Nothing thrills Elim Chew more than being on the shopfloor. One minute she’s folding jeans and stacking them up neatly. The next, she’s wrapping a pair of aviators at the cash register. Then, she’s discussing nose rings with a lad who’s got more piercings than a sieve.
The founder and manager director of 77th Street relishes being in the thick of action. Never mind that she’s the boss of a streetwear empire with 12 stores in Singapore and five in Malaysia. Or that she’s helped conceptualise youth hubs, and landed a deal to manage five storeys of a Beijing mega-mall to draw in the hip and funky.
We would expect a boss to be in a plush office seat cutting million-dollar deals. Elim gets all that done and still finds time for the shopfloor.
It’s a hard habit to break. After all, Elim’s been selling streetwear since she set up shop in 1988 at just 21. She’s probably dressed half of Singapore’s teens, and many of the Prada-toting 30somethings remember the Doc Marten rage this former street kid helped fuel in the 80s.
Elim’s bleached hair, mismatched earrings, silver chokers and leather cuffs today set her apart from conventional power-suited bosses. And she still turns heads at the Istana when she visits as chairperson of the Women Entrepreneurs Chapter of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises.
But then, Elim’s always been like this. The former hairstylist used to sport purple hair and mismatched shoes. Now, at 36, she’s not about to change her style because she’s hit the big league. If anything, she’s expected to play up the hip image because of the nature of her business. Not that she needs encouragement. She’s the Peter Pan of retail—forever young.
“I love young people and like being with them. I party with my staff at Zouk, watch Star Wars movies and go wakeboarding with my customers,” enthuses this entrepreneur, who lives in a Bedok semi-D with her mum.
“But it isn’t true I can’t or don’t ‘grow up’. I just do it in my own way. I grow in depth.”
Being stuck in the office is an anathema, and typing out emails is not her idea of productive work. And all-day meetings are a “waste of time”. She’d really rather hop over to Far East Plaza and, literally, get down to business.
Elim’s philosophy is simple. You have to be in the frontline to understand the business and what better way to get up close to the customers?
In fact, all her senior staff get rostered time on the shopfloor to make sure they stay relevant to the needs of the fickle fashion industry. “If you are a manager, I expect you to be better than your staff. How can you lead them if you don’t know details such as the different types of silver?”
REBEL WITH A CAUSE
Today her chain of stores employs 120 people and has a turnover in excess of $11 million. But she remembers poignantly those tough times when she had just started 77th Street with her elder sister Sulim.
They made mistakes aplenty and learnt things the hard way. “I was looked upon as a rebel, possibly, because of my fashion sense. Nobody believed in me, so no one treated me seriously.”
Suppliers attempted to cheat the siblings. For example, shoes would arrive in sizes such as three or 10 (“How many people fit into these sizes?”), and had to be written off.
And as they weren’t familiar with credit or loan terms, they traded on a cash basis, meaning they faced budget constraints all the time.
The only good thing that came out of this was that they learnt not to owe anyone money and this eventually won them the trust of suppliers and associates.
To keep costs low, they had to be hands-on. “It was very hard work,” Elim says. “We’d fly more than 20 hours to the UK, spend two days stocking up and fly back to Singapore. Then it was a big rush to the shop to unpack and start selling.”
Flying by the cheapest airlines made things worse. “Sometimes, there were so many transits, we didn’t know where we were! When we went to Los Angeles on buying trips, we could afford only the cheapest motels, and we’d be woken up by gunshots outside!”
Legions of young people remain loyal to her stores because Elim’s seen as “one of them”. They don’t come only to buy her camouflage T-shirts; they turn to her for advice on relationships, parents, even marriage when they grow up.
On one occasion, a girl, who was being tailed by a group of boys, sought help at the shop. Elim promptly despatched a male staffer to accompany her to get a taxi home.
Her coloured hair, once a liability in business, has now turned into an asset. Because she’s so closely associated with the youth, she’s been roped in by organisations like The Young Entrepreneur Mastery who want her to play mentor.
It’s a role she welcomes. A deeply religious Christian, she’s especially concerned about teenagers at risk. Because they aren’t as academically inclined as their peers, they run the risk of turning to crime, and she wants to give them direction.
“I come across many teens on the verge of dropping out of school because they don’t like studying. I don’t try to dissuade them, but I’ll give them a new perspective on the situation.
“For people who don’t know what to do with their future, I tell them to do something they’re interested in. If you love bikes, you might want to become a bike mechanic. And if you want to be a bike mechanic, be the best you can be,” she says.
This former rebel holds a lot more street credibility with this crowd than any straight-A scholar. But if you think Elim’s a softie with liberal views, think again. Behind her cheerful façade is a steely resolve, and a reputation for being a tough disciplinarian. In fact, she once ticked off the mother of a staff member who insisted she let her daughter off for a vacation, just a week into her job.
“I was disturbed not because she was going away for the holidays, but by the principle behind it.”
And when an employee feigned illness to attend his friend’s barbecue party, Elim hunted him down. “I told him to call me from home every three hours so that I could be sure he was resting. He knew he couldn’t get away with it, and owned up.”
At the interview, her Nokia 9210i is ringing incessantly. She patiently hears out the junior staff’s overly-extended explanations on why she’s been bumped off a Sydney flight, interjecting politely with “ok” and “uh-huh”, and instructs her assistant to try another airline. Not once does her smile fade.
No point throwing tantrums, she explains. “I don’t focus problems, so I don’t fret. I prefer to live every day happily.”
Yet for someone who seems so much of an easy-going free spirit, she can shock you with her take on materialism.
She has her eye on the bottom line in everything she does. “Money is not everything, but it is the only thing,” she pronounces. This is a woman who prefers hawker food to posh nosh because it’s more value for money.
Then again, the enigma that she is, Elim will also splurge more than $100,000 on Star Wars collectibles and in an equally big gesture, donate thousands to build churches in Indonesia, China and India. Don’t forget also, the three abused kids from a church in the US and 19 orphans she has “adopted” through World Vision.
“How much we can help the needy depends on how much we have. People say money is the root of all evil, but to me, money simply takes the form of its owner. It’s good when you do good things with it.
“My mum, a church worker, always taught us that we should use our money to bless others. If we earn more, we can give more. That makes life meaningful.”
We take it that she won’t be in a hurry to sit back and relax anytime soon, then? She guffaws, “I love my business so much, I’m always thinking whether I should be doing more. But every time I get tempted to take it easy, a new cause comes up.”
Elim is now looking at the young working adults’ market, and contemplating a lifestyle shop for them.
Meanwhile, she grabs whatever time she can—to better herself. “The only free time I have is while driving. That’s when I put on my motivational tapes. There’s always something to learn from everyone. I pick up tips like success secrets and even reasons why they didn’t make it. I still have so much to learn!”
It sure sounds like Peter Pan is growing up.
1988: Started the first 77th Street outlet at Far East Plaza. It was a hit among local youths and it became the trendsetter for hip streetwear in Singapore
1995: Set up first Malaysian joint venture outlet in Kuala Lumpur
2001: Named Most Promising Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME). Also triumphed in the Fashion category in the first-ever Street Style Awards
2002: Won the Mont Blanc Business Woman Award and elected President of ASME’s Women Entrepreneurs Chapter. Meanwhile, 77th Street opened in its 12th outlet at Far East Level One, incorporating local designer labels Ming and Redline & Whiteline. Also listed in the Who’s Who Historical Society
2003: Presented with the Leadership & Mentoring Award by Research Communications International (supported by ASME)
2004: Set to manage a five-storey concept retail space in Beijing’s 10-storey mega-mall, Young City