Laura Cheung Of Lala Curio: Designer, Entrepreneur And Champion Of Women
The first thing Laura Cheung reveals when we meet on a warm September morning is that she likes to do things her own way—and take risks. And that certainly seems to be working for her, given that she’s built Lala Curio, one of Hong Kong’s most successful interior design and furnishing brands, from scratch in less than five years.
Inside Lala Curio
We’re sitting in the salon of Laura’s first Lala Curio outlet, in the Star Street neighbourhood of Wan Chai—her fort, she calls it—sipping tea from beautiful ceramic cups. The store is divided into several dreamy rooms, treasure troves of curiosities spanning contemporary furnishings inspired by 18th-century Chinoiserie, slipper sofas upholstered in vintage obis (traditional Japanese sashes), and embellished hand-painted wallpaper (the forte of the Lala brand). The overall aesthetic is delightfully eccentric, bordering on the theatrical. It’s also highly refined.
“It’s very much me,” Laura says. “A reflection of what I love and how I approach the world out there.” And it’s visual proof that her penchant for risk has its rewards. “Taking chances can pay off in ways you often don’t expect,” she says. “Look at how Lala Curio started, for instance; it was the biggest bang ever, and it has led us here.”
The “bang” was her ambitious decision to launch her brand with a 4,000-square-foot booth at the March 2013 International Furniture Fair Singapore (IFFS), one of Asia’s premier design-led trade shows. She filled the enormous space with 1,500 products she had designed and developed during the previous two years of extensive work and travel. Buyers from around the globe visited the booth, ensuring the future of the then 28-year-old entrepreneur’s new venture. “The experience was overwhelming. It was a bit mad, really, as it was our first show. But the response also proved that my idea for a brand like Lala Curio had some real potential.”
Lala Curio store openings
It was in March the following year that Laura cemented the IFFS success with the opening of her Wan Chai flagship, which was followed by a succession of pop-up stores across the city—and even in far-flung Yangon. Then came a boutique at Landmark Prince’s in Central in 2015. All the while, Laura was also taking part in some of the world’s major design fairs, often the only Hongkonger doing so, and quickly became one of the city’s most well respected young designers.
When we meet, Laura has just returned from her third Maison & Objet in Paris—the Paris Fashion Week of the design world—and her first showing at London’s Decorex. And this summer, luxury US department store Bergdorf Goodman began stocking Lala Curio lines. “A dream come true. Almost surreal,” she says, smiling. Then she pauses, her face suddenly serious. “But it’s also the result of a lot of hard work. I’m not going to doll things up and pretend otherwise.”
Lala Curio is her core focus—so much so that during our interview Laura shows no interest in answering questions about her private life and whether she is sharing it with anyone. The company has her undivided attention. “Lala Curio is my idea of what a home should be like: whimsical, fanciful, layered, and with a story to tell,” she says, the closest she comes to discussing her private life. “I draw a lot of inspiration from fashion. If we put paillettes on dresses, why can’t we do the same for the places we live in?”
The designer’s penchant for the histrionic and ornamental is rooted in her upbringing. Born in Sydney but raised in Hong Kong and England, where she boarded at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Laura comes from a family long involved in traditional Chinese decorative arts, as both collectors and manufacturers. Her father’s family is in the business of rosewood furniture and her mother’s in cloisonné.
Laura was exposed to these crafts as a child and “fell in love with them. Our house was filled with hand-embroidered fabrics, cloisonné vases, lacquered boxes, and my parents always encouraged my siblings [sister Anne, who owns patisserie Jouer, and brother Chris, who runs Bread & Beast] and me to make things from scratch. It’s almost like artisanship is part of my DNA, which I guess explains my life trajectory so far. Lala Curio is a continuation of my family legacy—but on my own terms.”
Which explains the very personal name for the venture: Lala was Laura’s moniker growing up, while Curio references the idea of a curiosity shop, but also “curation” and “curiosity at large,” she says, “which is one of my main character traits. I’m definitely a very inquisitive person.”
Before her move back to Hong Kong and the birth of Lala Curio, Laura studied interior design at the Parsons School of Design in New York. In her senior year, she won the Parsons Interior Design Award, a prize bestowed for transformative work. “That was a huge validation. Parsons and New York in general have had a major influence on everything I have done.” On graduating, Laura began working in museum exhibition design and, later, producing fashion shows for such clients as Tom Ford, Estée Lauder, Vogue and MoMA. She then returned to London, where she completed a master’s degree in fine and decorative arts at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. It was then, in London, that the concept for Lala Curio first occurred to Laura.
“Those were the best formative years I could have hoped for,” she says. “I have always been fascinated by the idea of narrating a story through objects and the space they occupy, and putting my interior design skills to the test with large-scale projects. Those I did in New York certainly taught me a lot when it came to starting Lala. Alongside reviving old crafts, storytelling is very much part of what I am trying to do.”
Returning to Hong Kong
In 2010, Laura moved back to Hong Kong, only to leave again on what became a transformative two-year journey across much of Mainland China and Southeast Asia in search of crafts to master and artisans to learn from. “I felt this need to explore my heritage. To start from zero. I guess I wanted to create something for myself, something I could call my own. That’s how Lala Curio came to be.” It was the products resulting from that quest that she took to that first IFFS.
“I worked a lot to get where I am today. I learned to be a manager alongside a designer [she’s still closely involved in the creative process for all Lala Curio’s objets], to make decisions, to run a business, which, as a creative working for other people, is something I hadn’t been too used to. My journey has never been what you might call one-note. And it’s still constantly evolving today.”
Laura is currently laying the groundwork to expand into the Mainland Chinese market, with Lala Curio’s debut slated for early next year. She has entered a joint venture with Riqing Enterprise, the luxury retail distribution specialist responsible for introducing brands like Bulgari, Ermanno Scervino and Chiara Ferragni to the mainland.
“I’m pretty stoked about it,” she says. “We’ll launch in Shanghai first, but there’s a five-year plan for opening 15 more stores across the country. And online too, obviously, since that’s how a lot of Chinese consumers do their shopping. Considering I like to live day by day, it’s all quite daunting. But, then again, I always say you should do something that scares you every day. This takes the crown, don’t you think?”
She also has her eyes on Western markets. Getting Lala Curio into Bergdorf Goodman “was a milestone, but I want to be in Harrods and Selfridges, too. I want to reach a global audience who appreciate craft, quality, originality. I have a big vision for Lala Curio.”
This sounds more like business than creative talk, I observe. How does she balance the two aspects? “I try to keep my feet in both shoes at all times.” And she’s also somewhat of an activist in promoting the role of women. “Since starting Lala, I have definitely become more involved in supporting women’s entrepreneurship. Being able to inspire and promote other businesswomen is something I feel I ought to do.”
One way she is able to achieve that goal is through the Hong Kong chapter of Entrepreneur Organisation (EO), a peer-to-peer network of business owners in more than 50 countries. Laura was appointed as an affiliate in 2016 and recruited to the board as communications chairwoman this year—“a true blast, especially as most members are older than me and have so much to share.” Through EO, she is working to launch a Women’s Entrepreneur Award this month in partnership with Buccellati to recognise the work of female members of the network. “I definitely consider myself a feminist, and I think it’s essential to make sure women in business get the same opportunities men have long had. There’s so much judging and stereotyping when it comes to us [women], still. We need to move away from that.”
Laura’s confidence as a successful entrepreneur is also pushing her to speak out on issues troubling the city’s creative realm. “Lala Curio is the only brand from Hong Kong at a lot of international trade shows,” she says. “That works to my advantage, but it’s also frustrating. The Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, they all have government-backed booths. Why don’t we? I think the government isn’t doing enough to nurture local creatives. And this goes for the lack of creative arts in many schools’ curricula to the exorbitant rents that force many artisans to close shop—or that make it flat-out impossible to even start a creative practice. It’s private individuals that propel the arts and design here. And although I’m grateful to them, I think the city needs to step up.”
The promotion of female entrepreneurship, the building of a powerful network of creatives, taking her lifestyle brand global: Laura Cheung is a woman of vision and ambition, cool and grounded, resolute and unswerving. “I might like the whimsical and the pretty, but I’m not a softie. Quite the opposite. You don’t hold your own in a sector that’s as competitive as the design one without having a steely core.”
I wonder where her determination will take her next. “Everywhere,” she laughs. “I’d love to open Lala Curio hotels around the world—can you imagine that? I’d start with Tokyo, then Paris, New York, Hong Kong, of course. That would be awesome, wouldn’t it? I think I’ve just come up with my next plan.”
Go behind the scenes of Laura's cover shoot below:
Laura Cheung is the cover star for Hong Kong Tatler's November 2017 issue. Follow Laura on Instagram @lalacurio and @hongkongtatler for all the latest news and updates.
Photography by Kwannam Chu | Video by Kevin Cureau
Styling by Justine Lee | Hair by Danielle Abbotts | Make-up by Jaime Smith
Special thanks to White Yard at Mount Pavilia and Chi Art Space