Johanna’s early love for drawing and fashion saw her depart Hong Kong for London at 14. Following boarding school she spent her formative years at renowned Central Saint Martins College of the Arts. The British Capital became Jo’s self-professed home, where she has run her own successful fashion platform, PHVLO, for over 10 years. A champion of sustainability in all aspects of fashion, Phvlo is a platform that connects students and creative talent around the globe, as well as nurturing and giving back to the local community. We speak to Jo about creative life in London, the future of sustainability and some of her favourite places.
On creative beginnings in Hong Kong
My mother told me I was always drawing, in my dreamland, and all I ever had was a notepad and pencil in my hand — I’m a natural dreamer. That kickstarted everything I believe. I knew I didn’t really fit into the education system in Hong Kong. It’s very academically driven there, I think my parent’s had one look at me and thought no way, she’s not gonna survive it here, so off I went to the UK.
On the formative influence of London as a teenager
I was around 14 when I moved to London. My parents chose the boarding school for me because of two things — because the school had a really good art department, and because I used to represent Hong Kong in the junior tennis team and they had a strong tennis team. I had the best of both worlds, my tennis and my art, I was sorted. It’s a bit shameful because I don’t even touch the racket now. These teenage years were the most memorable time and probably shaped who I am now.
On first memories of cultural differences between East and West
I remember when I was first introduced to Camden Market. I bought my first secondhand leather jacket for one pound. I was amazed to think you could get a leather jacket for one quid. Chinese culture and people don’t actually appreciate vintage. Antiques are a different thing, but not vintage clothing. I remember telling my Mum and her freaking out and saying ‘what do you mean you got it for one pound, do you realise somebody may have died in it?’. I will always remember that as my very first memory of cultural differences between the East and the West.
On student life in London
There’s so much culture in England and the amount of museums and art galleries is crazy. When I was a student we were constantly asked to go around town – the tutor would brief us on the project and off we went museum or gallery hopping, just drawing and drawing. The days we spent on gallery floors just drawing away – that, to me, is heaven.
On what makes London’s creative culture unique
What makes London unique is its diversity. It’s not just young and old, but in terms of traditional and modern you can find anything creativity wise — the fertility you gain from a diverse group of people. I remember my first year studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, the different cultures and people from such different ethnicities were amazing.
I remember when I was first introduced to Camden Market. I went there and got my first secondhand leather jacket for one pound. I was so amazed to think you could get a leather jacket for one quid.
On the inspiration behind PHVLO
PHVLO is a creative platform inspired by my late mentor and tutor Louise Wilson. I went to see her and said ‘okay what now?’ I don’t want to teach, what should I do?’. One of the things I started thinking about was how to connect students. I established so many different connections and friends in the industry and that is invaluable for a lot of young people. We named the platform PHVLO with a pH, to represent chemical balance and neutrality — a vision that we need to make money but we also need to be fair, and have a fairness among all people involved. When Covid improves, my dream is to bring the West and East closer together, that was why I started PHVLO in the UK. We can all work together and connect and have an exchange of cultures.
On sustainability and fashion
Being a fashion designer or an artist, the struggle has always been having your own style and integrity and balancing it with commerciality. When I worked with the Central Saint Martins students my main concept around sustainability was what I call 360 — the circular system. Nobody can be one hundred percent sustainable, but to be as sustainable as you can, the business needs to be sustainable. What this means for me is how you set the project up but bring it back to ground. Bringing it down to 360 is important — you may get amazing write-ups and press in your first year but how do you sustain it after that?
My dream is to bring the West and East closer together, that has always been why I started PHVLO in the UK. We can all work together and connect and have an exchange of cultures.
On the cultural intersection of Hong Kong and London
Coming from two different sides of the planet, a lot of my initial buyers came from the East. I had the best of both worlds in terms of my early ideas and in business operations, I learnt a lot from the West and from the East. In terms of production resources, Japan has a lot of great fabrics and innovations. It’s so perfect and detail-oriented. Whereas in Hong Kong, it’s so cosmopolitan as well, things get done quickly which is very different from the UK.
On modern creative culture in Hong Kong
Being in Hong Kong the last nine months (due to Covid) – it has really given me the opportunity to understand the art and cultural scene here. I think, for the longest time Hong Kong has been more of a financial district. When it comes to art and culture, for me I still see it as very glamour driven. There’s a lot of really beautiful museums but I feel that, due to the very high cost of rent and land here, there is a need to create something on the glamorous side to give people the sense of having that financial return. That has been a long term curation of how artists and galleries work here.
On pioneering a sustainability-driven creative community
I still hope to be able to do exchanges with other countries and between the UK and Hong Kong. A plus to our business model is we consult a lot. We actually connect different designers, creatives and communities, whether it’s to NGOs or young students. In the future, I like how PHVLO can connect western designers and eastern designers to have the whole experience of working together as a creative community — all in the name of creativity.
On where you find inspiration in London
The first stop for me will always be Tate Britain — the Tate Modern or just the Tate. Being away from it for a period and then going back there’s always something new happening. Because of my work I go to Somerset House a lot, it has a lot of creativity around because it’s always nice to pop into the galleries there afterward. Across the road, you have the National Galleries. What I associate home with the most in London are the galleries that inspire me the most. There’s a small theatre out in Richmond called the Orange Tree Theatre. I was completely surprised when I went there because one of the actresses performing was Judy Dench — the theatre is so small I could almost reach my hand out and touch her…or I could stick a leg out and trip her! I just thought ‘wow, this is unreal’. I appreciate London so much because experiences like this are so grounded in the creativity.
I find more meaning to discover a secondhand or vintage shop that has been opened by an old granny that hasn’t been written into a tour guide.
On London’s pub culture and people watching
Living in London I realised people can’t live without coffee, tea and pubs. The whole pub scene is a very memorable thing. During summertime it’s amazing, I love to just watch people — whether young, old, fashionably dressed, all different backgrounds, they seem so effortless. For me it has always been a huge inspiration to just watch people in the streets.
On vintage shopping early in the morning
I find more meaning to discover a secondhand or vintage shop that has been opened by an old granny and that’s not been written into a tour guide. Portobello, of course, has become a very touristy place but its always been a soft spot for me — if you love vintage and secondhand then go on Fridays, because early in the morning is when all the traders come in and you can get things a lot cheaper.
I always envision something popping out from the clouds when I’m on a plane, an alien or something I can wave to.
On having direct access to nature
I grew up with my guardian Penny who lived in Richmond and weekends would be spent walking in Richmond Park, even coming across deer – I’m a city girl, literally from Hong Kong and the first thing I think is ‘Well…this is not Bambi’. Where I came from everything is so fast, material stuff means a lot and Hong Kong is quite materialistic and money-oriented. When I went to the UK I realised there are different choices in life, there is nature, there’s Bambi! Kew Gardens is also a beautiful place, and then of course, the Serpentine Gallery.
On a window or an aisle seat
I don’t mind the window. I love to just look outside because I’m a dreamy person, I like to look out into the clouds And I always envision something popping out from the clouds when I’m on a plane, an alien or something I can wave to.
On London in one word