Born and raised in the UK, Sarah Fung studied jewellery design at Central St. Martins and immediately started her own brand upon graduation. After exhibiting at London Fashion Week, she was able to sell in prestigious stores such as Browns Focus in London and the now-defunct Colette in Paris, demonstrating her entrepreneurial streak at a young age.
A couple years later, she started a lingerie and swimwear label with her best friend, and did so well – it was stocked by Selfridges in London and Lane Crawford – that she eventually dropped her jewellery line. However, after several years Fung found lingerie production was becoming increasingly challenging, so she decided to end the business; shortly afterwards, Lane Crawford offered her a job in its Hong Kong head office. She packed up to move closer to her family roots, where “it was great to reconnect with family that I hadn’t seen for 15 years and get some hardened experience working in retail”.
Fung ended up staying at Lane Crawford for nine years, far longer than she ever expected. Towards the end of her time there, she again thought of starting her own business, at the same time noticing the amount of waste produced by the fashion industry. After doing some research and realising there wasn’t a consignment business in Hong Kong that felt luxurious and inspiring, Fung started Hula in 2016 in a 4,000-square-foot showroom in Wong Chuk Hang, where she could store and display pre-owned luxury items.
Her experience on both sides of the industry – design and manufacturing as well as promotion and marketing – meant that she had total respect for these pieces, and wanted to make it her mission to help preserve beautiful items for longer. “I felt that because of the popularity of fast fashion, consumers didn’t care how things were made and there was no respect for craftsmanship,” Fung says.
“Growing up the UK, where there’s less of a throwaway culture, also meant that I had a natural tendency to re-purpose, and shopping second hand was quite normal for me. I was surprised when I moved to Hong Kong and found there wasn’t much of a mid-market here, so I wanted to offer consumers a different way to shop: more variety with better quality at better prices.”
Starting Hula certainly had its challenges, the first and foremost being the need for Fung to convince consumers of the benefits of buying pre-owned luxury items. “The fashion industry is responsible for a good deal of world’s pollution, from the way the cotton is farmed and the amount of pesticides used, to how the making of a single pair of denim jeans can consume almost 7,000 litres of water.
“Before Covid-19, we staged a lot of events and panel discussions at our warehouse space on tackling issues about sustainability, the environmental and the social impacts of the fashion industry (such as modern slavery) and giving our customers styling sessions – as all these topics are linked to sustainability,” Fung says.
Becoming a more actively conscious consumer is a big part of it. “Do your own research about brands before you buy. Try to buy from sustainable or ethical brands, beware of ‘green-washing’ and look for materials that are better for the environment,” urges Fung. “Think before you buy – do you really need it, do you think you’ll get the wear out of it and, most important, can you resell it if you no longer want it? If the item is very cheap, question why that is so.”
One of Fung’s main targets is fast fashion: “These items are often badly made. They use cheap materials and their manufacturers are usually not treated fairly. In general, they tend to have fewer wears and their value depreciates to nothing as soon as it leaves the shop door, so it’s very hard to resell.
“Buying pre-owned versus new is one of the quickest ways to save fashion from polluting the Earth, apart from buying nothing,” she says. “Buying pre-owned still allows you to have fun with style but to do it consciously. Although sustainability is a big topic right now and customers are shopping more ethically, there’s so much information on companies, what we should eat, what damages your skin, what materials to buy, etcetera, that it’s really been an overload of information. Covid-19 has also made people think and shop less, but definitely shop better.”
Fung, however, expresses gratitude to the big players, especially luxury brands, that are taking sustainability seriously and helping to make it “sexier”, shaking off the stigma it once had. This is also why the second-hand market is now gaining so much traction. “In general, even though the fashion industry has been pushing boundaries visually and culturally, it’s been unwilling to change for so many years that we now have this catastrophe within the fashion market and the whole industry needs a total revamp,” she says.
“The problem won’t be resolved overnight. While we try new fabric innovations and friendlier productions methods. we’re still far behind in making fashion sustainability more mainstream. That’s why buying pre-owned is something we can all take in to help save the planet,” urges Fung.
The power, ultimately, lies with the consumer. “Consumers really can change company behaviour and ethics, as the
more we buy into something, the more of it they make. As the saying goes, ‘Vote for your future with your wallet,’ because what we spend our money on is a very powerful tool and will dictate how companies act and how we see our future.”
Although there’s been a shift towards buying pre-owned items in Hong Kong, superstition has partly held this market back from developing over the last decades, because second-hand clothing was thought to be “unlucky”, having been passed on from the dead or sold due to lack of money. However, Fung has seen a change in recent years: those who weren’t so sure are slowly coming around and buying pre-owned items is at last being seen as cool. “It’s our mission to make buying pre-owned a community worth joining and something you should feel proud to be part of,” she says.
Consumers are also starting to shop based on sustainability and company ethics. The internet has given us a lot more information and transparency for consumers to be able to choose which businesses they should support or not. “Sustainability is here to stay, so much so that I believe that in the future we may not even need to say the word, as everything we do will be sustainable and ‘the norm’. I believe this business model and circular economy is the future of fashion retail. It’s a win-win – consumers want to monetise their wardrobe and look good for less, so it’s a no-brainer,” says Fung.
Asked about the fashion brands she admires, Fung points to labels with simple aesthetics, such as Khaite, Gabriella Hearst and The Row. “Before I started Hula I’d rarely seen or tried on Chanel pieces, but it’s got to be the best in terms of craftsmanship and design. Its pieces belong in a museum – I can understand why they’re worth so much and retain their value. And that’s the beauty of buying pre-owned: you suddenly have an array of brands to try under one roof, and high-end luxury becomes more accessible!”