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Breeze Development's Henry Liao

Tailoring a Fashion Empire with an Italian Cut


Tailoring a Fashion Empire with an Italian Cut


Acquiring Giuliano Fujiwara for NT$500 million, a Taiwanese department store group is giving this premium Italian brand a makeover, and a new position on the world fashion map.



Tailoring a Fashion Empire with an Italian Cut

By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 509 )

"We have to tell them who we are!"

Bathed in the light from the courtyard outside the window of the fourth-floor office in the southwestern section of Milan, Italy, Japanese shoe designer Yuji Miura has not even a moment to spare to enjoy his espresso.

Miura is briefing his Taiwanese boss, Henry Liao, on how to incorporate a two-tone color scheme and dual materials in the season's latest men's shoes.

Breeze Development executive director Henry Liao, fresh off his purchase of premium Italian fashion brand Giuliano Fujiwara last May, responds directly to Miura's words.

Turning to his head designer, Italian Sergio Daricello – who used to work for Dolce & Gabbana and was head designer for two of Versace's men's lines – Liao says, "This is exactly what we need."

Henry Liao's stay in Milan will last just two days, following the previous day spent at Giuliano Fujiwara's Fashion Week presentation.

This particular afternoon he has just two hours to meet with his design team and sales department before seeing an important client in the early evening. The next day he will hop over to Paris to catch some Fashion Week shows.

Racing against the clock has always been the greatest impediment to multinational management.

During the small six-person meeting just concluded, the term that kept coming from Henry Liao's lips was "push." Push what? Push hard, to make Milan and Taipei work in sync.

For his part, Liao pushes company CEO Stefano Sacchi to set timetables for everything, from taking orders, to production and delivery.

Last August, when all of Italy was on holiday, the Milan branch office also took a month off and went into a state of incommunicado from the Taipei headquarters. Liao is determined that this will not happen again.

Different work cultures present a hidden chasm for multinational mergers, putting a spanner in the works of many ambitious business people.

Italian fashion association's newest member

In spite of such potential pitfalls, an investment of NT$500 million to purchase the venerable 26-year-old Giuliano Fujiwara Italian designer brand bought Henry Liao a ticket into the realm of worldwide fashion.

No longer was he merely the proprietor of a Taiwanese boutique department store, or national distributor of fashionable U.S. brand names, but a full member of the Italian fashion association.

Not only does Liao have first-hand access to cutting-edge fashion information, but he gets to hold fashion shows and product presentations during Fashion Week in Milan two seasons each year.

Seizing opportunity and challenging the unknown, and taking risks when he can afford to take a hit, is Liao's customary style of doing things.

Surrounded on both sides by Taiwan's two major department store consortiums, Liao nonetheless decided to plan the Breeze Center 18 years ago. Five years ago he put together the retail shopping market at Taipei Main Station, despite most observers giving it dubious chances. Now 41, he has accumulated extensive success as a brand distributor and retailer.

Liao was introduced to the Giuliano Fujiwara brand through Hong Kong megastar Carina Lau, the brand's national distributor in China, who also made the connection to the seller for Liao.

When opportunity knocked he had no good reason to ignore its call. So Henry Liao decided to venture into the jungle of global fashion and its glitzy marketing and dizzying creativity.

On September 22, the fourth day of Milan's Fashion Week, Giuliano Fujiwara presented its line from 2:00 to 7:00 PM on the city's Spazio Bigli plaza in the heart of Via Monte Napoleone – Milan's fashion district.

In contrast to the host of other brands attracting buzz with extravagant fashion shows, Henry Liao opted to hold a longer-running presentation of his new designs.

"Product presentations give the fashion media and buyers an up-close look at products, which I find useful for us," says Liao as he picks up an aquamarine handbag and checks out the work going on through the corner of his eyes.

Accessories including handbags and shoes are two product lines that Henry Liao specially requested Giuliano Fujiwara to add this year. Their main colors for spring and summer 2013 are aquamarine and fuchsia. "These bright colors give the brand energy," says Liao's wife, Aimee Sun, herself a bright spot at the show in addition to the eight models.

Aimee Sun not only wears one of the season's new short dresses, but as a brand consultant introduces the media to various aspects of the design style and materials.

She reveals that she stays in frequent contact with Sergio Daricello via videoconference and telephone when she is back in Taiwan to discuss ideas about design – even sending sketches his way.

Giuliano Fujiwara made its name in the past for simple menswear distinguished by clean lines, earning a venerable position in Italy's fashion circles. The death of brand founder Yoshiaki Fujiwara in 2005 necessitated new management, and when it was beset with operational issues the opportunity to purchase the company fell in Henry Liao's lap.

A stickler for "speed" and "numbers," Liao let go over half of the design team and reconstituted it into a creative and efficient team. Daricello, 36, knows he must inject new vitality into the brand by retaining its established clean men's cuts while coming up with a new line of young, sexy ladies apparel and conceiving premium dresses to suit Asian body types and tastes.

Taipei and Shanghai over Milan and Tokyo

In his effort to restructure Giuliano Fujiwara and place it firmly on the worldwide fashion map, Henry Liao shut down its flagship stores in Milan and Tokyo and opened new ones in Taipei and Shanghai. Meanwhile, he began negotiations for new distribution deals in the US and Europe.

"Henry would like to keep all design and production in Italy, but his initial target market is Asia, where he knows his way around," relates CEO Stefano Sacchi, who joined Giuliano Fujiwara in 1998. He describes his boss as being driven by the ambition to create things from scratch and bring them to full completion.

It will not be easy to tell over the short term whether the decision to purchase Giuliano Fujiwara was the right one.

Despite initial projections of balancing profits and losses within two years, it looks like it could take another year to achieve that goal. Still, the Italian brand's cache has already started paying off in unexpected ways for Liao.

Gianni Simone Overi, CEO of Formitalia, which employs a brand licensing approach to furniture design and production, paid a special visit to Henry Liao at the show. "We've designed furniture for the likes of Aston Martin and Mercedes-Benz, and we hope to design furniture for Giuliano Fujiwara too," Overi tells CommonWealth Magazine.

Federico Grom, founder of the "Grom" Italian ice cream chain popular from New York to Tokyo, is now interested in moving into the Greater China market. Upon learning that a Taiwanese businessman acquired Giuliano Fujiwara, Grom personally traveled to Milan to extend an invitation to Henry Liao to visit his ice cream factory and discuss possible collaboration.

His excitement at the prospect of visiting the Grom ice cream factory the next day palpable, Henry Liao says, "So this is how you can do things when you have a good brand. The world is your oyster, and you can put it all into practice through your brand."

Having thought it out in advance, Liao is determined to open the first Grom store in Greater China at Breeze, regardless of whether he can obtain distribution rights for both China and Taiwan.

In the intensely competitive department store environment of Taiwan, Henry Liao must always keep in mind how to set Breeze apart from the pack.

This year Breeze rang up NT$850 million in sales on the first day of its anniversary sale, nearly 150-percent growth over the previous year. "I don't get it. I really can't read this market," admits Liao. Rather than being smug about this fine performance, he candidly shows his circumspectness.

In fact, the market's unpredictable volatility makes him surer that he wants to create more learning opportunities for the management team through contact with the outside world. The entry fee for taking over an Italian fashion brand was high, but it could turn out to be well worth it.

The day after their Milan Fashion Week show, the Fashion section of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera gave Giuliano Fujiwara's presentation good marks, saying that despite the change of hands to a Taiwanese business group, Giuliano Fujiwara still "speaks Italian" under Sergio Daricello's guidance, showing itself to be a model of sophisticated sex appeal.

Beautiful clothing speaks for itself. Speaking Italian, Giuliano Fujiwara may have opened up new brand alliance frontiers for Breeze and Henry Liao.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman