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Models talk business

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 14, 2014

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Lum May Yee, 41Jewellery designer

Former model and actress Lum May Yee married into the Canary Diamond family seven years ago and has increasingly taken on a more active role in the business.

After leaving her job at Singapore Airlines as a passenger services manager, she joined the jewellery company in 2009, handling its public relations and marketing.

Her husband, Mr Steven Lam, 39, is the director of the company and son of the company's founder, Mr William Lam.

Now, she has opened the diamond company's latest retail offshoot - bycanary at Tangs Orchard, which carries cult designer jewellery labels such as M.C.L by Matthew Campbell Laurenza, Jade Jagger and John Hardy. Prices range from $160 for a pair of earrings from French label Darsala to $15,000 for an 18K white gold bangle from Dutch label Choices by DL.

The three-month-old 500-sq-ft store also marks Lum's debut as a jewellery designer. Her line features mainly stackable rings and a selection of earrings and necklaces that she designed under the bycanary brand. Prices range from $1,290 for a gold and diamond ring to $4,600 for a gold ring with tourmalines and diamonds.

Lum, 41, picked up jewellery design from her father-in-law, a jeweller with more than 40 years of experience, by watching him work.

Also, "no one was really doing anything with coloured diamonds and I thought small stackable rings would be good so that people could wear them together interchangeably".On why her range focuses mainly on rings, she says: "I love rings so I gravitate towards designing them first."

The pieces are handmade by Canary Diamond craftsmen in Singapore. Lum designs with the help of these craftsmen, who translate her ideas into drawings.

She says she actively seeks the opinions of her parents-in-law.

"I never make something without consulting them first. Once, my mother-in-law commented that a pair of earrings I designed looked like bombs."

Lum says that the bycanary store fills a niche in Singapore - that of mid-range jewellery stores.

"My husband and I found that in Singapore, there were the collectors who were willing to spend a lot on precious stones and the fashion-forward people who spent a lot on jewellery that may not last," she says.

"We thought there was a consumer need for something that is precious and fun, but not pricey."

The couple started the shop with a friend Catherine Ho, 41, who left her job at HSBC Bank to start the business with them.

A 300 sq ft M.C.L by Matthew Campbell Laurenza stand-alone store at Paragon is also under Lum's charge.

She established a joint venture between American jewellery brand M.C.L by Matthew Campbell Laurenza and Canary Diamond in 2009. As part of the deal, the label is distributed by Canary Diamond in South-east Asia.

A highly sought-after model in the 1990s and film actress, with roles in local movies 12 Storeys (1997) and Chicken Rice War (2000), she says her former career has helped her in the jewellery business.

"As a model, you're constantly exposed to beautiful things and it helps to refine your taste in jewellery," says Lum, who majored in political science and English at the National University of Singapore.

"It gives you access to the media. Many fashion editors have shown support by borrowing my pieces for photo shoots."

The mother of a three-year-old son says people are often surprised when they see her at both bycanary and M.C.L at Paragon. She is there almost every day, serving customers.

"One thing I've learnt from my in-laws is that when you run a business you have to be physically present; you can't just leave it to the staff and expect things to sell," she says.


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Ase Wang, 32Barber shop owner

Do not be surprised if you bump into Eurasian actress and model Ase Wang manning the counter at hip-hop-themed barber shop Never Say Cutz in Bangkok. Or if the barbers there address her as "boss".

Six months ago, she opened a branch of the barber shop chain after buying the rights from her friend and hip-hop singer Prinya Intachai, who is also known as Way.

Her outlet at Ramkhamhaeng Soi 24 is among six Never Say Cutz barber shops in Bangkok. The rest are owned by Way, who started the chain in 2010. He is part of Thai hip-hop group Thaitanium.

On why she chose to enter the barber business, Wang says: "When it comes to starting a business, I'm not much of a risk taker. This is a good business to do because everyone has to cut his hair and Way has a huge following."

They met on the set of the 2010 Hollywood movie The Prince And Me 4: The Elephant Adventure, which they acted in together.

Born to a Chinese father and Swedish mother, the 32-year-old Bangkok-based Singaporean says her businessman father was the main reason she got into business. His family owns baking supplies chain Phoon Huat in Singapore.

"My dad always told me that the entertainment industry is great, but I could also use my name to run a business that I'm interested in," says Wang, who is single.

Like all the other Never Say Cutz outlets, her shop has the same street concept and also sells merchandise from Thai streetwear brands such as NVSC and Bangkok Invaders. Haircuts start from 250 baht (S$9.50). She says that all the outlets have a diverse mix of clients, including Thai celebrities.

She makes it a point to be at the shop at least once every two weeks.

The barber shop is close to a university and the National Stadium, which hosts large-scale concerts. Wang says both venues bring in a constant stream of customers.

"We get many people who get their haircuts before a concert," she says, but declined to say how much she has invested in the business.

She has been living in the Thai capital since 2007 and has carved out a promising acting career there, with roles in films such as Sick Nurses (2007) and Shambhala (2012). She recently wrapped up filming for a horror movie called The Rooms, which will be released in Thailand at the end of next month. She is currently in Los Angeles till the end of this month to audition for new television shows.

Asked if her fame has helped her barber business, Wang is quick to give her friend Way the credit.

"But perhaps I enhanced its popularity among foreigners," she says. "I have friends from Hong Kong and Los Angeles who get their hair cut here when they visit."

Last year, she also started selling clothes from Asian labels such as Mahasan and Tutti Frutti on American online multi-label boutique 80's Purple.

"I'm friends with the people at 80's Purple and I thought it would be great to open up the opportunity for these designers to sell in the United States," she says.

Wang is in the preliminary stages of working on her own clothing label, which will be sold on 80's Purple when it is launched. She is also collaborating on a mobile phone cover collection with French accessory brand Lucien Elements.

She says: "Being in the entertainment industry, you go from job to job. I never want to be in the situation where I don't have something to do."


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Sheila Sim, 29Modelling agency owner

With her tweed jacket, cropped trousers and heels, Sheila Sim looks every bit like a fashionable business woman.

The model-turned-actress strides into her office, clearly enjoying having one to go to.

On her desk stands a wooden letter "S" and a calendar with photographs of her friends from secondary school.

"I'm very proud of my desk," declares Sim, who shares the office space with her three business partners.

Last September, she started the modelling agency Nu Models, together with two agents from her former agency, Carrie Models International, and singer Olinda Cho.

"We just decided to start one over a casual conversation and two months later, Nu Models was up and running," says Sim, who says she left her former agency on good terms.

Though the conversation may have been casual, Sim's intentions were serious. She pumped in a five-figure sum for the business and intends to give it her best effort.

The agency currently represents about 20 models and artists including actor Jason Godfrey and singer Erika Tan, as well as designer Keith Png and make-up artist Clarence Lee.

"It's a natural progression. I want to pass on what I've learnt to new models and talent," she says. She was discovered at 16 by a talent scout while attending the wedding of her aunt Ivy Chng, a runway model in the 1980s.

The 1.74m-tall model has worked in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Milan. One of Singapore's top models, she has worked for labels such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Valentino, and was the first Singaporean to be an ambassador for skincare brand SK-II in 2012.

"A few years into modelling, I felt that it was a little mundane. As a model, there was only one aspect to the job - yourself. Now I have so many things to oversee, it's an exciting feeling to wake up to," adds Sim, who will groom the models recruited by the agency and scout for potential hires.

She models less frequently now, especially since she got into television acting last year. She appeared in last year's Channel 8 drama I'm In Charge.

Filming for her next starring role in a Channel 8 horror comedy drama - Ting, which means listen in Mandarin - starts next month. She plays a character with the ability to hear spirits, alongside actor Romeo Tan.

Setting up Nu Models is not her first business venture and she knows just how tough it is. In 2012, she launched a womenswear label, Sceneplicity, which was sold at several multi-label boutiques.

She says she made only "marginal profits" and has now taken a break from designing, though she still sells some of her old designs at Mu Apparel in Bugis Junction.

"Fashion is a tough business to go into. There are so many labels and shoppers have so many options," says Sim, who has a diploma in sales and marketing from the Marketing Institute of Singapore.

But she is not giving up her dreams of owning a fashion retail business.

The singleton hopes to open a boutique modelled after the South Korean multi-label store Aland, known for carrying affordable products, designer labels and vintage pieces all under one roof. She says her plans for this are still in the very early stages.

"Shopping should be an experience. But I don't know if I can do this in Singapore because of high rentals," she says.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 14, 2014

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