Q&A with Arnault Castel, Founder of Kapok

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By Butterboom Writers  /  August 12, 2016

Arnault Castel is the Founder of Kapok, a lifestyle shop that stocks a wide range of clothing, accessories and homeware items from international and local brands. Items in store are design driven and made by small independent brands, and Castel has described the style of his selection of items as “future classics.”

Having arrived in Hong Kong from France 20 years ago, Castel started off bringing in small independent brands that have international appeal like Moleskine and Lomography, and opened the first Kapok store in 2006 in Tin Hau. Today there are nine Kapok stores in Hong Kong and three in Singapore. As well as stocking almost 100 brands, the stores also gave Castel a platform to launch his own line called – you guessed it – Future Classics.  

We speak to Castel to pick his creative brain and discover what makes this unassuming retail genius tick.  

Which town in the South of France are you from? Why did you choose to live in Hong Kong?
I come from a small village in south of France called Ferrals-Les-Corbières. It’s very small (less than one thousand people), quiet and isolated. So, when it was time for me to find my first job, I decided to choose something completely different. I had just seen the Wong Kar-wai movie, Chungking Express, so I asked for a job in Hong Kong. This was 20 years ago and I am still around. As a kid my dream was to run a candy store, then a bookstore – so it’s quite fitting that I end up creating my own shop!

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How did you come up with the name ‘Kapok’?
The name of the store is related to our mission. Kapok took its name from the majestic emergent tree. Kapok trees grow tall in their ecosystem, branching out to provide shelter to plants and animals dependent on nourishment and exposure. So, with Kapok we also try to provide a unique roof under which people in the community can meet and find inspiring quality goods.

Tell us how you started as a distributor of Moleskine in Asia.
The first time I came across a Moleskine notebook, I immediately bought one, as I am a stationery lover. I started researching about the brand and I found they were really smart to focus on a product – the notebook – and make a strong brand out of it. Their marketing was very clear, talking about artists, travelling, personal expression rather than paper or manufacturing. So, I was quite confident this brand would really take off in Asia and we took the risk to buy inventory. We ended up working as a distributor for the brand in Asia for 10 years and it was an unparalleled learning experience for me.

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Why did you choose to start Kapok in Hong Kong?
I opened the first store in 2006. I was looking for an office for 2 people and I found a great space in a quiet Hong Kong street in Tin Hau, right next to a huge tree (which gave me the idea for the store name). The space was too big for my office so I decided in two minutes, “Let’s open a store”. I bought a huge vintage table and I presented some products found during my trips. I loved shopping in Paris or Tokyo, and the feeling you could suddenly discover some very interesting products randomly in a small street – Kong Kong was dominated by mega brands and repetitive shopping malls. I guessed Hong Kong people were also bored, as the store was very well received.

This allowed to find more brands, and I moved in 2008 to my favorite part of Kong Kong, the star street area in wanchai. This is a very convenient district but that is also very quiet and slower than Hong Kong’s normal frenzy. Since then I also opened a store focusing on Kong Kong brands and designers in PMQ, and the Maison Kitsuné store in Causeway Bay, and Kapok Singapore.

It takes quite a leap of faith to bring in something and not know if people will buy it. How did you decide what to stock?
There is a very fine balance. Most of us are driven by two opposite impulses: the need to belong to a community, and the need to be different and unique. When choosing products for Kapok we need to find the perfect equilibrium between these two needs. I guess it’s like cooking – after a while you don’t need to follow the recipe book by the letter and we can start experimenting, while knowing if it will taste good or not. So, we can take chances, and follow our gut feeling. This way, we have some nice surprises and we limit the big mistakes.

Do you still buy everything for Kapok yourself, or do you have buyers?
I am working with a team of three young buyers who are also working in our stores. It is quite important to have several voices and tastes to bring some freshness to our selection. Also, being in constant contact with our customers allows us to find the elusive products that they will connect to. Finally, after working together with my buyers for a few years, we now have a clear idea of what is the Kapok style and spirit, and we agree very often.

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What is the selection criteria for the products you buy for Kapok?
Being a small independent store, I always focus on small independent brands. Big groups don’t need my support, but it feels good to help talented designers to show their products in Asia. I look for a combination of craftsmanship, creativity and playfulness. Actually my favourite designers are people who are very serious in their work, without taking themselves seriously!

You have started to design your own brand, tell us about what you are making for Kapok and your plans?
There are tons of brands in the market now and we didn’t want to add just another brand with nothing new to offer. Our new brand, Future Classics, is based on who we are, a retailer that has been around for 10 years in Hong Kong. We really know what is missing and what customers look for that doesn’t exist. As we are based in Kong Kong and Singapore, we wanted to create a brand that is perfectly suited for these countries: perfect for our weather, our hectic lifestyle. We paid a lot of attention to the fabrics and the fits. It took us one year to get it right, but the response has been great so far.

What is a typical working day like for you?
When I wake up, play some music, shower and coffee. Sometimes gym, then I spend the day meeting my team, meeting some of my brands, visiting the stores, and quite some time on emails. I always take some time to read and research. In the evening, either a game of tennis, movies or TV shows to unwind and a nice home-cooked meal. It will vary depending on how social I feel, as I alternate wildly between introvert and extrovert moods.

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Most important part of running your own business?
I wake up every morning with the love and energy to work. And I feel what I do is useful in some way, to bring joy to our clients and support to our designers.

What are the key ingredients to the success of Kapok?
First and foremost, the team – I love their energy, their ideas and their spirit. Second, the element of surprise. We always try to bring new products, brands and new events to make sure our fans stay entertained.
Thirdly, our patience; we  give time to a brand to grow and find their audience.

What’s a mantra that you live by?
Never do anything you could be ashamed of tomorrow, next week or next year.

How do you see the retail marketing in Hong Kong moving towards in the next six to 18 months?
Retail is tough, it’s never business as usual. Kapok is now at the right size, we are big enough to do interesting projects, work with the brands we love and develop our own brands, so we don’t need to grow at the moment. We are doing a lot of “hidden work” to find more exciting brands, make our stores more handsome and livelier and also to make our customers happier. I don’t believe in big concepts but rather in perfect execution by a focused and happy team, so this is what we will be doing.

Sites, magazines, blogs you visit regularly?
I am huge magazine fan. I love reading cover-to-cover Fantastic Man, Appartamento and Travel Almanac, the interviews are really in-depth and they always find fascinating people that open my eyes to their minds and universes. I love the email list Next Draft, David Pell has a great point of view and he selects 10 articles everyday that are really worth reading.

I also cannot live without music so I read Pitchfork and The quietusAnd finally, to keep track of what’s going on in the fashion and retail world, Business of Fashion cannot be replaced. The articles are really smart and well researched.

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Describe your top three qualities.
Curiosity: I always want to know why and I won’t stop until I find out.
Persistence: I don’t give up and I keep working and refining till I get what I had in mind.
Forward-looking: I never dwell on the past, always ready for what comes next.

What do you eat for breakfast?
An espresso, a big glass of cold water and a cookie. I have a minimalist breakfast.

Favourite lunch places in Hong Kong? 
Near home in Tin Hau, I like Second Draft, I am already a huge fan of their French toast. Near the office, I like Elephant Grounds, it is already became my favourite place for meetings out-side the office. And for Sunday dim sum lunch, I like China Tang in Central.

What you recommend people do when they visit the South of France?

  • Drink a glass or more of Corbieres, a totally underrated wine
  • Visit a food market for the most amazing produce
  • For a gastronomic experience, have a meal at l’auberge du vieux puits by Gilles Goujon.
  • Hike the Cathar castles trail
  • Visit Cordes sur Ciel, a wonderful village lost in the clouds near Albi.

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