International Women’s Day has always had a special meaning here at Her World. Over the decades, we have been supporting women from all walks of life through empowering stories centred around equality, independence and resilience.
This year, we’re shining the spotlight on the fashion industry with a focus on the next generation of women-led fashion labels in Singapore. It’s no easy feat for fashion designers to survive and make a name for themselves on our little red dot, and these four women show how they overcame these challenges to emerge stronger and more confident. We celebrate these inspiring women who’re slowly, but surely, paving the way for the future of Singapore’s fashion landscape.
Continue reading to discover more about Bessie Ye, Rena Kok, Nida Shay and Silvia Teh as they share with us everything from what inspires them, to recovering from setbacks, and life lessons they’ve learned along the way.
When Bessie created her womenswear label r y e in 2016, she knew that she wanted to focus on timelessness. Instead of jumping on the fast fashion bandwagon, Bessie believed in the “less is more” approach. The result: Capsule collections that feature pared-down, everyday pieces that can see you through many years to come. The brand’s Classic Muscle tees and Cupro drawstring flared pants are some of their bestsellers.
The brand’s philosophy of creating timeless pieces worn with love again and again, is also because it aims to be an environmentally conscious brand. “We have to constantly challenge our thoughts and actions to find ways to be more mindful and inclusive,” Bessie explains. Ultimately, Bessie and her team want to create a wholesome space for everyone to feel good in.
As for her inspiration, Bessie draws references from different sources including the art movements like Dada and Surrealism in the early ’20s, Bessie shares that her creative process includes “constant dialogues and forming connections between the worlds of art, design, and fashion”.
“I find it to be incredibly beautiful and charming when ideation is supported by great craftsmanship — that’s when the magic happens,” she says.
Hi Bessie, let’s start from the beginning. How did you become interested in fashion?
Bessie: I’ve always been fascinated by how things were made and where they came from. Growing up, I was rather conscious about style and what I wore. So I guess enrolling at a design or fashion school seemed like a natural progression of things.
At which point in your life did you decide to start your own label?
Bessie: I was 26 when I decided to leave my full-time fashion job as a head merchandiser. Although it was a promising career, it didn’t fulfil me.
I realised that working in fast fashion wasn’t my Ikigai (a Japanese belief that everybody has a reason for living). My values didn’t align with what I was doing at my previous job. I needed to find a way that I could fuel my creativity and at the same time, build something that is authentic to me — something that I could be passionate about.
So I decided to start r y e — and that took a lot of courage. I didn’t have a business plan, to be honest. I took it one day at a time — learning to resolve one challenge after another.
Speaking of challenges, what are some roadblocks you’ve faced since you started r y e?
Bessie: When I first started, the focus was on building brand presence and finding like-minded customers. As we moved on to the next phase, aside from coping with the challenges brought about by Covid-19, we were looking to build our team. It is so important to surround yourself with people whose values align with you and your brand.
Talking about Covid-19, did it affect your business?
Bessie: During those times, business activities had to be shifted to online and that forced us to step out of our comfort zone. We had to challenge ourselves to do things differently and be very prudent with our decisions. Overall, I think we did pretty alright.
However, our brick and mortar retailers took the biggest hit. We observed a shift in consumers’ mindsets, supply chains and business economics. Plans that we had for business expansion had to be frozen for the time being too. The toughest challenge is dealing with the uncertainty ahead of us.
We are thankful to have been able to get through these challenges and continue being authentic without having to compromise our brand identity and values. We are definitely looking forward to an optimistic economic recovery this year.
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Wearing the right clothes can boost our confidence, and stylist/designer Rena knows that. “I’m not someone with perfect body proportion and size,” she explains. “I know it doesn’t feel great when an outfit hugs you in the wrong places.”
Which is why when she debuted her namesake brand in 2019, one of her main design focus was that whatever she designed, complemented the wearer’s body. The same year, she participated in Harper’s BAZAAR Asia NewGen Fashion Award and snagged the second runner-up position.
Today, she counts her leather dresses, peekaboo tops and macro pleat skorts as some of her crowd favourites. Rena’s vision is to empower women with her designs, and to give them that effortless confidence regardless of their body proportions.
“The majority of my pieces are designed to accentuate the natural curve of a woman’s body. I want my customers to feel a surge of confidence when they wear my designs.”
Hi Rena, how did your interest in fashion design develop?
Rena: I’m an experimental person by nature and I’ve always been very hands-on in arts and crafts as a kid. I almost never missed an episode of British children’s television programme Art Attack. I always get really excited whenever Neil Buchanan worked on a new project, and I would always try to do the same.
Growing up, I drew a lot of outfits too. Although I was horrible at it, most importantly, I still enjoyed it. I guess that was how I knew I wanted to pursue a career in arts and fashion.
So, what made you start your own fashion brand?
Rena: I’m a big fan of Iris van Herpen, Anrealage, and Schiaparelli. I figured if I wasn’t working for the fashion house that I loved, I should start my own brand as a creative outlet. My mum was an entrepreneur herself and she was the one who encouraged me to pursue my field of interest.
It’s so wonderful to have such a supportive mum. How did you ease into the business side of your brand?
Rena: Since I’m a trained designer and not a businesswoman, the logistics of setting up a business was frustrating as my intention was to only focus on the design and production. It took a lot of trial and error as well as trust.
Thankfully, I received a lot of help and motivation from my mentors, family and friends including the Harper’s BAZAAR team, my mum and lecturers from my polytechnic and university.
I first started producing in a made-to-order model with tailors in Singapore. From there, I slowly identified my bestsellers and with that, I took a step forward to start producing those designs in larger quantities.
What are some challenges that you’ve encountered so far?
Rena: Maintaining my production costs is one of the other challenges that I faced. The resources and materials that are used can be quite expensive, especially if I were to get them in Singapore.
Language barrier is another challenge as I produce some of my products in countries such as Indonesia and China. To overcome that, I use basic terms and visuals as well as Google translate to help convey what I want to them.
Give us a little insight on your design process.
Rena: It involves conceptualising and developing the concept, sketching and doing my own drafts as well as revising them. I often create paper patterns as well as production and revision of physical samples.
My design inspirations vary — from shows and films such as Black Mirror, Extinction and Annihilation to ambient sounds around me. I collaborated with a local artist/image maker Phua Juan Yong in 2019 to translate materials and sounds into digital forms, and embedded it into a piece of augmented reality (AR) garment.
“I want the women I design for to embrace their own beauty and feel confident in what they wear,” says Nida Shay about her eponymous label. Having majored in economics in university, Nida made the switch from finance to fashion, pursuing her fashion degree at Parsons School of Design in Paris. Her love for hand embroidery has become a common theme throughout her collections, and she counts the royal family in the UAE as some of her prestigious clientele.
Nida describes her label as a cross-generational brand for all shapes and sizes and she’s a strong advocate when it comes to sustainability and workmanship. “I am a supporter of the artisans in Pakistan. My role as a designer is to preserve traditional craftsmanship while creating modern silhouettes. I wanted to bring awareness to the various techniques that stem from different areas of the region and embrace the art behind them,” she explains.
Some of Nida’s coveted and investment-worthy designs include signature capes and jackets handsewn by way of zardozi embroidery (an Iranian form of heavy and elaborate metal embroidery on silk, satin or velvet) in silver and gold, command a five-figure price tag.
Hi Nida, share with us what sparked your interest in fashion.
Nida: I credit it entirely to my mother. As a little girl, I used to love watching her get ready. She used to wear the most luxurious dresses in the brightest colours made of the finest French chiffons, organzas and silks. My father taught me a lot about French designers, art, culture and the beauty of it all, while my mother taught me about fabrics and the art of hand embroidery.
What an awesome childhood! So is that why you decided to start your own brand?
Nida: I always knew I wanted to be a designer and to create a luxury brand that reflects my vision. The very first collection I ever designed was exclusively for my friends, the princesses of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, UAE. They are the wives and daughters of the ruling family and they are called Sheikhas.
For them, I designed a collection of kandooras which are traditional dresses that Arabic women wear, as well as non-traditional pieces like evening dresses, skirts and tops.
After moving to Singapore from Dubai where I first set up my atelier, I rebranded and founded Nida Shay — a brand that would have a more global vision and design aesthetic.
That’s quite a major change for you and your brand.
Nida: Singapore was a completely new world for me. I had no connection, no idea of what to expect and how I would start but I told myself that no matter what, I was going to make it happen. I had to quickly learn to work remotely, I could no longer be in my creative space with my artisans and tailors who are based in Dubai.
Kudos on your resilience. What were other challenges that you faced?
Nida: When I moved here in 2009, I realised that there was no platform to showcase local designers. I just didn’t know where to begin and how to set up, but that didn’t stop me.
I started designing and creating pieces, I had a rack set up by my dining table where I would work from and hang my creations, I started wearing them out and people started asking me about my designs. Soon, by word of mouth, people were interested in having pieces designed by me. Although it was a slow process, I didn’t give up.
When you’re designing, what are you inspired by?
Nida: Most of my inspiration for the embroidery patterns comes from nature, architecture, art and travel. I find beauty and inspiration in the smallest of things that help me visualise and create a pattern in my mind.
NIDA SHAY is available at nidashay.com.
Silvia Teh created her eponymous fashion brand when she won the Harper’s BAZAAR Asia New Generation Fashion Designer Award in 2015. Her “armour-like suits” channel her vision of self-empowerment through design.
The 26-year-old counts John Galliano as a designer she looks up to. “He has a very expressive and somewhat poetic way of interpreting fashion,” shares Silvia. Her most well-received designs? Anything that boasts an off-shoulder detail.
“The first off-shoulder piece that I introduced was a white top that had a big voluminous bishop sleeve attached to it. The second version of this design, which is more structural with a peplum detail and a shoulder pad, was very popular too. Both of them are sold out now,” she concludes happily.
Hi Silvia, is being a fashion designer your dream occupation?
Silvia: I’ve toyed with the idea of making clothes since I was young, but I didn’t realise till I was 14 that a fashion designer was a job that actually existed. I wish I could tell you an interesting story on how it came about, but the truth is that I was watching a Taiwanese romance drama called Tokyo Juliet which was about a fashion designer — that’s how I fell in love with fashion design.
That’s unexpected and interesting. And is that how you decided to start your own fashion label?
Silvia: I love being an entrepreneur. I’ve run multiple side businesses since high school, so it was natural for me to start a fashion brand once I graduated.
We’re loving your entrepreneurial spirit. When it comes to your collections, what inspires you?
Silvia: I often find inspiration from my day-to-day life, from things I observe or from the people I meet — their stories, their style, etc. For example, my latest collection which is a collaboration with design studio Onlewo, is inspired by their fabrics and the founders Mike Tay and Eugene Yip.
I’m inspired by Mike’s way of thinking. Specifically, his method of mixing colours, shapes and objects is somewhat poetic. I like that every piece of fabric design has a story to tell.
Personally, my search for inspiration is pretty organic. I also go through dry spells when I don’t feel inspired at all. But when I do, everything moves quickly from design to production.
What were some of the challenges that you faced from starting your own brand to now?
Silvia: Building my business from scratch was the hardest. I sold only three dresses in my first year. My business has now grown about 17 times compared to when I first started. I’ve learned about the importance of having a marketing strategy and the big difference that it makes.
My website is my main revenue stream and I realised that the more expensive your products are, the lower the sales conversion rate. That’s why marketing and content strategy is crucial. I also rely quite heavily on my social media to grow my sales.
We’re glad that you persevered and overcame that. Tell us, what does your brand stand for?
Silvia: Silvia Teh believes in shaping a woman’s confidence through our designs. The Silvia Teh woman is someone edgy and not afraid to stand out from the crowd. She’s strong, fearless and empowered, and knows what she wants.
When a woman wears a Silvia Teh creation, I want her to feel like a superwoman. I want her to feel like she can conquer the day in my designs.
r y e, Renakok Collection and Silvia Teh are available at Design Orchard.
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