I had chalked up close to a seven-figure debt and I was working multiple jobs to raise my son.
I started this 15 years ago when I was still juggling three full-time jobs and two freelance stints. I had inherited close to a seven-figure debt and I was working to support the family. That forced me to pick up the sewing needle again. I had no capital to do any branding or even buy raw materials so I came up with a made-to-measure model. I’d collect a sufficient deposit to purchase fabric to custom-make a gown and convince my customers to rent it instead of buying it. That way, I could create a stockpile of bridal couture outfits while working on new designs.
I was operating out of my 3-room HDB unit and by a few months, it had become almost inhabitable.
All my rooms were filled with dresses and I had converted my kitchen into a workshop. My son’s room was the make-shift fitting room so he’d wait at the void deck with his toys until all the customers had finished their fitting. Looking back, that was rather dangerous because he was only 8. But at the moment, I was so desperate to make ends meet. I remember waiting till night to wash and dry my gowns and when I hung them out, the trains would reach the windows of at least two floors below my unit. It was definitely an amusing sight!
Every morning while sending my son to school, I’d lug some gowns to the market nearby and pass them to heartland tailor shops for alteration. Many of these shops were empty too and it was a win-win situation. These were how my operations ran for a good three years. By the second year, I had already given up my day job to commit full-time to grow my business even though I still did not have a brand. I was simply known as the woman with affordable bridal gowns in Ang Mo Kio (a heartland estate in Singapore). It did take a lot of faith and sweat for me to quit my job. I made sure I had enough disposable income from my bridal gown hustle but making the switch helped me clear off my debt a lot faster.
‘God’ told me to reach out to bridal shops that were bankrupt and to offer my help to them. I know it sounds crazy but I had nothing to lose so I did it.
I approached these shops and many of them were in a frenzy to lay off their seamstresses and get rid of their materials. So I ended up adopting some staff who needed a new job and an assortment of different items. That explains why my shop is filled with different colored racks and mannequins. Nothing is homogenous because they were all taken in before the original owners discarded them away.
During this process, a lot of customers who had paid for their package were left in the dark too. Some of the shop owners had completely vanished irresponsibly. So I took them on as my clients at no extra charge and finished up their dresses for them. And I learned a lot from the inside out: I knew all the do’s and don’ts by directly interacting with every stakeholder and touchpoint in the bridal business.
The bridal gowns at my shop have a very wide size range because I never said no to my customers.
Working my way from the ground up and being directly involved with customers, allowed to come up with a lot more inclusive and bold designs. I always took it upon myself to make them happy since I could not afford to reject a sale. This resulted in a mix of ‘odd’-colored and sized outfits that beats the range of many other shops. It also helped me stay creative and innovative in my designs.
Not many people know this but I was also blessed to have been mentored by Tan Yoong: A Singaporean bridal fashion legend.
I first met him when I happened to meet him on a flight back from an overseas course. He opened up to me about how he wanted to scale down his business as demand for couture bridal pieces had dropped by a lot. Fast fashion and production had taken a toll on his sales. At his peak, he was selling a single cheongsam with a five figure price tag. We became close friends and he took me in as his mentee and I learned so much more. We were supposed to get into a joint venture but before we could negotiate a proper partnership, he passed on. However, I carried on his legacy through my designs and creative approach in my pieces. I never wanted to ride on his wave after his death so I kept to my own brand.
I inherited his seamstresses too and they still work with me today. I keep my rental prices low and affordable because I want to stay true to my roots. It’s just odd for me to hike prices up just because I became successful. However, I do want to focus on doing more custom-made pieces now, because I know I have what it takes.
Once in a while, I embark on a crazy idea for the fun of it. Last year I started on an elaborate hand-cut and hand-painted cheongsam. It took me one year to complete because I had to dry the dress each time after painting a section of it. It was a bold phoenix-themed statement piece. One of my customers was really obsessed with birds and embroidery and she showed me this photo of a phoenix. I knew that it wasn’t something most people would rent but I worked on it anyways.
In my current shop right now, I have a backroom of all my archived pieces. They’re really special and I believe you wouldn’t be able to find them anywhere else.
I think many business owners in my profession become too obsessed with profitability that they end up producing very run-of-the-mill pieces. And everything looks very saturated. For me, I always explore and experiment and am always drawing inspiration. I hand draw all my designs too so I carry a sketchbook with me. In my current shop right now, I have a backroom of all my archived pieces. They’re really special and I believe you wouldn’t be able to find them anywhere else. Once in a while when I do get customers who insist on wearing something unique and spectacular, I take these pieces out. It always makes their jaw drops.
If I look back, the main motivation that got me to where I am today was my huge debt. I think my experience was very unique and because of so many tribulations, I had the opportunity to inherit so many more blessings. These kinds of things don’t happen just like that. They’re an accumulation of blood, sweat, tears, and miracles.
I’d say if you want to taste success the way I did, you have to be prepared to sacrifice something.
It’s not impossible to make riches out of rags but the only way I did it was by working as hard as I possibly could. In the process, I lost so much but I turned my life around, ended up living my dreams, and carrying on the legacy of a fashion legend.
Have you ever hit rock bottom and recovered from it? What did it take to make it all worth it?