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Arnault Castel is a little late to arrive at lunch, but it’s all right. The kapok founder has been in Hong Kong a long time, and any good local will often be the last to appear anywhere that’s very close by. He also prefers not to have to commute to and from work and play, so a city as geographically dense as Hong Kong suits this disposition. 

We’re dining at Pici on St Francis Yard, sitting almost directly across the street as well as perpendicular to two iterations of his renowned lifestyle stores. ‘You know, upstairs used to be my office. And down here…’ he gestures around one of Hong Kong’s friendliest Italian restaurants, ‘…used to be a French restaurant. Actually, the kapok store down there used to be a French restaurant too,’ he remembers. But now, it’s time to order some Italian. We decide to indulge in a crisp white to sip on, before sharing the Vitello Tonnato and the Burrata to start. For mains, Arnault opts for the classic Cacio e Pepe, whilst I choose the Ravioli Carbonara; which, when sliced, open to reveal a runny golden egg yolk in the centre. Divine.

With the feast ordered, our conversation turns back to Arnault’s French roots. ‘I come from a small village in a wine region of the south of France called Corbières. It was a great place to play as a kid, but I found it deadly boring as a teenager — though nowadays, I love it again.’ Arnault was 22 when he arrived in Hong Kong on a programme that allowed him to escape France’s compulsory military service. ‘I had an interview for my first job at a bank. No fun. During my interview, I made up some serious story about the future of Hong Kong, the economy blah blah blah and a couple of weeks later, I got a letter in the mail — yes, I am old! — and I came here. I landed at Kai Tak airport during Chinese New Year in 1996. 26 years later, and I’m still here!” he laughs.

Fast forward to the very first kapok in Tin Hau, on a street with super cheap rent and nothing much going on. It was Arnault’s first small project, but he found himself enjoying being at work in a way he never thought was possible. So, when the opportunity came to move into Starstreet Precinct, he went for it. He remembers that the owners of the cha chaan teng next door to what’s now Pici were sceptical of the Frenchman moving in across the street. ‘For some reason, they were convinced I was going to open a burger shop!’ It’s unclear to this day why they thought that, but Arnault does in fact have F&B dreams. ‘I like to be in a business that makes people happy. And I really believe that good ice cream in summer makes people really happy! So I’ve been dreaming for a while now of creating my own ice cream brand and opening an ice cream parlour.’ Maybe this is in his DNA: even as a child, Arnault dreamed of one day opening a candy store. As a teenager it was a bookstore, and as a young adult, he imagined himself running a record shop. ‘I guess Kapok was bound to happen, really,’ he reflects.

Arnault’s own demeanour is much like his stores: dynamic, effortless, interesting and perhaps most importantly, interested; this goes hand in hand with his taste for the new, and his eye for the ‘future classics’ with which he stocks the spaces. So what is he into right now? ‘I’m into gorpcore. People look good when they don't feel constricted. Breathing and moving well make people beautiful. I’m also totally okay for people to wear gorpcore when they’re not hiking, as hiking is super tiring!’ he says — but jokes aside, and in spite of the current restrictions, Arnault does enjoy an active lifestyle. His low resting heart rate perhaps means he’s very fit, or just very calm.

‘But I also love the “stay at home” trend,’ he adds. ‘And now I can do it much more without feeling any guilt. It's an introvert's paradise!’ So, when he’s not hiking or playing in local tennis tournaments, you can find him at home hanging out with his little black cat Solange, or dancing around the room by himself. As our desserts arrive at the table (airy Tiramisu for me, unctuous Panna Cotta for him), I ask him if there’s a method to his madness. ‘I love productive procrastination. It’s my recipe for success.’ One thing is for sure, I reflect: Arnault knows how to live.