Main Image: Courtesy of The Mills

Can The Mills Reinvigorate Hong Kong’s Retail Landscape?

Inside the revitalisation project transforming a former Hong Kong textile factory into an experiential retail hub

A city defined by a thriving financial industry, it is difficult to imagine Hong Kong as anything other than the vertical metropolis it is today, yet its economy was once shaped by the booming garment manufacturing era.

Dominated by the textile industry in the 1950’s, Hong Kong prospered as one of Asia’s biggest textile exporters. Over the years, rising land and labour costs meant the city began to lose its edge, with many factories shifting their operations to mainland China where costs were considerably lower.

“Nobody makes things in Hong Kong anymore, it has all expanded to Southeast Asia and other cheaper parts of the world,” explains Edwin Keh, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles (HKRITA), “but it stills seems that everybody’s global supply chain comes through Hong Kong,” he says. Considering Hong Kong’s free trade policy and zero tariff charges for the import and export of goods, Keh says it remains a gateway for foreign companies who manage their buying, sourcing and production through offices in the city because of its proximity to the fast-growing Chinese market.

“During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hong Kong exported more apparel than any country in the world”

“During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the city of Hong Kong exported more apparel than any country in the world,” says Keh. A cornerstone of this epoch was Nan Fung Textiles situated in the industrial district of Tsuen Wan, which produced 40,000 bales of cotton a month in its prime. Fast forward six decades, and Nan Fung has evolved into one of the largest privately held organisations in the region, prevailing in property development, investment services and social values.

Nan Fung Group announced The Mills in 2014, a pioneering USD$90 million project conceived to revitalise the company’s former textile factories into a space for innovation, culture and community. Composed of three pillars, it includes Fabrica, an incubator and springboard for fashion and technology startups; Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT), a rolling non-profit exhibition space exploring the intersections of textiles, heritage and technology; and Shopfloor, an interactive shopping mall for local and international businesses.

  • Credit: Courtesy of The Mills
  • Credit: Courtesy of The Mills
  • Credit: Courtesy of The Mills
  • Credit: Courtesy of The Mills
  • Credit: Courtesy of The Mills

The Incubator

A lack of fashion and technology incubators in Hong Kong means The Mills' Fabrica initiative is able to fill a huge gap in the market. Taking on board ‘techstyle’ startups - businesses merging fashion, textiles and technology - Fabrica will be a platform for exposure, valuable connections and creative engagement. It will offer business training programs, industry events, and access to world-class facilities for prototyping. It will also feature a multi-functional co-working space of approximately 15,000 sq ft to create a community space and foster relationships.

Supporting disruptors and innovators, Fabrica will also offer a fund, backed by the Nan Fung Group, which will see investment ranging from USD$100K up to USD$2M. Acting as a mentor for Fabrica, HKRITA will provide support in the form of printing, weaving, knitting and technology equipment. “We will also help with networking and connections. If they are looking for support in the supply chain or production, we can put them in touch with the right people,” says Keh.

Shopfloor Champions Sustainability

The Shopfloor of The Mills is a 129,000 sq ft retail space offering dining, entertainment, recreational spaces, and individual stores for local and international businesses. It will also feature a unique store model merging sustainability and technology. Focusing on recycling post-consumer materials and unwanted clothes, the store will offer advanced systems to break down old apparel into yarns and fibres and weave them into new apparel.

Sponsored by the Innovation and Technology Fund of Hong Kong and the H&M Foundation, Keh reveals that HKRITA is providing the technology. “The idea is to test it as a business model and encourage fast fashion brands like H&M to explore new sustainable solutions” he explains. The concept challenges traditional retail models and offers a fresh perspective on sustainability to both consumers and businesses.

An Unconventional Experience

Preserving its historic charm, the entire project will retain more than 80 percent of its existing building structure, featuring old timber doors and vintage equipment. It will also have a sunlit atrium and landscaped public roof gardens, a rare environment within Hong Kong’s retail landscape.

“Nan Fung could have gone the traditional route of taking this large piece of land and redeveloping it into commercial real estate or a conventional shopping mall,” reflects Keh. He praises the developers for the concept of the project, as it focuses less on turning a profit and more on creating experiences and preserving a large part of Hong Kong’s rich heritage.

Perhaps better known for its commercial fashion scene, Hong Kong is rife with established luxury labels, fast fashion brands and top-tier department stores. Nicole Hurip, associate editor at City by City, a global recommendation app and lifestyle editorial branch of leading fashion trend forecaster WGSN, says “Hong Kong seems to be stuck in a fashion rut, with a huge influx of established international brands but no real local identity or flavour.”

“Shopping is slowly becoming less about the product and more about the experience”

Hurip sees a shift happening, with a growing demand for fresh retail models, opening up the possibility for more progressive brands and exciting designers to enter the market. She goes on to explain that “there is now a bigger focus on pop-ups; shopping is slowly becoming less about the product and more about the experience.”

Experiential retail concepts are still in their infancy across the city, but The Mills is not the first of its kind. A new retail experience called The Boxes was launched in February, near Hong Kong’s border to China. Covering an area of 420,000 sq ft, its ‘Shop-n-Play’ concept sees 200 shipping containers transformed into brightly coloured pop-up stores, art galleries and interactive experiences. Hurip suggests that despite its efforts to foster intrigue, the project seems to be having trouble bringing in consumers, as it sits so far out from the city centre.

On the main island in Hong Kong’s Central district is another space called H Queens, a 24-storey vertical development bringing together art, dining, and retail ventures. “They’re making it into a lifestyle destination, so I think Hong Kong is slowly seeing more efforts to steer away from boring, conventional shopping malls - it’s too homogenous,” explains Hurip. She goes on to note that H Queens has seen a considerable amount of interest since it opened in January 2018, perhaps due in part to its centralised location. This begs the question whether or not The Mills will garner enough attention and engagement out in the largely residential and more remote area of Tsuen Wan.

Targeted to launch in December 2018, The Mills presents the opportunity to reposition Hong Kong as an innovative fashion hub, as well offering a source of fresh ideas for the fashion industry in the city and beyond.