Mon, Jul 18, 2016 - Page 15 News List

Back to basics: the HK start-up taking on fashion giants

AFP, HONG KONG

Fashion retailer Grana’s founder Luke Grana uses his computer at his Hong Kong office on July 13.

Photo: AFP

Luke Grana arrived in Hong Kong with no contacts, cold-calling “angel investors” he had found on LinkedIn armed with only his CV, a business plan and some big ideas to overhaul fashion.

In little more than two years, his eponymous clothing store amassed US$6 million in seed funding and has become the go-to shop for under-35s seeking quality staples for their wardrobe.

And yet Grana is not a designer, has little fashion experience and his inspiration came from a business brainstorming session rather than a passion for couture.

What he does have are plans to shake things up.

“The way we shop for clothes is going to change,” the 32-year-old said.

Global fashion sales total about US$1.8 trillion a year, with online accounting for 5 percent, he said, citing a Euromonitor report.

“That is forecast to grow to 30 percent by 2030,” he added, suggesting Grana, which has no physical stores — only a fitting room space where customers can try the clothes before buying online — is well-placed to take advantage of this shift.

The current system, with its reliance on expensive shop space, intermediaries and vast inventory, he insists is “hopelessly inefficient” — and results in opaque pricing.

“Gen Y is more focused on transparency,” said the Australian entrepreneur — part of Generation Y himself.

“I made things simple. So if a T-shirt costs US$7.50 to produce, we’ll sell for US$15 — a straightforward mark-up.”

Quality is his other pillar. The brand uses world renowned material, such as Chinese silk from Huzhou or Peruvian Pima cotton, sourced from the same mills that work with luxury brands such as Ralph Lauren and Lacoste.

“We deal direct with the mills and factories, items are then shipped to our warehouse and then shipped to the customer,” he said.

Hong Kong, the world’s biggest cargo hub, is well suited for his global audience — the US, Australia and Singapore are also key markets.

Of the hundreds of cold-calls he made in late 2013, just one replied: banker Pieter Paul Wittgen.

Wittgen, now the company’s chief operating officer, was impressed enough by both Grana and his ideas that he introduced him to a wider network of “angels.” The firm now has backing by big name investors including BlueBell Group, distributors for the likes of Christian Dior in Asia and Golden Gate Ventures, a leading backer of start-ups in the region.

Grana’s head of design, Anthony Hill, worked for Paul Smith.

On average, Grana’s customers spend US$120 per order, while sales are above expectations — rising 25 to 40 percent each month — he said.

Earnings are being reinvested in expansion to Japan, South Korea and eventually China, but Grana expects to be in profit by late next year.

It might seem an overnight success, but for Sydney-born Grana this has been a long time coming.

In his teens, he read company annual reports and business books. Aged 21 and still at university he set up his first business — a coffee shop — using US$15,000 of life savings.

After nine months he sold it for US$145,000 and went on to launch and sell — at a profit — two similar ventures.

At 24, he set up Charge Point, an electric car charging infrastructure, but sold up in 2012 when he realized the concept was “10 years ahead of the industry.”

He took time off to “surf and brainstorm” with his profits.

“I wasn’t demotivated, I was really hungry,” he said. “During brainstorming I realized there was a disruption coming in fashion.”

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