Hubert Burda Media

Empress of Fine Threads

Head of a fashion empire with more than 450 boutiques fanning out across Greater China and beyond, BALBINA WONG is a small town Singapore girl made good. By Lauren Tan

If you want to do business in China, call Balbina Wong,” declared Time magazine. Over on The Business of Fashion website, it counts her as one of the “Top 20 movers, shakers and decision-makers in China”.
Balbina Wong, for the uninitiated, is the CEO and deputy chairman of Hong Kong-headquartered ImagineX, a luxury brand management and distribution group that operates some 450 shops across more than 60 Asian cities — the bulk of which fan out across the world’s largest economy.
Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada, Cartier and Hugo Boss are just a few of the big names in fashion Wong (or “Ms Wong” as staff address her) has opened doors for in the Middle Kingdom. While not all are still on the books today, some 16 brands (and counting) are, including Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan and Jo Malone.
Born in wartime Singapore, she left school at age 13 and sold textiles along High Street. At 19, she moved to Hong Kong, clawed her way up the ranks of the cosmetic industry, first with Elizabeth Arden and then Estée Lauder, before a search for comfortable shoes for her “big Hakka feet” led her to Salvatore Ferragamo offices in New York and set her on the path of becoming China’s empress of high fashion.
Her ascent is well-known and the anecdotes that surround her colourful life are a dime a dozen — like the one of her standing on the Bund in Shanghai 20 years ago, amid the mangroves and paddy-fields, trying to convince three bemused Ferragamo brothers of their rose-tinged future in China.
“I guess it’s my gut feeling,” Wong lets on, when we caught up with her at her immaculately put-together Singapore pied-à-terre. “Living in Hong Kong, I could sense China’s rise. You can’t suppress over a billion people. We are human; we all want to be beautiful and to look good. We want to be inspired by luxury goods and all the things that give us status.”
Wong, herself, turns 70 by the time this article is published, but having spent five decades in beauty and fashion, looks at least a decade younger. (And no, she hasn’t touched Botox, yet alone considered it.)
“When ImagineX entered Shanghai, the city only had 8.5 million people. I’ll never forget that because I had to study up on the GDP and geography. Today, in less than 20 years, it’s a city of more than 23 million. Can you imagine that? When I look at China today, it’s like day and night. Whether I’m in Shanghai or Beijing, I think, oh my god, this is New York!” says the garrulous grandmother of two, her eyes dancing, and hands gesticulating with excitement.
While the group’s first Chinese venture — a Maison Mode department store which opened in Shanghai in 1994 with labels such as Gucci, Cartier and Ermenegildo Zegna — may have since shuttered, extensive inroads made across the country have been impressive. The number of ImagineX-operated Paul & Sharks, DKNYs and Juicy Coutures that dot second and third-tier cities such as Nanjing, Wuhan, Dalian and Qingdao, would have anyone thinking they are the biggest brands on the planet. Not content with shop fronts that number in the hundreds, the retailer is also landlord in Changsha, Chengdu and even Urumqi, the desert region bordering Kazakhstan, where it manages entire luxury shopping malls under the Maison Mode brand.
“We recently opened a Ferragamo in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. When I first heard H-o-h-h-o-t, I thought, ‘What place is this?’ Eighty percent of all these cities we’re in now, I only learned of in the last few years,” she confides with a laugh. “And it’s not like they have a population of half a million, we’re discovering new locales with over 5 million people. In China, there are 200 cities over 3 million in population, 100 cities with 5 million up to 35 million. Can you imagine? That is why I say, in China, the sky is the limit.”
Part of Wong’s success may be attributed to her mastery of guanxi (which loosely translates as ‘connections’). “In business, one does not always take. You give, and you take. It’s about building a relationship with your partners and principals,” she counsels. “People probably think I’m a tough lady who never says die and never says no, but they recognise that I’m fair. That’s why with all my business associates, our relationships are always long.”
Take that with the Ferragamos, a bond that has lasted 30 years, dating back to the 1980s when Wong discovered just how long she could walk in their hand-crafted shoes. Hoping to distribute the brand in Hong Kong, she got in touch with the family and made such an impression that she was instead invited to New York to run the brand’s flagship stores across North America, before returning to Hong Kong in 1992 to launch ImagineX. Tight friends with the entire clan now, Wong vacations with the family yearly and regards Wanda (founder Salvatore’s widow) as a mentor. “She is an amazing woman. I aspire for her knowledge. She knows what women love,” Wong says.
Peter Woo, owner of ImagineX and chairman of both Wharf Holdings and Wheelock Properties, is another “inspirational” businessperson who she counts as having shared knowledge in handling business and people. “I’m a founding shareholder only,” she reminds us. “He is the owner of ImagineX.” With his backing, they took Greater China by storm. Today, ImagineX has regional offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Shenyang, Guangzhou, Macau and Taiwan, as well as Singapore.
“I guess people realise that I was daring enough to start a luxury business in China 20 years ago,” she says when reminded of the accolades she’s received. “I’m a little bit embarrassed by it actually. I do feel a satisfaction, but one mustn’t get cocky. Starting [a business] is one thing, success is another.”
Instinct, common sense and a great deal of hard work and moxie, rather than any business school degree, have gotten Wong to where she is today. Born in 1943 during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, she grew up the sixth of seven siblings in a cramped Tank Road shophouse shared with an extended family.
By 13 she felt compelled to drop out of school, St Anthony’s Convent in Middle Road, because “I wanted to work; I needed to work,” she says. “In those days there was no minimum age. And being big-sized and tall, I looked 16 when I was not yet 14,” she adds. Her first job was as a retail assistant selling fabrics along High Street, before becoming a treatment operator for Lancôme.
“I’m very open. I don’t hide where I come from. I know that I have worked very hard all my life and I’m enjoying it now,” she says. “I don’t hide that I have no academic qualifications whatsoever. I guess God is looking after me. I’ve been very blessed.”
At 19, Wong married her first husband and followed him to Hong Kong. “It was a way to leave home,” she shares. The city in the 1960s was already pulsating with energy. A can-do spirit filled the air. “That made it unique. If you had the street smarts and know-how, you will be able to get somewhere. What I learnt about business in Hong Kong would probably have taken longer to learn in Singapore.”
But the hours she poured into her work — even travelling weekends so as not to waste a single workday — took its toll at home. Her only daughter, who had been sent to a Swiss boarding school at age 8, had already grown distant by her teenage years. “She used to say, ‘Mummy you have no time for me’. And it was true,” Wong admits. “Now she’s married with kids of her own, so she totally understands. We’re the best of friends,” she adds. “That’s life. I made sacrifices in my 40s for my career. But I have no regrets because she understands now.”
Backed by an “incredible” management team, the now septuagenarian is far from slowing down. The buzz she gets from the retail business is far too addictive, plus mixing with her staff, almost all of whom are younger, keeps her energised. “I love passing on my experiences and knowledge to them,” she says. Turning to her reflection in a mirror, she ruminates for a moment: “I can see a young girl in me. If I don’t work, I don’t know what to do. Twiddle my thumbs and go to the hawker centre every day?”
At least with ImagineX expanding across Southeast Asia — in Singapore it brings in Club Monaco, Juicy Couture, Paul & Shark, Jo Malone and Apivita — Wong can fool herself into mixing work with pleasure. Now married to an American businessman, she says: “Whenever I come back, my husband always says, ‘You are so Singaporean with your lah lah lah.’ It’s true. I love it here. My family lives here and I have a lot of friends here. It was a different Singapore when I left. And I’m so proud to be back.”