Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. Each week in 27 Questions, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims, aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same duration it takes to sit through a 2-minute speed date.
Kapok founder Arnault Castel’s Hong Kong story starts the same as many who move to the financial capital. Following his studies, the Frenchman moved here in 1996 as an investment banker, advising on M&A projects in the retail and consumer goods sector. Yet, having been initially drawn to the city after watching Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, it was only a matter of time before his corporate career made way for more soul-satisfying ventures.
After dropping the tie, so to speak, Castel joined the team in charge of developing the Lomography camera brand in Hong Kong in 2001, before eventually striking out on his own as co-owner of Working Unit — a business which continues to be the exclusive distributor for the Moleskine brand in the region. It was also responsible for bringing brands such as Daniel Wellington, Sandqvist, Bellroy, L’Officine Universelle Buly and ONS Clothing to Hong Kong.
Arnault Castel founded Working Unit in 2005 as a team of two in a small, relaxed office in Tin Hau. Yearning for the European and Japanese lifestyle stores he encountered throughout his journeys, he decided to open up the rest of the space as a lifestyle store — a counteract to the staid name-brand-led shopping landscape in town at the time.
Thus, independent multi-brand retailer Kapok was born: Named after the ‘kapok’ tree that stood on the quiet street where the company’s roots began, Kapok is all about curating stylish additions to any wardrobe or room. It was one of the first to bring brands such as Maison Kitsuné to Hong Kong, and we trust our readers have been at least once to check out its cool collection of ‘future classics’ (its in-house female fashion brand shares the same moniker).
Fast forward more than a decade to today, Kapok has three brick-and-mortar stores spread across K11 Musea, PMQ, and Sun Street (its flagship) and operates a flagship of NYC menswear label ONS Clothing.
Beyond being known as the branding and business virtuoso behind Kapok, Arnault Castel continues to call Hong Kong home. From a penchant for Wong Kar-wai movies, to his preferred Sunday routine to telling us who the queen of his apartment is, we get to know the man a little better with our trademark interview series.
Neighbourhood: Wan Chai
Occupation: Founder of Kapok
1. What is your life motto?
Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
2. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong?
There are so many amazing restaurants but nothing beats a home-cooked meal. My friends Chi, Paola and Ignacio in Chai Wan throw the absolute best dinner parties.
3. How often do you prepare your own meals?
I have been cooking for myself every night recently. When you’re French, everybody will think you’re a great cook — I love cooking but I am a forever beginner — the food quality has improved from execrable to just edible (I do a pretty good asparagus and mushroom risotto, though). In a couple of years, I will share my cooking with friends.
4. What was your first job?
A gas station attendant. Not glamorous at all.
5. What is your drink of choice?
Champagne and orangina (but never together).
6. When was the last time you drove a car?
I think I was 5 or 6 year old. It was a small car with pedals. I am planning to finally get my license before I turn 50.
7. What is the best thing in or about your apartment?
My cat Solange, the absolute queen of my apartment.
8. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
I love the stillness and calm of the night, and I don’t like to talk before 10am, so night owl for sure.
9. Which phone app do you think more people should know about?
‘NextDraft,’ curated by an obsessive guy who spends his day reading the news and selects the most interesting articles.
10. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
This is going to sound unbelievably French but I will say croissants.
11. What is your biggest regret in life?
I still regret not making my longest relationship work.
12. What do you hate most about living in Hong Kong?
Inequalities, mainly driven by the power of property developers.
13. What is the top destination on your bucket list?
My most desirable trip is now the simplest. Be able to take a flight home and be surrounded by my family.
14. Do you have any favourite tattoos or special birthmarks? What is it?
No tattoo for me. Everything changes always and I would feel strange to put a permanent mark on my body.
15. When did you last ride the Star Ferry?
One of my happiest memories was on the Star Ferry on a bright sunny day. I felt the power of this beautiful city and everything seemed possible. Now, my two main stores are in Wan Chai and TST; The MTR is the fastest way to commute between the two, but I sometimes take the Star Ferry instead, just to remember that feeling.
16. What is one movie everyone should see?
Wong Kar-wai’s ‘Days of Being Wild,’ a movie about love, family and longing.
17. What is your typical Sunday like?
Saturday is my social day, when I meet my friends, and Sunday is my introvert day, just for myself. I prepare a big breakfast, read books and listen to new and old music. I play a game of tennis in the afternoon and every Sunday night is for watching a new movie. This routine is very comforting and I feel ready for another week.
18. Which moment in your life would you most like to relive?
I don’t need to relive any moments. I am lucky to have experienced many happy moments in my life so far and I have the memories. I don’t want to repeat, I am ready for anything new.
19. What is your favourite scent in the whole world?
The scent of the seaside near a pine forest tree on a bright sunny day. Pure happiness for me.
20. How many pairs of shoes do you currently own? Which do you wear the most often?
Even though we sell so many shoes at Kapok, I don’t have as many as you would expect and I tend to always wear the same, very comfortable and good-looking Spalwart sneakers.
21. If you could invite any five people in the world to your dream dinner party, who would they be?
David Bowie, Marie Curie, Cary Grant, my sister and French comedian Louis de Funes. That would be a weird crazy funny party.
22. What makes someone a real Hongkonger?
Drinking a yinyeung and genuinely enjoying it. I haven’t passed this test yet.
23. If you could banish someone from Hong Kong forever, who would it be?
Carrie Lam obviously (hope you can print that one).
24. What is one song you know all the lyrics to?
I have a terrible memory, so I will go with ‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometimes.’ It’s got only 20 words in the entire song.
25. What’s your favourite childhood memory?
My grandfather had built a small beach house where I spent all my summers with my mom and my sister. I was so lucky to be able to play all day and spent most of my time in the sea and at the beach. My grandfather was a calm, patient but also strong-willed and funny man. I was far too impatient and volatile when I was young, but now it’s time for me to try and be like him.
26. Have you ever experienced love at first sight? Tell us about it.
Absolutely and luckily yes. It’s a wonderful feeling when you meet a person and after the first day spent together you are totally sure you want to see him again and again and again. And when you get confident it’s not unrequited love, then it’s another level of happiness.
“The greatest thing / You’ll ever learn / Is just to love / And be loved / In return”
27. Who is your role model?
Obviously all doctors and nurses and every member of our society who is behaving in the most selfless manner right now.