After graduating from Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) with a Diploma in Engineering Informatics, Kristal Loh decided she would pursue her passion in fashion.
She started up an online blogshop and invested in $10,000 into the business, mainly using the capital to buy trendy Korean fashion influenced by K-dramas, including “very short skirts”.
Kristal took on the role as buyer and retailer and ran the blogshop with her then-boyfriend, Jun Wei.
In 2014, Jun Wei, now husband, and her pivoted to set up Lara J, a modern womenswear label featuring clothes Kristal designed herself.
We got to speak to her about her journey so far, making a complete career change from engineering to fashion, and juggling being a mother, a wife, and a business partner.
A Fashionable Choice
When teenagers would spend their allowance at the arcade, playing bowling, or going to the movies, Kristal recounted that she’d spend it on clothes, bags, high heels, and lipsticks.
“My besties often joke about how I ‘can’t function in tees and flats’. Since it’s my lifelong passion, [it was only] natural that I work in the field of fashion,” she said.
“In fact, after completing my diploma, the first thing I did was sign up for a makeup course! I’m actually a certified bridal makeup artist.”
With her love for fashion and Jun Wei’s tech- and business-savvy skills, they discussed starting an online shop together, and decided, overnight, to start their first venture.
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On what her parents feel about her making that career switch, she said, “My parents understand the feeling of waking up in the morning ‘wanting’ to go work, instead of ‘needing’ to go work.”
“They are, and have always been, very supportive of me pursuing my interests.”
In hindsight, when Kristal and Jun Wei decided to pivot to start up Lara J in 2014, she said that they just followed their heart.
“[We] were young and without financial or family burdens, there was no need to consider anything else.”
Since her first venture, Kristal is still tirelessly learning and picking up new fashion design skills.
Along her entrepreneurial journey, the 32-year-old has met with some challenges as she went from sourcing for ready-made designs to designing and manufacturing her own clothes for Lara J.
Sizing was a big issue when sourcing clothes from different suppliers.
“For example, not all size S clothings have size S measurements, and a lot of designs are ‘free size’,” she explained.
“I was frustrated with the lack of consistency in the size range I was offering to my customers and wanted to do better.”
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When it comes to clothes, Kristal stated that it isn’t “one size fits all”.
Designs-wise, she shared that she was always dissatisfied with the details because of her strong opinions on fashion design.
She’d think about things like how a button doesn’t look good on a piece of clothing or how a certain lace placement complicates the design.
“[Working] with many suppliers and not being able to control many things about the designs were challenging to curate collections that were perfect for my vision for the brand,” she explained.
“I shared my frustrations with [Jun Wei] and he suggested we design and manufacture our own line.”
That’s when they decided to take the plunge and create Lara J.
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“Of course, with self-manufactured clothes came new challenges,” she shared.
They needed more capital to manufacture their own designs but at that time, they couldn’t get a loan from banks.
Add to that, they have to order in larger quantities so inventory risk is higher.
“Fortunately, we had good earnings from our prior years to support us in this journey,” Kristal said.
Then came the designer dilemma.
“I personally love loud designs, but most locals prefer basic, everyday pieces,” she shared.
“In designing for my customer base, I try my best to create a balance between these two styles. I make sure my designs are easy to wear with a runway twist.”
Mother, Wife, Entrepreneur
Asked about how is Lara J different from other self-designed labels in the market, Kristal answered that most of them are inspired by fast fashion.
“I am not saying that we do not follow the trends, but we definitely don’t replicate trends just for the sake of doing so,” she explained.
“Lara J is a strong, confident persona and our designs reflect that.”
She described the Lara J persona as “confident and sexy, with a strong sense of attitude”, and she loves clothes that “show off her figure”.
“Whether at work or at a party, I want to make her the centre of attention,” Kristal declared.
Since becoming a mother herself two years ago, she decided to incorporate more “mummy-friendly” clothes in her collections.
“Before becoming a mother, I did not understand why new mothers dressed down. I wondered, ‘Why do you have to give up fashion just because you have a child?'”
“After having my own ever-active and fast-moving toddler, I finally understood,” Kristal told us.
But still, she wants to be well-dressed, confident, and sexy, and she wanted new mothers like herself to feel the same about themselves too.
So she created more pants and jumpsuits that are less tight-fitting, flexible, and flattering; clothes that empower the wearer while letting them chase after a two-year-old.
“As for our signature body-cons, I make sure to incorporate more stretchable materials to allow for more movement,” Kristal added.
“Having said that, the focus of my designs has never changed — we all want to look sleek, suave and confident!”
Since we were on the topic of motherhood, we were curious about how running her businesses with her life partner is like, as most would advise against it.
Kristal, however, has a different opinion.
“We’ve been together as life partners for 14 years and business partners for 10 years. We are only as strong as we are united, and we are as weak as we are divided.”
“In fact, I think there are a lot of similarities between being business partners and life partners. All lasting business partnerships are built on trust, support and mutual understanding – who does that better than your life partner?” she added.
Kristal believes there are a lot of advantages being partners in life and in business and cited an example.
She explained that since they’re together all the time, they can discuss important business strategies and come up with ideas anytime they want.
“Many people always ask us, ‘Don’t you get bored talking about work all the time?’ I usually respond, ‘Do couples get bored of talking about their child?’. The answer is no,” she said.
“Starting a business together is like having a baby, there are a lot of similarities between having a baby and managing a business.”
She likens Lara J to their first baby, and like how many people raise their children, they are always thinking about how to nurture both the business and their own son.
Add to that, because they’re both owners of the same business, they would read entrepreneurial stories and share their insights with each other.
“Our views about life are aligned because of this,” Kristal shared.
“We are together all the time working on things we love. Isn’t that the best life?”
Kristal believes that the secret to their successful teamwork is knowing their strengths and going beyond that.
Understanding that they both are in charge of different aspects of the business, they ensure to respect each other’s work.
“For example, he gives me comments about my designs, but at the end of the day, I make the final decision to proceed or discard the design,” explained Kristal.
“Just like how an Italian chef wouldn’t teach a sushi chef how to slice fish, we let each other do his or her thing. That’s probably why we don’t get into as many arguments as people think.”
Business Fashioned Out Of Passion
Kristal clarified with us that she started her first business after she left her full-time job as a Business Development Admin at a foreign language centre.
“I quit my job the next day. I believe part-time efforts equate to part-time results, which [means] part-time profits.”
“Starting a business needs a lot of time, and it’s not something that you can do part-time and expect to see very good results. So once I decided to do it, I made sure to put in 110% of my effort and time.”
Even after giving birth, Kristal still dedicates her time to designing.
But as a first-time mother, she also doesn’t want to miss any milestones and moments with her baby, so she works in between his naps and at night after he goes to sleep.
“Once or twice a week, I still work from the office and I bring our son along. My separation anxiety with him is real!” she exclaimed.
“To me, juggling work and parenthood isn’t always a struggle because I enjoy doing both very much, I just have to sacrifice some sleep.”
Taking a leaf out of her past experiences, Kristal has also implemented a “refund if it doesn’t fit” policy for Lara J customers, who are mostly 20 to 35-year-olds from Singapore and Malaysia.
Her clothes and great service have resulted in many positive reviews from customers.
To date, Kristal has designed over 1,000 clothes and since Lara J’s launch five years ago, growth has been almost 100% year-on-year.
On their expansion plans, she said that they like to do “[their] own thing at [their] own pace, but hopes that in three years’ time, Lara J will become an internationally-recognised brand.
Lara J will be launching a new denim collection this year, Kristal revealed.
“We will continue to build our brand so that women out there become customers because they trust the designer and her designs.”
Featured Image Credit: Lara J Singapore