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Friday, September 11, 2020, 11:34
A tribute to city’s textile legacy
By Dai Kaiyi
Friday, September 11, 2020, 11:34 By Dai Kaiyi

Nan Fung Group aims to bring together technology and style to cultivate innovative talents among the younger generation and help aspiring entrepreneurs make the grade. Dai Kaiyi reports from Hong Kong.

What used to be a large, vacant concrete roof is now transformed into a rooftop park. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Embracing the old and combining the new — that’s pretty much the motto for The Mills, a landmark revitalization project and the brainchild of Nan Fung Group executive Vanessa Cheung Tih-lin. 

Cheung, who’s group managing director of Nan Fung Development, says her inspiration for the project came from her grandfather, the late tycoon Chen Din-hwa, who in 1954 founded Nan Fung Textiles, which went on to become one of Hong Kong’s biggest multi-faceted business conglomerates.

“I wanted to embrace the heritage of textiles not only because it’s the root of Nan Fung, but also as a way to celebrate Hong Kong’s textile past,” she says.

Through innovation, The Mills has been supportive of innovative talents, who are leading the change for the techstyle industry — the intersection of technology and style — and has been providing a global platform for fruitful collaboration.

Tri-pillar structure

And The Mills isn’t just throwing phrases around. Its tri-pillar structure allows integration between innovation and traditional industries from multiple perspectives.

The company’s business pillar, Fabrica incubates startups in the techstyle business, bridging innovative entrepreneurs at the forefront of the industry with the right partners and opportunities.

“Through our interactions and research for the project, we observed and learned the power of collaboration — that many innovations are born at the point of interaction of different minds,” explains Cheung.

As the younger generation is a core group, The Mills aims to inspire and support, and is collaborating with schools and universities around the world to back up young talents through mentoring, offering residencies where students and alumni can be connected to a network within the techstyle industry (brands, manufacturers, retailers, research institutions, ecosystem builders and investors) and access its coworking space, startup community and prototyping lab.

One example is The Mills Summer Program, an annual competition in which high school students in Hong Kong are encouraged to create a brand new, innovative product.

“We provide mentorship from our expert partners, arrange visits to other innovation hubs around the city and organize meetings with our incubatees who share their stories and inspiration behind their entrepreneurial journey with the students,” Cheung says. 

Vanessa Cheung Tih-lin, group managing director of Nan Fung Development. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In 2018, The Mills Fabrica team helped the winning student group, which designed an innovative 5-in-1 multipurpose family backpack, launch their product on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform. It exceeded their target, securing nearly HK$100,000 (US$1,290) from backers.

In the United Kingdom, The Mills Fabrica, the innovation arm of The Mills, is working with some of the world’s top universities in wearable apparel, innovation, art and design to offer its students the chance to come to Hong Kong to meet Fabrica’s partners in the techstyle sector, where they can further develop their projects.

For two years in a row, Fabrica has awarded Central Saint Martins graduates with residency at The Mills Fabrica space in Hong Kong, granting them access to its community of brands, retailers, manufacturers, startups and research institutions, as well as participation in community events.

Apart from tailoring support for a diverse range of student entrepreneurs from various educational backgrounds globally, The Mills aims to inspire millennials at large with more public-facing experiences. 

At its retail pillar, Shopfloor, The Mills offers experiential retail experience, such as Alt: — the first shop in Hong Kong with a garment-to-garment system, which leverages cutting-edge upcycling technology to transform used clothes into new pieces of clothing. 

So far, Shopfloor has been gaining traction from young millennials and families from local and afar. Designed to engage the public and revolutionize the offline shopping experience, Shopfloor offers pioneering retail ideas and various community workshops for visitors to interact and learn. 

Also, at The Mills’ art pillar, Centre for Heritage, Arts & Textile (CHAT), the company preserves the cultural heritage of the local textile industry through user-friendly art experiences and community engagements. 

CHAT, according to Cheung, is a celebration of Nan Fung and Hong Kong’s textile legacy. At its art museum, young visitors are invited to relive the story of Hong Kong’s textile past and imagine a future of applied creativity and innovation. 

For instance, the VR experience “Respinning the Yarn” re-creates the scene at the original Nan Fung cotton-spinning mills and enables visitors to interact with old machines in the most innovative manner. 

By taking part in CHAT’s series of community programs, the younger generation can gain new insights of the city by conversing with neighbors from the local Tsuen Wan roots.

“We believe it’s by continuously innovating the traditional textile field that we can contribute to building a sustainable future for the industry,” says Cheung.

Adaptivity to changes

Asked about the secret sauce for the long-term success of Nan Fung Group, she says the adaptivity to changes has always been the key.

“Just as the group transformed itself from its core business of textile manufacturing to real-estate development in the 1970s, seizing the promising business opportunities arising from population expansion.”

“We constantly stay flexible and embrace changes in the macrocosmic environment.”

She believes that in this new age of a knowledge-based economy, the core to the development direction is advocating innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship (ICE).

By that token, The Mills is a project that particularly manifests the spirit of ICE — innovating consumers through experiential retail offerings on Shopfloor, promoting creativity through interactive art exhibitions and participative workshops at CHAT, and supporting entrepreneurship by connecting techstyle startups with a wide network of partners at Fabrica, according to Cheung.

In particular, Fabrica runs an incubation program dedicated to helping aspiring entrepreneurs through customized support. 

The program includes opportunities to share their innovation at community events, large-scale conferences and seminars and connect with Fabrica’s network of partners (brands, manufacturers, retailers, academic and research institutions, investors, other ecosystem-builders) and startups within the industry. 

As a result, it encourages collaboration and facilitates important conversations that benefit not only their businesses but also the industry as a whole, Cheung says.

Another significant point of synergy is the international reach that the group is striving to develop. 

The latest expansion of The Mills to the UK is an important milestone in the development of both The Mills project and the group as a whole. This new UK platform extends the group’s support for ICE to a more global coverage, creating changes and channeling support to the overseas techstyle industry, while promoting Hong Kong that will always be the roots of Nan Fung Group.

“Through The Mills, we hope to create a global community for innovation in the techstyle and lifestyle industries.”

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