Ports fashion looks for haven from China storm in Europe

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In an interview with AFP, Cibani, the much younger brother-in-law of Ports supremo Alfred Chan, said the upmarket unit’s decision to switch its headquarters and manufacturing to Italy two and a half years ago was about to start bearing fruit.

The brand is building up a reputation for womenswear, and for a recently-introduced menswear line, in the cut-throat world of international high fashion.

“We are right on track with what we planned when we moved to Milan,” Cibani said backstage at the recent presentation of the Ports 1961 spring/summer 2015 womenswear collection that was designed by his sister Fiona, Alfred Chan’s wife.

“We have started a menswear line. We are designing and producing in Italy and this is our fifth season showing in Milan.

“We are building a good base and awareness. I think in the very near future we are going to see some substantial growth.”

– Struggle –

Founded in Canada in the 1960s by Luke Tanabe, the son of Japanese immigrants, Ports International was initially a vehicle for Chan’s mission to prove he could produce international standard designer clothing from the same Xiamen manufacturing base used to produce items for the company’s 300-plus shops in China.

But he struggled to implement that vision and, in 2004, Ports 1961 was established as an independent premium marque headquartered in New York, where it made a mark internationally when its clothes featured in the 2006 film “The Devil wears Prada.”

That celluloid exposure could not mask lacklustre growth however and in 2012 the company launched itself into another makeover, moving lock, stock and barrel to Italy’s northern hub of all things glamorous.

Cebani said the move had paid off with sales in Europe currently helping to offset flat growth in the Chinese market, where the whole luxury sector has been hit by a slowing economy and a crackdown on conspicuous consumption by the country’s business elite.

“Right now Europe for us is growing the most and North America is not far behind,” he said.

“Obviously we are doing fairly well with our top line in China but that was an existing business and so the growth there has not been as strong as Europe, where we were starting from scratch.”

– Share setback –

Shares in the Ports parent company, Ports Design Ltd. have more than halved since the end of last year because of problems in China, but Cibani believes the company is better-placed to weather the storm than other luxury brands.

“Definitely there has been a market contraction (in China) and nobody is immune from that,” Cibani said.

“But I think we’re pretty well positioned for that. I think a lot of the logo-ed bags brands were the ones that were hit the hardest.

“It became a problem to carry those logos, but when you are wearing clothing you don’t know where it is from. It is something beautiful, something very necessary.

“So we have actually been able to weather the storm pretty nicely.”

Ports has always been a family business, through good times and bad, which include a sticky spell in 2012 when the company’s shares were suspended after accounts were not filed on time.

Alfred Chan’s brother, Vincent Tam, was subsequently obliged to step down from the role of chairman after disclosures about irregular accounting.

Salem Cibani is now in his eighth year at the company and, having worked his way up to chief executive of the designer unit, says Chan remains a hands-on emperor of his corporate realm.

“He is involved very much on a day-to-day basis,” Cibani said. “He and I are in constant communication.

“It’s family, so we are always talking whether it’s a weekend or dinner time. We are (just like an Italian family) but we are also pretty no-drama: we’re pretty easy, I think it is the Canadian in us.”

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