Parlayin’ with Frank Liew (Qubic NZ)

June 1, 2011

Hey Frank … how ya doin? How’s NZ today?
Same as it ever was, I guess. Cold in the morning. Rained for five minutes. A couple of tornados. Then blazing hot in the afternoon. Probably hailed too, for all I know. Welcome to New Zealand?

Starting our morning with a massive breakfast is essential to get us going. What’s your morning like?
Today morning I had a Double Down from KFC. Well, ok, not really, I had it for lunch, but it was my first real meal of the day. It released here today and I got totally swept away by the momentum of it all. Aside from ingesting bad food, I normally get up, read my daily news sites (BBC/CNN/NYT/HuffPo/etc), have a quiet giggle about the state of US Politics, think up something stupid to write on my twitter account, and then leave the house for work. Somewhere in there I get dressed too.

You recently revamped the Qubic store and re-launched it. How has the reception to the new store been and care to share the design inspiration you chose for it?
It was a pretty big project as it encompassed not only the retail space but also a new logo, online branding & presence, and I have to admit; with far more headaches than I had anticipated. Truth be told, it was supposed to have happened in October last year, but with council permits and building consents it dragged on for months. It was a very tricky juggling act, but I’m glad that we’re finally through the thick of it. The reception to the store has been pretty overwhelming; just about every single one of our brand partners and our best customers, friends, and family love it and think it’s a refreshing thing for local retail. A lot of people who have just come back from overseas have mentioned that it’s on par with some of the top retailers they’ve seen on their travels throughout Europe and the USA, which was really humbling to hear. There’s been a few wayward comments by people who have been taken by surprise by the rather big change, but for the most part once they realise that the physical look of the store is only part of the whole package and that we’re not excluding anyone who walks into the front door, they revert back to their usual selves after a short while in the store.

Being an industry that is governed by margins and drowned by online stores, how has selling an item in store changed for you?
We still work hard to seek out product that isn’t necessarily available online to people in our region (well, not widely, that is) and in NZ, for the most part people still like to shop in person. We’ve also worked very hard since the beginning to create an experience being in our store, along with the people in our team. Mind you, we just relaunched our online store at, but our first and foremost priority has always been to create a unique, physical environment.

Coming off that point. How, in your opinion, has retail in general transformed over the past 10 years? What are some of the trends that have caused this shift? And where do you think it’ll shift to?
I think retail has to be more adaptive to today’s market and the way people think, communicate, and share ideas. Multi-branded stores who like to build or have built towards a very specific look or theme I think will struggle in the years ahead; you might be en vogue right now, but what about a couple of years down the line? I touched on it a bit in my blog post about the new fit-out, about pigeon holing a certain consumer or style; it’s important nowadays to offer a wide range, from a basic teeshirt all the way up to a $3000 jacket. It’s about how you piece your whole look together in my opinion, rather than being brand focused. I enjoy seeing the huge range of people that walk into our store.

Beyond the 4 walls, you also create, conceptualise and produce products for the everyday consumer. Care to share some of your most memorable projects in the past with us? And why are they so memorable?
For a start, we’re pretty selective on who we end up working with. It’s not about being better than anyone, but more that we want to make sure that we’re putting across a consistent message and that we’re making the impact that we want to. One of my favourite projects of the past has to be the concept we put together for Nike Sportswear – the “Flight Of The Underdogs.” Not only was it a great experience to work alongside Nike and our national football team, but the Cinderella story of their performance in the FIFA World Cup finals, the last gasp goals and edge of the seat feeling completely made our concept come to life. I don’t think I’ll forget watching that last minute Winston Reid header into goal, listening to the commentators gasp in disbelief and seeing our store explode at the launch of the installation and live viewing of our first group game. Such an unreal feeling. It was a perfect storm.

What does being a perfectionist mean to you?
Making sure every comma is placed where it should be.

Consumerism is a plague that the human race will not be able to shake…not in a million centuries. What do you think of consumerism?
I think you answered your own question right there; it’s something that’s not going to go away, so do we really need to concern ourselves about it? As a society we chose a capitalist model so consumerism goes hand in hand with the ideology, from commodities to luxuries. At the end of the day, I believe consumerism is simply about making choices. So long as people are making an enlightened or educated choice, I’m good with it. It’s not always about taking things. Then again, the choice for us to use almost completely recycled materials in our new store is a statement that we’re trying to put out there; that you can reuse old things to create something beautiful. I think blind consumerism is rather stupid, but on the other hand, hating on something that is successful simply because it is successful is equally stupid too. People need to make informed choices, and so long as I see someone is engaging some form of critical thought towards making those choices, I don’t see a problem in it.

Being a Malaysian living in Australia, culturally there’s been a whole heap I needed to absorb and adapt to. How has it, being a Taiwanese/Malaysian/Hokkien living in NZ, influenced your decision making and creative processes?
Haha, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that to be honest. I’m not sure if this is entirely accurate, but a friend of mine here, Alistair Kwun introduced me to this term – “Third Culture Kid.” It’s about people who’ve grown up in a different culture to their parents, yet understand their parent’s upbringing, and recognize both without claiming one or the other. I find it a fascinating concept because I guess I subscribe to being a Third Culture Kid myself. I’ve seen the way my parents (and my family who still reside in Taiwan/Malaysia) behave, but I’ve been brought up in mostly Westernized countries my entire life. Perhaps I’ve taken the paranoid critical thinking that is prevalent amongst a lot of asian culture in terms of decision making, and the creative, care-free nature of its western counterpart. Not stereotyping or anything, just what I’ve noticed personally. Come to think of it, it’s served me quite well I suppose.

Everyone’s got someone they look up to for their daily inspiration. Who is that person for you and why?
I’d have to say that it’s not just one person; it’s my entire team in New Zealand. I’ve always said that what I manage to do is not at all possible without all of their combined efforts, whether they’re on the design team or working the shop floor. They’re a very dedicated bunch of people that I’m happy to call my colleagues and friends, and from seeing the hard work they put into the business, it inspires me not to make bad decisions and take wrong steps. Well, I try not to.

“Death of Idols”… what can you tell us about that statement?
I liked what Chooee from Streething said about ‘influencers’ in his talk at Carbon – that your friends are your influencers, not your icons. It’s a very simple statement but it encompasses far more if you stop and think about it for a second. There will always be a certain ‘ground zero’ for trends or whatnot, but the notion of ‘influencers’ is too convoluted nowadays with the way brands try to purposely develop these trends. It has to develop organically and have some level of raw appeal to it. Put simply, the ‘coolest’ people I know are people that don’t even know others think they’re cool. Does that make sense?

In your opinion, what is the one label that has made a big impact in the industry as far as innovation is concern? And how have they achieved it?
That’s a tough one. I mean, it depends on how deep, what era, and even what spectrum you’re talking about. I saw a photo a few days ago of Rei Kawakubo’s Comme Des Garcons Aoyama store, and didn’t think much of it… until I read the caption – 1977. To think she was doing something that’s deemed current today over 30 years ago is mind boggling. Her brand has influenced an entire legacy of designers, much like Westwood & McLaren, and to an extent other industries like advertising and design with their infamous Comme Shirt grahics. Lately, I’ve liked what my friend Jun Takahashi has done for running apparel in his Gyakusou line with Nike; fusing fashion with form, and actively utilizing it for its end use – running. Technology wise, I like what Errolson Hugh does with Stone Island Shadow and Acronym, along with Conroy and the team at Arc’teryx Veilance. Then there’s NIGO and Bape, who, despite criticism of recent years, you cannot deny the influence the brand had on concepts like ‘limited editions’ and collaborative work. I like to admire each designer/label/house’s strengths (and weaknesses?), so ultimately there isn’t one that I can definitively say is #1.

Everyone has a life motto, what is yours?
Who dares wins; rather self-explanatory, really. A few people asked us why we felt the need to renovate the store when it was fine to begin with; the answer was that we were feeling a little too complacent. In my opinion it’s not good to feel too comfortable, because then you don’t know when you’ve fallen behind.

On a lighter topic… If you were a 70’s porn star, what would you alias be?
Benny Teh. There’s something about that ponytail…

Whats you’re favorite youtube video?
Afro Ninja, hands down. I’d like to think that there’s some kind of message in that video about not giving up against all odds, but at the end of the day, it’s a video of a guy who lands on his face after attempting a backflip. What can I say?

We live, eat and breathe cartoons, even till today… What’s your favorite cartoon series whilst growing up and why?
It may be incredibly cliché, but I was fascinated with Transformers, and to a lesser degree, this small run cartoon called Starcom. Sure, they were a troupe of alien robots that could bust a hole in your wall with a flick of their finger and then transform into rad vehicles, but looking back, I think what fascinated me most about them was the technology behind it. I’ve always been completely enthralled with the future and what technology can do for us. In fact, I think I watched more “Beyond2000” than I did Transformers. Well, maybe not after Terminator 2….

Its essential for us to have music pumpin’ at the Fat Kids HQ, whats on heavy rotation at Qubic at the moment?
For the most part we let the crew working on the day select their own music, and we have an eclectic range of taste amongst them, from Lupe Fiasco to Bobbi Caldwell to The Cure and everything in between. At this very moment I think they’ve got a DJ Neil Armstrong mixtape on rotation. Personally, I’m listening to the new UNKLE album. Pretty good.

To wrap things up, have you got anyone that you would like to thank for having supported you throughout your journey at Qubic and for where you’ve gotten to so far?.
Well, it was mother’s day recently and I was so busy with work that I almost forgot to call home. So, hi Mum. Love ya

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us today Frank and sharing your thoughts with everyone. Please send our regards to Ivy and we wish you much success with Qubic in the many years to come and hope to see you in Australia again very soon. Keep on creating and inspiring!

Words by Benny Teh

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