The world is full of successful CEOs, innovative entrepreneurs, and risk-taking business owners, but every person follows their own path to the top. In our monthly interview column, How to Succeed, we pick the brains of industry leaders to find out how they got to where they are today.
Try as he might, Brandon Chau can’t help but make an impression — a distinguished one at that. Tall, statuesque and clad in classic Anglophilic town dress (i.e. double-breasted suit, spread-collared shirt and repp tie), one gets the sense that he’s stepped, fully formed, from the pages of a James Clavell novel. It’s a suspicion that’s confirmed by his family pedigree: He’s the fifth-generation scion of a dynasty that traces its origins to the earliest days of British Hong Kong.
However, whatever highly strung airs might be misattributed to Chau’s appearance are quickly allayed by a conversation: He’s relaxed, courteous, genial. A man of diverse passions, he embarked upon his first entrepreneurial endeavour in 2012: founding an exhaustive luxury bedding business called the Noblesse Lifestyle Group. This was followed in 2016 with the opening of Attire House, a superlative menswear concept perched on Wyndham Street which provided bespoke clothing, barbering and even its own bar.
This past April, Attire House moved into new premises at Duke Wellington House, showcasing a fresh layout, cigar lounge and event space. To mark the occasion, LSA popped into v2.0 of this classic men’s clothier for a chat with Chau, canvassing everything from his time as a barrister to the invigorating ritual of cigar smoking.
I’m Brandon Chau, co-founder of Attire House and founder of Noblesse Lifestyle Group. I was previously a barrister [at Cheng Huan SC Chambers] in Hong Kong. I’m married and have two boys.
There’s a tradition of legal practice in my family: My mother was a barrister and my father, a solicitor, so they always felt strongly about me joining the legal profession and following in their footsteps, so to speak. I read law in the UK (at University College London) and upon graduating returned to Hong Kong and set about becoming a barrister. I started my pupillage with Cheng Huan SC — one of the most renowned criminal barristers in Hong Kong. Initially, I found practice at the bar quite fun and glamorous. In actuality, being a barrister is an extremely tough job — in terms of workload and from a moral perspective. For me, I felt increasingly burdened taking on new clients: There’s a high degree of ethical responsibility and, speaking frankly, the lifestyle wasn’t healthy. The academic side of law I enjoyed very much, but to practice it takes a particular kind of personality. That wasn’t me.
Throughout the duration of my practice, I’d always wanted to have my own business. From the very beginning, I was interested in a menswear concept and cigar lounge — something akin to what we have now [at Attire House]. At the time my concept was primarily British, involving English tailors and shirtmakers such as Anderson & Sheppard and Turnbull & Asser. Back in those days, around eight years ago, those artisans were very old-fashioned and didn’t really travel that much. Many English makers also didn’t believe there was a big enough demand for their products in Asia. But then, one of our competitors opened — you know which one I’m referring to — and I was surprised to find they’d managed to do something quite similar to what I’d had in mind. In any event, prior to 2010, I wasn’t certain that a menswear-slash-lifestyle concept would work, so I parked that to one side in favour of pursuing other projects.
The driving motivation behind Noblesse was undoubtedly personal — finding a solution to achieving better sleep and, in doing so, a better lifestyle. In short, I found an amazing product in London and thought to myself, “The market [in Hong Kong] could use something like this”. At the time, there was only one luxury bedding brand here called Hästens — a high-end Swedish maker with an emphasis on handmade construction. It quickly became apparent that the Hong Kong market (and, by extension, mainland China) was big enough for more than one such brand, especially if the newcomer was a bedmaker with rich historical ties to the British monarchy and luxury hoteliers. I thought, if anything, Hongkongers were more likely to identify with a brand that was British (as opposed to Swedish). That and, as a user, the original product literally changed my lifestyle. It was something made to a superlative quality that I could personally vouch for.
Some of them, yes. That’s one of the benefits of working with a small manufacturer — they value feedback and are capable of developing something for a highly targeted market.
Definitely! I’ve always advocated for things that are made by hand, from scratch, for a particular customer. Men in particular value the notion that a product is made specifically for them: The idea of a craftsperson putting in untold hours to create something which can never be replicated in a factory environment. As a consumer and a proprietor, that’s extremely important to me. I think a lot of big brands — luxury brands included — are expensive simply because of the resources they dedicate to marketing and real estate. Those expenditures aren’t indicative whatsoever of how good the quality of the product will be. So above all else, I believe in “quality” — that’s the operative word.
Quite a few actually. Noblesse also involved a very substantial made-to-order/bespoke aspect — similar to what we do here. In both cases, we’re dealing with customers who have high expectations of the product and who, for lack of a better word, want to be educated on what they’re getting. Products that we’re confident and passionate about are at the heart of both endeavours.
[Roger] was there from the very beginning. A mutual friend — who’d always known I was into the world of classic menswear and bespoke — introduced us to one another. Back then, Roger had a shop in The Landmark that sold ties by E. Marinella — a very famous Neapolitan maker. He told me he had an idea to open a more comprehensive concept and that he was looking for partners. As it happens, I was the first person he approached. We sat down in a cafe at The Landmark, he presented the idea to me, and though it seemed very ambitious to embark on a project like that — it’s still very ambitious — I thought, “Wow, this is everything I dreamed of 8 years ago”. To be honest, it was complete madness that we were able to pull it off!
As with many things, there was an element of blind faith — a gut feeling. That’s a large part of how I operate, really: I speak to someone, ascertain whether I can trust that person and thereafter am pretty easy to work with. During our first meeting Roger actually proposed loads of ideas which were quite interesting that I’d never thought of, such as combining a menswear store with a cocktail bar or a barbershop. He also brought a huge amount of discernment to the process, choosing the best people and brands in the market to work with (such as HERR from South Korea). I thought it was extremely interesting how he was determined to bring an international perspective to the business, and ultimately that’s what convinced me to throw in my lot with him.
It’s very tricky — I confess that I often feel I spend too much time here (Attire House) and not enough at Noblesse. But inevitably I just have to ensure that I plan my schedule in such a way that there’s a clear progression to getting things done. In meetings, you can easily spend hours deliberating on a single point whilst other matters go unresolved, so it’s very important that you maintain clarity about what needs to be done, figure out who’s in charge and establish deadlines accordingly. Essentially, it’s about setting tangible goals. I’m a family person, so when I’m “off work” I endeavour to switch off, but it’s quite difficult. My employees will often text me in the middle of the night, and I always have to be happy to help solve whatever problem it is they’re confronted with. I think it’s quite important, whilst running a business, for the owner to ensure he is there for his employees at all times.
I should preface this by saying it was a bold choice to move — we’d only been at the previous location for a year. But it’s a choice that we’re all confident is for the better. We’d originally chosen 8 Wyndham Street for the view, size and location but it didn’t really feel like a shop — more like a dedicated display space. Also being on the 29th floor made it less accessible for many customers. All of this was compounded by the fact that the overheads were extremely high — Asia Pacific Centre is a Grade A building. Moving premises allowed us to incorporate a smoking room — something I’d wanted from the very beginning, especially given my passion for cigars. Many of our long-term customers visiting the new shop for the first time comment on how beautiful and, in some ways, conventional this space is. It’s not oval-shaped like the previous store; plus we now have the added benefit of an outdoor terrace — a feature that’s quite rare in Hong Kong. For this iteration of the shop, I was also much more hands-on — pouring my ideas into the space.
I must say that this is a difficult question to answer. The realm of classic menswear has changed significantly since I first started becoming interested in it. In the past, the overall style was very much influenced by Savile Row: a lot of tie-and-shirt combos and pinstriped suits. Basically, how you’d picture Kingsman. But obviously, in today’s society people are a little more relaxed and maybe don’t wish to stand out as much. For us, we do try and promote the fact that there are “on-duty” and “off-duty” dress codes, or ways of dressing, rather; and that there are certain aspects of classic menswear that we consider rules. Things like proportion, colour and texture — those have the universal character of rules for a reason. Having said that, nowadays a lot of people wear a suit with polo shirts or sneakers and, though it’s not a style we actively promote, it’s something we don’t discourage. If it works well for customers, that’s great. We try and educate our customers on the fact that there’s an element of “time and place” related to what one wears, and that educational aspect is a key component in how we add value to our services.
For any retailer, it’s very important to think about who your customer is: where they’re from, which segment of the market they inhabit, their occupations, etc., but we don’t really think of mainland China as a separate market. We view every customer in the same way — whether they be from Hong Kong, China or overseas. For us, as long as they appreciate what we do and they appreciate craft, then they’re our customers and we do our utmost to serve them. However, I know that a number of our tailors have a growing core of mainland Chinese customers, which is a promising sign. It shows there are more and more people in the region who are coming to appreciate bespoke tailoring and artisanal traditions.
At this stage we’re still very much focused on the physical experience of Attire House, similarly to many independent stores around the world — especially in Japan. But we’ll be doing e-commerce some time in the future, that’s the next step. It’s obviously very important nowadays for customers to have both physical and digital retail options available, and the latter is certainly something we intend to offer.
It’s not the healthiest of habits, but I find smoking [cigars] to be very relaxing. Sometimes I’ll smoke in front of the computer whilst working or at the end of the day before I go home. Other times, I enjoy a glass of whisky or a cocktail at BAR DE LUXE — usually by myself. I realise that for many people, the act of doing something alone might sound a little sad, but I actually enjoy it quite a lot. Having a moment of peace by myself — whether that be smoking a cigar or sipping a cocktail — allows one to truly appreciate something, I think. It’s important to have some time to reflect without any distraction.
DON’T! All jokes aside, being an entrepreneur is extremely challenging. It can often feel very lonely as well: there are a number of circumstances in which you can’t talk to your staff, sometimes not even your partner. In many ways, you’re the sole person charged with decision making. You also have to be resilient to change; what I mean by that is you have to be adaptable at all times, so resilience and perseverance are absolutely key.
Attire House, 4/F, Duke Wellington House, 14-24 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2619 9007