Five months ago, Grace Kwan did the unimaginable: she dropped out of school to pursue her passion as a maker of handmade, customised bags.
In highly competitive Singapore, the mere idea of dropping out of university would probably provoke exclamations of “You siao ah!” For the 22-year-old ex-NUS Architecture student, the biggest challenge she faced when choosing to stray off the beaten path was mental, rather than physical or financial. She shares, “I was struggling with going against norms of getting a degree and a stable job but mostly they were just negative voices that I had trapped inside my mind.”
From there, Grace became a full-time maker of handcrafted bags under her own label, GSEWS. Her one-woman production line creates personalised bags according to customer specifications — because “no two people are the same”. GSEWS allows customers to mix and match a range of different fabrics and add-ons, producing stylish, distinctive bags. It might have been a rocky road at the start but, as Grace says, she’s “living her dream” now.
Two Roads Diverged In A Yellow Wood…
Two years ago, Grace attempted to make her first tote bag. From there, she was hooked; she began selling her first few handmade bags on Carousell and crafting them during her free time. It got to a point where her handicraft hobby affected her university studies. For most of us, that would mean forcing ourselves to concentrate on our studies; for the plucky Year 3 student, it was how she “was sure that I wanted to follow my passion and dreams.”
And from the outset, her bags proved to be popular — Grace says that from a Carousell account selling ready-made tote bags, GSEWS grew to the point where she first accommodated, and later pivoted to, customisation requests.
“It gradually grew as I had requests from customers for bags of different sizes, different strap lengths, different materials. I wondered why not do it, as long as it’s within my capability; being a skill-oriented person, customisation requests are challenging and exciting.
Further on, she proved her versatility again when she developed her current platform for people to customise to their hearts’ content much more easily.
“As more and more requests streamed in, I realised that some people weren’t as capable of visualising the ideas they had. Very often, these ideas got lost in translation and the end product would be based on an inaccurate interpretation on my end.
This was very frustrating at times and I figured that having a website to help customers visualise colour combinations, sizing and other options would be really useful. Customers could then be equipped with the tools to convey what they really want as accurately as possible. “
As a result, Grace says proudly, “each product exudes a different character and speaks of the owner’s personality.”
The Maker Movement
GSEWS is part of a growing wave of makers in Singapore — inventive crafters who favour products with a human touch over mass production. Just as dropping out of university voluntarily was (and still is) pretty much unthinkable, it would have been difficult for such small, niche businesses to thrive in Singapore even up to a few years ago.
Now, from SG Makers to The Local People, Singapore’s crafty dreamers are increasingly finding communities, gaining presence, and supporting each other, in what has been called the maker movement. In the local design scene, Grace says, the burgeoning maker movement “is a sign of a much more liberating scene — it’s very encouraging for potential makers to gain the courage to display their craft confidently.”
This was especially significant for Grace — she started out without any formal training in her craft. She was “just developing and learning from pure passion,” she says. That was definitely an added layer of challenge for her: “There were many insecurities coming from a lack of proper training, whether in bag making or sewing.” So for Grace, the more liberal design scene today was important in allowing her to start up her solo venture at all.
It’s worth noting that the technology now available for can-do, inexperienced makers like Grace is playing a huge role in their success as well. Even in the recent past, hopeful entrepreneurs would need to scrape together enough capital to open a brick-and-mortar store. But as Grace’s story proves, apps like Carousell and online shopping sites are now empowering them, as well as making it amazingly workable to customise rather than commercialise products. And since we all love personalised things, it’s definitely a trend worth celebrating.
Discovering New Islands
Naturally, whether you’ve got the expertise or not, starting up your own business is no bed of roses. GSEWS was officially launched only two months ago and, Grace shares, it’s still a tough road ahead: “I’m still working to get the operations stable, and learning to understand my limitations.” But what makes it worthwhile is a constant sense of adventure: “It’s akin to exploring and discovering a new island and beginning my life there with new experiences everyday.”
Now that GSEWS is taking off (right now, she says that she’s beginning to stock her products in stores like Naiise) Grace is hoping her story can convince others that a leap of faith is worth it. What she’d really like, she explains, is “to be an inspiration to those who also face the same mental struggle I did – to learn to let go and believe in yourself.”
Grace’s journey so far has certainly been inspiring — in Singapore, there’s often this belief that a good degree is essential for a good life. But as she’s proving, passion and the determination to make it happen are far more important. The guiding principle that she lives by as a maker, she says, is this: “Whatever you choose to do, do it to the best you can.”