By: Tara Jenkins
As the founder of home fragrance brand Cochine, Kate Crofton-Atkins knows a thing or two about balance, and the interiors of her home on The Peak is as elegant and sophisticated as you would expect.
There isn’t much that fazes Kate Crofton-Atkins. Serene, understated and softly spoken, she’s equally unruffled comforting her crying child, or managing a press interview with British Vogue (she’s literally just flown back to Hong Kong from the UK). So when you learn she arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in 2006 with next to no experience in the fragrance market, and calmly set about establishing a luxury brand that has gone from strength to strength, you simply nod your head.
Today, her elegant Indochine label, Cochine, is quietly poised on the brink of international success: as well as multiple outlets in Asia, the delicately scented candles, diffusers and body lotions are now stocked in major stores in London and New York. The burgeoning business supports a staff of ten and requires a hectic international schedule, but Kate is never anything but calm and composed. So how does she do it?
“I’m pretty laidback, and I try to keep everything in perspective,” laughs Kate, sitting in her home at The Peak. Still, she’s quick to point out that developing those all-important first products wasn’t exactly plain sailing. “In Saigon, I used to cycle to the local boulangerie to get bread for breakfast, and was struck by the beautiful scent of champa jasmine in the air,” she remembers. “It’s indigenous to Vietnam, and is totally different to the jasmine in Bangkok or the UK.
“I had this idea to make unusual fragrances using the plants I’d found in Vietnam – champa jasmine, delentii orchid, water hyacinth and agarwood – and I knew there were local factories who could make products like candles and diffusers for me. So I read the books, purchased the kits and thought: if other people have done this at home, then so can I. Well, it was impossible! Nothing worked the way I expected it to – for a start, the champa jasmine oil didn’t smell anything like the plant! My main problem was that I didn’t want to create just any old fragrance; I wanted to produce beautiful eau de parfum, which would sell in Harrods alongside luxury brands like Roja Dove and Frederic Malle. I realised there was a big gap between what I could do, and where I wanted to be.”
Fortuitously, help was at hand in the form of a chance lunch meeting with a New York-based perfumer, who was passing through Saigon. He loved Kate’s ideas, and so Cochine was born – on the back of a napkin in a French restaurant. Today, Kate sources the keynote oils for those beautiful scents from Vietnam, and works closely with her business partner in New York to blend the fragrances. These are then transported back to Southern Vietnam, so the products can be locally manufactured.
Kate’s background is in finance and then in marketing – she used to work at L’Oréal – so she’s very comfortable with the process of brand development and promotion. In fact, when she first arrived in Vietnam she was all set to continue with her job at the French cosmetic house, but things changed quickly. “Saigon was unlike anything I had expected: a beautiful French gem in Asia,” she remembers. “Rather than working to bring a French brand like L’Oréal to the East, I felt there was an amazing opportunity to create a luxury Indochine brand, and take it to the rest of the world.”
The expat experience
Although the Crofton-Atkinses stayed in Saigon for only two years, it opened up a world of new possibilities for Kate. “Becoming an expatriate definitely widens your horizons,” she muses. “It breaks down barriers of age and type: in Saigon I had friends of many different ages, working in very different occupations. No one worked in finance; instead there was a large group of eclectic, creative people bent on making things: furniture, artworks, clothes. It was a fascinating and stimulating environment. It was also full of wonderfully glamorous, laid-back, chic French women in floating kaftans! I left L’Oréal on 225 Hammersmith Road, and suddenly there I was in this magical place. I didn’t wear a pair of heels for two years!”
“Importantly, though,” she continues, “the expatriate experience broadens your mind when it comes to working; you become less restrained. If I was setting up a company like Cochine in London, I might have thought of all the reasons I couldn’t do it; here, I think of all the reasons I can. We’re all aware of that wonderful ‘can do’ attitude in Hong Kong, where everyone fits so much into their time, and everything is possible. That attitude is just the same in Vietnam, but what I particularly love is the incredible craftsmanship, the attention to detail.”
Colonial elegance on The Peak
Kate’s apartment on The Peak is full of furniture she’s had made in Vietnam; when they arrived in Saigon, she and husband Charlie rented a beautiful old riverside villa with pale green shutters and a terrace, and she wanted to fill it with Vietnamese-made things. Her current apartment on The Peak is necessarily much more urban – despite the huge grassy garden and green views – but the Vietnamese pieces are totally at home with the other, more traditional furniture Kate’s brought from England.
“We have a lot of British ‘brown’ pieces, but I think they can work very nicely if you have pale floors, contemporary art and other bits of furniture in different colours and styles. If everything was white, for example, I think it would be too much. I don’t think I have necessarily always chosen my style; I’ve had to work with everything I’ve got!”
Whether that’s true or not, Kate has managed to create an elegant and soothing space on Mount Kellett Road, which is filled with largely contemporary artworks collected from galleries around the world (the Cat Street Gallery in Hong Kong is a particular favourite of hers), and cleverly accessorised with pieces from shops such as Indigo, Bowerbird and Inside.
The spare bedroom and living room in The Peak property have a Turkish accent; “We went to Istanbul last year and I bought all this fabric from the Grand Bazaar, and now suddenly every cushion and curtain in the house is a different ikat print!” The master bedroom is a riot of botanical-inspired prints. Kate is friends with Jane Bonsor, who set up interiors company Korla Home. “Jane came to stay with me when I was pregnant, and said I had to get some Korla. She made these prints in a sea-green colourway and said they had my name on it; I put them everywhere – it was like a jungle in here! It was a case of ‘more is more’ – I blame it on pregnancy hormones,” laughs Kate. There’s also a good number of Asian-inspired pieces dotted around the apartment, such as the Chinese silk lamps in the entrance hall, and a large Buddha head in the living room. Most of the Asian pieces belong to Charlie – he lived in Hong Kong for 15 years before he met Kate in London, and was constantly angling for them to return.
“When we lived in London I said I’d never move to Hong Kong; I’d been here once on holiday for a couple of days, en route to Thailand, and I think I came at the wrong time of year,” says Kate. “It was hot and sweaty and grey, and I just didn’t understand what was special about the city. Then when I agreed to move to Vietnam, we’d always travel via Hong Kong, and I realised pretty quickly there was an amazing side to the city. Now I’ve had my children here, my business is here, and it’s definitely home. Of course, there’s always a pull back to England, but it’s going to be hard to get me out of here! With a young family and a small business, there’s actually nowhere better to live than Hong Kong.”
Another bonus of The Peak is the easy proximity to both city and greenery. “If I was in England I’d be torn between London and the country; in Hong Kong, though, you can live in the city, but be on the water or on the hiking trails in twenty minutes,” says Kate. “Until last year, we rented a house in South Lantau and used to go there every weekend, it was a fantastic balance. I want the children to be outside, on the beach, running around and getting messy. I worry about the pollution, of course, but I love the variety there is for them here.”
Planning for the future
With the young family obviously happy and settled in their home at The Peak, what’s next for Kate? As you’d imagine, she’s full of plans for Cochine’s future. There’s a brand new fragrance (Tuberose and Wild Fig), a new website, and – for the first time – a fine fragrance collection. “When we first launched in Vietnam it was impossible to buy beautiful candles, so that’s what we provided; but now I’ve gone full circle and come back into fine fragrances for the body,” explains Kate.
“What I’ve learnt from retailers is that how we shop now is similar to how we absorb media: we flit, and don’t necessarily want to buy a 100ml bottle of a new scent,” she explains. “People want smaller sizes they can try out.” There are also new products in the pipeline: “I’m very excited because I’m going back to my skincare roots, developing new textures and formulations for our hand and body lotions,” enthuses Kate. “Since I worked at L’Oréal, things have really moved on in the skincare market – now everything is about paraben-free, silicon-free and sulphate-free – and there are amazing alternatives in formulation, where you don’t have to compromise on quality or longevity. The new hand creams, for example, are incredible – they just melt onto your skin. I’m looking at producing bath oils and shower gels now, but I want them to have not only a beautiful fragrance, but to have a standout texture. It’s all about using something that gives you a beautiful experience.” We can’t wait to try.
216-218 Prince’s Building, Chater Road, Central | indigo-living.com.hk
Yuet Tung China Works
Unit 1-2, 3/F, Kowloon Bay Industrial Centre 15 Wang Hoi Road, Kowloon Bay | porcelainware.com.hk
Idecorate.com | idecorateshop.com
10 Chancery Lane Gallery 10 Chancery Lane, Central | 10chancerylanegallery.com
Cat Street Gallery 50 Tung Street, Tai Ping Shan, Sheung Wan | thecatstreetgallery.com
Blindspot Gallery 28 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Wong Chuk Hang | blindspotgallery.com
Cocotte 9 Shin Hing Street, Central | cocotte.hk
Chom Chom 58 Peel Street, Central | chomchom.hk
Carbone 9/F, 33 Wyndham Street, Central | carbone.com.hk
This article first appeared in the Feb/Mar edition of Expat Living Hong Kong. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue!
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