It takes a lot of personality to do what she’s done, but Balbina Wong, the founder of the Hong Kong-based luxury group ImagineX, has no short supply of that. Wong, who has no formal education (and isn’t concerned about it in the slightest), first brought Prada, Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo to China about 20 years ago. Since then, she’s brought on another 20 brands, including Donna Karan, Juicy Couture, Paul Smith, and Marc Jacobs.
Hers is not the typical executive’s story, but it’s legendary in the world of fashion. Wong, who is 69, began her career as a textiles salesgirl in Singapore, where she’s from, moving on to become a cosmetics countergirl for Lancome and Elizabeth Arden. She moved up, working as a sales and training manager for Estee Lauder, throughout Southeast Asia and Australia. Later, back in Hong Kong, she became a general manager for Elizabeth Arden, which at the time was a subsidiary of Lane Crawford in the region.
Wong’s leap to high fashion came in the 1980s, when she personally petitioned Salvatore Ferragamo to brings its luxury accessories to Hong Kong. (She wanted access to their wide shoes.) Salvatore Ferragamo’s son, Leonardo, said of their original meeting, “she has a charming personality, she has great strength, determination and diplomacy. She is dynamic, she makes things happen.” Though the company moved her to New York to run their North American stores, in 1992 she moved back to Hong Kong, and there became a founding shareholder in ImagineX, with the intention of bringing Western luxury wear to China.
ImagineX, which is part of the Lane Crawford Joyce Group, operates luxury brand management and distribution, and is responsible for $700 million in sales last year alone. The group began with Maison Mode, a store in Shanghai, in 1994, which sold Prada, Cartier, Gucci and of course, Ferragamo. That particular shop no longer exists, but ImagineX now runs 300 others throughout the country. Wong has also been personally instrumental in Ferragamo’s rise in the region — the label has 58 stores alone in China. The story goes that Wong brought the three Ferragamo brothers to China 20 years ago, and convinced them they were looking at their future while staring out over a vista of mangrove swamps and rice paddies in Shanghai. Obviously, she was right.
So moving forward, what does Wong have to say about the global financial crisis and luxury growth in China? She’s unconcerned, citing the country’s 7% GDP growth per year and a constant influx of urban newcomers. “We’ll never be short of customers,” she says. Coming from someone with a career trajectory and foresight like hers, we’ll believe it.