Alexis Holm is a soft-spoken man with piercing yet bemused eyes, frank and always willing to tell you what he really thinks. He is dressed in a simple yet smart outfit underlined by crochet lace-up Oxford shoes. We met Alexis Holm in his newly revamped intimate boutique on Square Street, an unexpected mix of funeral businesses, cafés and design shops.
Square Street is the way for cars to reach the trendy enclave of Tai Ping Shan, yet it is the least gentrified street in the area because of its abundance of coffin shops and other funerary enterprises. Many people believe that this attracts ghosts. It certainly attracted Alexis Holm and his ex-business partner David Ericsson, who were looking for somewhere affordable, charming and spacious enough to start their business. In 2009, they found the perfect space at 15 Square Street.
Holm is a self-taught designer with an inbuilt penchant for what he calls “intricate minimalism.” His Plano series of watches are made in featherlight, aircraft-grade aluminium cases, with Swiss movements inside. The completely flush case is secured on the wrists with Italian leather. Aside his own Squarestreet label, the shop stocks Tid from Sweden, the even more minimal Normal from the US and Japan, and the avant-garde Void, which was founded by Ericsson after his departure from 15 Square Street. Opposite the watch gallery are shoes, sunglasses and jewellery. All of the products are designed and produced in different parts of the world, and while they all come with their own character, they share the same qualities: clean, practical and light, with a devotion to minimalism.
“I decided to focus on accessories because they are everyday lifestyle products,” says Holm. “[They] are closer to product design, with its three dimensional challenges. They embody technicality, practicality and aesthetics. If you change the thickness of a watch case by one millimetre, the design will look completely different.”
Although his products are clean and simple in appearance, Holm’s approach to design is anything but. He is a mad scientist of sorts, experimenting with new materials and processes. “I’ve tried using cork to make shoes, but they cracked and never made it to production,” he says. “I’m recently obsessed with bulletproof jacket material and wondering how I can incorporate it into my design. It’s not about designing crazy things, it’s about using materials in a different context.”
Holm originally designed shoes. In 2005, when he was still living in Stockholm, he set up Gram, a sophisticated sneakers label. Always obsessed with details, he insisted on travelling to Guangdong to monitor production. It was during these travels that he met Ericsson, a Swedish designer who was residing in Hong Kong. They bonded immediately. Holm then sold Gram (though he remains the label’s designer) and moved to Hong Kong to start 15 Square Street.
Today, the space is a stark white shrine to Scandinavian design. It has garnered a following among architects, designers and young professionals – people who were bored and frustrated with the limited choice of everyday wearables offered by luxury shops and high street chains. Holm says the financial crisis in 2008 was a turning point as people began to shop in different ways, through sites like Shopify, which put the spotlight on independent brands. Meanwhile, overseas orders dried up in Guangdong’s factories, which made them more receptive to smaller orders from niche brands. Home says all of these factors helped Hong Kong-based independent labels thrive.
It also supported a new kind of entrepreneurial culture that has drawn talent from around the world. Holm threw himself into that scene. He and Ericsson organised a lot of parties in the shop, bringing like-minded people together. Square Street’s Friday night parties grew to the point where the street was flooded with people, but Holm eventually grew tired of the scene. He is now more concerned with fitness and well-being. When he hosts a party today, he serves natural wine instead of beer. “Natural wine has zero chemicals interfering in the process of fermentation, so nobody will suffer from a hangover the next day,” he claims. “Why would you want to spend a couple of thousand on booze in the weekend and spend more money on the hospital bed later on in life?”
Holm is changing his retail model to reflect his new lifestyle. He recently discovered a little ground floor space on Circular Pathway, a quiet, car-free lane tucked behind the Chinese calligraphy booths of Ladder Street. He decided it was the perfect place to open Archive 15 Square Street, a new shop that offers a selection of designs from his previous collections at a discounted price. “It’s a way to keep the original store looking fresh but keeping our previous designs for our customers since they are timeless and part of our identity,” he says.
As more and more people shop online, Holm sees his shop more as a “cultural exchange platform” than a retail space. “As our online presence is strengthening, more transactions are happening on the online shop, with customers from Europe and America,” he says. “More and more people are interested in Swedish culture [so] we are now in talks with more Swedish creatives such as leather craftsmen, illustrators, textile designers to organise one-off events and pop up exhibitions.”
Holm also plans to open up the space to non-Swedish designers, as long as they meet his “standard of aesthetic and quality.” He names Shanghai-based Canadian jewellery designer Angie Wu as an example, calling her designs “simple yet perfect.” Holm says many local designers are promising, but don’t reach his standard of production quality just yet. “We would love to showcase local designers to encourage local creativity,” he says. “Those who meet our aesthetic expectations are, for the time being, unfortunately not meeting our quality requirements. But one day they will.”