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HYPEBEAST Trade: Kevin Poon of CLOT & DISTRICT

Kevin Poon, known to many as KP, is a co-founder of the Hong Kong-based streetwear label CLOT and innovative distributor DISTRICT. Known as one of the seminal groundbreakers of the Hong Kong street scene, he also runs the retail chain JUICE – a purveyor of brands like Stussy, OriginalFake, P.A.M. and of course, CLOT. Channeling an early love of basketball and sneakers into a full-fledged passion for street culture, it was a trip to Japan with Edison Chen that was the genesis of the now-burgeoning fashion and culture empire. We recently sat down with Poon to delve into the details behind CLOT, DISTRICT, and the way he maintains personal productivity and oversees his companies’ many moving parts.

To some people who may not yet know about you, please introduce us your background. How did you start with the fashion industry and also, what is your role at CLOT?

My name’s Kevin Poon. Some people call me KP, Poon or Kevin. My first real passion in this so-called fashion industry was my interest in basketball. It’s really weird but when I was in school I was playing a lot of basketball. Through basketball, I would hang out a lot on the street and not go home. I guess that’s kind of where I learned most about what it means to be from the street — pickup games, gambling, etc. After basketball, I started getting really into the sneakers, because everyone wanted the dopest sneakers on or off the court. I got really into shoes, trying to get all the limited ones and I remember at the time, there were all these Japan exclusives coming out. After the Japan exclusives, it was the magazines, in maybe ‘95 or ‘96, old publications like Street Smart. It was more like an affliction for sneakers, then it was the clothes that came with it. After that came the music — the rap, the hip-hop — and movies like Menace and Boyz in the Hood. It was all mashed into one, everything about that – the early ‘90s, the rebellion. A lot of the life lessons we learned were through the music, like how to live, how to treat your mom, how to treat your girlfriend, how to deal with situations; it was all really living through this whole early ‘90s rap music scene, as strange as it sounds.

After I graduated from high school I went to college in Los Angeles and interned at Interscope Records. I was studying finance at the time, but my passions remained in music and this culture, and I was lucky enough to get an internship at Interscope Records. Being a kid from Hong Kong, I would always have the freshest sneakers and was buying and selling sneakers online, and I thought about not wanting to have a desk job. It was kind of our goal to start something, and it was a crew of us, a lot of people at my high school who really weren’t down to conform. At the time I was always hanging out with Edison Chen and we started really thinking about what we could do. After my job at Interscope Records, we decided to plan a trip to go to Tokyo, to check it out and see what was going on at the time. There was this whole toy scene coming out of Hong Kong I guess, and everything just clicked into place. We went to Tokyo; we met some people from the brands like Bathing Ape, NEIGHBORHOOD, etc. and we had this idea to open a store. At the beginning, everyone was a bit apprehensive; they wondered why, if in Japan it was flourishing at the time, they should do business outside of Japan. We became friends with them after awhile and it became not only about business, and they eventually agreed to give it a try. It was cool.

We opened a store in an obscure location, on the second floor of a Causeway Bay building and it was kind of a success — people embraced the culture. Being educated in America and then coming back to Hong Kong in the late ‘90s, there wasn’t really a street culture here. People weren’t listening to rap music that much; it was kind of the underground thing, people were listening to trance music and house music. We wondered how there could be amazing brands coming out of Japan or America but not from Hong Kong. We wanted to encourage the youth to step out the mold and do something. At the time, when we were growing up, everyone just aspired to be a a Canto-pop singer. There was no design, there were very few designers, and there wasn’t really a scene here at all. All the big fashion houses were run by conglomerates — this was our independent thing. It’s not like we were the first ones to do it — it was because we had a big group of people. That was how the name CLOT came about too — people coming together, a coagulation of thought, ideas and backgrounds. After we opened our first JUICE store, it was beyond our expectations and that was the birth of what you now know as CLOT.

So what is your role now at CLOT? Has it changed from when you first started?
When I first started, we were just three people. We had a small office in Kowloon, we did all the buying ourselves, we did all the POS systems ourselves, we did all the invoicing ourselves. We never came from a real solid business background and everything, like opening boxes, counting stock, shooting the catalogs, the lookbooks, coming up with ideas during the renovation periods, picking the store space — it was a small, tight operation. I had to touch upon everything on my own. Now, we have seven shops around Asia; we have two in Shanghai, two in Hong Kong, two in Taiwan, and we have one in Malaysia, so now the operations have kinda grown quite significantly and my role right now is more of a facilitator — making everyone work together, communicating, using specific people for specific functions. I’m like a shepherd, I guess, not really overseeing, but just making sure everything’s on the right track. I look over the business end of things while Edison takes care of more the creative side of it. That’s kind of how we divide up work, and so far it’s been doing okay.

Can you provide an overview of your company CLOT and DISTRICT’S structure?

DISTRICT is my own passion project, after we developed CLOT. It really started out as just helping friends. People would hit me up on email telling me they had this amazing line, and asking about how it would work in Hong Kong, China or Taiwan.  In the beginning it was a side project, but pretty soon it became a lot more serious as time went on. It was another layer of fashion. Before, we were just doing retail and we had our own brand; now, it’s doing distribution — wholesale and brand management — and so, structurally, both companies are separate entities. With CLOT, it’s Edison and I, and then with DISTRICT, it’s myself and two other friends. They really have nothing to do with one another. Now DISTRICT is pretty much a full team — we have an office in Hong Kong and an office in Taiwan, and we have about 20 people. In total, we represent roughly 13 brands. It’s been a learning process, but a fun one.

What was the core concept of DISTRICT?

I think DISTRICT, the name DISTRICT came about because a district is an area and I guess we’re most sound in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, plus Taiwan. This is our district, I guess. The concept really was, at the beginning, to distribute the things that I loved. There was a big focus on accessories —  footwear, bags, accessories and gadgets. I think the important part of distributing is not just buying and selling and facilitating the logistics, but also how you build the brand. How do you make it known to people and how you work with your vendors or your buyers to make their brand popular? I think that this was something that in the beginning, no one was really doing in Hong Kong on this type of scale — a small-scale, kind of boutique-y, cool, hip kind of company.

Do these brands reach out to you — is it more hands-off on their end, or do you guys come together 50/50? Do you give advice based on experience, or is it more hands-off?

We have assets from the brands, whether it’s lookbooks, catalogs or guidelines — it really depends on each brand — and what we do is add the localization element to it. Whether it’s working on the ground to find what’s really up-and-coming in terms of the scene here, or aligning ourselves with influencers or opinion leaders that help promote the brands, or coming up with our own initiatives to promote the brand. It really depends on which brand we’re talking about but most of the time it’s more of a collaboration effort where they let me know what they think is good and I give them my ideas. Then we kind of come to a happy medium. So far that’s how we’ve been working it out with a lot of the brands that we have right now. It’s more like a step-by-step situation.

We have seen DISTRICT recently open a Taipei Showroom, why did you choose Taipei as the second base instead of some main cities in China?

I think it’s just a matter of time. In Taipei, people are more receptive to new ideas, and there was an opportunity for us to open a showroom out there; so far it’s been working out quite well. We do plan on targeting China as well. We already do, it’s just that we don’t have an official showroom space at the moment, but I hope in the near future we will have some in the key cities in China. There are just many more barriers to entry in China, whether it’s conducting business, or buying and selling. I don’t think it’s political, it’s just more the setup barriers. Some of the brands don’t have the rights to sell in China, so it’s kind of a finesse situation. We’re working on that right now and we hope that in the near future, we can set up everything properly and make sure that it facilitates itself. At the moment we do do business in China, but not on a very major scale. We work with a lot of top-tier brands, boutiques and retail locations but not on a very mainstream level yet.

How do you select which cities or locations to open up JUICE locations?

With JUICE stores, it was more cities that we felt compassionate about — Taipei, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur. These are cities that we feel an affinity to and naturally, opportunities presented themselves. That’s why we targeted these cities. Hopefully one day we can have a lot more stores in a lot of different cities. I think it’s just a matter of time and effort.

In what ways have the business operations (sales, marketing, etc.) changed for CLOT since its early years (circa 2003)? Conversely, in what ways have they stayed the same?

The core message is still the same – bridging the cultures between East and West and to inspire the youth to do something on their own. I think that’s really the core message that we have here. Obviously the day to day stuff consists more of business duties now, whether it’s talking to my finance people or talking to designers. The core message is still deep in my heart and I think it’s rooted in every one of us, but sometimes when you’re too busy doing the day to day stuff, you lose that idea — in the end you need to go back to it. One thing that has changed is we were very much into print marketing in 2003 and now we’re very much digital.

How do you balance your own personal interests and your own personal style curation with the vision of DISTRICT and CLOT? Is there a disconnect at all?

I think it’s really all about communication and I think it’s really about giving and taking and coming to a compromise. It’s like with anything in life — it’s either I convince you or you convince me. Especially with working with partners, if there is something I believe in very deeply, I try my best to convince others. Sometimes though, I don’t really care about this. I think that at the end of the day, I only partner up with people that I feel have the general interests in alignment with me. I think the most important thing is communication because if everyone’s general direction is wanting good for the company or good for everything, then we already have a main goal intact. With that main goal it’s all about how you communicate your point of view versus my point of view, and how we can find a happy medium to make it happen. I think that is really the key message; really talking to people and trying to figure out what the angle is or how to make everyone happy. That’s something that I’m still learning everyday.

As a person responsible for overseeing the morale of your employees, what elements are important for you to ensure you are always present within the company and how the management side of things run (for both CLOT and DISTRICT)?

That’s a question I ask myself a lot too, because we’re not a big corporate company. It’s really just a tight-knit family and we have to ask ourselves how we keep everyone happy and how we keep morale high. I think it goes back to the same fundamentals. I think it’s about communication; without communication, you don’t really understand what you’re thinking or what I’m thinking, or what my staff is thinking, what they think is right or wrong, good or bad. A lot of talking is necessary and I think also spending a lot of time and bonding with them is really important. At the same time, it’s also providing a really healthy workplace that lets them be inspired, grow and have room for them to personally grow with the company – I think that’s really key to keeping morale high. Giving them meaningful jobs instead of menial tasks. Setting targets is important and giving bonuses or rewards is important. Some types of boundaries are good too. All these are important. I think the most important thing is that you keep the company morale high or the staff morale high by letting them know there is room to grow and that you care about them.

How do you keep yourself organized and maintain your own personal productivity? Are there any specific tools that you make use to keep things structured?

I think the key with being super busy is that you try to do things as soon as possible and not procrastinate. For example, with email, if you send me an email and I’m busy, I’ll let you know that I’m busy, but as soon as I’m done I’ll get right on it. It’s really about just trying to handle all the requests as soon as possible. I think that’s the first thing and the second thing is that I don’t sleep, I guess. There’s an interesting quote that I was reading on Li-Ka Shing. He says that in life you have three eight-hour segments in a day. Eight hours is usually for sleep, another eight hours is usually for work, the remaining eight hours is what makes the difference. Whether you spend the remaining eight hours sleeping or you spend the remaining eight hours working or you spend the remaining eight hours with your family, I think that’s really where your choices come into play. Another part of that is being blessed with a good team that supports each other and helps each other and that really supports the movement. Also, I guess BlackBerrys and iPhones and computers and Instagram definitely keeps you on top of everything. After that, it’s just a matter of exercising and keeping your body in shape that matches your mental clarity. That, and taking trips to clear your mind.

Having been in this industry for well over a decade, what things still excite you about the day-to-day?

I don’t know because everyday is really different — no two days are really similar. There is really no typical workday. Today, I’m doing interviews, I have meetings, and then tomorrow I could be doing an event or the day after I’m doing a photoshoot, or the day after that I’m doing meetings at the office, or working on my blog, or replying to emails, or thinking of strategies. Right now, things are finding me — I get attacked with opportunities and projects and everything. I think what keeps me excited is business development. It’s just building — I think it comes from my innate need as a person to want to excel and get to the next level. Sometimes it’s not even about motivation, sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that I need to pay my bills or pay for food.

Photography: HYPEBEAST

Date: Aug 30, 2012  /  Views: 3  /  Author: Jonathan Poh
Category: Editorial  /  Tags: Clot, Interviews, Kevin poon, Hypebeast trade