Much has been written about the aspirational story on how the self-made fashion magnate rose from being a saleswoman to president; and how difficult for people in such a position may find it in letting go of such a lifestyle.
But Tang, who departed her sought-after job as president of Kering and Asia CEO of Gucci two years ago, seems to have mastered the art of picking things up and letting things go.
Appearing mostly in an untouchable, yet anonymous black outfit, a subtle red sphere earring and an assertive short haircut, Tang is, in many ways, the embodiment of a high-achieving and independent woman who has built her wealth and fame from scratch, a rarity in the fashion business in Hong Kong.
During her tenure at Kering, Tang was in charge of some of the world’s most renowned luxury labels, including Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent, playing an integral part in expanding the brands in Asia.
At her peak, she oversaw 14 countries worldwide. She is, undeniably, one of the very few Chinese female executives who has stayed on top for such a long time, and commanded such respect.
Often a rare case for people in such a position, the fashion titan is amiable, cheerful, upbeat and exudes a sense of humility, all of which comes from a profound recognition that nothing comes easily.
Tang, born to a humble family, started her career at 17 working in retail sales at what used to be called DFS Galleria at the Hong Kong Airport. This was followed by a long 10 years of being a merchandiser where she started in the most junior role. But she grew fast.
“I was willing to work extra hours because I needed additional income,” Tang recalls at her new workshop at a refurbished industrial building tucked away at Wong Chuk Hang. “Working late was an opportunity for me to learn more. I worked 20% more than others. When you work 20% more than others you learn and gain 20% more than others. Attitude is key to stepping up.”
And it paid off. She seized power at the early age of 33, when she glided into luxury retailer Joyce to manage its merchandising and operations in Asia for 10 years.
Then in 1996, she became executive vice-president of HPL 21 Limited, where she built a retail infrastructure for Donna Karan, DKNY and the Armani Exchange across Hong Kong, China and other Asian markets.
On the surface, her career path may seem smooth, but she strongly disagrees. “It was never a straight path to my career,” she protests. “No matter how talented you are, you need to tackle the challenges presented by the overall retail industry, as well as personnel issues.”
The quiet achiever recollects her most painful experience in the 1990s was when she was a joint venture CEO in Korea, a time when the society was dominated by men. “There was no female executive in Korea back then, and my GM was a 56-year-old Korean. If you’re a female executive they’d ignore you, let alone respect (you). I launched the joint venture in Korea, but with a disappointing performance. I hoped I would never come back again. But then four years later fate brought me back to Korea when I was with Gucci. It was the time when I knew I had to leave my pain behind and not to be affected by it.”
On top of all the lessons she has learnt at work, her success came with a price – her marriage. Today, the divorcee, who fills the corner of her desk with pictures of her children and grandchildren, says she has no regrets over her failed marriage after realising “nothing is perfect anyway”.
“Achieving a successful career, and at the same time maintaining a marriage, is difficult. You’ve got to have a very understanding other half. We’re still friends after all, and that’s what most important.”
Having managed people for decades, Tang has long accepted and embraced the inevitable consequences that come with power – the higher her position, the higher the expectations, and thus, the higher the stress she has suffered. “I can’t afford to let my boss, my employees and myself down.”
One cannot imagine the burdens she has shouldered and the pressures she has dealt with on a daily basis being a president and CEO for a multinational brand, especially for one that places high demands on herself, and to not make mistakes.
This is perhaps an intuitive reason she walked away from the glamorous life two years ago, as she confesses that she came out of the job on top, but at the same time, it was a retreat from the sorry state of Hong Kong’s retail industry.
“I left on a high note. It’s beyond my ability to turn the tide (of Hong Kong’s luxury retail).”
A veteran in luxury retail, Tang predicts the local retail market will continue to slow until the second half of 2018 with a one-digit organic growth, given that 2017 will be a shaky year in the international political arena with a new Chief Executive of Hong Kong and the reshuffle of many global leaders, she notes.
“The luxury retail sector is at a turning point. In the old days, retail experience means making customers totally pampered,” says Tang from her experience at Joyce. “Now the definitions of retail experience and customer service have changed, and young customers want something else online, then in-store, especially when e-shopping is now a phenomenon. It’s time for luxury retailers to adjust their retail experience strategies accordingly.”
Even the most prestigious luxury brands in the world are facing an enormous challenge presented by the emergence of e-commerce giants such as Net-a-Porter. “It’s inevitable though. Brands need to maintain brand recognition online because branding means a total image across online and offline. The key to retail success is integrating your online and offline efforts.”
But personally, the 64-year-old fashionista is not a fan of e-commerce at all. “Much effort has been put into developing a brand story and store decoration is a big investment. It’d be a shame to miss out on these. E-commerce certainly has a big impact on high-end retail.”
She left Kering in 2014. A year in, she cobbled together a fulfilling life with a new workshop Wing’s Consultancy, a training workshop capable of seating 70 people. Before the opening of the new workshop, Tang had been delivering in-house workshops ranging from management, customer and service training for many international companies from Italy, Philippines, Thailand and Greater China.
“But when a business is facing financial hardship, the first thing to axe is training, then communications. When there are not enough budgets, the training condition is bound to be bad. I’ve had a class for 150 people sitting shoulders to shoulders in a meeting room. So I need to have my own spaces for training.”
Priced at HK$700 for three hours, the course spans management empowerment, customer service, retail, merchandising and individual enhancement.
Decorations in this humble studio reflect her tastes – not so busy, sparing use of strong colours, and also her delightful personality. With a glittering background of more than 40 years, her frugal way of living, or at least working, today is almost implausible.
The newly set-up studio is adorned with furniture Tang bought from Taobao (turns out she does shop online now and then), including a lamp shed at HK$49, an office chair she is sitting on at RMB$270 and a centre table that cost HK$59. Yes, she remembers. “The materials are bad but, well, they’re comfortable,” she shrugs.
Having worked as a buyer herself in the past, Tang prides herself on her sense of getting things cheaper, and, “I believe I’m a world-class buyer,” she says half-jokingly. She peppers her workshop with sharp yellow and green, partly because the joyful colours can portray a cheerful and cosy ambience, but largely because she believes yellow brings her wealth and green means life. Apart from the hue, nothing is gaudy or extravagant here. The only prominent decor is two paintings echoing perfectly with the colours on the walls.
One is an oil painting of Tang’s portrait drawn by her daughter-in-law; the other is a shingly green dragon painting as a gift from a young lad she was acquainted with on the Mainland, on which peacock feathers are concealed beneath the paints. “I’m not brand conscious. I prefer things that can make this space look good.”
After decades in the luxury fashion industry, she concedes that people from the fashion industry or wannabe fashionistas, who spend half of the day worrying about their appearance, tend to judge people by their looks, and “people who are arrogant … it may sometimes be because they lack confidence”.
“Luxury doesn’t mean expensive price tags, but more about the quality of life. It’s abstract indeed. I don’t want to be rich, but I wanted an improvement of life because my family was poor. That’s what urged me to step up to improve my life.”
Unlike many successful people who excelled at school and had ambitious dreams, Tang didn’t really have a plan of what she wanted to be when she was young. On the contrary, she was a perfectly ordinary teenager who fancied daydreaming more than studying, ending up repeating twice at high school and having the “lowest score” at HKCEE. As a young executive during her heyday in the fashion world, who came to savour success after years of endeavour, it only makes sense the fashion stalwart was once a luxury seeker and an extreme one.
For years she had been treating herself luxury watches and diamonds as birthday gifts. Who would have foreseen that such an acquisitive person would one day say, “they’re all materialistic. I don’t use them anymore”, and dedicating her wealth to philanthropy while paying steadfast attention to the wellbeing of unprivileged children from poor backgrounds like herself.
In recent years she has been making donations every year, scattered across the likes of the Jockey Club Ngai Chun Integrated Vocational Rehabilitation Centre, End Child Sexual Abuse Foundation, ACA Child Protection Institute and Little Life Warriors Society, to name but a few, which mainly surround the wellbeing of children and disabled people.
To mark her 64th birthday this year, Tang has donated a sizeable amount of money to charities in lieu of a birthday gift for herself, as a testimony to “share my birthday presents to many”. It’s not new that philanthropy is popular among the rich, but this idea of rewarding herself with the happiness from helping people in need is rather inspiring and enlightening.
“What I earn here is satisfaction and comfort,” she says of her new venture.
In this humbly small office, she thinks big.
“My courses serve as a form of coupon, or a gift, for top managements to identify and empower their employees, particularly for those in need of improvements, as it’s important to make them feel valued. It’s not for profit, I just want to share while I still can.” It’s understandable that Tang is now devoted to sharing as she has come across many benefactors who have assisted her on her way up.
“To succeed in your career you need a little luck, of course, but luck has little to do with my success. Hard work does.”