Homeless - Evolution of a Homegrown Brand

Local hero John Wong of Homeless talks about the evolution of a homegrown brand that shows people what they really want to surround themselves with.

Hong Kong—indeed, the world—may be experiencing a retail slump, but that does not stop anyone from going shopping. It is a rare trait for people to know what they want; many have to actually see and experience the product before they can commit to a purchase. It is even more difficult for home and lifestyle products, which may not fit into confined spaces or suit existing décor until you take them home.

Showing people what they really want was the concept behind Homeless. Friends since their student days at IVE (Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education), founders John Wong and Heyman Poon believe that Homeless’s products all need a good home. “Our products have a ‘take me home’ quality—and Homeless is a straightforward name,” says Wong. “We like it because it is direct. Many people need something for their home to make it complete, but they often don’t know what it is. There are not too many shops like this in Hong Kong. When we started in 2003, there were even fewer.”

Wong credits inspiration derived from browsing through London’s flea markets while they both studied in the UK; Wong studied product design there while Poon concentrated on interiors. “Habitat and SCP were already successful,” Wong recalls.

“Heyman and I would meet in London to go window shopping. And then we both returned to Hong Kong. Our business had a very organic start. Hong Kong design 15 years ago wasn’t great. If we produced our own designs, we had no place to sell it. Why not open a shop of our own?”The duo first opened in Yaumatei and did everything themselves: “We designed furnishings and also sold them on the sales floor,” remembers Wong. “From the beginning, we believed that a retail space had to look great to do well. We had a great space but the location was bad. Our shop’s design fooled people and convinced them that we had the right stuff though we were in Yaumatei. It was slow at first; we only saw 10 or 20 people per day initially. Those few customers contributed a bit towards our rent. And we took custom orders. If they were seeking things for a simple renovation and we didn’t carry the product, we would find it for them.”

" If a product meets its one essential intended function, it is enough for us.”

The turning point for Homeless was securing a generous spot in Lane Crawford’s LCX in Harbour City a decade ago. “LCX’s head buyer approached us and said that there would be an entire floor of Hong Kong brands—and they wanted to include us,” Wong explains. “There wasn’t space for our furniture so we stocked it with small, easy to carry items. Through LCX, we learned what retailing really was about. We learned what sells and what doesn’t. We learned how to attract people through props that describe our products. Lots of customers started to seek us out. We began to source from and work with different designers. We also began working on restaurant and residential projects, but decided that route was too personal for us.”

Homeless franchised out to its first mainland China shop in 2014; previously, Wong admits that other mainland retailers copied the Homeless concept, but were unable to execute the brand properly. “We saw the Shenzhen shop as a chance to learn more about operating in China,” he notes. “We send a team there to oversee the displays and take care of the warehouse.”

Homeless still sells the founders’ original designs through its 10 shops in Hong Kong. “Not much has changed in our furniture designs,” acknowledges Wong. “We don’t like to discontinue items. We don’t follow fashion. Some of our products have been around for more than a decade. It is always a difficult process to bring a design to life. There is a trend now for multifunctional designs. But that can get too complicated, as each of its function has to be a selling point. If a product meets its one essential intended function, it is enough for us.”