The Wong sisters – Brianna (32) and Bertilla (28) – have never expected to be their very own bosses.
Back in 2007, they playfully toyed around with the idea while lazing around in their beds.
And the next thing they knew, the two of them were on their computers and busy setting up The Closet Lover together.
“It was an idea out of nowhere, and a very impromptu decision,” said Bertilla.
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We just thought it’d be fun to start up something new, and it started off purely as a hobby. Due to our school commitments back then, new drops were not even frequent.
These accidental young entrepreneurs ended up helming The Closet Lover, one of the blogshop pioneers in Singapore, together with the likes of Love, Bonito and Ohsofickle, which emerged around the same time.
From a humble local blogshop, it has now grown into an international fashion retailer, with an impressive following of 77,000 and 71,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram respectively (numbers are growing as we speak).
A “Disappointing” Start
Without any business knowledge or experience, their young selves – they were only aged 21 and 17 back then – figured that starting up a blogshop was fairly easy.
Most importantly, launching their online shop was free (it was hosted on LiveJournal previously).
Once that’s out of the way, they just needed to work on sourcing for readily-manufactured apparels to model and photograph, before posting the edited shots on their platform.
We were able to use hosted blogs to start up the store so the [operational] cost was mainly spent on our stocks.
Bertilla also revealed that they started off with a four-figure sum back then, an amount she described that “would be hard to work with” nowadays.
But the process really wasn’t as straightforward and required a lot of hard work and preparation.
Despite the amount of effort put in, their first launch was “disappointing”.
“We were so excited about launching our first collection, but sales weren’t as good as we expected. But we were so happy when we finally got our first sale!”
Understandably, e-commerce was still at a very nascent stage back then, and Singaporeans weren’t used to the idea of shopping online.
But as the trend picked up, their business also bloomed.
In fact, their business started growing at such a steady pace that they didn’t even realise when they broke even.
All they remembered that because of the increasing demand, they got so busy to the extent that they couldn’t cope with just the two of them – and that was when they decided to turn it into a “proper” business in 2012.
Shedding The Blogshop Image
As they built a name for themselves in the local fashion industry, the Wong sisters worked hard in shedding the blogshop image.
Instead of sourcing for ready-made apparels, the two started to design and manufacture their own apparels.
They didn’t want to settle as a cookie-cutter blogshop, offering the same stock of clothes like any other online shops.
“As we both have different styles, we started making a wide range of apparels that cater to the sweet girl-next-door, as well as the ladies who prefer minimalist and classic pieces.”
Besides diversifying their catalogue of clothes, the sisters also opted to use Caucasian models to showcase their clothes.
“It not only made our website look more professional, but it also helped when we pitched sales to prospective franchisees,” she reasoned.
At the same time, the team also made an effort to collaborate with local influencers to better illustrate how their apparels look like on Asians.
“As founders, we also share our outfit photos on our personal social media accounts, so customers can always have an idea of how they would look like on a non-model physique.”
Both Brianna and Bertilla often post #OOTD (outfit of the day) shots on their personal Instagram pages, and have become popular social media personalities with over 20,000 Instagram followers each.
Integrating Clicks And Bricks
As their online shop flourishes, the Wong sisters felt compelled to open a physical store, but was hesitant because the “offline industry was known to be ‘dead’ or ‘dying'”.
They toyed around with the idea for a year, before they finally decided to open their first brick-and-mortar store in 2015.
As our brand grew, we felt that it was the right time to enter the market. As most of the other players were focusing on online, this could serve as an added advantage to our brand
“We also received a lot of requests from customers to do so, and this was the biggest form of motivation for us.”
Their flagship store at Bugis Junction signifies the company’s milestone, and they felt that it was a vital move because customers would then be able to see and feel the apparels first-hand.
Bertilla also believes that both their online and offline platforms are complementary.
As consumers still like the idea of touching and trying on the clothes before buying, footfall to their retail store is guaranteed.
In fact, at least 85% of their walk-in customers end up placing their orders online.
But launching their first store wasn’t a smooth-sailing journey, she revealed.
As we didn’t have prior experience at all in a physical store, we made several mistakes that could have been avoided. We have always felt the entrepreneurial journey is one where you never stop learning, and it’s so true.
“Every opportunity gave us a chance to learn and grow, and we use these lessons for our future expansion plans.”
To date, The Closet Lover has three outlets islandwide at Bugis Junction, 313@Somerset, and Westgate malls.
Their Orchard and Jurong East outlets are leased short-term for six months; but due to good business, they ended up extending the lease for the Orchard branch for more than a year.
Spurred by “encouraging sales”, Bertilla shared that they are looking into opening another two more outlets in Singapore this year.
Breaking Into The Malaysia Market
Besides Singapore, Malaysia ranked the second best country in terms of sales so the sisters felt that it was a natural progression to build their presence there.
Initially, they chose to open a physical storefront there only as a short-term tenant as this reduces business risk, and also served as a good way to test the waters.
Then in July 2017, they set up monopoly space in department stores in the KLCC and Mid Valley malls in Malaysia with a six-month lease.
“This helps us save on renovation costs and business risk is relatively low. We also took this opportunity to try out a new location and test our buying luck,” Bertilla told Lianhe Zaobao.
“It helped that Malaysia is close by, so we could easily travel over to help with preparation works.”
She added that although they’ve only entered the Malaysia market for about six months now, they’ve been seeing very encouraging sales.
They noted that loyal Malaysian customers would regularly visit their stores to check out their new arrivals.
As the business expands its regional footprint, its staff headcount has also grown from a team of two (the Wong sisters) to a team of about 15 at the office, and over 30 retail staff.
Surviving And Thriving In The Industry
The Closet Lover has been around for seven years now (they officially registered their business in 2011), so what’s their secret to outlasting the competitive local blogshop scene?
“There is no secret,” said Bertilla candidly.
“We have always believed in working hard, putting your best foot forward, constantly innovating, and keeping up with the trends.”
As sisters, we are perpetually thinking about our brand and sharing our ideas. We do this almost 90 per cent of the time – when we talk, we usually end up talking about the business and it never ends.
Sharing future business plans, Bertilla said that they are exploring the idea of developing a mobile app, and also looking at franchising the brand.
They also have a couple of outlets planned, but declined to reveal further details till they’ve been confirmed.
For now, they are happy with the status quo and are loving their jobs as it gives them immense satisfaction.
“Entrepreneurship is really like an experiment because you never know what’s going to happen next.”
“And as cliché as it sounds, you just have to love what you do and everything else will fall into place.”
Featured Image Credit: The Closet Lover / @yeomabel on Dayre