When our heart goes “POM POM!”

themercantile

Paraphrasing Charles Trenet’s melody, I will say “Everything with it says “POM POM!” or at least that is how I feel whenever I see Karen Hsu’s Pom Pom flowers. My heart feels transported, my feet feel like they’re floating off the ground as if carried away by one of the fantastical Studio Ghibli creatures Karen Hsu grew up watching.

umbrellaThese joyful blobs of colour are an invitation to seize the day. Their delicate, almost evanescent, petals made of 100% recyclable, bio-degradable tissue paper sourced from France make you want to throw yourself into them as if they were big fluffy clouds. I am talking about the big pom poms of course. That’s the beauty of it: they come in all different colours and size. They can be singles or gathered in a big heap, shaped into umbrellas, clouds, cherry trees, dresses… there is no limit to the imagination once you enter the magical and fairy world of Pom Pom Factory, the brain child of Karen Hsu. Yet when she disembarked from her native Hong Kong in London, nothing of the sort was written in the stars.

Karen came to London in 2001 and attended an art foundation course at Camberwell College of Arts before studying Graphic Design and Film at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. After graduation, while bartending at The Foundry, she tried for a year to break into the film industry. When her dreams didn’t come true, she was happy to have her waitress job to fall back on. The Foundry was an artists hang-out. Fledgling artists, designers and musicians could gain exposure by exhibiting their works of art. She met most of her dear friends there. One of them told her that a boutique opening in Shoreditch was looking for help.

Spiral staircaise

She started working at The Mercantile, an independent clothing store owned by the couple, Debra and Thomas McCann. This boutique, once a greengrocery wholesale unit of Old Spitalfields Market, offers an eclectic mix of original and quirky clothes. During Christmas 2009, in dire need of a new window display, they called upon Karen Hsu’s imaginative world and nimble hands. Using paper tissue at hand in the store, she shaped them into birds, origami of all sorts and Pom Poms. Debra and Thomas McCann were thrilled by her pom pom flowers and decorated the entire window with them. Little did they know that their enthusiasm for these delicate flowers would soon gain a huge following amongst their clientele. Indeed, much to Karen’s surprise, people started asking where they could buy them. What was originally meant to be an ephemeral window display turned out to be Karen’s first foray into creation. Soon enough, Karen was making pom poms for friends and selling them on demand. The success was such that she had to come up with a brand name to sound more professional: Pom Pom Factory was born.

Her huge break, though, came through the London Design Festival. In September 2010, Peter Ibruegger, the man behind the moustache mugs and a friend of hers, asked for her help showcasing his products at that event. She agreed and presented some of her pom poms alongside his tashes. That week, the official merchandiser for Naf Naf, a funky brand of French clothes, came by and noticed her pom poms. The next day, Karen received an order for 600 pom poms for the Naf Naf Champs-Élysées flagship store. It was the order that gave her wings and the impetus and money to establish herself as a proper business.

dressKaren Hsu is very much aware that there is competition out there. But what sets her apart is that what fell into her lap almost by accident has turned into an object of passion and a medium to express herself. If it were not for her shyness, she would walk the streets of London covered in pom poms just to make a statement! Just as polka dots are inseparable from Yayoi Kusama‘s creative world, Karen hopes people associate her with pom poms and that they would want to be part of that world. To that effect, each year since 2010, with her fashion photographer friend Beinta á Torkilsheyggi, she organises photo shoots where she stages pom poms in various decors. The photos are elegantly staged and amazingly beautiful with a romantic touch. They make you want to delve into their dreamy and fairy-like world. In that respect, they recall Tim Walker, a photographer she looks up to and wouldn’t mind working with, and his fantastical worlds.

While being en phase with high street fashion demands, Karen never loses sight of what moves her. In March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan resonated in her. She wanted to express her empathy but pom poms as she had designed them up to then were big cheery bundles of joy. So she sat down and started experimenting with smaller and smaller pom pom flowers until she gathered them all and suddenly there it was: a cherry blossom tree, emblematic of Japan and a magnificent symbol of the transience of life. A friend lent her gallery space to present them and the exhibit turned out to be a huge success and a balm for her saddened heart. The picture of the cherry blossom tree she had created gained momentum and in the spring 2012, the luxury department store Selfridges asked her to replicate it for their main window display. 7,000 blossoms had to be made for the occasion. What was a generous impulse from the heart helped Karen Hsu’s business become a household name.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURECurrently, Karen’s pom poms are hugely popular at weddings, parties and events. Pom Pom Factory has also collaborated with many trade shows be it in Paris, Berlin or London and her pom poms have been featured in several upscale shops such as Hobbs, Nicole Farhi and in France at Merci concept store. She surrounds herself with artists that inspire her. Her collaboration with photographers has started to gain recognition and her photoshoots have been singled out for reproduction.

MerciBut what Karen wants to do now above all is to comfort her position on the market and since the devil lies in the detail, she has set forth to improve her pom pom quality and presentation before trying to expand much further her business. You can buy the pom poms directly from her shop and install them yourself. So, with the help of an artist friend, she is currently writing a new set of instructions (30 steps!) on how to unfold the pom poms upon receiving them. She accompanies every package with a postcard featuring one of her photo shoots. The blossom flower is becoming Pom Pom Factory’s signature product. All these finely tuned details and the proper packaging should make a Pom Pom Factory purchase a unique and enjoyable experience. She is also toying with the idea of developing new designs for her patterned tissue paper.

As an artist living and working in the Brick Lane/Shoreditch area for the last ten years, she laments the rampant homogeneity gaining ground everywhere and the small dainty and quirky stores that are being slowly replaced by chain stores and ugly hotels. She is more and more tempted to move out to Peckham where she believes there is still a semblance of neighbourhood life with small shops and strong community ties.

Whatever the next ten years hold in store, Karen Hsu is happy with where she is and enjoys every day as it comes. That is her philosophy of life and it is certainly palpable in the way she handles her business.

POM POM!

The whole world goes Pom Pom

Everything with it says Pom Pom

When our heart goes Pom Pom

And it is with a light heart that I said goodbye to Karen Hsu.

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