Entrepreneur

Michele Ng: New Mum Pours DIY Love Into Creating Beautifully Functional Bags

Meet Michele Ng. The petite 29-year-old Singaporean has clocked a few amazing milestones in the last two years: getting married, having her first kid, and leaving the corporate world to launch her personal brand of stylish and functional bags, Aide de Camp. French for Camp Assistant, Aide de Camp was recently featured in the likes of Digital Life and The Business Times. This homegrown fashion brand is certainly going places with the bags retailing in Singapore, Hong Kong and as far as Germany.

As a mum herself, Michele has put much thought into designing bags catered to busy women who have to juggle the demands of motherhood, career, and personal life. Despite being marketed as camera bags, some creative mums have found the removable padded boxes in Michele’s inaugural collection of all-black bags to be a godsend for packing diaper and milk supplies.

In fact, her bags have been so well-received that she has since taken it one step further with her latest launch called Nadine — a new carryall tote which can be a weekender bag, gym bag, camera bag, or even a diaper bag. We have a sneak peek of Nadine right here, which comes with a laptop padding, removable when one wishes to reduce bulk, and when mums wish to use it as a diaper pad for infants. Ingenious! Pre-orders for Nadine will be opening up soon in March, so keep an eye out here!

Nadine's interior, when outfitted with baby supplies. Image Credit: Aide de Camp
Nadine’s interior, when outfitted with baby supplies. (Image Credit: Aide de Camp)

We spoke to Michele to find out about her lifelong love with DIY crafts and design, traveling solo to meet suppliers in the dead of night, and what it was like to slog long hours through her pregnancy (even throughout labour!) to get her business on its feet.

1. Hello Michele! Tell us about yourself. How did you get started in crafts and design?

I’ve been dabbling in crafts and design from a young age, from knitting and building my own basic website in primary school, to constructing a desk with drawers out of small used boxes, to trying to sew my own clothes in secondary school and beyond. I think part of this was inspired by my mum’s DIY spirit – if it’s too expensive or you can’t find it, you can always try to make it yourself.

As I grew older, I found myself constantly drawn to craft, design, and practicality throughout the activities I was involved in.

2. What spurred you to create the Aide de Camp range of bags? 

To be honest, it was because I couldn’t find a good camera bag that suited my needs in terms of functionality and style. I often joke that if that bag existed, I probably wouldn’t have started this business! But on a more serious note, I find myself often struggling to find products that have both aesthetics and functionality and wanted to create a brand that offered products with both.

In terms of camera bags, as someone with a small frame, I found full leather bags to sometimes be too heavy even before loading in my gear. I also didn’t like having to carry a separate camera bag and a handbag when travelling. Also, I like bags that easily match any outfit and will transition well from day to night.

As such, I designed a collection of bags under ADC that allows women to organize and carry their camera gear and personal items with versatility and style.

Madison from Aide de Camp. Image Credit: Aide de Camp
Madison from Aide de Camp (Image Credit: Aide de Camp)
Rei from Aide de Camp. Image Credit: Aide de Camp
Rei from Aide de Camp (Image Credit: Aide de Camp)

3. People say that starting your own business is like a labour of love. What was the process like for you?

I couldn’t agree more. It took me much longer than expected to find manufacturers that met the expectations and requirements of the bags and who didn’t complain about my designs being too complicated or quality demands being too high.

I designed ADC bags to include new features not found in regular handbags to enhance organization, comfort and style. Some examples include our comfort shoulder handle which transitions from a piped handle to a flat, padded top for great comfort without sacrificing style, our signature four-part slip-in pockets which enable you to carry smaller objects more securely, and the list goes on.

The two-in-one travel tote, Valencia from Aide de Camp. Image credit: Aide de Camp
The two-in-one travel tote, Valencia from Aide de Camp. (Image credit: Aide de Camp)

Many suppliers were unwilling to try new ways of doing things so it took me some time to find ones that were willing to take a chance with us and work out the design features for production.

As part of the sourcing took place in China, I also found myself having to brush up my terrible Mandarin to be able to communicate effectively. Reading emails or even thinking of the right words in Mandarin took me forever! As I’ve never had any formal training in designing and making bags, I had to learn a lot along the way as well.

Beyond design and production, there was also the setting up of our website, sales channels, publicity, logistics, accounting, and even business administration which I had to learn from scratch. It certainly wasn’t easy but overcoming each challenge made it quite satisfying on hindsight.

Even now that the business is set-up, the process of learning is never-ending and we find ourselves meeting new challenges on a daily basis.

4. Were there any sacrifices you had to make along the way?

Starting this business took all of my savings, and not having a stable well-paying desk job in the start-up phase meant significant lifestyle changes. Though it took some getting used to at the start – not being able to spend on shopping, eating out, leisure activities or going on holidays – it definitely taught me how to live a simpler life and to be content with what I do have.

5. What would you say the highlights of your personal journey would be? 

There were many memorable moments in my journey to getting this business on the road!

I’ve travelled around the region to attend tradeshows and source for suppliers. Most of my trips were very memorable as it involved a lot of learning to deal with different cultures and ways of working.

One particularly memorable experience was my first time to a manufacturing city in China. I took a budget flight departing at night in order to save more money and ended up arriving at the airport at 1am. My family was against me taking this flight but I figured I would be safe enough if I took necessary precautions.

It was a pretty last minute trip due to some complications so I didn’t have that much time to plan the trip as I would usually have. The chartered car services at the airport were closed when I arrived. It being my first time in this city and being stranded in the middle of the night alone made me realize it would probably have been better travelling with a companion. But ah well! I ended up taking a two-hour public taxi to my hotel without realizing the city was that far away from the airport.

I remember taking out my old battered non-smart phone out in the taxi, being pleased that I had even taken precautions for the phone I used overseas, when the taxi driver himself pulled out the latest smart phone to check Google maps! It was a hilarious moment, but I was glad I decided to take all precautions regardless, including texting my sister and husband along the way to let them know I was safe.

My sourcing trips tend to involve a lot of visits to factories that are far out (e.g., an hour taxi ride from the nearest subway station) and staying in cheaper and sometimes dodgy hotels. My family and friends tend to be very concerned for my safety, considering I’m a female with a pretty small frame travelling alone. But thankfully everything has been good so far!

Evie from Aide de Camp. Image Credit: Aide de Camp
Evie from Aide de Camp. (Image Credit: Aide de Camp)
Leyden from Aide de Camp. Image Credit: Aide de Camp
Leyden from Aide de Camp. (Image Credit: Aide de Camp)

6. We hear that you were pregnant during the first year of launch for Aide de Camp bags. That must have been a tough period of time!

When the products were finally ready for launch, I was midway through my pregnancy and couldn’t lift very heavy objects. Thankfully, I had generous family and friends who were willing to avail themselves to help me with packing, moving and deliveries at the start. Some of my retailers kept asking why I was carrying so many things when I was close to term and another was afraid I’d give birth in his shop while delivering his bags!

Before we had our physical retailers stocking our products, when customers wanted to take a look at our bags, I would borrow someone’s car and drive down to meet them with all the products in the boot. It felt like having a private carboot sale but I did whatever it took to get the business going at the start.

Finally, there is another moment which my husband still talks about till this day. That is me working throughout labour and straight after an emergency c-section operation. We didn’t expect the labour to take two days and it was very tiring after it all, but I didn’t want my customers and retail partners to experience any delays. Even after my son was born, I was still doing work at 4am in the mornings, typing on the computer and holding him while he was asleep throughout the day.

7. Tell us about your latest collection inspired by your own experiences as a new mother. 

Before I had our son, I was already planning for a more casual tote bag line that would be great for leisure trips or casual everyday outings in which you need to carry more items. We also had quite a few customers asking for a laptop compartment in our bags and wanted to incorporate that into the next series we launched. The Nadine Carryall Tote was thus the result of the delicate balance between aesthetics and functionality.

After my son was born, when carrying my camera bags out, I soon realized that the camera padding box was perfect as a diaper bag organizer! The sturdy box allowed me to organize my diaper suppliers and replace it with one hand compared to other bags with soft organization pockets or flaps which often require two hands or careful placement instead of being able to just shove it back without much hassle. Other mums were also coming to me to tell me how much they loved using my first collection of camera bags as diaper bags!

I also found out that many women were actually purchasing cameras to take better photos of their children, so it definitely made sense to make a multifunctional bag that could store your camera gear and diaper supplies too!

The interior of Nadine, when outfitting with camera gear. Image credit: Aide de Camp
The interior of Nadine, when outfitting with camera gear. (Image credit: Aide de Camp)

Adding the laptop compartment as requested was also perfect as I found myself working on the go a lot more. Even on short trips overseas with the family, I’m always toting my laptop around to get work done at every opportunity and during my son’s nap time.

I also designed the laptop padding to be removed when your laptop is not in use. Not only does this reduce the bulkiness of the bag if you don’t plan to bring your laptop out, but the padding also doubles up as a baby changing pad! We chose to use baby safe material so it’d be perfect for little ones.

Finally, I loved the idea of a bag being able to be used throughout different stages of life and for different needs – for casual days out, travelling, as school bag or a diaper bag. Mums no longer need to invest in a separate diaper bag, only to stop using it after their kids have grown up since it’s multi-functional and multi-purpose.

With the Nadine carryall tote, it really does carry you through life’s different stages and needs!

8. Can you give us a little sneak peek on what’s in the pipeline for Aide de Camp bags in the coming year?

This year is a pretty exciting year for ADC (especially since my son is sleeping better at night and I get to work a little more). We plan to introduce more bag designs, including a laptop clutch bag with smart features while still staying true to our practical and stylish design features. We also plan to expand our distribution to more countries to make our bags more available to modern women around the world.

We have also just launched an interview series called #ADCShero where we shine the spotlight on modern day women who inspire with their creativity, and how they juggle life’s demands with aplomb.

We’ll be doing even more things throughout the year, so stay tuned!

The Bailey Insert Pouch from Aide de Camp, which allows users to carry their gear around in whichever bag they fancy. Image credit: Aide de Camp
The Bailey Insert Pouch from Aide de Camp, which allows users to carry their gear around in whichever bag they fancy. (Image credit: Aide de Camp)

9. What advice would you have for budding entrepreneurs, who have been thinking about taking the big leap? 

I’d say to surround yourself with people who believe in what you’re doing. Entrepreneurship can sometimes feel very lonely if you’re starting up on your own. Many times along this journey, I’ve encountered many challenges and setbacks and it felt easier to just give up and go back to working a corporate job. But it was my loved ones and acquaintances who’ve seen my designs who urged me to keep going, and I did.

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