Growing up in Ferrals-les-Corbieres, a small village in the South of France, Kapok’s founder, Arnault Castel, remembers an affinity with the shops he grew up with. They were meeting places, where people could gather and discover inspiring goods. This sentiment followed him through life and when the opportunity came for Castel to turn this into reality, he seized it.
He was 22, freshly graduated and had just seen Wong Kar Wai’s seminal film, “Chungking Express”. Thirsting for a change of scenery, Arnault made the impulse move to Hong Kong. One thing led to another, and Arnault settled into life in Hong Kong. Castel was working for Italian notebook brand Moleskine as a distributor when he stumbled upon what would be Kapok’s first store:
“I was looking for an office for 2 people and I found a great space in a quiet Hong Kong street in Tin Hau, right next to a huge tree (which gave me the idea for the store name). The space was too big for my office so I decided in 2 minutes “let’s open a store”.”
It was immediately clear that Kapok wouldn’t just be any ordinary store. “I bought a huge vintage table and I presented some products found during my trips,” he says. An avid traveller, Castel filled out the store with prized objects he found on his journeys. “I loved shopping in Paris or Tokyo, and the feeling you could suddenly discover some very interesting products randomly in a small street.” Up till today, that strategy has served Kapok well, except the brands under its stable now range from superstylin’ cult label Maison Kitsune, to niche labels from as far away as Sweden.
We speak to Arnault Castel about where he’s taken the business and what lies ahead.
‘Kapok’ was named after the Kapok tree with the hope that it would become a meeting place for inspiring quality goods. How has this vision held true over the years?
The name of the store is related to our mission. Kapok trees grow tall in their ecosystem, branching out to provide shelter to plants and animals dependent on it for nourishment and exposure. So, with kapok, we also try to provide a unique roof under which people in the community can meet and find inspiring quality goods. This mission guides our work and our decision every day. Hong Kong is a very tough market, but 10 years later we are still around, and we are still having fun and surprising people. Our job is not done, but we are on the right track!
You’ve now launched your own line called “Future Classics”. What do you hope to bring with this addition?
There are tons of brands in the market now and we didn’t want to add just another brand with nothing new to offer. Our new brand, Future Classics is based on who we are: a retailer that has been around for 10 years in Hong Kong. We really know what is missing and what customers look for that doesn’t already exist. As we are based in Hong Kong and Singapore, we wanted to create a brand that is perfectly suited for these countries: perfect for our weather and our hectic lifestyle. We paid a lot of attention to the fabrics and the fits. It took us one year to get it right, but the response has been great so far!
What does a typical day of work involve for you?
When I wake up, I play some music, shower and have a coffee. Sometimes I gym, then I spend the day meeting my team, meeting some of my brands, visiting the stores, and another good amount of time on emails. I always take some time to read and research. In the evening, it’s either a game of tennis, movies or TV shows to unwind and a nice home-cooked meal. It will vary depending on how social I feel, as I alternate wildly between introvert and extrovert moods.
What are your criteria for selection when it comes to curating brands for the store?
There is a very fine balance. Most of us are driven by two opposite impulses: the need to belong to a group, a community and the need to be different and unique. When it comes to choosing products for kapok, we need to find the perfect equilibrium between these two needs. I guess it’s like cooking, after a while you don’t need to follow the recipe book by the letter and you can start experimenting, while knowing if it will taste good or not. So we can take chances, and follow our gut feeling. This way, we have some nice surprises and we limit the big mistakes (we still make some mistakes but we never place a huge order on a new brand or product so we survive these errors).
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced since starting and running the business?
Landlords here are notorious for their greed. Even if I get a good deal, once the contract is up, they’d double my rent, and so I can’t put all my eggs in one basket. The recent slowdown in the Mainland Chinese economy has had a spillover effect on Hong Kong’s property market, as shops once occupied by luxury brands sit empty. Maybe this is an opportunity to open an emporium with a proper cafe, a bigger selection of clothes, books and magazines… Let’s see…
How would you describe Kapok’s company culture?
It’s a lot of fun and a lot of hard work at the same time. Kapok is now at the right size, we are big enough to do interesting projects, work with the brands we love and develop our own brands.
Finding the right manpower has been one of the most oft-cited difficulties in retail. How do you personally cope with this?
Retail is tough. It’s a lot of very detailed work, it is tiring and customers can be difficult at times. But I love how it combines so many skills: psychology, business, and art, and we can test and try new ideas and see the results very quickly. To find the right team, I need to always share this passion and also make sure that the team members’ ideas are heard and applied. Finally it’s important to show there’s a good career path in the company. All our buyers, for instance, have started working on the shop floor and continue to do so.
How much of what you do is inspired by travel? Do you have a favourite travel story or encounter to share?
Travel is central to the kapok experience. I don’t attend any trade show (except men’s fashion week in Paris) as they are really not fun, tiring and you end up with the same products as every other store. Instead of visiting these shows, I go twice a year to a totally new city. I do some research and find out about the best stores and brands in these new places, and this is how I find a lot of unknown brands or products for the store. It’s a mix of holiday and work (but it doesn’t feel like work at all). What I really love is to hear some customers say, “Oh remember we saw that in Copenhagen, or LA” or anywhere I have been travelling. We all love to escape, to travel, and to discover and I am very happy when kapok allows our fans to have a short escape during their day.
How do you maintain some semblance of your French roots while carving a life in Hong Kong?
French culture and identity is so strong. It’s akin to having a stubborn French accent — I wouldn’t worry how to lose it. In any case, I travel to France three or four times a year, so I never really feel isolated from my French roots.
What do you love most about what you do?
I work everyday surrounded by beautiful objects and installations in the store. But first and foremost, I love my team – I love their energy, their ideas and their spirit.
If you could go back and do one thing differently at the start of your business, what would it be?
I would worry less and cry less. Obstacles that seemed major and impassable were not so significant after all.
What are you working on now and what lies ahead?
We are doing a lot of “hidden work” to find more exciting brands, make our stores more handsome and livelier and also to make our customers happier. I don’t believe in big concepts but rather in perfect execution by a focused and happy team, so this is what we will be doing.