Interview with the owners of Vanda Fine Clothing
Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 489), June 20 – July 3, 2014
By Tan Shu Yan
Epoch Times Staff
There is a classic menswear shop in the middle of a factory complex in Geylang. And it’s been doing extremely well.
Despite its admittedly strange location, Vanda Fine Clothing is a small business that Gerald Shen and his wife Diana Chan have run successfully since its inception three years ago. The business was started out of the couple’s passion for making neckties and pocket squares. To start the business, Gerald had to give up on a potential career in the finance industry, and Diana had to quit her job at a hotel–despite having just received a promotion at the time.
The pair design and make neckties and pocket squares, which they sell on their online store. They roll out new designs every two weeks, and nearly everything is sewn together by hand.
Daily operations appear fairly straightforward and deceptively simple. Orders are managed using Microsoft Excel and a small whiteboard hung on a wall. The three workbenches in the centre of the shop are just enough for Gerald, Diana, and their single staff member to work on.
But business has been brisk, and their products are certainly in demand. Gerald estimates that there are perhaps no more than 20 hand-sewn tie-makers such as themselves left in the world. The neckties and pocket squares made at Vanda Fine Clothing are sold to customers all over the world.
But it is easy to feel the pride and dedication they place in their work.
“Every piece that we sell we would personally wear,” Gerald told The Epoch Times, “A lot of our clients tell us that they can close their eyes and pick any one of our ties to go with their business attire, and it would probably go.”
Tell us about how you started your business.
Gerald: We started this business in 2009 when I was still in school. It all started with a trip to Japan, where I bought some kimono silk with the idea of having my tailor line the inside of my jacket with it, but she refused because it was too difficult to work with. So it was just lying in my room when one day, Eureka! Why not make pocket squares out of it? I knew that Diana–then still my girlfriend–knew how to sew, so I asked her to sew one for me.
But there was enough cloth to make several pocket squares, so we tried selling the extras on Styleforum, the biggest online forum for menswear. Pretty soon we had a waiting list of a couple of weeks, and people liked it because it was unique and fairly priced.
Diana: Initially it was quite fun, but then the orders started rolling in. So when other couples were out going on dates, we would stay home and sew. I had a full-time events job then, and it came to a point when I was very tired from all the sewing. That convinced Gerald to pick it up as well, and in early 2011, we started making and selling neckties on the forum too.
We did this for 4 or 5 months until he graduated, when we took a vacation to the U.S. to visit some friends. I saw a lot of small businesses that people ran from their front porches, and I thought that it would be nice if we could do this for real.
G: Somewhere down the line we realised that we actually enjoyed doing this, and that this was a product that people were really interested in. It made business sense to start the business.
So when we got back from the U.S., she said, “Let’s do this,” and I said “Let me deal with this first, you don’t quit your job yet,” but she said “No, no, I’m going to quit tomorrow.” And she did. So in September 2011, we finally launched this business.
What is your customer base like?
G: In Singapore our business is quite small; we sell largely to the U.S., Europe, and Australia. About maybe, 10% of our business is local, which is why we can choose to locate in an industrial area. Around 60% of our customers are repeat clients.
The difference in our business model is that we sell directly to customers, so there are very few steps in the supply chain. We buy directly from the people who weave the cloth–from small companies in Japan, England, and Italy–who weave our cloth in small batches. The manufacturing is all done in this shop, and we sell directly to our customers through our website. So we basically cut out at least two intermediaries, which is why we can afford to sell high quality products at very low prices.
Do you have a close relationship with your suppliers?
D: We only get to travel once a year to visit our weavers, so it’s either Europe or Japan. Because we’re a very small company, it’s a way for them to remember us, what we do, and the kind of fabrics we like. To maintain a close relationship also involves a lot of emailing, and they send us swatches (fabric samples) whenever possible.
G: They have to know what we want, because their archives literally have hundreds of thousands of designs. But after communicating with them for a while, they started to recognise the types of fabrics we’d buy, and they began sending us more appropriate fabrics as well.
It’s not that we don’t want to buy local, but there is no necktie industry in Singapore, so there is no one here who sells necktie fabric.
Has anything in particular shaped the way you run your business?
G: One of the things that struck me before we started our business was the way many SMEs treated their staff. When Diana was working at her events job, one of the things I really hated was how her boss, who paid his staff miserly wages, drove a Maserati! There he was, coming in from 9 to 5 every day in his Maserati, while his staff worked 18 hours a day and were only paid S$1,800 a month. I really couldn’t stand that disparity because when you go through the accounts, you know how much they were making from each event. And none of the staff were getting paid according to performance at all.
Seeing that inequality drove me nuts, and I didn’t want to place myself in the position where you just work for the company like a cog in the wheel, and no matter how hard you work, you get the same remuneration. I believe in treating my staff fairly, and when she says she needs to go home, whether or not she has leave, we usually let her go, and the two of will stay behind to finish the work.
D: And she also understands that when it is crunch time, and she has to bring more work home, she will do it, but of course we also pay her for the overtime. It’s a win-win situation.
G: We wanted to be as fair as possible when we designed her pay, in a way that would motivate her to work, so that every day she can see her results. And it’s also really just being a good human being; you treat someone the way you would expect to be treated.
Do you have any future plans to expand your business into more outlets?
G: No, not really, there will only be one Vanda Fine Clothing.
Do you feel any pressure from competition?
G: We are a very, very niche business. There are under maybe 20 high-level tie-makers left in the world, and I would say we offer very good value in the market; it would be very hard for them to compete directly against us at the same prices and level of quality.
D: Over the past few years, we’ve noticed a lot more necktie companies springing up in countries such as Australia, the U.S., and Sweden. But these companies simply outsource the tie-making to factories in Italy, who also produce for a lot of other companies. That’s why a lot of these necktie retailers have very similar neckties. On the other hand, our customers know that we make our own products, and we also source for our own cloth instead of buying fabrics that we know other retailers already use.
How do you feel about being your own boss now?
G: When you own your own business and are working for it, you get a sense of satisfaction, so even though it’s very tough, it’s very fulfilling because you know you’re making someone happy doing something you like. But it’s certainly much harder than a day job.
D: I think a lot of people have the misconception that being your own boss is very easy because you can be very flexible with yourself, but it actually takes a lot of discipline to ensure that you come to work on time so that you can leave on time, and so that your workers take you and their own work very seriously.
Do you have any other interesting stories about your business to share?
G: We have a no-sale policy here, because we try to keep our prices fair and transparent. Many retailers like to mark up their prices when they first release their collections, then discount their prices once the hype dies down. I hate that, because it forces customers to buy at overly-inflated prices. The way we do it is that we have one price, because everything is made by hand and we don’t save any time if you buy one or buy ten.
But on our wedding day in December last year, we ran a one-time 24-hour sale for fun, to thank our customers. What we saw was… very, very ugly (laughs).
D: By the time we woke up, there were all sorts of crazy emails. People who had bought things 3 months ago were asking for partial refunds. And there were so many orders that it took us 3 weeks just to finish writing everything down on our white board. In fact when we set the discount at 20 percent, we actually wondered if it wasn’t enough. If it had been more, we would probably still be clearing orders now (laughs).
G: We did get quite a few new customers though, so that was still a good thing. Probably wouldn’t ever do it again though.
Do you feel that your higher education has helped you in your business?
G: Honestly, I went into university wanting to go into the finance industry, perhaps be an investment banker for 5 years, make enough money, and then do something else altogether. But over the course of university, seeing everyone else being crazy like that, I realised that wasn’t what I wanted to be. I gradually realised that I would rather do something that I like, rather than just working for money.
But in terms of the skills, the analytical skills I picked up from finance and accounting really helped a lot in making pricing decisions and in cost-related matters. Diana studied business as well, so with both of our backgrounds in marketing, we knew what we wanted in terms of branding.
D: To be very honest, I think our degrees helped in establishing the business, but to keep it going you have to be very true to yourself, to what you initially set out to do. If you say at the start that you want to do classic menswear, but change halfway through, or succumb to certain bad decisions just because you want to bring in more money, then it’s not going to last.
G: When you’re doing a business of your own passion, it’s very important to be authentic, because you may be able to bluff your customers for a month, but over the course of 3 years people will find out for sure. If you don’t stick to your guns, it’s not going to be a sustainable business.
Vanda Fine Clothing can be visited at their website vandafineclothing.com, or at their store at Blk 1014 Geylang East Ave 3 #02-218 on Sat 0900 – 1700 or Sun 1300 – 1700.
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