Madam Butterflies: Novel Fineries’ founder June Lau frames fading art heritage into new glories

By Neil Dolby
Feb 14, 2024

First, she won a scholarship to study product design engineering at Loughborough University in England, and it was there that she tasted early success – landing a James Dyson Foundation bursary to help get the medical device she conceived up and running. Having founded a product design consultancy, Above Blue Design, back in Hong Kong in 2015, her wearable art company, Novel Fineries, sprang into life the following year after she won a design competition held by luxury retailer Lane Crawford.

The Novel Fineries flagship store is now ensconced in a wing of the luxurious Peninsula Hotel, from where she talks animatedly about how her roots nurtured her love for the beauty and aesthetics of products and accessories.

Sleep saver

That Lau has achieved so much just a decade out of university is perhaps down to oodles of self- confidence, which she attributes to going off to boarding school aged just eight. She believes the experience toughened her up.

At Loughborough, she learnt how to design products as a whole, from coding the internal electronics, to building mould tools for mass production, to learning about aesthetics and the research process. Flashing one of her radiant smiles, she admits that possibly part of the attraction of this career was wanting to “save the world” with her designs. Her award-winning final- year design project was a product that positively conditions people with severe eczema not to scratch during sleep.

Design over fashion

Emanating verve and fresh elegance in a fetching green outfit, the youthful entrepreneur describes herself as a “go-getter” who loves to travel and absorb other cultures as she knows this is potentially a rich seam of artistic creativity.

Born in New York City and educated in the UK, Lau has done fashion-design jobs around the world, but found the fashion lifecycle too short and not sustainable; the lure of product design was more compelling.

After graduation, she returned to her family roots in Hong Kong. Within a couple of years, she was teaching CAD (computer-aided design) while working part-time with Above Blue, designing products for big brands as well as startups.

Art in the pocket

It was her independent-minded spirit and willingness to explore new artistic avenues ingrained since childhood that played a massive part in her big breakthrough – the creation of Novel Fineries.

At the time she was travelling to China a lot to visit factories. “One time in Suzhou, I saw a group of ladies on the side of the street doing double- sided embroidery and soon became friends with them,” she says, explaining that she was fascinated by the intricacy of their handiwork, a time-honoured technique that produces identical stitching strokes on both sides of the silk.

Thinking it would make an original gift for her then-boyfriend, she asked the women to make a piece in her own design. It featured butterflies in the form of pocket art.

Soon after, Lau sent these embroidered butterflies to the Lane Crawford Creative Call Out – a competition for young local designers. “We could go and pitch our product to the buyers and get a chance to be selected and sold in their stores,” she says. “I took along this pocket art and we won. And the next thing I know, they wanted to put our products in their stores and the Hong Kong government included us in design tradeshows abroad. So that was when Novel Fineries really started.”

Boyfriend butterflies

Each piece of her pocket art represents a butterfly species through the use of exquisite embroidery and the exact colour of paint, with every detail of the insect painstakingly replicated including the pattern of the veins and the velvety-fur textures on its wings. “Each species can only be produced once because the double-sided embroidery can only be done by one person, and I do the silk hand- painting myself,” she notes.

“To mimic the veins and transparency of the butterfly wings to the best of my ability, I studied to become a lepidopterist, learning where they feed and how they migrate. Each butterfly has its own origin story to share and its unique traits in nature.”

Novel Fineries’ first collection of Pocket Art spans 50 species of Amazonian butterflies. “I used to love the saying ‘You give me butterflies’ [when thinking of a loved one],” says Lau of their inspiration. “This is the whole concept of the pocket art. It is worn on the left-hand side of the suit over the heart. And so, as a gift, it’s a little resemblance of my love in a suit jacket.”

She regards Pocket Art as one of her best creations to date. “It is a piece that has no lifecycle, it follows no trend; it is a symbol of how Novel Fineries blossomed in colour and the finest materials,” she says.

It serves as a contemporary showcase for Su embroidery, a 2,000-year-old heritage art form originating from Suzhou, China, renowned for the elegance, rich colour and variety of its silk-thread stitching. This double-sided stitching process is also used for the Pin Art collection of handmade butterflies astride a gold pin that fastens behind the lapel.

Heritage mission

“China possesses so much knowledge and hidden artisans in heritage art forms and I became obsessed with searching for lost art and these people who mastered the craft,” says Lau, who reveals that 30 percent of the company’s profits is given to training the next generation of artisans.

In some ways, it has become her mission to preserve fading art forms around the world. “Each piece at Novel Fineries is a union of lost heritage craft integrated with my design ideas. Much of the craft we use is diminishing, lost even through time.”

Art and nature

All of Novel’s designs are handmade, handcrafted and unique. They are influenced by nature and integrate heritage art forms. “The Obi Knot uses untouched silks from 200-300 years ago, the threads were hand-loomed and tied by Obi masters in Kyoto. The Serpentine Knot uses Italian leather-braiding techniques, and the fine jewellery is hand-carved from wax,” she says of her collections of bow ties and snake-head-tipped braids that can adorn the neck or waist.

Lau creates a world of beauty and magic that comes to life. She is particularly inspired by butterflies and snakes because they have the ability to morph and transform into a stronger self.

No doubt there are many more chapters of inspired creations to come from Novel Fineries. “Novel means a book, right? So, a book of many chapters, and in each chapter, we talk about a different heritage art form,” she states proudly. “I hope Novel Fineries is a storybook that brings joy to the people who read it and wear it.”

Interview and Text by: Neil Dolby Art Direction: Joseff Musa Photographer: Jack Law Videographer: Jack Fontanilla Venue: The Peninsula Boutique & Cafe Brands: Magda Butrym, Safiyaa, Chanel & Off-White