Flipping through our old photo albums, I’m quite sure that many of us would have stumbled across embarrassing photos of ourselves in our much younger days that just scream ‘fashion disaster’.
From outfits in garish colours to crummy PJs with prints of knockoff cartoon characters, clothes served more functional purposes for the average Singaporean parent.
But it’s not because they had bad taste, either – it’s simply because the more ‘fashion-forward’ designs were too expensive for the financially-prudent parent to consider for their rapidly growing child.
The new parents of today, however, have a different mindset.
With many of them now uploading picture-perfect snippets of parenthood on their Instagram, their children are often decked out in outfits so trendy that they even inspire the envy of adults.
It also helps that popular fast fashion brands like H&M and Uniqlo have sections dedicated to affordable (enough) garments for kids.
The latest kids collection is here! Check in-store for more details or visit http://t.co/i4E9oIYJry pic.twitter.com/BVCaVkQm5k
— H&M Singapore (@hmsingapore) August 7, 2014
And one doesn’t even need to be a parent to appreciate how children’s fashion has evolved over the years – purchasing presents for nieces, nephews, and godchildren would’ve already exposed one to the burgeoning market.
For then-dating (now married) Singaporean couple Robyn Liang and Dylan Ong, however, the search often left them frustrated by the lack of good quality and well-priced options.
“It didn’t make sense to us that most better-known kids clothing brands were from the US or Europe when the manufacturing base was largely in Asia. We felt that there was a gap in the market and definitely room for Asian brands that offer the same level of quality and style, at a more competitive price.”
Through Liang’s frequent business trips to China for her work, the couple also learnt that the nation was in the midst of abolishing its one-child policy, which it did in 2015.
“We wanted to be positioned for this demographic shift.”
Quitting Their Banking Jobs To Start Up
For Liang and Ong, their story is a classic case of ‘giving up a cushy job for the startup life’.
Previously working for BNP Paribas in Singapore as a specialist portfolio advisor to high net worth clients, and most recently, an Equities Advisor at LGT Bank based in Hong Kong, Ong brings his skills in equities fundamental analysis and portfolio advisory to the mix.
For Liang, her experience in fixed income derivatives trading across Asia came from her time at Deutsche Bank in Singapore and South Korea, and most recently, her Goldman Sachs stint as an executive director in Hong Kong.
“We always talked about creating something together when we were both in the banking industry. We actually studied and crunched out numbers for creating a fitness concept studio and a custom menswear brand before we decided on creating our own online children’s clothing brand.”
After 9 months of planning and execution, their first baby – Le Petit Society – was born in Hong Kong on January 2013.
Shortly after the launch, the couple moved back to Singapore where they had two little girls of their own, and have since based their operations locally.
Other than their online webstore, their main mode of sales, their clothing is also stocked in 6 locations in Singapore as well as stockists in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, and Greece.
And just 2 months ago, they have also opened their very first brick-and-mortar concept store in the brand new OUE Downtown mall at Shenton Way.
But while their success might seem smooth-sailing on the surface, they were also faced with challenges that plagued them as first-time fashion entrepreneurs.
Bumps On The Road
“[At the start,] many of our friends and family were naturally shocked that we were both giving up very cushy jobs to do something that we had no experience or training in. And to start a brand from scratch is not an easy task at all.”
“I think no one really knew if it was a good idea or not.”
Liang however, admits that in spite of the understandable doubt that they met with, they “received a lot of support and advice from people around [them]”.
“Having people around us, customers included, believe in what we are trying to achieve is a major driving force for us.”
At the beginning, the couple also faced problems when trying to find reputable factories that produce baby and kids clothing.
“It was extremely difficult at first because we were a completely new brand without any distribution channels. We also made the common error of over-producing at the onset without having first established channels of sales and a customer base.”
Coming from an industry that is far from retail or fashion, they had to learn everything from scratch – from design, to textiles, e-commerce, digital marketing, and logistics.
“The list of problems is long and we continue to face various different challenges on an ongoing basis.”
Liang admits, though, that being parents helped them understand their business even better.
“Le Petit Society progressed along with our personal journey, but what remains unchanged is our goal to create versatile and well-crafted clothes for children that journey with them from the moment they arrive in this world as newborns, to the time they step out as spirited young individuals.”
With all their clothes designed in-house, the team thus has the freedom to have full control over what is produced, taking into account what kids are drawn to, and what adults like as well – “so nothing too childish or cartoony”.
“Organic Growth Definitely Takes Time”
For them, tackling the problems came with “a lot of persistence and hard work, as most entrepreneurs would be able to relate to!”
To gain product knowledge, they visited many trade shows in Hong Kong, Europe, and the US over the years, and also made frequent trips to the factories they work with in China.
Other than the usual track of social media marketing, consumer fairs and business tradeshows were also a great chance for them to raise brand awareness – not just locally, but internationally as well.
While their starting days saw mostly friends and family supporting the business, the pair knew that they needed to acquire new (and recurring) customers to keep the business going in the long run.
“We focused on creating better products and let word of mouth build up over our product offering over time, and pride ourselves in terms of the quality – both durability and comfort of our products, a unique selling point that precedes style.”
“The aim is to make clothing that last multiple washes and repeat wearing; pieces that are versatile for a child to wear from a party to the playground, and comfortable enough to sleep in.”
“Organic growth definitely takes time but the approach has paid off as statistically, more than half of our customers are repeat customers.”
But in spite of the need to be very hands-on with their approach to running and growing their business, Liang admits that their unique position actually gave them even more space to experiment.
“The beauty of not having preconceived notions of how things have to be done because that’s how they are done in a traditional fashion house or how things are taught in school means that we looked at all situations with a fresh slate of mind and tried to problem-solve with logic and creativity.”
They have since achieved high annual growth rates so far, and are looking to penetrate international markets with their new website that will have multi-currency and language capabilities.
“Where we stand currently, the sky’s the limit.”
When Offline Complements Online
But there was one question that lingered in my mind – why the decision to go into opening an offline store, given the state of retail currently?
To that, Liang offered her vision for the on-offline future of Le Petit Society:
“We asked ourselves, what if we could create a physical store that brought the digital and real world together, to create an all-rounded customer experience? One that bridges the gap between URL and IRL (In Real Life).”
Added Ong, “We strongly believe that it will be a norm for retailers in the future to provide a unified customer experience both for shopping online or buying in store.”
The couple aren’t new to integrating to best of both worlds, either – having gotten a strong following on social media platforms (photos of customers’ kids wearing their creations fill their Facebook page), and also participating in consumer fairs, and putting their products at stockists around the island.
Not just for publicity, the latter is also a good way for them to get actionable feedback for future iterations of clothing items.
But why OUE Downtown?
Simply, the vision of the CBD evolving to accommodate unique lifestyle/retail concepts shared between the developers and themselves.
“Due to the international nature of the workforce here, the worldwide delivery services that our store offers is a lot more relevant because our customers can step into our shop at Downtown Gallery, as they may online, to purchase a gift and have it shipped anywhere else in the world.”
“We have been expanding our offering for adult clothing, especially focusing on family outfits as well as maternity friendly clothing. Having a physical shop will allow our customers to try on these pieces before deciding if to purchase.”
“It is also an area that we are both very familiar with coming from a finance background as this is where we used to work!”
While busy with the opening of the new store, the duo reveal that they’ve been expanding their footprint internationally, and may even start exploring a franchise model.
“We have also kept our integrated office space in Hong Kong in anticipation for the opportune time to set up a North Asian team.”
Juggling Parenthood And Entrepreneurship
As full-time entrepreneurs and parents, the duo admits that they couldn’t have done it without the support of their family – the main reason why they moved back from Hong Kong in the first place.
“As the saying goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, which is extremely true for us.”
To strike the balance between both, they tend to keep Fridays more work-lite, avoiding meetings or going to the office altogether to spend more time with their young daughters.
They admit, though, that keeping to this schedule is getting harder to achieve as their business commitments grow.
With the new store open, they also take the kids to work with them on the weekends.
But having their kids so well-exposed to the business is also part of their intention for having the girls “grow up” with Le Petit Society.
“When they are older, we will tell them about our story and hopefully it inspires them to dream, and empowers them to take the path less traveled if that’s where their passion lies. Above all, we want them to see that nothing comes without hard work.”
And as for advice to aspiring entrepreneurs:
“Don’t try to turn your hobby into a business. Turn your business into your passion.”