How Cantonese Pop Singer Hins Cheung Transformed Heritage Brand Sennet Frères Into A Bridal Boutique
Drama defines Hins Cheung’s look on stage. But being surrounded by lavish white wedding gowns isn’t the impression that one has on the Cantopop singer. At the launch of Sennet Frères’ first spring/summer season, Cheung sits in the four-storey boutique next to Times Square. Sennet Frères, originally a watch and jewellery brand, was relaunched with a bridal couture business after more than 70 years in December 2020. Cheung reveals that he isn’t tying the knot. “I’m like the nanny of this brand and my many projects before this,” he says, referring to his taking over the historic Avon Recording Studios in 2015, and reviving Junon restaurant in 2018, which he is no longer a part of. “I didn’t father them but helped them grow and flourish, and then I let go of my hand.”
Sennet Frères is Cheung’s latest project. Founded in 1870 in Paris by French Jewish merchant Albert Weill, it was a major distributor of luxury watch and jewellery when he brought the company to Hong Kong in the 1920s. Cheung, the heritage consultant of the relaunched Sennet Frères and a history buff on the side, conducted a two-year-long research project on the story behind this brand by digging into the archives of South China Morning Post (SCMP), Overseas Chinese Daily News and even the National Archives all the way in London.
“The Weilles were very reputable in Hong Kong,” he says. “Before Sennet Frères was sold to another Jewish businessman in the 1950s, if you wanted to get a luxury pocket watch by Patek Philippe, or jewellery by Cartier, you would go to Sennet Frères. It was their general agent. The calibres of its in-house watch products were made by Omega in France and touched up in Hong Kong. Even French and British envoys bought its products as tributes to the Manchu emperors. You can still find Chinese forcloisonné table clocks by Sennet Frères in the Beijing Palace Museum and the Summer Palace.”
For a brand to be synonymous with prestige, it only made sense for Cheung to rebuild Sennet Frères in the Russell Street location that costs a monthly rent of seventy-five million. The same street is clustered with other couture and expensive watch and jewellery boutiques, but Cheung has a special fondness for Sennet Frères. “A brand isn’t only about the product; its value lies in the history and the story of the family. There is warmth,” he says. “History tells the standards of different eras.”
Avon Recording Studios, which had been a premiere analogue recording facility in the city since 1983, was past its prime after the turn of the century. Right before its decline in 2015, Cheung took over its operations and kept it running. “There is no space for it in the contemporary world of music making,” the singer says. “But Avon represented the standard of music making before the digital age. The standard of our generation has changed, but it’s a shame if we lose what defined the era before us and know nothing about it.” Cheung has loved storytelling; history was his favourite subject at school. “Now that I’m grown and financially capable, I want to preserve history,” he declares.
So, the pop singer jazzed up Avon the same way he revived Junon, a retro restaurant re-opened in Wan Chai in 2018, which was the first revolving restaurant that flourished in the 1960s. Cheung says that these cabaret restaurants were common from the 1920s to the 1960s, but they couldn’t survive the fast-food culture that was taking over the city. “I wanted to recreate the human connection and proper sit-down dining culture lost today when scrolling on your phone is a pastime even over meals,” he says. Printed at the back of the daily menu at Junon are newspaper clippings from SCMP and Overseas Chinese Daily News on the same day in 1967, the year when the original Junon opened. “Instead of chewing on their steaks and slurping soups while gluing their eyes to their phones, I hope this would create topics for friends, couples or families to talk about, such as how they might be shocked by the cheap rent of a Kwun Tong industrial building back then. And there’s entertainment. I want the diners to share the experience with their loved ones together.”
His latest Sennet Frères project, similarly, was inspired by his love of history. When he moved into The Old Alberose, a Grade-II colonial private residence in Pokfulam three years ago, he began researching the former owners of the manor, Albert and Rosie Weill, from newspaper archives. He even welcomed octogenarian, third-generation family member, Molly Odell, to the manor in January 2019.
Cheung learnt that during the Japanese Occupation which started in December 1941, Sophie Weill, the eldest daughter of Albert and Rosie Weill, and Japanese pastor Kiyoshi Watanabe, a family friend, took the risk to hide antibiotics in the linings of Watanabe’s coat to smuggle into the concentration camps. “Watanabe was Japanese, so he could access the camps freely to preach as a pastor,” Cheung explains. “As he shook the hands of the prisoners-of-war, he would secretly slide the antibiotics into their hands. They saved 200 lives.”
Cheung was so touched by this story that when he rebranded Sennet Frères into a bridal couture company, he and the design team sew each of the wedding gowns with a secret pocket. “The parents, bride or groom can keep their messages of love in the pocket, and we will seal it up,” he explains. “The wartime and our times are both mad worlds in different ways. We hope to pay tribute to resilience of the Weilles in the new Sennet Frères.
Sennet Frères’ debut spring/summer season was designed by Kev Yiu, the brain behind Cheung’s stage costumes and evening gowns of stars such as Jesse J, Amanda Holden, Fan Bingbing and Karen Mok. The three collections are inspired by Rosie, Sophie and Susannah Weill. The Rosie collection, reflecting the matriarch’s status, is only made-to-order and created with the most expensive fabrics and craftsmanship. Sophie Weill was a cheerful, fashionable socialite, whose character is mirrored by the playful and colourful pieces that come in a wider variety of style. Consider the tutu-like dress for a wedding gown named as “Robin” for instance. The younger Weill daughter was a gentle and quiet lady, and Yiu went for a low-key, elegant and subtle style.
What I admire about Kev is his determination to stay in Hong Kong, He could have been a top designer if he went to Paris, Milan or London. But he sees that the cutting of most western wedding gown brands may not suit Chinese ladies. He decides to stay as a local designer to design for Chinese brides. I think this is also another great element that makes Sennet Frères a Hong Kong brand.— Hins Cheung
For a singer who has landed another cross-industrial project that brings back history, Cheung reflects, “everyone can have a weird, crazy pursuit. No matter whether you’re a heritage conservationist or entrepreneur, you should allow yourself to be different and naïve sometimes and believe in the value of your passion project.” That can be testified by how he positions the old photos of the Weilles––carefully framed in the centre of his brainchild boutique.
Sennet Frères, 22 Russell Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, facebook.com/sennetfreres