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Enterprising Visionaries: Arnault Castel of Kapok

Four entrepreneurs, three homegrown brands, and a singular passion. In their own words, Arnault Castel, Katherine Lo, Jeff Chen and Dora Lam trace the inspiring paths with the intimate anecdotes that led them to where they are today.

May 12, 2022

Hong Kong is a concrete jungle with no shortage of brilliant ideas. Amid the frenetic energy and cultural amalgam, many an entrepreneur has hoped to turn their dreams into the next big success story. Yet in a city brimming with talent, what does it take to cultivate that spark into a meaningful, long-lasting business? 

Arnault Castel of Kapok, Katherine Lo of Eaton Workshop, and husband-and-wife team Jeff Chen and Dora Lam of Slowood are among those who have steered their Hong Kong-founded lifestyle brands with incredible finesse and gusto over the years. From quaint concept shop, to daring family business facelift, and one of the city’s first sustainable grocers, these trailblazing minds have weathered the many peaks and valleys that characterise entrepreneurial life, not least over the last several years of rapid change. Through it all they have remained deeply impassioned about the visions they set out to realise.

And now they’re sharing their insights and lessons learnt along the way. In their own words, these entrepreneurs allow us a glimpse behind the curtain to see why a sparkling idea, grit, hard work, humility, a stroke of luck and light-heartedness go a long way.

First up in the Enterprising Visionaries series is Arnault Castel, founder of KAPOK.

 

ARNAULT CASTEL, FOUNDER OF KAPOK

Photo: Arnault Castel

I moved to Hong Kong 25 years ago, first working in finance and then distributing European brands such as Lomography and Moleskine. I felt that something was missing in the local retail scene: a true independent retailer dedicated to bringing Hong Kong the most exciting and genuine emerging brands from all over the world. That is why I decided to create Kapok. We had a big kapok tree in front of our first store in Tin Hau. Naming our store after a tree shows our dedication to sustainability and natural materials. It doesn’t hurt that the name sounds fun and is easy to pronounce!  

Good design to me is original, balances function and aesthetics and brings joy to its user. We really try to build long-time relationships with designers and accompany their growth. So much has changed in the past 15 years, and much of our product range has now involved several generations. Our mission has always been to discover new brands, and we haven’t deviated from this. I am proud we didn’t have to compromise.  

Photo: Kapok

Was I always entrepreneurial? Well, my grandfather and father ran small and mid-sized enterprises in France so I had exposure at a young age, but I have to say, being in Hong Kong pushed me into entrepreneurial life. The energy and optimism that reigns in this place gave me the confidence to launch myself. I have lived in Hong Kong longer than I have in France now. I used to travel back three to four times a year and I remain very connected with my family. I believe I am very lucky now as I feel as I have two homes.  

Luck is something I consider myself to have been blessed with, whether it’s meeting the right people, making the right connections, or being at the right place at the right time. But of course, I have been very committed to this project. I believe we reached this point in Kapok’s life thanks to a combination of luck, perseverance and identifying opportunities.  

One of the biggest professional lessons I have learnt on this journey so far is to invest in your team. Select them well, communicate on your mission and always remember to invest in training. In terms of mentors and people who have inspired me, I worked with a close business partner for 15 years, and for the past three years, I have a very experienced investor who supports our business. I think it’s very important to discuss openly and confront different points of views, and to keep an open mind on other ways to do business and build a company.   

Another important piece of advice I would share with young entrepreneurs out there – or my former self, if I had the ability to turn back time – is just to worry less. It’s a waste of time and energy. Things will go bad at some point, or maybe a few times, but it’s always better to be level-headed and work out plans and solutions.   

Photo: Kapok

Recently, I’ve been happy about the series of collaborations that we just launched for our 15th anniversary. We worked with Oddity Studio to create a pattern representing our brand, based on the kapok flower and the letter k, and we developed 15 collaborations with our favourite brands all over the world. On a larger scale, at my current stage of life, happiness comes from meaning and success is having a positive impact on our society and the world, such as by improving fairness, creativity and adding joy. 

Of course, a good sound system is essential too; I am obsessed with music. It drives my energy, my mood and my creativity. I also can’t live without a beautiful, sturdy table to work at and enjoy solo dinners or dinner parties. And definitely big open windows: I love bright natural light.  

Looking ahead, our first goal here at Kapok is to make it through 2022. It is going to be a very challenging year! But our ultimate goal is to build the most unique, innovative yet charming and warm shopping experience, that will set us up to be the best retailer in Hong Kong.  

Check back next week for our next entrepreneur!

Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7

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