Inspiration

A Glimpse Into the Crazy, Rich Life of an Heiress and Fashion Princess

Dee Poon, the multi-faceted daughter of the owners of Harvey Nichols and Esquel talks about her involvement in the arts, men’s fashion, and sex education.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE ESQUEL GROUP
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Five minutes into a spirited conversation with Dee Poon, the last thing one would think that this young, hip and incredibly au courant woman does from nine to five is make men’s shirts--not that men’s shirts are not hip and fashionable. In fact today, as on most days, Dee is wearing one herself with a pair of jeans and some very high heels, and, whether deliberate or by chance, is looking amazingly chic. As one of Forbes magazine’s Asia’s Women to Watch once, it is evident that Dee’s intelligence, commanding presence, and articulate voice count among her many charms.

"At the time there was one PYE store in Beijing, so off I went. It was hell. I worked night and day, and after 18 months I basically had a nervous breakdown..."

As the chief brand officer and managing director of PYE under the Esquel Group, the renowned shirt maker with freestanding shops in Hong Kong and China, she oversees the brand’s development as well as the manufacturing and distribution of its ready-to-wear men’s dress shirts and measured-to-make service. Founded in 1984, PYE has survived several incarnations throughout the years but seems to have finally found its equilibrium this time around with Dee at its helm.


"White gold," in the form of Extra Long Staple (ELS) cotton from the Chinese province of Xinjiang, provides the best possible cotton for the best possible dress shirts.

While retail and fashion are part of her DNA, so is success. The daughter of Dickson Poon, owner of the British specialty fashion retailer Harvey Nichols, French luxury brand S.T. Dupont, and several other retail establishments under the Dickson Concepts umbrella, and Marjorie Yang, chairman of the Esquel Group, one of the world’s largest producers of premium cotton shirts for labels such as Ralph Lauren, J.Crew, Abercrombie&Fitch, and Brooks Brothers, access to Dee’s world would make aspiring lieutenants in the business of fashion weak in the knees.

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“When I came out of college, I worked for my dad as a buyer at Seibu. I had a boring job entering barcodes and would come home every day complaining to my mother,” says the Harvard-educated Dee. “Then one day, she said to me, ‘If you need a challenge I have a business unit that could use some help.’ At the time there was one PYE store in Beijing, so off I went. It was hell. I worked night and day, and after 18 months I basically had a nervous breakdown,” she says with spells of genuine laughter. “So I left.”

Taking personal time off allowed Dee to pursue her many other interests, writing and fashion among them. “I studied philosophy in college, so when I have thoughts, I write,” she continues. During her sabbatical, she penned an eco-lifestyle column that discussed environment, design, and lifestyle. “This was over a decade ago so it was a relatively new idea at the time. I was also editor-at-large for a magazine in China and wrote some fashion pieces.”


Dee having fun with a piece commissioned for the YarnScape exhibit, a collaboration between the MAP office and PYE, that depicts the Cotton Road from Xinjiang province farmland to the display structure of a global metropolis.

A curiosity in art and design also surfaced during this time and until now, when Dee speaks about art, her voice is passionately crisp and clear. “Art is such a great way to learn about society. It’s a bottom-up approach that I find much more interesting.”

Today, the list of art associations attached to Dee’s name seems endless. Included among them are the International Council of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Tate Modern in London.  “I think museums are important, because while there is great art out in galleries, everything else is about commerce, whereas museums are shared infrastructure and serve as a platform for learning and discussion while presenting art as content that is not necessarily to be sold.”

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It was, in fact, during one of her creative pursuits that Dee decided it was time to head home and get back to business. During the Cannes showing of a short film that she directed, she received a phone call and the voice on the other end said, “We want to make some changes to our retail division, will you come back?”

Three years later, a new PYE had allowed Dee to explore a wide range of her interests simultaneously and is most likely the secret to the successful reenergizing of the brand. “I think the retail business is hard, but when it’s fun, it’s very fun.” She finds working with creative people interesting and the business side of the business intellectual stimulating. “It allows us to present our own point of view, which I love,” she adds.

Catering to a stylish male customer in the professions, PYE designs target the urban consumer. The shirts are equipped with the latest nanotechnology to keep them wrinkle-free. Starting at 100 U.S. dollars, the shirts are not ultra high-end but are of exceptional quality and structure. With the Esquel advantage of being a fully integrated and vertical operation from seed to shirt, merchandisers are able to make changes within the processes to create something unique.


Dee recognizes her challenge as she competes in China’s new market that is flushed with cash and where brands that reveal status are still major players, but she firmly holds that there are people who appreciate something that tells their own personal story, that is relevant to them. “We do a lot of juggling and managing trying to understand what a contemporary Chinese or Asian lifestyle is rather than driving our business on historical forms. Do we really want to bring back the Mandarin collar? I don’t think so. We are trying to take a cultural identity and vision forward which I find far more interesting for the customer.”

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The creation of a definitive retail experience is also something she worked extremely hard at. Collaborating with a friend’s scent company, 12.29, in New York City, she has created a fragrance that allows customers to realize the life of PYE in an olfactory experience. In addition, she worked closely with Hong Kong artist and graphic designer Stanley Wong who not only came up with the elaborate packaging and identity of the brand but created shirt sculptures that are used as PYE’s campaign images and can be viewed up close in select stores.

When Dee is not working on building her brand, she spends much of her personal time working with a number of nongovernment organizations she is passionate about, one of which is Teach For China, where she is actively involved with its strategies and fundraising activities.


She shares, “I love to see so many Chinese kids from the top schools who are willing to get into the program. People think about China as extremely materialistic or about the Chinese that shove their way through lines, but there is a generation of young Chinese who really care to make a positive impact on to the world.”

Another project that keeps Dee busy is her work with the organization SESH (Social Entrepreneurship for Sexual Health), which delivers sex education through community-based organizations and reaches out to people that have been diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases for further testing. One of its goals is to inform them of their choices and to offer an option to the local government offices. “Syphilis is the fastest growing infectious disease in the major cities in China and is totally curable, but people don’t know that. I am big on family planning and sex education. I know that is completely unsexy, but I believe that a woman should be in control of her body because if you are not in control of your body, you cannot be in control of your life.”

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With an intuitive grasp of the forces that shape her world, and an appreciation of the gravitas that a woman in her position holds, the multilayered Dee Poon continues to do all that she does with much empathy and determination. “As you can tell, I am easily distracted,” she chuckles. “I can’t imagine doing all of this with a family. For now, I just want to learn about and be involved with as many things with a positive impact as I possibly can.”

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Alicia Colby Sy
Executive Editor
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