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Fashion Conscience
Johanna Ho, 28, set up her own company in Hong Kong, simply named i, after graduating in 1997 from London's Central Saint Martins School of Art with a B.A. and Masters in Fashion Design. She was a student alongside Stella McCartney. Her designs have appeared in Vogue and Elle, and on March 8 she met TIME reporter Stephen Short after taking in London's Fashion Week


NextMedia

TIME: So, what's the Johanna Ho look this autumn/winter as far as fashion goes?
Johanno Ho:
Simple. A simple silhouette which has always been my thing. Taking influences from classic sportswear people like Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, giving them a bit of a British twist because that's my background, and trying to make it a little more refined. A lot of people in fact said to me it's very sexy. But when I think sex, it doesn't mean flesh and all that, but more sex from within. It's a feminine kind of thing. And it's a very young, colorful look. I think that's why the Japanese took to my stuff so well this season. My clothes are really more about people wearing them, than exhibitions.

TIME: You graduated when?
Ho:
1997. I came back for the hand over. Didn't really know what I was doing. I designed a wedding dress for a friend of mine who really took to it, so did a lot of her friends and that started me off.

TIME: Was she a celeb?.
Ho:
No. Hong Kong is such a tiny place. It's a terrible thing to say, sounds really bad, but if you want to become famous in Hong Kong it's not such a hard thing to do. It's just a matter of getting your head in gear and getting focused.

TIME: So how was Saint Martins, hell on earth?
Ho:
My B.A. was hell. When people first think of Saint Martins, it's like a dream so I did have expectations, and it didn't conform. I was also in the same year as Stella McCartney. That was strange. When we graduated and had the show, of course we all had to wait for Sir Paul to arrive before it could start. And naturally when Stella's collection came out and went, so did all the reporters. Thank god mine came before hers. The Times in London actually reported on my collection after that which was a massive help. I've no hard feelings for Stella though. She's doing great stuff.

TIME: And the M.A.?
Ho:
The masters was great. I was tutored by Louise Wilson who left to work for Donna Karan for two years. She's now back at Saint Martins. I can tell you, she's a really hard woman and a lot of people either just take that or jump away from it. She pushes people very hard which toughened me up. She always used to say if you can't hack this industry get out.

TIME: Yeah, you're back's magnificently exposed in this business?
Ho:
Tell me about it. I don't consider myself really successful yet though. I'm no Alexander McQueen. You just have to look at my accounts. Just because you appear in paper's everyday and magazines people think you're a millionaire but it's sooo not true.

TIME: Who's buying your stuff?
Ho:
This time I got quite far which is astonishing for me. Last season I had Language in Soho New York and Barney's New York. There's a new shop in Paris called Paul and Joe, which is a design in itself but they also carry other designers. It's on the Left Bank. They also opened a shop in London. I'm still talking with Nieman Marcus too. But then, I really hit it off well in Japan this time around: Barney's Japan who bought from me last season and Via Bus Stop. There are also possible orders coming from Selfridges, Liberty and Harvey Nicholls in London. So I'm trying not to drown.

 
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TIME: Is Harvey Nicks still dreadfully darhling darhling fashionable, Lady Di or no?
Ho:
It's not quite as darhling as it was. Selfridges has turned over a new leaf. I'd rather go there right now. For my image, where I stock is important and looking at the list it's very attractive and they have great foundations of labels.

TIME: So you're going back to Japan?
Ho:
Yes, in April. In Fukuoka. It's a yearly event, they invite a designer from each Asian country and they pay all expenses which is marvelous. In fact, I just got an email when you arrived saying Tokyo Seibo want to do something with me, which is cool.

TIME: From a creative point of view, how easy is it living in Hong Kong. Do you hate the place?
Ho:
It's quite difficult. When I was in Saint Martins I'd come back, look at design students here and find them very narrow minded, and wonder why don't they make more use of China, the deeper culture within. But they were all copying from magazines and stuff. Having been here two years, I feel stale, I feel cooped up and you get sucked into the society which I don't think is a healthy one. London was a breath of fresh air and I didn't want to come back. People here are so money-driven. It's frightening, just look at what's been happening with shares. In a lift today I met a guy who was holding all these forms and he looked at me and said 'got one?' I said 'no.' I mean, we didn't even know each other. Richard Li equals money. That's how society works over here.

TIME: Do Hong Kong designers get much help out of being here, or are they better off living overseas?
Ho:
I'm not trying to put Hong Kong off but ironically, sadly, Hong Kong is trying to push talent outside or away. The reason Italian designers get on their feet so young is because the factories are backing and supporting them; in England they have the Prince of Wales trust for young designers when they first start. In Hong Kong, that's not in the educational system. And that's important. It's not just about design, it's about packaging, marketing, exposure and Hong Kong doesn't do that as well as it should.

TIME: When did you meet Karen?
Ho:
We'd known each other from a very young age. Her parents knew mine and we went to Diocesan Girls' School in Hong Kong together before we went to England. She came back to London from Italy whilst studying and she was doing this concert-thing with the Chinese society at London University and I could hardly recognize her. If it hadn't been for the program that said Karen Morris (alias Mok) on it, I wouldn't have known it was her. What is this I thought? From my memory at DGS, she always wore glasses, was a straight-A student, had short hair, braces and there's this girl on stage all of a sudden, curly long hair, sex on legs, I thought. O.K. That kind of brought us together and we talked. At that point she was considering coming back to Hong Kong. And she started helping me and became my model. Luckily we've been growing together on the same parallel route. We think along the same lines. She trusts my taste because she knows it and that's important in the business of image design. If you're like Madonna you can get away with almost anything, but in Hong Kong you can't really do that much with people and their image. It's pretty stiff. Everybody gets stuck in Prada and Gucci. Karen wearing the clothes is important to me. Our careers are similar. It's really about work for both of us. It's not about parties every night. We're both quite low key--I'm not trying to sell me, just my work. Karen's the same.

TIME: I like that aspect of both of you. Karen's not as shiny as other celebrities here. She's different, she's cynical, detached.
Ho:
We're closer because we're both detached from the industries we work in. Otherwise you get hoovered into them. We're not grabbed by the attention-seeking. First and foremost, it's about work for us.

TIME: Do Japanese people look at your clothes on her and see something peculiar?
Ho:
Yes. She modeled for me there and at that point we stayed in the same hotel room. It's seldom we get quality time like that. I remember she phoned me from a lift in Tokyo on her mobile and said 'God, you won't believe it Jo, these girls on the escalator recognized me today and wanted an autograph and I couldn't quite click why they wanted it.' That's the great thing about Karen, it never goes to her head.

TIME: Do you two get together and watch Cantonese movies and think, 'Oh god, that stinks?'
Ho:
Not really. Honestly speaking, I do listen to a lot of her music. Um, I sometimes avoid it as well. It gets to a point where I'm too personal with her. I'll listen when she asks me too, if she has something new out. She knows I'll tell her the truth.

TIME: What's your favorite Karen Mok song. Does she have an anthem song?
Ho:
It's called Yam Tin. That's Grey Skies in English I guess. What else can I say--it's kind of ironic. But she's been really lucky I think. Even talented people need luck.

TIME: Who else would you design for?
Ho:
Erm, I used to think people like Michelle Yeoh. I tend to like to design for people that I like to emulate or copy. The reason I say Karen's my muse is not just her look or her body, it's her character and that reflects my theory of design. I used to think (actress) Maggie Cheung as well, she's got a lot of character. But recently she's got a bit muddled up I think.

TIME: How's that?
Ho:
Well, I started subtracting points with her when she appeared just recently in all these Hong Kong magazines in horrific outfits. I really wonder why she comes back from France just to do something like that.

TIME: Couldn't agree more. The B International cover she did was dreadful. And I really like her, or did. Too artificial.
Ho:
Yeah. At least when she was dating the French guy Olivier Assayus it seemed real and European and as though something different might come out of that. But she gets married and now coming back it's like I have to do a double-take on what's happened. I think it suggests a little bit of insecurity. Close friends of mine in London think this sort of thing shows how much of a lack of security Hong Kong people feel. The reason they're so involved, or should I say attracted, to labels is because they have nothing to hang on to. With labels, it gives them something to latch onto and with it security and something to gossip about as a result. When's the next Prada bag coming out, and all that fashion stuff.

TIME: You don't like all that do you?
Ho:
Well, there's so much of that PR stuff in fashion and Justine Fairgrieve who's my PR and partner in crime in London isn't really into it. She's unusual and that's why we get on. You don't need to meet loads of people, and half of those you do meet are often pissed out of their brains and wouldn't remember your name the next day. It's best to meet them when they're sober. I'm a non-drinker. It's not that I don't like it, I can't take it. I get drunk on half a glass of beer.

TIME: What the best thing about being in London?
Ho:
Exactly that. Just being in London. Just in the streets, looking at people, that's when I get inspiration. Karen and I can sit in a cafe by the window and watch people for hours and we just say to one another, "Cool, look at her, she's like, really chic.' It's all much more spontaneous.

TIME: Yeah, New York's the same. Pure street theater.
Ho:
Yes. In Hong Kong it's just funny. You see all these tai-tai's (wealthy Hong Kong housewives) walking around in top-to-toe, I mean, not even Prada but...Miu Miu! I remember one summer they came up with cartoon designs and you'd get 50-year-old tai tai's wearing little ducks and things, all telling one another they looked marvelous and it looked ridiculous.

TIME: Yeah, sitting at cafes here isn't theater. No edge to it.
Ho:
Yes. Edge.

TIME: I doubt anyone's looked at me passing by a cafe and had that feeling, 'Cool, look at him, like he's got edge.' I know nothing about fashion.
Ho:
That's cool. That's what I like to hear.

TIME: God, I like those, what's that?
Ho:
Photo in the Singapore Straits Times. That's Karen in a hand-knitted bathing suit at my Tokyo show.

TIME: Wee bit raunchy for that paper?
Ho:
A bit of flesh always does the job!

TIME: Hand-knitted! That's rather naughty. We like that.
Ho:
Not meant for the water though.

TIME: Is it not? I'm curious, do you do a men's line in that?
Ho:
You just gave me a great idea.

TIME: I would have thought there'd be Hong Kong guys just dying to get into trunks like that.
Ho:
I was going to suggest, you can be my first model.

TIME: Oh my God! I've suddenly gone off the idea of modeling. But these would work--'40s, '50's style. They'd work. Well, I'd buy them anyway.
Ho:
Done.

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