Majestic Tree

Interview by Stephanie Peh
Photography courtesy of Kapok & Boutique Design

Frenchman Arnault Castel was looking for a workspace in Hong Kong back in 2006 when he stumbled upon a ground floor space—situated within the St Francis Yard neighbourhood—far larger than what he was expecting. Suddenly, Arnault was fulfilling his childhood dream of opening a small lifestyle store with no prior knowledge or experience in retail.

Named after a mighty tree that provides shelter for plants and animals, Kapok acts similarly, constantly extending its branches to emerging designers and like-minded people. Offering a range of well-edited international and local brands, Kapok is much like a candy store for adults centred on well-made and well-thought-out products that are not only extraordinary, but timeless. Arnault’s fuel is as simple as seeing a customer find something they love or witnessing someone on the streets with a Kapok shopping bag.

Despite expanding into a few branches today, each shop is never quite the same, with its own story to tell and something different to offer. Arnault and his team works hard to carefully ensure that Kapok does not fall prey to a chain model. Their first flagship store in Singapore is no exception. Launched this April at the National Design Centre (NDC), we chatted with Arnault on this spontaneous start-up and how far it has come.

kapok majestic tree arnault

Arnault Castel, founder of Kapok.

What was it like growing up in the south of France? Why did you move to Hong Kong?

I grew up in a very small town in the south of France. Kids at school were mainly into motorbikes, rugby and girls—none of which I was really into. So I spent quite some time wanting to escape this small town to the “big city”. Luckily, I took over my parents’ new AKAI boombox one day, and music and books started to become very important for me. I am also very close to my younger sister, who is now doing very well at Kitsuné. I go back to my hometown at least twice a year now and I love the quiet, the food, the light…it is really an amazing place. Perhaps it was just not for me when I was a teenager.

I moved to Hong Kong by accident. Just after finishing my studies, I joined a job programme to avoid going to the army. The day before my final interview, I randomly walked into a cinema that was showing Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, so I randomly told my interviewer that I wanted to move to Hong Kong. Two months later, I was on a plane flying to Kai Tak airport for an 18-month-long contract in Hong Kong. 18 years later, I am still here!

Sounds like a dream. How did you get into retail?

I jumped into retail by accident, but in some ways, I was also drawn to it. When I was a kid, I dreamt of opening a candy store, and later a bookstore or a music shop. I think not having worked in retail prior to this allowed me to create something original with Kapok, as I had no rulebook and never knew “this is the way you do things”.

For sure, it also created so many challenges, as I made quite a lot of serious mistakes. I was lucky and persistent enough to live through them and learn. At the end of the day, I think the best way is to try to keep a balance between instinct and personal beliefs, while keeping an eye on the numbers so you can create a healthy and stable environment for your team.

You also need to be able to really get your hands dirty and be really hands-on while trying to keep a vision. This is a tough, but fun, balancing act.

Visit Kapok at the National Design Centre, 111 Middle Road, Ground Floor, Singapore.

Read more in The U Press N˚6 (Singapore edition).