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Pass a boutique in this shoppers' paradise, and chances are it's a franchise owned by Hong Kong fashion icon Joyce Ma. Called Joyce Boutique Holdings Ltd., her business started 25 years ago as a small corner of a family-owned department store and has grown into an empire spanning Asia with more than 20 specialty shops and annual sales of $128 million.

Before Joyce appeared on the scene, Hong Kong had a reputation for making bargain-basement imitations of designer fashions, and the colony's elite went to Paris to shop or opted to visit local tailors. But at Joyce boutiques, wares are artfully laid out, and shoppers can select from Gucci, Boss, Prada, Donna Karan, Armani and more than 200 other labels that Joyce exclusively distributes throughout the region. "We are offering a certain lifestyle," said Adrienne Ma, communications manager and daughter of Joyce Ma, who rarely talks to the press.

While retail sales in Hong Kong have been slow, Joyce sales grew by 5% last year while profit climbed by 7.8% to $8.3 million. Ms. Ma, 55, has spurred the growth by expanding Joyce specialty shops into elegant malls in Bangkok and Taipei and opening a store on Hong Kong's bustling Kowloon peninsula. At the same time, Joyce has exited quickly from money-losers, including a DKNY outlet in the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, while eyeing a new store in Shanghai before the end of the century.

Rather than go global in such heavily retailed centers as Europe and the U.S., the Ma strategy is to stay closer to home, focusing on Southeast Asia while the region still has vast potential.

Ms. Ma is no longer seen as a socialite by birth, amusing herself with upscale dress shops. Today, she is known as Asia's high-end retail goddess, discovering up-and-coming fashion talent and unveiling it in Asia. "Joyce Boutique acts as an incubator," said Adrienne Ma, noting that Armani was an unknown when Joyce bought its first collections. "We bring [labels] in when they are small, and we nurture them."

Joyce's reputation for spotting hot new talent works as an endorsement for the store's shoppers. The group has just snared the exclusive rights from local department store Lane Crawford to distribute Hugo Boss in Hong Kong, and in September the company relaunched the label with ritzy fashion shows and a revamped store.

As for the Joyce brand itself, word of mouth, a loyal clique of shoppers and a glamorous atmosphere, rather than constant marketing, keep sales growing. Designers and Joyce go halves in advertising, which amounts to $6 million, or 5% of sales. Designers supply finished photography to Joyce, which then adds its own store addresses and branding on it, and buys print space in local TV and print through its in-house agency.

The boutique gets extra marketing leverage with an English-language quarterly fashion magazine, Joyce, that enjoys a circulation of 44,000 throughout Asia. A regular newsletter also keeps shoppers up-to-date, and a Joyce credit card is one that few well-heeled Asian shoppers leave home without.

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