Murjani – the Ups and Downs of a HK Garment Dynasty

York Lo: Murjani – the Ups and Downs of a HK Garment Dynasty

The history of the HK garment industry would not be complete without the profile of the Murjanis. Starting with a single shop in 1930, Bhagwandas Kewalram Murjani (B.K. Murjani) started one of the first and largest HK garment exporters to the US market in the 1950s. The family built a listed diversified industrial concern by the early 1970s only to retrench in the mid-1970s due to the recession. It then hit it big in the global stage by launching the Gloria Vanderbilt jeans in the late 1970s and the Tommy Hilfiger and Coca Cola fashion labels in the early 1980s only to suffer significant setbacks in the mid-1980s. In recent years, the family has made a comeback distributing fashion brands such as Hilfiger in India.   

The Ascent (1930-1967): B.K. Murjani and the Rise of a Garment Powerhouse 

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Left: Murjani Group founder B.K. Murjani; Right: 1953 ad of Murjani Corporation 

Born in 1912, B.K. Murjani immigrated from his native Hyderabad, Sind (then part of India, became part of Pakistan after 1947) to Hong Kong after high school in the late 1920s to join an Indian firm as a sales assistant. In 1930, he struck out on his own in Shanghai with his first retail store. His trading firm later moved to Hong Kong and was also involved in the export of U.S. textiles to India and Ceylon.    

Through his involvement in the US trade, Murjani met Herman (“Hy”) Katz, the head of the New York-based Republic Novelty, one of the largest garment importers in the US. Katz convinced Murjani that he should focus on garment manufacturing and by 1953 (as shown in above ad), Murjani Corporation already manufactured its own “Golden Nite” brand of shirts and the merchandise it exported were not limited to garment items such as piece goods, knitwear and hosiery but also included the other popular HK exports at the time such as torch cases and bulbs, battery cells, enamelware, canvas rubber shoes and other Chinese products that were covered in other articles earlier. 

In 1952, Murjani Garment Factory (梅真尼製衣廠) was established (although as a firm it was not incorporated until 1964) to make clothing for the US market such as women’s slack, shorts and “dollar blouses” which actually retailed at 98 cents (US dollars) and by 1958, the firm had production capacity of over 10 million units per annum, many of which were sent to the major US department store chain S.S. Kresge (which was renamed Kmart in 1977). When the US garment quota system was introduced in 1958, the Murjanis held the largest allocation in Hong Kong and at one point they controlled 5-10% of all US garment quotas allocated to HK manufacturers. He also incorporated Murjani Textiles & Agencies (which operated out of 20 Hollywood Road) and Murjani Exports that same year. 

According to a report by the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1960, the Murjani factory employed 1100 workers (900 were women, all technical staff were Chinese, earning an average wage of HK$12 per day) and produced 3000 dozens of garment on a daily basis using 700 sewing machines. 50% of the factory’s raw materials were sourced from Japan while the other half were sourced locally. 

B.K. and his wife Sheela has three sons – Mohan (“Mike”), Ramesh and Dalip and one daughter – Bina – and in 1966, his eldest son Mohan joined the family business after graduating from Babson College in the US and started at the top as managing director.  The same year, he launched the group’s first brand in the US – Marco Polo and began a decade of diversification beyond the garment business. 

Diversification (1966-1978) – Expanding outside of Garments and Going Public  

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Left: article about HK Woollen Mills in 1968 (WKYP, 1968-11-6); Right: Jack Teng – head of HK Woollen Mills (WKYP)  

In 1966, the Murjanis formed Hong Kong Woollen Mills (香港精紡廠) to produce wool yarn in partnership with Jack Teng (鄧鏡澄 1913-1977), a veteran of the wool & worsted industry in Shanghai and HK. A member of a famous family of scholars from Jiangyin in Kiangsu province (江蘇江陰) which include his cousin KMT general and Taipei Olympic chief Jack C.K. Teng (鄧傳楷, 1912-1999), Teng was a graduate of the National Chinan University (曁南大學) in Shanghai and worked for the KMT Ministry of Finance for 7 years before entering the business world after the War where he started a military uniform factory and also served as managing director of Mow Sing Worsted Mill (茂新毛紡廠) in Shanghai. In HK, he worked for D.H. Chen as deputy managing director of Nan Fung Woollen Mills and founded HK Worsted Mills (香港毛紡廠) in 1963 with Li Chung-I (aka Li Ven-Fuen 李文輝) of Oceanic Cotton Mill (see article on M.C. Oung) and Wang Wen-Hain (王文瀚) and served as its managing director. (HK Worsted was later taken over by YC Chen of Tai Hing Cotton Mills, Stanley Kuo of Woodard and H.C. Tang of Winsor and its listed shell was acquired by Beijing Development in 1993). 

Outside of work, Teng served as director of Tung Wah and was involved with several community organizations in Kwun Tong and the Boy Scout movement in HK. His wife Fan Shue-jun (范雪君) was known as the Queen of Soochow Lyrics. (WKYP, 1977-8-12) 

By the late 1960s, B.K. Murjani saw the stock market as a means to expand his empire and when he and others were shut out of the clubby HK Stock Exchange, he and 10 others including Ronald Li (李福兆,chairman and later first chairman of the Stock Exchange of HK), P.K. Ng (伍秉堅, son of Ng Wah, see article), Edward P.H. Woo (胡百熙, solicitor) and Audrey Chow (see article on Lucky Enamelware) formed the Far East Stock Exchange in 1969 with Murjani as vice chairman and the only person out of the 11 founders who was not of Chinese descent. 

In February 1971, Murjani Industries (梅眞尼聯營有限公司), the holding company for Murjani Textiles & Agencies, HK Woolen Mills, Marco Polo Imports Ltd, Murjani Knitting Factory (incorporated in 1965) and Murjani Garment – went public on the Far East Exchange by selling 1.7 million shares (25% of outstanding) at HK$10 per share, valuing the company at HK$68 million, which was 7.5 times PE based on the projected earnings of $9 million for the fiscal year ending March 1971. Aside from the Murjanis, other directors included Indian business and community leader Dhun Ruttonjee and Jack Teng (WKYP, 1971-2-24) and Ronald Li also joined the board in 1972. 

Murjani Image 3 York Lo Left: Article about the IPO of Murjani Industries in 1971 (WKYP, 1971-2-11); Right: article about the appointment of Far East Exchange chairman Ronald Li as director of Murjani Industries in 1972 (KSEN, 1972-6-23) 

Not long after the IPO, Murjani Industries began aggressive expansion into other areas. In July 1972, Murjani Industries announced plans to build the “first” bicycle manufacturing plant in Hong Kong (which was not true as Union Cycling Manufactory preceded this by 30+ years, see article on Union Metal Work) to make high end bikes to compete with Japanese and Italian bikes in the US market in a 60/40 partnership called HK Bicycles Co (香港自行車廠) with New Century Trading controlled by Jerome Sze Chin-hung (施展熊), who was only 28 at the time with 3 years of experience operating a bicycle factory in Taiwan. Two experts were hired from Italy to train 100 workers in HK and the factory was scheduled to commence production in November with monthly production capacity of 10000 bikes, with plans to double to 20000 within six months and estimated first year sales of HK$20 million. (KSDN, 1972-7-5) 

In December 1972, Murjani acquired Life Garment Factory Ltd (生活製衣廠) which was operated by Lau Ping-cheung (劉炳祥) and his sons Raymond Lau Gai-cheung (劉繼昌) and Lau Gai-chung (劉繼) and manufactured ladies’ garments with annual output of 200,000 dozens pieces. The Murjanis combined Life Garment with Carolina Knitwears (嘉利達針織), a manufacturer of men’s outfits incorporated in 1969 which was exporting 70000 dozen jackets and 60000 dozen shirts to the US per year and a dyeing & weaving operation which supplied exclusively to Carolina and Life to form HK Properties & Investments Ltd (香江物業) – the three businesses grew from HK$1.8 million in sales in 1968 to HK$12.4 million in 1972 (WKYP, 1973-2-23) On April 1973, the family took HK Properties public with the issuance of 9 million shares at $1 per share and the assets of the firm at IPO also include the Murjani’s 10-story industrial building at 52 Wing Kwong Street in To Kwa Wan and Life Garment’s factory building at 84-86 Yee Kuk Street. The firm also acquired 17-19 On Lan Street in Central (Kowloon Dairy Building), bought land in Shatin near the new racecourse and explored hotel resort development on the Lantau in 1973. (WKYP, 1973-4-19) Murjani Properties, Murjani Finance and Murjani Shipping & Transport were incorporated in 1973 as the firm expanded into real estate, finance and shipping. 

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B.K. Murjani cutting the cake for the third anniversary of the Far East Stock Exchange with his fellow co-founders in 1972. Left to right: Cham Siu-leun, Wong Kai-ming, Ronald Li, Murjani (KSEN, 1972-12-16) 

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B.K. Murjani receiving the HK Country Club Cup from Mrs. Robert H.N. Ho (Eva Lo) in 1976 with stewards of the HK Jockey Club (KSEN, 1976-5-9) 

For fiscal year ending March 1974, Murjani Industries reached its record sales of US$22 million with 50% of it coming from businesses outside of garments but soon the recessions hit, orders slowed and production piled up and losses exceeded US$10 million at one point. The bear market did not help matters and in late 1977, the Murjanis privatized both HK Properties and Murjani Industries and jettisoned the diversifications to refocus on garments. (TKP, 1977-08-16; WKYP, 1977-12-10). Jerome Sze took over the bicycle venture and eventually became a major player in the global bicycle business in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the head of the Shenzhen listed China Bicycles Co and controlled the famous Schwinn brand. Murjani Finance, HK Woollen Mills and Murjani Shipping were dissolved in 1980. 

Sizzle and Fizzle (1978-1988): Gloria Vanderbilt and Coca Cola 

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Left: Debbie Harry of Blondie in a Gloria Vanderbilt jeans by Murjani ad in the early 1980s; Right: Mohan Murjani (right) and Warren Hirsch (left) with Gloria Vanderbilt and James Taylor (center) in 1979

By the mid-1970s, Murjani Industries was a large garment manufacturer with over 3000 workers working out of its dozen factories in HK and Macau but was struggling in its primary business of making low priced white label clothing for the US market as prices continued to come down while department stores and fashion labels squeezed every penny out of them and production costs and competition continued to rise. (WKYP, 1978-10-30) The Murjanis became keen on building their own brands in the higher end market so they established Murjani International in the US and hired Warren Hirsh (1932-2016) as its head in 1976. To zero in on jeans, an area which fellow HK manufacturer Bang Bang had found success with its Faded Glory brand. 

To differentiate from the pack in the US jeans market, Murjani developed a unique strategy around the 4Ps of marketing. For product, at the time none of the jeans in the market were designed specifically for women and there were also no designers attached to them. Murjani created the category of “designer jeans”, bought new machines to make tighter fit, better quality jeans for women and signed on Gloria Vanderbilt, the famous American socialite as the face of the brand although she was not known as a fashion designer. In terms of price, the Gloria Vanderbilt by Murjani jeans (refer to as “GV jeans” hereafter) were priced at U$36 a piece, almost four times the price of the average jeans such as Levis at the time. For place, Murjani already had relations with all the major department stores. When the brand was first launched in April 1978, the initial reception was lukewarm and only 6000 out of the 125,000 pairs of GV jeans were shipped to a warehouse in New Jersey were ordered by department stores in Manhattan. So Murjani decided to make on a bet on the last P – promotion by investing in a US$1 million television advertising campaign featuring Vanderbilt herself wearing the jeans that had her elegantly scrawled signature and swan logo emblazoned on the right hip pocket. The strategy worked and the GV jeans became an overnight success. Murjani followed up with another major publicity campaign by sponsoring the first concert in Central Park in 1979 to benefit the New York Parks Department featuring the singer James Taylor and later even staged a Broadway show called “Murjani on Broadway” to help promote GV jeans and sponsored the US Open in 1980. 

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Opening of the new Murjani office in Hong Kong by (left to right): Peter Tsao, B.K. Murjani, Mohan Murjani in 1979 (WKYP, 1979-10-27) 

For the fiscal year ending March 1980, Murjani’s sales hit US$150 million, a fivefold increase from the previous year’s sales of $25 million. In mid-1980, Warren Hirsch had a fallout with the Murjanis and left to join Puritan Fashions as president and COO to work on a new women sportswear line by Diane Von Furstenburg, only to leave after eight weeks due to differences with Calvin Klein, one of Puritan’s key licensors. (New York Times, 1980-7-21) Hirsch was replaced by Alan Gilman, a former executive of Federated Department Stores and head of Abraham & Straus, which was the second largest retailer in the New York area behind Macy’s. (New York Times, 1980-9-11) To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Murjani Group in November 1980, the group sponsored the Murjani Cup at the Shatin racetrack with prize awards of HK$125,000. (WKYP, 1980-11-21) 

Keen on expanding the group’s product line beyond GV jeans, the firm acquired the Vanderbilt name in 1982 (allegedly for US$25 million) and began licensing the name to other products such as shoes, bags, jewelry and fragrances, the last generated sales of over US$30 million in its first year. In the early 1980s, Murjani also signed other celebrities such as singer Debbie Harry, tennis player Billie Jean King and baseball player Reggie Jackson to promote its jeans and develop new lines of products and signed other designers such as Tommy Hilfiger (more on the next section), George Lois (with whom they launched a US$75 jeans line) and Elisabeth de Senneville to diversify its offerings. 

During this time, Mohan relocated to London to lead the group’s global expansion while back in Hong Kong, the executive director of the firm was Robert M.K. Yau (丘銘劍), husband of high-ranking civil servant Irene Yau (丘李賜恩, Director of Information Services of the HK government from 1987 to 1997). When a US congressional delegation led by Senator Arlen Specter visited HK in the early 1980s, they visited the Murjani factory and was shown around by Yau. In July 1984, B.K. Murjani met with Chinese leader Li Xian-nian (李先念) together with Francis Tien of Manhattan Garments. (TKP, 1984-07-14)

In September 1984, Murjani received the license from the Coca-Cola Co. to manufacture and market a line of apparel bearing the Coca-Cola trademark. The collection of Coca-Cola Clothes was distributed to leading department stores in the US August 1985 and after a US$12 million advertising blitz, achieved sales of over US$100 million, pushing the Murjani group’s sales to over US$ 500 million, placing the firm amongst the top 10 apparel companies in the US. 

Murjani Image 8 York Lo Left: ad for Murjani on Broadway in 1980; Right: Fizzazz video fashion catalog 

Riding on the phenomenal success of the Coca Cola label, Murjani invested in a new chain of high-tech clothing stores called Fizzazz where customers could order Coca Cola brand clothing via interactive video screens at the stores or via a fashion video catalog. Unfortunately, the concepts were too ahead of its time and the Fizzazz business dizzled. Murjani also signed a deal with Chrysler to manufacture a line of clothings and camping products under the “Jeep” label. 

The popularity of GV jeans peaked in 1985 and the business turned for the worse in 1987 when oversupply of Coca Cola clothings and the stock market crash left the Murjani Group with warehouses full of unsold inventory. To pay off the group’s mounting debt which had reached over US$150 million in 1987, Mohan Murjani sold his palatial family home in London and the rights to most of the Gloria Vanderbilt brand and the Tommy Hilfiger brands. 

Back in Hong Kong, the Murjani Building was sold to Henderson Land in 1988 for HK$160 million. (TKP, 1988-8-13) The building at 52 Wing Kwong Street in To Kwa Wan was re-developed as Wing Fai Mansion in 1994. In February 1989, when Mohan returned to HK to visit his family and several Indian banks which had lent him US$14 million filed a suit in the High Court to block him from leaving as he still had outstanding debt of US$11 million. (WKYP, 1989-3-24) 

Comeback with Tommy Hilfiger

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Tommy Hilfiger and his HK backers – Mohan Murjani (left) and Silas Chou (right) 

The Murjanis kept a low profile in the 1990s after the dramatic downfall in the late 1980s but managed to come back in the 2000s through one asset which they held onto – the Indian market rights to Tommy Hilfiger, whose brand they launched in 1986.    

According to Hilfiger’s autobiography, he was introduced to Bina Murjani by David Harilela in HK in 1982 and met Mohan in 1984 who saw him as the designer for a new jeans brand for men (as GV primarily focused on women). In 1986, Murjani launched the Tommy Hilfiger brand with a giant billboard in New York’s Times Square and an aggressive advertising campaign which compared the young Hilfiger to the three top American designers Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein. In 1989, Hilfiger teamed up with HK denim and sweater manufacturer Silas Chou (曹其鋒, son of K.P. Chao, founder of the Novel Group, see article on Oriental Pacific), Canadian fashion importer Lawrence Stroll (who introduced Pierre Cardin and Ralph Lauren to Canada) and Ralph Lauren executive Joel Horowitz to buy the Tommy Hilfiger brand from Murjani Group. Tommy Hilfiger Corporation went public in 1992 and was very successful in the 1990s, achieving sales of US$1.9 billion by 2000. 

Supported by his son Vijay, Mohan Murjani introduced Tommy Hilfiger to the Indian market in 2004 and after its success, launched five other major brands – Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Jimmy Choo, French Connection and Calvin Klein Jeans and developed the first luxury shopping mall in India – the Galleria in Mumbai in 2007. In 2008, Mohan’s other son Manoj co-founded TWG Tea in Singapore. By 2010, Tommy Hilfiger had 1000 points of sale across 98 cities in India. 

Sources (other than those quoted above) 

Man Who Brought Murjani Jeans to Top Leaves Vanderbilt for Von Furstenberg, Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1980

Murjani Sues 5 Banks for $2.1 billion India Abroad, Aug 4, 1989  

Hilfiger, Tommy. American Dreamer: My Life in Fashion & Business, Random House (2016) 

TV commercial for Gloria Vanderbilt’s stretched jeans in 1980:

This article was first posted on 4th November 2019.

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