Ditching lucrative careers to pursue a passion for fashion

No fashion background? No problem. Founders of three local businesses share what drove them to leave a good pay cheque or juggle two jobs

When planning their future, most Singaporeans are thought to aim for the same ideals - good jobs, steady pay cheques and risk-free careers.

After all, even though working for a corporation might not always be the most fulfilling path, the promise of cash coming in every month is often motivation enough to keep one going. But these days, it seems that more people are less averse to taking risks and want more - a role that offers fulfilment. These are the sorts who are willing to juggle busy workloads or give up lucrative pay to pursue entrepreneurship dreams.

There have been early successful examples, such as former lawyer Priscilla Shunmugam, who changed careers to start Singapore-based contemporary womenswear label Ong Shunmugam in 2010.

More seem to be following in her footsteps.

According to a 2016 global survey by website host company GoDaddy, fuelled by the ease of technology and a desire for independence, 74 per cent of the 500 millennials surveyed in Singapore plan to create their own business or be self-employed in a decade, far exceeding the 50 per cent figure for millennials globally.

Entrepreneurship is never easy - more so if one's professional career has little to do with the industry one is looking to venture into. For older professionals, there is also much to lose when deciding to dive into a new venture.

The founders behind three local businesses tell The Straits Times why it has been worth it to pursue their passion for fashion.


Finding meaning in motivational jewellery

A challenging environment at work - think daily deadlines and long hours - sparked the idea for The Mindful Company, a local firm that makes jewellery etched with motivational messages.

Its co-founders Lim Wen Ling, a former tax adviser, and Ciara Yeo, a former corporate lawyer, felt that simple jewellery pieces with such messages could serve as meaningful reminders to stay positive throughout the day.

The friends, who met six years ago, are both permanent residents who moved from Australia to Singapore to work. They now live here with their Singaporean husbands.

"At the time, our offices were in Raffles Place, so we would meet regularly to run in the evening," says Ms Yeo, 31. "It was during this time, while bonding over our busy work environments, that we came up with the idea of our first product, the reminder cuff."

The duo felt that a thin stainless-steel cuff, which could be glanced at while typing at a computer, would serve as encouragement for the wearer during a long day.

"We did not set out to leave our jobs or be entrepreneurs in any way - we don't have any form of a fashion background at all," says Ms Lim, 33, who is expecting her second child. "It was just a small side project... a fun thing to do outside of our jobs."


Calculated move to leave well-paying jobs

Their first batch of 20 bracelets - which they designed and manufactured overseas - sold out fast by word of mouth, thanks to the support of friends and family, who not only bought the pieces, but also advertised them on social media.

The uplifting messages and affordable $48 price point meant that people who saw them wearing the pieces or saw the items on social media wanted to buy them for friends as well.

The organic growth led to the creation of a company, which resulted in Ms Lim and Ms Yeo setting up a website and spending their time after work packing orders and making runs to the post office.

By August 2015, with sales ranging in the thousands, Ms Yeo decided to leave her job to focus on The Mindful Company full time. Ms Lim, who was pregnant at the time, followed suit six months later.

The two say their decision to leave their well-paying and stable jobs was a calculated move. "Our backgrounds meant looking at a profit-and-loss statement was not foreign to us," says Ms Yeo.

Still, there were teething problems. The duo recall cold sourcing for vendors, being unsatisfied with samples and pushing back launch dates as they were unhappy with the quality of their product.

They focused on tweaking theircuffs for a year before introducing their next product, reminder braids - braided bracelets featuring an engraved message - at end-2016.

Today, the brand has grown to a team of nine, has more than 55,000 followers on Instagram and has shipped orders to over 50 countries. The duo have expanded their line-up to include rings, earrings and tote bags. Items are priced between $39 and $120. Since 2016, the brand has also been stocked at Tangs department stores and yoga shop Touch The Toes in Singapore, as well as in multi-label boutiques in Australia, Britain and the United Arab Emirates.

The duo also frequently collaborate with non-profit organisations, such as the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH). Their newest collaboration, a collection of totes designed by SAMH's YouthReach project - a programme for children and youth with emotional or psychological issues - will launch this week, with $10 from the sale of each tote going to SAMH.

For Ms Yeo and Ms Lim, seeing how far they have come continues to be a source of pride. "We've built a company with a mission that we believe in and have loyal customers who give us feedback," Ms Yeo says. "That fuels our passion to keep doing the best we can."


Close friends Jassica Lee (left) and Ng Ping Ching (right), who work in the banking sector, and Sheralyn Tay (centre), who runs her own editorial consultancy, founded Tria the Label in 2016.
Close friends Jassica Lee (left) and Ng Ping Ching (right), who work in the banking sector, and Sheralyn Tay (centre), who runs her own editorial consultancy, founded Tria the Label in 2016. ST PHOTO: LEE JIA WEN

Clothes label a creative outlet and reprieve from busy lives

By day, Ms Ng Ping Ching, Ms Sheralyn Tay and Ms Jassica Lee are busy corporate types holding stressful jobs with tight deadlines and long hours. Ms Ng and Ms Lee work in the banking sector and Ms Tay runs her own editorial consultancy.

By night - and all through weekends - the friends delve into a different kind of work: running their local women's clothing brand, Tria the Label.

Tria - which translates to "three" in Latin - was launched in August 2016 as a passion project borne of the trio's love for fashion.

They met in 2015 while practising yoga at the same studio, bonding when they realised they shared a sartorial aesthetic for pieces that are classic and timeless, with interesting details and a slight vintage twist.

Ms Ng, 37, marketing director at Bank of Singapore and a self-confessed shopaholic, said the idea for Tria took form in 2016 when she realised her wardrobe was bursting with ill-fitting items bought on a whim. Similarly, Ms Tay, 36, was moving houses in that year and realised how many clothes she had that she had barely ever worn. Both are married and do not have children.

At the end of the day, when we get compliments and see people wearing our designs, it makes the long hours and hard work worthwhile.

MS JASSICA LEE, co-founder of Tria the Label and a private banker at Citibank

However, Ms Lee, who is single, had taken another route. Fond of unique and fitted pieces instead of mass-market designs, the 36-year-old who works in private banking at Citibank had been tailoring pieces with a local seamstress for over a decade.

"It was only when we started talking about the benefit of having wellfitting, classic pieces that I realised we might have an idea on our hands," says Ms Ng.

"There was a market for women like myself who appreciate good fabric or a well-designed piece, but might not know a tailor to get clothes made. And that's where Jassica's experience tailoring pieces and her long-standing relationship with her seamstress fit in perfectly."

The trio say it took only three months for Tria to go from idea to conception. Their concept is not to produce dresses wholesale, but to source unique fabrics, create timeless designs and sell them on a preorder basis. Once ordered, their dresses are tailored locally.

This, they say, keeps the business sustainable and helps manage time, cost and wastage. Prices range between $200 and $300 for a dress. It takes between three and six weeks for a piece to be made, depending on the complexity of the design.

To keep the pieces unique, they buy interesting fabrics found on their travels to places such as Japan, Bangkok and Europe - sometimes lugging home 90kg of fabric at a time - and release designs as limited-edition collections.

Their varied skill sets have come in handy in keeping the business running smoothly, despite their hectic day jobs. Ms Ng handles marketing, Ms Tay the operations of the site and the content production as chief financial officer, and Ms Lee the finances and logistics.

They meet every weekend to discuss ideas, consult with their tailor and quality-check their pieces.

"It can be a toll to run a business while working full time, but in a way, it has helped that we can split the workload three ways and each work to our strengths," says Ms Tay. "It's our reprieve from our busy lives and a creative outlet for each of us."

Since its launch, Tria has released 30 designs and the trio have held trunk shows so customers can see the clothes, feel the fabrics and try on the pieces. Besides their growing local following, the brand has also shipped orders to Malaysia, Hong Kong and London.

For Ms Lee, what keeps her going is being able to work with her friends and making pieces she can be proud of.

"We've been lucky that we've been able to work together so well and keep things professional, despite being close friends as well," she says, adding that they are open to pursuing this full time in the future. "At the end of the day, when we get compliments and see people wearing our designs, it makes the long hours and hard work worthwhile."


Parents fill gap in children's fashion

Husband and wife Guo Zhiyong and Ho Shi Min juggle many hats. In 2015, the couple started children's shoe e-tailer, schocs 'n' schues, as a one-stop shop for trendy and affordable leather shoes for children up to age six.

Seven months ago, they started The Playfair, a pop-up storethat stocks the shoe brands they import as well as a curated selection of 50 local brands selling children's lifestyle products.

Even though it requires a lot of sacrifice - of time, money and sleep - it's been a small price to pay to build something from the ground up.

MR GUO ZHIYONG, who runs schocs 'n' schues and The Playfair with his wife Ho Shi Min

And in October last year, they launched their own leather shoe brand, Shokunin, for adults and children. Their first collection came after successful funding on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, on which they raised $21,000.

All this despite neither having any background in entrepreneurship or fashion. Mr Guo comes from a corporate finance background, while Ms Ho continues to hold a full-time job as an auditor in a bank.

The desire to start a business together and venture into the children's fashion industry was sparked only after they became parents in 2014 and found themselves with few options for high-quality, affordable shoes for their son.

"You had to go the designer route and splurge on a pair of leather shoes or settle for something quite basic," says Ms Ho. "There was hardly any middle ground and we found ourselves, like many parents back then, constantly trying to shop online for something unique and comfortable for our son."

Realising there was a gap in the market, they decided to explore the idea of a curated, e-commerce shoe store for children - offering an imported selection for kids.

At the time, Mr Guo had just left his job in corporate finance, giving him the time to visit local trade fairs and speak to brands from countries such as Brazil, Australia and the United States about selling their shoes online.

"It took a lot of convincing," he says with a laugh. "Many brands were apprehensive because we were contemplating a new enterprise and didn't have experience running a fashion-centric business, nor did we have a shopfront. Even the ones we managed to convince came around only after much coaxing and many Skype calls."

It took four months for the duo to get their first few brands on board and launch their online shopin 2015. With the venture taking shape, Mr Guo decided to focus on the business full time instead of going back to the corporate world, while Ms Ho helped with marketing and social media while juggling her full-time job.

The couple started off marketing their shoes at local pop-up fairs over weekends, which got them acquainted with founders of other local children's brands. Realising, however, that these short pop-ups were time-consuming, the idea for The Playfair was sparked - a concept showcasing a range of brands and changing location every six months or so.

The first iteration of their pop-up opened in Millenia Walk in June last year with about 15 brands. The brands pay the couple a commission for the sale of items and do notpay rent, which is fully absorbed by Mr Guo and Ms Ho.

After a successful six-month run, The Playfair reopened last week at a larger space at Suntec City, this time offering more than 50 curated brands.

Also available for the first time at the pop-up are the Shokunin shoes, which they designed and are manufactured in Spain. The high-top leather shoes cost $129 for children and $219 for adults. A new collection is slated for release next month.

For the duo, making difficult decisions about their steady careers and keeping their fashion enterprise going has been challenging and rewarding.

"We're enjoying it," he says. "Even though it requires a lot of sacrifice - of time, money and sleep - it's been a small price to pay to build something from the ground up.

"It's a very proud feeling to not only start and grow our own brand, but to also help other local businesses along at the same time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline 'Diving into fashion'. Print Edition | Subscribe