees and sweaters from Hong Kong. I met these suppliers and started to freelance designs and developed products from Hong Kong for clients I was in excellent terms with. Stirling Cooper, Simon Shirts, Chelsea Girl, Louis Caring – for Jump angora sweaters.
During one of my sales outings, I visited Marshall Lester who was not interested in “anything in my suitcase” but handed me a pair of “bleached indigo jeans” with hand-embroidery that his wife had picked up in St.Tropez. He told me that if I could “replicate” that “finish and look’ I can have the ‘biggest order of my life.’
I guess that that was the turning point in your life, which you mentioned to me before…
True, it was something unforgettable but also the beginning of formidable challenges because I could also ‘smell’ the potential of that product! After 4 poor attempts from Hong Kong, finally I personally ‘doctored’ an un-washed sample they had sent me – it had been bleached and scrubbed with pumice stone and then my wife embroidered it to perfection, looking very close to the original sample. I went to show it to Marshall the next day, and he fulfilled his promise. He wrote a P.O. to me for 750,000 units without pre-selling one single piece. I notified the Hong Kong office, and I was on a plane to Hong Kong 2 days later! That was my new beginning, because I would spend the following 18 years in Hong Kong!
Michael, which year was that?
It was 1972 when I landed into Hong Kong and where I had my first ‘sweatshop’ experience! My challenge was set on manufacturing 750,000 pcs of denim jeans for Marshall Lester with no supporting industrial set-up. During those years there were no ‘garment-washing’ facilities as yet, and our method was to ‘pre-wash’, bleach, and SUN-DRY the fabric on Diamond Hill using bamboo poles, following the same method for drying cotton yarns or other fabrics. If it rained we had no fabrics to cut! We had tried to dry the fabrics using machines but the effect was too flat and lacking the washing wrinkles we needed for our products. We were the ‘denim kings’ in Hong Kong back then and everyone wanted to replicate our process or make our productions. We decided to share our knowledge with a good friend, his name was Jimmy Yip who would go on to start the brand Faded Glory in the USA market and then the Bang Bang brand and shops in Hong Kong. I then became a partner in Skiva boutiques and factory in Hong Kong with Kamau Shiu until I teamed with a Canadian group – Brodkin Industries, and Carsilco – to establish the brand Freego for the American market. At that same time brands like Britannia, Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein jeans were born. And America was fast becoming the largest market in the world for all things related to Blue Jeans with names like Guess, Jag, Bum Equipment and hundreds of brands which then followed. In order to protect all of Freego’s R&D, I had established Keoma International offices, and as well opened several garment-making factories to do our productions (Three Dragons, Magnificent Garments Ltd, Bo Fully for garment-dye factory, all between 1980 and 1989. These were the Golden Years for the fashion industry in Hong Kong. After 2 serious health issues – once in Thailand during a vacation with my family, and once in Hong Kong – I decided to emigrate with my family to Toronto, Canada in 1989. A failed business venture there – the Canadian market was not ready – plus many years of consultancy work between Toronto, Montreal, and New York had become just “repetitive” work. I was itching to come back to Asia and China, and to find new challenges as well as continue my life’s work in fashion, look for fresh pastures and learning The China Market. I thought that the innovations never stop appearing. And each cycle is somehow fresh and different!
Which are you latest ventures in China?
The latest? Well, the launching of the brand ‘People in Blue’ (PIB) with our own retail shops in China. We started in 2013 and it had been an incredible ‘learning experience’ about people and diversity of a huge market. About the vastness of the China’s market as a whole…yet each province is like a Country in Europe, with different cultures and levels of worldly knowledge. Different tastes, body sizes, superstitions, all different! I would like to introduce another level of denim into China, and Europe will be my inspirations! Vivre le jean nouveau, un grand classique que l’on peut mettre à toutes les occasions! China is tired of the cheap & cheerful styles, or too much of the purist aspects ( which they don’t understand anyway!). This will be my new working program!
I say thank you to Michael, who is travelling back to Guangzhou but he promise that he will tell us more about his time in London and Hong Kong at the beginning of the denim industry. It is because of few pioneers like Michael that Hong Kong became the largest denim and blue jeans production centre of the world, at a time when China was still shut.