On 27 May 1954, Chen Din-hwa opened a small company, Nan Fung Textiles, and built six cotton spinning mills in Pak Tim Par Street in Tsuen Wan.
"The Mills have always been a place to create, not just to sell"
The man who would be known as the King of Cotton Yarn was born in Ningbo in 1923 and apprenticed to a silk merchant when he was 12. He came down to Hong Kong in 1949, leaving behind fabric businesses in Ningbo and Shanghai, but Nan Fung Textiles soon became one of the largest manufacturers in the city. In 1970, over 10 per cent of Hong Kong's population was working in the garment industry, and at its peak in 1978 there were 33 cotton mills. Times and fashions changed, and in the '80s and '90s most mills were redeveloped or closed. Nan Fung Mills 1, 2 and 3 were knocked down in the '90s, but Mill 4, Mill 5 and Mill 6 functioned until the factory ceased operations in 2008, when they were turned into warehouses.
And the rest is history
In 1965, the Nan Fung Group expanded into real estate and their core business became property development as they purchased residential and commercial buildings, and then land for development. Their first private housing estate was built in Quarry Bay in 1978. The group has been investing in China's property market since the mid-1990s, with projects in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, as well as in the UK and US, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Macau.
The Mills project was inspired by the desire to reinvent the way Nan Fung thinks about development in Hong Kong - to honour history while building the future
In 2010, when a new Hong Kong government policy was introduced making it easier and cheaper for industrial buildings over 15 years old to be converted to commercial use, Vivien Chen, Chen Din Hwa's younger daughter, now Honorary Chairman of the Nan Fung Group, and her younger daughter Vanessa, the Managing Director, started talking about a landmark revitalisation project to celebrate their industrial legacy and take an extraordinary step towards a future of applied creativity and innovation.
The project has transformed and revitalised the company's former textile factories into a destination for innovation, culture and learning
To celebrate their sixtieth anniversary in 2014, the Nan Fung Group announced that they would turn Mills 4, 5 and 6 into a 25,000-square-metre creative, educational landmark for fashion culture and an incubator for young design talent, formed The MILL6 Foundation and started to restore the buildings, wishing to preserve Hong Kong's textile and garment making culture, foster creativity and host exhibitions. Unexpectedly, the project has also brought together retired workers from the 1950s to the '80s.
"We didn't try to change the external look of the buildings at all. It would have been too easy to erase the past. This is all about augmenting the past," explains Ray Zee
Thanks to Vanessa, Group Managing Director, Ray Zee, Chief Designer and General Manager of the Design Department at Nan Fung Development and Thomas Chow Architects, the coherent, steel and glass, contiguous modern complex now showcases local design, fashion, textiles and art. It is a financially self-sustaining social ecosystem for people of all generations, which has retained authentic heritage features, the original metal entrance gates and most of the outer shell and structure, as well as thestaircases, preserved in their original condition. Salvaged elements such as sand buckets and solid wooden doors have been upcycled and incorporated. The Mills is awarded the LEED Gold Certification for the significant reduction in the use of artificial lighting. Skylights, curtain walls and large atriums bring in daylight, while glass bridges, balconies and rooftop gardens link old and new, the past, present and future. The project aims to encourage applied creativity and innovation, and fill the gap in Hong Kong's design education left by government-led initiatives, which cannot meet the tuition and workshop needs of the fashion design industry.
The Mills three pillars are:
The Mills Fabrica - A business incubator and springboard for techstyle startups and strategic partners
The Mills Shopfloor - A landmark for experiential retail, an expression of Hong Kong's evolving character, intended to educate customers in the principles of recycling, upcycling and sustainability
Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) - A non-profit arts and cultural institution exploring textile arts and techstyle innovation.
The Mills Fabrica is dedicated to establishing Hong Kong as the best place in the world to build a brand or innovative technology business and is already driving change in the textile, fashion and retail sectors. The Mills Fabrica Fund incubator supports and invests between US$100,000 and two million in global techstyle startups with potential from seed to Series B. There are intensive courses of self-improvement, practical business guidance and marketing exposure, and three floors of flexible workspace. Affordable studios are made available to young designers, and collaboration is facilitated between startups, brands, retailers, manufacturers, and academic and research institutions' entrepreneurial mentorship programmes.
A professional laboratory, Fabrica Lab, encourages experimentation and prototyping in a collaborative environment with state-of-the-art machinery and equipment. Initiatives include informative publications and encouraging community service and spirit.
The Mills Shopfloor is a shopping centre with design/tech products, pop-ups and shops selling furniture, watches and leather goods, as well as breweries, cafés, bakeries and food outlets.
There is a high-ceilinged atrium with a skylight for large-scale catwalk fashion shows, and The Mills' own shop, Techstyle X, is dedicated to showcasing the latest innovations. Community events from large conferences and exhibitions to smaller, more intimate symposiums and workshops are also held there.
The Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) displays the legacies of the Hong Kong textile industry and shapes the future with learning programmes, workshops and talks. Their multifaceted schedule of exhibitions and lectures is a part of the heritage conservation project, intended to teach and inspire, and to interweave contemporary art, design, science, heritage, community and craftsmanship. The D. H. Chen Foundation is the Founding Donor and Nan Fung Group the Main Donor of this non-profit arts and cultural organisation, the first of its kind in Hong Kong.
The Park is a multipurpose public rooftop garden.
Current 'incubatees' include a company building jeans on demand aiming to reduce global carbon emissions, fashion technology offering scans of body measurements, fabrics, accessories, patterns and garments, a wardrobe of simple, versatile clothes in top quality fabrics, an apparel knowledge hub connecting professionals, an app that allows you to find and buy fashion items from any picture using AI image recognition, a wireless device worn on the finger, a lifestyle media platform - and many more with equally inspired ideas are joining them.