Ask any Singaporean walking along our shopping belt and more often than not, they would have walked into a Charles & Keith store and bought a pair of shoes – or three. The brand is retailing in over 300 locations worldwide, an amazing success for this local start up which has flourished so vigorously over the years. Having first learnt how to run a business at their parents’ shoe shop in Ang Mo Kio, siblings Charles and Keith Wong branched out on their own in 1996, starting a modest store at the Amara Hotel Arcade. We manage to catch Chief Executive, Charles Wong in his busy schedule, and he shares with us some of the important guiding principles that he learnt from their humble beginnings that remain important in running the conglomerate they have today, “It was a time where we got to interact with customers and listen to their feedback, while learning the foundations of running a business.” Charles & Keith’s success has gotten the attention of international players; in 2011, the Singaporean company sold a 20 per cent share to L Capital Asia, the private equity arm of luxury conglomerate, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey (LVMH).
Men’s Folio: Charles & Keith only started designing shoes at the end of 1997. Where did you pick up your skills and what was the learning curve like?
Charles Wong: During the Asian Economic crisis then, we saw the opportunity to work directly with some factories to gain further control over the design and production process. We created designs based on the feedback customers gave us and we realised only by understanding what they want, can we introduce exciting products every season.
From a small store at Amara Hotel to the 300 stores around the world today − how did you do it?
It is actually not as huge as it seems. We manage some of the stores that are located in Singapore, China and Macau while the rest are handled by franchisees. It is all about careful market research. For example, our first overseas expansion was to Indonesia where we were guided by a successful franchise model and managed by a dedicated international operations team; it was so successful that we have more than 30 stores there.
You now have about 70 designers turning out the shoe collections – do you and Keith still design shoes? If not, do you miss it?
We both currently juggle different roles. I am now based in Shanghai and concentrating on managing business expansion in China. Keith heads the creative team of designers and he is often travelling to fashion capitals such as Paris, Milan and New York for trade exhibitions, always learning about the various modes of shoe-making.
Charles & Keith was the first Singapore shoe retail company to launch an online store. How has that grown so far?
We started our e-commerce site in 2004 as we wanted to create the same seamless shopping experience online. Also, we could deliver to countries which did not have a retail presence. To date, it has grown to include delivery destinations to more than 72 countries. With a separate inventory and a dedicated e-commerce team, we are looking at launching Pedro online in the near future.
Speaking of Pedro, it was started as a footwear label for men in 2006 before introducing women’s shoes in 2008 – how then does Pedro differentiate itself from Charles & Keith?
The Charles & Keith brand was so successful that we had to create something for men too. Through innovation and positive feedback, Pedro introduced a line for women. While the former provides contemporary designs, the latter caters to people with a taste for lavishness and who want genuine leather in parts of their products.
What were some of the problems opening stores overseas and how did you tackle them?
When we first ventured into the Middle Eastern and Europe regions; these markets were new to us and the difference in culture and language caused some initial barriers. However, we strove to find the right partners who understood our vision, which allowed our brand to grow.
Tell us about some of Charles & Keith’s recent milestones.
Just last year, we inked a joint venture with onward Holdings Co. Ltd which saw the entry of our brand into Japan. Our first store was opened in the famed Harajuku district and within a short span of time we now have four stores in Chiba, Osaka, Tokyo and Yokohama.
Do you think Singapore is conducive to produce more talents in the fashion industry?
Yes. With a growing pool of designers that are gaining international recognition, coupled with fashion events such as the successful Audi Fashion Festival, works of local talents are showcased alongside international designers. This allows Singapore designers to be seen on the world stage.
What are you busy with at the moment and what is up next for Charles & Keith?
Apart from strengthening our foothold in existing markets, we are still focusing on the China market – with 70 stores at the moment, we are planning to increase that number to 100 by the end of 2014.