Eight years ago, Rene Suarez landed in the territory from Mexico City to take up an office job with a logistics company, the next step in a 20-year-long career. He was single, had no children and not one tattoo.
“Now I have 12 tattoos and one wife and three babies,” he laughs. “Hong Kong has changed me for good.”
On top of those accomplishments, he has now set up a bespoke retail store in an industrial building in North Point, selling high-end accessories and apparel for motorcycle enthusiasts, a business which is attracting growing custom from all over the world and has already spurned a spin-off space in Jakarta.
Black Riot in Hong Kong is a store literally lie no other – save for in Indonesia, that is.
The space is very much a ‘third place’ as Starbucks might call it – a place outside work and home where people with an interest in motorcycles or the culture can hang out, enjoy a drink with Rene, share tall stories and browse an array of products that even the most jaded shopper would covet something from. You don’t even have to own a motorcycle.
“Some people like to collect this nice stuff like masks and designer stuff and they buy a few things just to put on display in their living room.”
“Hong Kong is a small community,” Rene tells Inside Retail Hong Kong over a locally-brewed Moonzen Thunder God Ale on a balmy April evening at his space, which feels much more like a gallery than a store.
“So if you count the amount of motorcycle riders it is very tiny. If you take out the delivery guys, then the racing bikes – because that’s another market altogether – then it gets even smaller. So we are in a very, very niche market.”
He openly confesses he sometimes goes a few days without a customer – but compensates for that when a family wanders in unannounced and splurges HK$60,000 on apparel and souvenirs.
In part, that is a function of his location: you have to know where the store is, on the 8th floor of Block B at Sea View Estate on Watson Road. His neighbours include a school-uniform shop, a wine shop, a marketing consultancy and an architectural practice. This is not the sort of place you get walk-ins from a footpath.
But it also very much reflects Black Riot in Hong Kong’s niche market. This is a destination for true enthusiasts, its presence largely known through word of mouth.
“The kind of stuff we sell, it doesn’t mean we will sell more if we move to a ground-floor location. We might sell a few more t-shirts or socks, but that is not going to make up for the higher rent.”
No-one, he says, walks in off the street and on a whim buys a US$1000 motorcycle helmet.
But conversely, he doesn’t need a street frontage to market his wares.
“I don’t have to sell stuff here. Every brand, my customers already know. It’s like if you have an ice-cream shop. You don’t have to stand outside yelling “Ice cream, ice cream!” People already know you have ice cream.”
Word of mouth
People visit Black Riot in Hong Kong because they have heard their friends talk about it, or they have seen it on Instagram.
“We are very active on Instagram. We don’t do Facebook because it stopped being a good marketing tool a long time ago. Basically now it is just like a gossip [channel]. Instagram is a good marketing tool because there is no way they can skip the pictures. But mainly it is word of mouth.”
Some 70 per cent of Black Riot’s customers are tourists, largely driven by Instagram. And of them, about 85 per cent are Filipinos. Others come from Canada, even Brazil.
Indeed, it was Instagram that brought such strong custom from the Philippines.
“When we first opened we had a Filipino actor visit. I did not recognise him, of course. After he bought something he said thank you brother and asked if it was OK if he posted about Black Riot on his Instagram page. I said, yes, please go ahead. Then I saw he had 5 million followers!”
Since then he has hosted a steady stream of cashed-up Filipinos visiting the store and buying merchandise to take home.
The evening before our visit Rene opened Black Riot at midnight for a Filipino customer who was unable to make it during daylight hours because he had been visiting Disneyland with his wife and children.
”I said, I don’t mind. I live five minutes from here. You just let me know 30 minutes before you want to come – 12, one, two – it’s fine for me. Come and enjoy. You don’t have to buy anything.
“But, of course, when you open the door for somebody at midnight they feel they obliged,” he grins.
In fact, most Black Riot visitors inevitably buy something. “It’s a very driven market. People walk in through the door and sometimes they don’t even say hi – they go straight to what they are looking for. And that means that 95 per cent of the time when someone comes through the door they buy. They don’t come to window shop.”
On another occasion, a family spent more than $50,000 in the store. So he booked an Uber Black to take them back to their hotel. He will personally deliver purchases to a customer’s hotel at the end of a working day – which often results in sharing a few drinks and enjoying the kind of kindred fellowship only devoted motorcycle enthusiasts can really understand.
Born in Mexico
The idea of creating Black Riot in Hong Kong was born in Mexico City, Rene’s hometown. Ten years ago, he went to buy a new helmet, discovering a small store where people could go and chill as well as shop. He started to meet fellow riders and got chatting to them, and before he knew it he was doing business with people there.
“If you ride, everyone’s the same. Immediately you break the ice. It is very easy.
“So I thought: I want to do this thing. I want to create this here in Hong Kong. It started as a hobby and then eventually I said: OK, now it’s good to do the job full time.”
The name Black Riot – rejected as a registered business name by the Hong Kong government wary of its connotations – is not intended to convey violence. Black signifies luxury, much like Black Label whisky or Cathay Pacific’s black-coloured Diamond status card. Riot has nothing to do with rioting. “It is the spirit of the people, perhaps a tribute to the rock-and-roll era.”
And so is summed up the essence of Black Riot: “It’s for those kind of people who still like rock’n roll but they like luxury too.”
The owner of the Mexican store was happy to share contacts of suppliers. One of the first agencies he secured was for Ruby helmets from Paris, which he sells to customers all over the world. Included in the client list is the leader of a high-profile Asian nation to whom he hand-delivered a custom designed helmet earlier this year, bearing the nation’s flag on the lid.
“They only sell about 600 helmets a year, from US$1000 to $3000. So, when compared to Western helmets, which sell for like $300–400, this is luxury. These are the Hermes of helmets.”
Other brands sold by Black Riot include Schott leather jackets – a 123-year-old brand made famous by Marlon Brando in the 1952 movie The Wild One. “You’re buying a piece of history. All the bad boys from then on wore those jackets.”
While Veldt helmets provide a more space-age alternative to Ruby, there are Philippe V sunglasses, including a HK$25,000 limited-edition model; colourful Holy Freedom socks made in Italy, apparel from Ride & Sons and work boots from Red Wing – designed for oil riggers and construction workers but ideal for motorcyclists because of their blend of strength and style. Riding boots and shoes from a Japanese brand sell for more than US$1000.
There are also occasionally motorcycles on display for sale as well. The iconic Indian brand does not have a showroom in Hong Kong, but would-be buyers can arrange a test drive through Black Riot. The model on display is the only one light enough for the building’s elevator to carry to the eighth floor, but Rene can show customers a full catalogue. The other is a limited edition model from Zero Engineering of Japan, worth about US$50,000 second hand and one of only eight known to be in Hong Kong. It is owned by a friend of Rene’s who was in no great hurry to sell it. With its brown leather seat and trim, white bodywork and mechanicals of chrome and black, it is as much a work of art as a motorcycle and simply adds to the gallery style of the Black Riot store.
And just as in a gallery, the range of products on display at Black Riot are curated, carefully chosen, “made with passion and joy,” says Rene.
“When people come here, I can explain to them the story behind every brand and why we carry it. Because every brand has a vision. We buy from people who know what they do and you can see the result in their products. If it is just something made on a production line it loses all its detail.”
His golden rule in ranging: “I have to like it myself. If not, I cannot recommend it.”
Another rule is eschewing online sales.
“I don’t do online sales. Until today, I can say I remember all of my customers after three years. There is one who comes from the Philippines every December. When he came the second time I asked him how his MBA was going.”
That sort of memory and attention to detail cannot be naturally replicated online. Rene believes Black Riot is a very personal business by nature, not mass market.
A few Hong Kong celebrities shop there, but when they visit, he doesn’t make a fuss of them.
“In fact, it’s the opposite. You know for celebrities it feels nice when you go somewhere and people are not bothering you because you have that every single day of your life.”
Exercising discretion, Rene doesn’t reveal the names of his more famous customers, but he says some of them feel comfortable relaxing and talking about bikes, including the three Rene owns: two Harley Davidsons and a BMW, all of them single-seater models.
One customer he does talk about is from Indonesia, a guy who literally fell in love with the Black Riot store. He is the person who opened the satellite store in Jakarta, which Rene describes as “a dream shop” with coffee, a tattooist, a barber on site. But Jakarta rents allow such decadence: for the same rent he pays in a month in North Point – about US$10,000 – he could lease the same square footage in Jakarta for a whole year.
Rene has people are begging him to open a store in the Philippines, where there is a strong bike culture, perhaps dating back to the American influence there – and there are many bike shops trained to copy the Black Riot model. Most of the brands Black Riot stocks are available in stores in Manila – but not all of them in one place.
For now, he is keeping his options open.
This feature originally appeared in Inside Retail Asia’s magazine edition. For information on subscribing visit our shop.