Weekly Local Biography

  Hans Christensen

IHans Christensen and I sat in the Tapas Bar of The House while it was being set up for the evening and talked not about food but about Hans. It had taken us a long time to schedule this interview because Hans travels constantly. He always knew he wanted to travel, and his father once jokingly told him that all of his education would eventually be lost to the road. But it wasn’t lost; it just changed and blossomed. He grew up on the family farm in Denmark, and many of his years there were spent in a large blended family that included siblings, half siblings and stepsiblings. He refers to them all as brothers and sisters, and talks about his childhood years with pleasure. He bicycled to school in good weather, but rode the school bus in the wintertime. He was accepted into Danish design school when he completed high school, but decided to take a job at a design house in London instead.

He really liked London. Young and talented, he gravitated to many other young and talented people there. He shared a home with a couple from Sweden and one from New Zealand. It was a creative household, filled with high-spirited intellectual debates and differences. Nobody had an abundance of money, but it didn’t matter. Life was good in this multi-cultural city, and they all thrived. Hans worked for a firm that designed and produced theater costumes. He was assigned to the design production room so learned the business from the inside out. His firm produced the costumes for Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves. “This is the look”, the movie costume designer told them, and they produced it for all of the characters.

After five years in London, he had an offer to work on a project in Thailand. A hotel chain planned to use designs from villages in Isaan in their retail shops. Hans’ job was to take those designs and make them marketable to western tourists. The company went bankrupt two years later, so the fruits of his labors were never realized. He learned a lot about working with villagers, though, and would apply that knowledge to his own company later.

He moved to Kuala Lumpur and went to work as a buyer for a woman whom he considers a visionary in her understanding of products and marketing. Hans visited Indonesia and Thailand every six weeks on buying trips. He developed reliable sources, and began to make his own designs. He speaks admiringly of all he learned from her. But a promised partnership never materialized, so Hans took his knowledge and experience and moved to Chiang Mai to start his own company. An old friend wanted to sell his designs in Europe. She formed Rice Denmark, and he incorporated as Rice Thailand.

The products they design and sell are produced in the developing world with respect for the people who produce them. They do not use child labor. They treat their workers fairly, and do not discriminate in hiring racially or otherwise. Their website says that they guarantee that they will always conduct themselves in a socially responsible manner.

Hans took some of his designs to a fair in Bangkok, and made great retail contacts. Pottery Barn, Neiman Marcus, Crate & Barrel, Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters soon featured his products. He had one helper, and they considered themselves “in this together”. His first big order arrived from Pottery Barn. 12,000 pairs of chopsticks had to be designed, manufactured, gift packaged and packed for shipping by a certain date. A fine would be levied for each day production ran behind. Hans and his helper woefully underestimated the packaging and packing time. His father arrived for a visit, and was put to work. The helper’s wife was recruited. The four of them worked around the clock, packaging and packing, almost sick with exhaustion at times. And they made the deadline. You can still see some of his chopstick designs in the Night Bazaar.

Hans often said that he had been “lucky”. I think he is an incredibly talented person who was willing to take risks, and those risks paid off. His business expanded quickly. Exporting boomed during the 1990s. Then China became a major competitor, and he decided that he had to change both his strategy and his market. He gradually went “up market” in fashions with Ginger, and began to develop the local retail market. He further developed his designs for homes, adding cushions and table scarves. He recognizes that the world is smaller and people travel more. He combines east and west in his designs, and now employs 24 people who sew. His fashion designs go to New Zealand, Australia and Europe. He has a growing local following and will soon open an additional Ginger outlet.

A few years ago he noticed a beautiful old house that was vacant and beginning to deteriorate. For a while he simply looked it over, then began to negotiate with the owner to use the house as a combination office and retail outlet. The house, however, begged to become a restaurant but it was difficult to find a chef. Then one day Khun Bom walked in. He admired Hans’ collection of cookbooks, and said, “I can cook that food for you”. After a few trial dishes, Hans agreed that he could indeed cook that fine food, and The House Restaurant was born. Chef Bom walked in as we were talking and agreed with the story. He was far more concerned about the fresh fish of the day, however.

Hans is happy to report that his brother is joining the team as a management consultant and coach. He admits that it’s difficult for him to delegate, but he says he has to learn to do so. “I do get older, you know”. He wants to spend more time in Europe with his family. His parents are growing older. Life is a balancing act, and Hans is doing quite well at it.