In this excerpt from Ragtrader's August edition, Helen Kaminski GM Leila Hibri reveals her global vision. To subscribe and unearth more compelling content, head here.

In 2016, Helen Kaminski opened a flagship store in Tokyo and has since expanded across Asia. What is the current retail presence?

In Japan, we now operate three stand-alone stores in Tokyo and one in Kyoto. We also have a flagship in Gangnam Korea and 12 shop-in-shops across high-end department stores. We have over 1000 wholesale accounts globally, including 350 in Japan and 50 across Asia, as well as showrooms in Tokyo and Seoul.

How much does each market contribute to the business?

In the past year, we have sold over 179,000 hats and bags with expected growth of 10% in the next financial year through distribution in over 25 countries. Japan continues to be our largest market at around 42% of the business. Korea is around 12% and growing rapidly, with other Asian markets at 5%. Australia and New Zealand contribute 15% with the US and Europe coming in at 26%.

What are some upcoming store openings or new accounts in the Asian market?

In July, our Korean partner launched our first duty-free concession at the new Lotte DFS in Seoul. We also featured in the July edition of Japan Airlines’ in-flight shopping magazine. Later in the year, the brand will launch into a chain of stores in China selling high-end hats and accessories in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. We are going into six Jacobean stores, which is a high-end hats and bag retail chain. Discussions for a concept store in Hong Kong are in play and we will know more regarding sites and opening dates in a few months.

What prompted the brand's expansion into Asia?

Over 15 years ago, the brand was making traction in the US and seemed to be resonating with global consumers. The company had an entrepreneurial agent who was married to a Japanese lady and for him it was a no-brainer. The Japanese have always been hat wearers. He literally took a bag full of hats and started making the rounds and as they say “the rest is history”. From Japan, the next step was Korea and then Taiwan.

What was the process for setting up the brand in this market?

In Japan, we had several distributors which made it very hard to control how the brand was being marketed and sold. It had been an organic growth over 10 years and it was time to consolidate. It took about two years to find the right partner in Yagi Tsusho, with whom we formed a Joint Venture in Tokyo in August of 2014. In Korea and Taiwan, we work with distribution partners and those markets are growing exponentially. We also run a direct wholesale business model with some of the other Asia markets.

What is the strategy behind the new wave of store openings?

About five years ago, our market in Japan was saturated and we were experiencing the beginning signs of a decline in demand. In Korea and Taiwan, we had other issues related to brand positioning that lead to similar consequences. The company decided that it was time to revive those markets and to look at China as the next horizon.

What are the key challenges in setting up in Asia?

I believe the key challenge is to acknowledge and accept that businesses run, and consumers behave, very differently in each of the different Asia markets. This runs from trade practices laws to foreign trade legislation; to quality control and global price structures; to marketing and social media trends; to retail and wholesale models and margin expectations; landlord negotiations and so on. It is essential to study each market’s specific requirements and customise specific strategies and tactics accordingly.

What other nuances are there?

Most importantly are the cultural and language barriers. It is incredibly important to understand the nuances implicit in the business dealings in each market. It is also critical that you have access to local expertise to help navigate potential pitfalls and avoid the “lost in translation” syndrome.

What are the key opportunities or advantages?

Asia is much closer to Australia than Europe or the US geographically and therefore logistically. We are a major destination for tourists and students and have a growing Asian diaspora spreading the word about their favourite Aussie brands back in the motherland. Moreover, the exponentially growing population of affluent Asians, in particular the Chinese, makes that market very attractive. With Australia becoming stronger on the global fashion scene, and with the US and Europe continuing to go through economic and security challenges, focusing on the growing Asian markets is a logical step to take for expanding local brands.

Can you offer some market insights into the region?

It is all about the contacts and the relationships. Regardless of how fantastic your brand is, working with local partners who have established relationships is critical to brand expansion. As for specific insights, Japan is particularly challenging due to its insular, relatively old-fashioned and incredibly conservative business culture. I have travelled to Japan over 25 times in the last five years and I have yet to meet a senior level female or a senior level non-Japanese working in the industry. There are a lot of “do’s and don’ts”. Although it is crucial to heed the advice of your Japanese business partners, it is also important to stand your ground in protecting the essence of your brand and challenging the locals to try new things and think outside the square.

Have there been any major back-end changes to the business to support this growth?

Yes, due to several unrelated staff changes, we have a new and dynamic team with a crystal clear and aligned vision for the brand. We are also working with new distributors in some of our key markets and continuously looking at areas where we can improve our operations.

What is the brand's five-year expansion plan?

The focus for the next five years will be to further strengthen the brand position and level of brand recognition domestically and internationally. China will continue to be a focus and India a new frontier. The potential in the US and Europe is also a key strategic initiative.

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