Hubert Burda Media

Fashion Force: Lois Tien Talks Anagram

The daughter of G2000 founder Michael Tien is leaving her own legacy with a mix-and-match appeal.

Lois Tien. Photo: Dino Busch

By the time you read this, Anagram’s Wyndham Street pop-up store will be no more, turfed out of its temporary premises by Central’s sky-high rents. Although an offshoot of G2000, the label is a markedly different animal, having been founded in 2010 after a nucleus of the company’s designers announced their desire to work on something a little more premium – more high end. 

However, a thread sewn through the enterprise links three generations of the Tien family. G2000 was founded in 1980 as an affordable-office-wear label by Michael Tien, son of the textile entrepreneur Francis. And it’s Michael’s youngest daughter Lois who now helms the Anagram operation (though if you’re unwise enough to mention “designer genes”, she’ll roll her eyes in mock disgust). 

Producing a flow of versatile, easy-to-wear clothing, Anagram is unafraid of colour, prints and patterns. And, as the brand’s name suggests, every piece from its collections can be mixed and matched – a top here with a skirt there, and all elevated into an ensemble with a range of equally adaptable accessories. The prints are all original, developed in-house and by hand, with premium fabrics and yarns from around the world. Though, as there’s little discernible evolution across the silhouettes, looks can seamlessly be concocted using attire from any of Anagram’s six years of existence. 

Unlike the loquacious politico Michael, we’ve seen few interviews with his daughter, so while we had the opportunity we asked...

With no splashy adverts, you’ve created quite a buzz with the brand in its short lifespan. 

We’re relatively quiet in terms of marketing, but we’ve hit the five-year mark, we’re quite stable in terms of business. So we feel like it’s time to make some noise and start promoting the brand a little bit more. 

Tell us about the latest collection. What’s it inspired by? 

The entire autumn/winter 2016 collection is inspired by the art of dressing. And I guess in a way that’s a bit of a recurring theme for all Anagram because we’re trying to look at fashion more as a form of art. Coincidentally, this is why we also had art pieces studded on the walls and at the entrance of the shops, created exclusively for us. So, the art of dressing in a quite literal sense. This collection is very inspired by nature too, so you see a lot of lace, they have a lot paint-like brushstrokes and pieces with leaf-like embroidery – a mix of art and nature coming together. 

And, as per the DNA of the brand, a lot of mixing and matching? 

An anagram is where you mix up the letters of one word and create a new one, so if you apply it to fashion the whole idea is that we have a collection here. It’s, say, a hundred pieces, but if you mix and match you can create hundreds more looks. 

Tell us some of your favourite pieces. 

Well the one I’m wearing now [a beige top and pleated skirt], plus we’re famous for doing silks and lace. The design team and I go to Paris twice a year, in February and September, to attend fabric trade shows. For three days straight, we walk through stall after stall, lane after lane, through ream after ream of Italian, French and Spanish suppliers and mills. We get the vast majority of our fabrics from them, 70 percent from Europe, hence our price point is a shade higher than most ready-to-wear [collections]. We’re a more premium contemporary brand. 

There’s nothing loud and flashy, no big drama piece. 

No, we do something subtler. Shimmering silk is our standout piece, everything is understated, but it’s for the occasion. 

How do you see yourself competing with other brands at that price point? 

I would describe Anagram as affordable luxury, in the sense that it’s far from, say, a Zara or Topshop in terms of price and, I think, the product offering as well, but we’re obviously a step away from global luxury brands. What we have to our advantage, I think, is that we’re still a relatively small brand yet we’re sourcing all the same materials as other big brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Alexander Wang – all the big guys in the fashion playground. But because we don’t have the excess marketing or real estate to pay for, we’re actually charging a very reasonable price for our items while maintaining a quality that can measure up in standards. 

Is the brand a reflection of your personal style? 

I think it’s both mine and my design team’s, because I work very closely with them. I mean, I have limited design background, but we work very closely together to merchandise the collection and make sure that it’s obviously something that we would wear ourselves. You cannot sell something that you personally won’t even wear yourself! Secondly, that it’s commercial enough for a large populace, not just a handful. 

Every fashion blogger seems to be a sartorial authority. Does it bother you that some naysayers don’t regard the brand as high fashion? 

A lot of people compare us with others: “Oh you’re not as trendy or as fashion-forward as x or y.” No arguments there – it’s true, because we don’t want to be a trend or as fashion-forward as whatever is the rage of the day. Brands like those are chucked out of the closet when the trend ends – as all fads fade. That’s where I feel like we have a differentiation, in a sense that we don’t really expire, we aim for timeless pieces. 

There’s an expression that I’ve heard often – that you learn more from your mistakes than your achievements. What lessons have you learned in the past half decade? 

Definitely there’ve been lessons learned with experience. The brand started in 2010, but I came in 2013 – I was living in the US before that. And then I think one of the bigger – not mistakes but – lessons I learned is that we kind of expanded too quickly in the very beginning. The first two years, we opened four shops in Hong Kong and then we had eight in China as well – it was a massive expansion, but we didn’t have the right operations to run it. Since I came back we’ve taken everything back from China and focused on Hong Kong and Macau for now.

When we last spoke, for Prestige’s 40 Under 40, you mentioned that global expansion is on the cards. 

Yes. I guess the easier way to start is e-commerce, so we’re working on that right now, we’re trying to build a team hopefully to get something up and running in the next year or two. For global expansion, we’ve been doing trade shows. We just finished one in the US, and we’re going to do one in Hong Kong to reach out to more international buyers when they land here. We’re reaching out to buyers, even in the very tough retail economy right now, and we’ve had good feedback after coming back from the US. We’re gonna try to show in New York in February as well, and slowly raise global awareness. 

What advice have you had from your dad, and what could you tell us about your business model? 

Stick to your core values because customers don’t like to see brands fluctuate too much. If they change incessantly, they get confused and then they’re like, “OK, this is not a stable brand – I don’t want to buy from them.” When I look at G2000, it’s been very consistent. They sell work wear, they try to do a little bit of fashion but the core of the business is still catering to people who head to an office. We don’t want to derail from where we are heading. 

What criticism have you faced – and how have you addressed it? 

We get customers asking, “Why is some of your stuff so expensive?” Well, we’re not going to compromise on quality, we’re not gonna get you cheaper things, cheaper fabrics and charge you less because that’s not intrinsically what we’re trying to sell. You can get inexpensive ingredients for an easy meal, but is that nourishing? We want to sell beautiful clothing, which comes from beautiful fabrics, which costs a fraction more. But we’re worth it.