Women, what would make a perfect swimsuit? Is it the material, the fit, the design, or the quality? And most of all, is it possible to find it online?
Toni Chan thinks so. The search for the perfect swimsuit is something that she has personally experienced, and in 2015, she decided to do something about it.
Working out of her shophouse home, Toni runs August Society, a website dedicated to women’s swimwear. Her goal: to help women feel comfortable and confident in the swimsuits they wear.
“When you look at swimswear, a lot of it is hypersexualised,” said Toni, as we sat down to discuss how August Society began. “I did a lot of talking to friends and other women to try to understand what it is that they loved and hated about buying swimwear. I learnt that it doesn’t really matter what a woman looks like on the outside, it’s what she feels like on the inside.”
It is this philosophy that has made shopping on August Society so unique. The swimsuits are sold in separate pieces to serve women of all sizes. The online store also has a flexible return policy, which allows users to try on the pieces at home. For swimsuits, the fit is everything. This was inspired by the generous return policies in Canada, where Toni is from.
When I asked if she ever ran into any problems because of the return policies, she asserted that she never did.
“I trust my customers,” she said. “And as long as it looks okay when it comes back, it’s fine.”
She even runs a showroom in her own home, where an entire floor is being used as her office. There, she designs, works, and even welcomes visitors who would rather try on the clothing themselves. Despite the benefits of an e-commerce platform, Toni shares that there are limitations. Women still prefer to try on swimsuits before they make a purchase, something she admits that she underestimated.
“I think with other types of ecommerce, like fashion, if you buy a dress it’s a lot easier, it doesn’t necessarily have to fit perfectly,” says Toni. “But swimwear has to have that 100% fit, and times that’s difficult for customers to achieve at home if they don’t know what style fits them or what looks good. [That’s] why we’re trying to find more actual physical touch points, like pop-ups and also an office that we can use as a showroom, so customers can come to us and ask us for our advice.”
The One-Woman Operation
Despite Toni’s title as Founder and Creative Director, she wears many other hats as the one full-time staff in the company she founded. She also heads sales, marketing, manufacturing, and the design department in the 6-month-old company. The company is self-funded, and all the designs are done herself, working closely with manufacturers in Bali and China whom she visits regularly to go through the prototyping process.
And while she might be running an independent design company, Toni doesn’t have a background in design. She moved to Singapore in 2008 to take her MBA, and worked as a consultant for a few years. Eventually, she left to start her own art gallery which showcases emerging Southeast Asian artists, the business of which she said, “was a whole other story”.
It was only in the past year that she decided to do something creative for herself. To prep for August Society, she started taking part-time fashion and illustration classes as well as sewing classes. She also taught herself how to use software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. The rest of her journey, she says, has been “learn as [she] goes”.
She also opens August Society up to receive feedback, with a survey channel to learn about what women really want from swimwear and how she can improve her collection for the customers. For example, Asian women tend to be hesitant to show too much skin, but because most of them tend to be slender, they usually prefer swimsuits that accentuate their curves.
Despite being only six months old, August Society is heading for big things. Toni will be expanding the team to accommodate more local and overseas shipping, as well as increasing their real life interactions with customers. They’re also dedicated to doing good — on top of helping women feel more comfortable and confident in swimwear, August Society donates S$5 from every swimsuit sold to charity: water, a non-profit dedicated to help bring clean water to communities in need.
Running a company by yourself isn’t easy, but as Toni clearly shows, it is possible.
“In entrepreneurship, the highs are really high, the lows are really low,” she said. “But we’ve been getting really good feedback in terms of the quality of the product, and customers are really liking the designs.”