Local designer, Tink Wong, started her own handbag company Esemblē in 2015. With her recent SS17 collection out, we sat down to chat about starting a company in Hong Kong, her time in New York and her inspiration at the moment.
Name: Tink Wong
Occupation: Designer, Esemblē
Hometown: Hong Kong (but lived in a number of cities)
Current Residence: Hong Kong
New Year’s Resolution or Goal for 2017: I always have difficulty keeping to a resolution because I’m usually vague about it like “be healthier” or “exercise more”. I realise it’s much easier when you put a figure in it. My resolution this year is to eat vegetarian at least 3 days a month. It will make me more conscious of what I consume and hopefully make me healthier! Lately I’ve also read more articles on animal cruelty, so there’s that too.
Can you give us a bit of a background to how you got into handbag design?
When I was little I always really liked drawing clothes which I think started from my love of watching Sailor Moon. I would take my notebooks out and draw whatever they were wearing and from that I slowly developed an interest in art - I loved painting and drawing especially. At school I took all the art classes that were offered and eventually it lead me to apply to design school. I then went to Parsons in New York and got a degree in Fashion Design.
Did you grow up in America?
No, I was born in Hong Kong and lived here until I was about 7 and then moved to Guangzhou and went to international school there for 4 years, then after that I went to international school in Beijing and then to New York for university. But that’s why I have an American accent, from growing up in international schools!
So what did you do after college?
After 4 years at Parsons I stayed in New York for another year looking for a job. New York was a lot of fun. I’ve lived in cities my whole life so it wasn’t that different but New York is such a world city, it’s so diverse and rich in culture. There is so much art, culture and music and a lot of different things to do. I’m really glad that there is now a growing creative scene in Hong Kong though.
Back to your question, I was in New York in my fifth year looking for a job after uni but it was really hard at that time, timing wasn’t good. It was 2010, post GFC. One of my freelance jobs was with Madewell the sister company of J. Crew. I worked with Joyce Lee who was head of Accessories at the time and now the VP of Design for Madewell. I was very lucky because I got to work with handbags, shoes and jewellery. I loved how they would go to vintage stores and flea markets, buy vintage pieces then bring it back to the studio, take things apart and put them together again as something different. Sometimes I would even go to the hardware store to get parts to incorporate in the pieces. I really liked that creative process. So I guess that is how I started to get into handbag design in a way.
You moved back to Hong Kong after that am I right?
Yeah I came back to Hong Kong and my first job here wasn’t really what I had imagined. As a fresh grad from university, having experienced NY fashion week, and seeing all these designers/editors I always read about in person, I had stars in my eyes. I worked as a merchandiser at a menswear company and I learnt a lot on buying and merchandising. I was very grateful for that opportunity but after a year and a half, I still really really wanted to do design. I then managed to find a job in a startup womenswear company here and later I worked for a local handbag company. Two years later I started doing Esemblē [pronounced as assembly, it’s the pronunciation spelling in the Merriam-Webster]. So I guess that’s how it all kind of started.
You started the brand in 2015, how have you found the process of starting a company in HK?
I’ve always known I’ve wanted to do a balance between design and the business side because when I was in school I always really liked math as well so I wanted to do something that was more logical in a way.
Before doing this people would ask me, “Oh you work in fashion do you want to start your own label?” and I would always say no. Having worked at two startups I know how difficult it can be but what makes it easier for me is having business partners and having people that can mentor me. We have three directors who come from different backgrounds, so I learn a lot from them. It’s a really cool dynamic and I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
What have been some challenges in starting the company, maybe something you didn’t expect?
I guess for me it wasn’t as tough as it would have been if I did it on my own. We really have a great team. I think the biggest challenge though would be learning how to run a company - I’d never had to do that before. Stuff like keep track of finances, juggling it all - I love doing everything but of course wish I just had more time. Sometimes I get to midday and don’t know where my entire morning has gone. Time management and learning how to manage an business would be the challenges. I highly recommend anyone starting a business to have a business partner or having a community of peers who support what you do, people you can discuss things with and get advice from. It’s less scary when you know you have help when things go wrong.
You just released your SS17 season, what was the style inspiration behind the collection?
For the last two collections I don’t really have a singled-out inspiration. When I design I think of my daily life and my friends - how they live, what they do and at certain times of the week, what type of bag would I want to be using? It’s important for me to keep a balance between aesthetics and functionality. In terms of the look of the bags it's streamlined but still functional - I think about if they are easy to use everyday.
For two of the new styles this season, one of them is vintage inspired, and the other is inspired by dry bags. I love fleas market shopping and retro things, so the Bell Bag (which I’m currently using) was inspired by a vintage design. For a while I also had this fascination with dry bags, the bags you go scuba diving with and that became the source of inspiration for the Dive Bucket Bag. I wanted a bucket bag that was slightly different from what you can already find.
So you don’t base off a theme at all, more an evolution of a look and a feel?
Yeah exactly, it’s a mixture of different inspirations and also keeping my friends in mind. I think the two styles are quite different too. The Bell Bag being more feminine and the Bucket Bag more sporty which I guess is the way I like to dress. I like the contrast of feminine and masculine.
What aspects from Hong Kong life do you think inspire you and your work?
Now that I’ve started my own brand, I find it inspiring meeting other business owners and people who come from different backgrounds compared to what I’m used to. Whenever I meet someone from outside of Hong Kong I always ask them why they have moved here. Not because I don’t think Hong Kong is amazing, but I want to see their perspective of this city. It’s also inspiring that there are people in Hong Kong who are so passionate about the creative scene. The stereotype about people from a big city is that they are jaded so whenever I meet someone who is passionate about what they do, it really inspires me.
There is a cafe in Yau Ma Tei called Mom’s Not Home run by a couple. The two guys that run it travel the world every so often and then bring back souvenirs to decorate the cafe. When you walk in, it is full of trees and plants but the mood of it is just something rare in Hong Kong. It really has character. One of the guys is a fashion designer/illustrator and the other guy bakes these amazing colourful cakes in the cafe. They also serve teas with fruits and twists. They aren’t doing it for the sake of doing it, they just really love what they do and you can see it by the way they run the cafe, the environment of the place. When someone loves what they do, you can really feel it even without them telling you. That was really inspiring for sure!
What are your plans this year with the brand?
To take it to the next level steadily. Since it’s only been a year, there’s definitely a lot of areas where we can improve and do more. It’s always very fulfilling to know that people understand the product and they also appreciate it. So our strategy is to make sure we are taking the next step forward but also making sure that we really believe in the product and that it will be something our customers and friends will like! I’m already working on AW2017 and there are a few things I already can’t wait to start using!
You can find Tink on Instagarm @tinkwong and her handbags at www.theesemble.com and @theesemble