All Dressed Up to Go, Go, Go

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On a street in Hong Kong's Tsimshatsui shopping district, Michael Ying points at a giant neon sign and breaks into a smile. Do you see that? That's my store! exclaims the chief executive of the global fashion chain Esprit. But for a man who takes such pleasure in seeing his firm's name in lights, Ying does not insist on wearing it. His white shirt and khakis are from a recent trip to the bargain mecca of Shenzhen, just across the border in China. This is cheap, 50 bucks ($6.50), he says proudly, pulling his collar. I don't care about labels. I care about comfort. Ying can afford to be comfortable. His Esprit Holdings, with 446 stores in 40 countries across Asia and Europe, posted revenues of $660 million last year and appears likely to improve on that. Profits are already up 26% so far this year, and the company has almost no debt--impressive feats at a time when many Asian retailers are still reeling from the region's financial crisis. This month Esprit, in partnership with Hong Kong hair stylist Kim Robinson, will open a 2,800-sq-m megastore-cum-salon. It's a new retail concept in Asia, where stores tend to be small and rarely combine fashion and hair cutting. Esprit is not just about clothing, says Ying, Esprit is a style and an attitude. Esprit defines life.

Ying, who started the Hong Kong operations of the now split American company in 1974, last year bought Esprit's European operations. He also acquired 60% of cosmetics firm Red Earth International. All of this expansion makes Ying, at 49, perhaps Asia's most important unknown fashion mogul. Outside the industry, few people have heard of him. Nor does he look--or live--the part. A kinetic man with a toothsome grin and roaring laugh, the 1.65-m Ying avoids parties, gossip columns and the company of beautiful models. Being an Average Joe instead of a Glamour Gus makes good business sense, he says. In a business like Esprit, you have to understand the psychology of the masses, explains Ying. Watching people on the street tells you a lot about what's in and what's out.

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Ying got his education on the streets of Hong Kong. Born in the nearby Chinese city of Guangzhou, he moved with his parents and a sister to the British colony as an infant and grew up in a tiny flat in the seedy Mongkok district. After high school, he worked in 1968 as a reservations clerk for Cathay Pacific Airways for $60 a month. Next, he was an errand boy in the territory's then-booming garment industry. One day in the early 1970s, Doug and Susie Tompkins, the San Francisco couple who had founded Esprit a few years earlier, walked into the factory where he was working. We were looking at some samples, says Susie. Ying came over and asked if we needed help. He struck me as confident and smart.

In 1972, Ying became the Tompkins' agent in Hong Kong. Two years later, he borrowed $2,600 to join the couple as a partner and formed the company that evolved into Esprit Asia. While the Tompkins focused on the U.S. market and expansion into Europe, Ying was given a free hand to tend to the Asian operations. In 1993, Ying and the Tompkins listed the company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Three years later, the Tompkins sold their shares in Esprit Asia to Ying while the U.S. arm went into receivership.

Ying's ambition is to reunite Esprit Asia with the U.S. firm, of which he owns 5%. (His other dream is to become a professional golfer, but he knows that is unlikely.) He realizes that a worldwide Esprit may take some time to build, and he doesn't really have a firm plan for reunification. Like a marriage, says Ying, things have to be taken naturally. Besides, he has enough on his plate already. There's the Hong Kong megastore-cum-salon, for a start. And Ying keeps adding stores in China: he currently has 50.

At the same time, Esprit faces a number of formidable rivals in the medium-priced casual-wear business in Europe and Asia--Gap, Giordano, U2, Bossini, Next, Oasis. Keenly aware of the competition, Ying makes daily visits to his outlets to check details of the clothes and the store layouts, and to ensure that his employees are on top of things. Running this business is like a religion, says Ying, You have to indoctrinate your staff and make them believe what they do is right. Industry experts apparently believe Esprit is doing things right. I think its future will be quite good, says Kent Chan, a retail analyst at Salomon Smith Barney in Hong Kong. Europe will continue to perform while Esprit expands into the Asian recovery. Just don't expect Michael Ying to stop shopping in Shenzhen any time soon.