Born in 1948 in Hong Kong, Chen Qitai moved to Canada, where he went by the name Kenneth Chan. In 1975 he set up a contract manufacturing business, one of whose clients was the fashion firm Ports –with retail outlets in the US and UK. Chen went on to buy Ports in 1989, and later sold off its UK stores when recession hit.
Chen took the money he’d made divesting the UK stores and invested it in China. In 1994 he opened two trial stores in Shanghai and Xiamen – and found that demand was strong. He then moved one of the Ports factories to Xiamen and opened new stores in high end locations, such as Shanghai’s Xintiandi, Beijing’s International Trade Building and Hangzhou’s Hubin Road. He also opened outlets in airports. “These stores are not only channels for selling clothes, but also Ports’ image window,” says Chen.
Ports International uses image ambassadors to sell its clothes. They include actresses like Fan Bingbing in China and Reese Witherspoon in the US. But China now accounts for 55% of Ports’ sales, with Chen offering steep discounts on similar items sold overseas.
For example, a Ports ladies coat that costs $800 in America sells for Rmb3,000 in China, or almost half the price. That’s been a hit with his core market of Chinese office women, who want both value for money and the cachet of international fashion. One reason Chen has been able to price so aggressively is that, as Ports makes the clothes locally, they aren’t subject to the same luxury goods taxes faced by imported brands like Prada and Armani.
Ports’ stores are now opening up in second and third tier cities like Kunming and Urumqu. Its menswear line has also been expanded and Chen hopes it will soon account for 50% of sales. He also struck a deal to produce ‘BMW Lifestyle’ branded clothing, offering apparel with ‘sports chic’ for men.
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