Carol Chen is one powerhouse of a lady. She has built five different companies across four countries and is now on a mission to create “The Best Face Masks in The World” in our new pandemic reality.
Her latest business, Maskela, was built quickly out of her apartment, just a week before Circuit Breaker was imposed in April 2020.
She scrambled to put everything together on her own and today, Maskela has grown to become a global brand. It ships to more than 15 countries worldwide, and has earned over US$10,000 from just a single day of online sales.
According to Carol, they are one of the first pure fashion mask brands in Singapore with the largest range of over 100 designer styles, focusing purely on fashion masks and mask-related products.
She has recently secured a contract for her masks to be sold at American luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, making Maskela the first Singaporean mask brand to do so. Her masks have also been seen on A-list celebrities like Lady Gaga and Sarah Jessica Parker, among others.
She always had a thing for fashion
At the young age of seven, Carol was already making dresses for herself out of blankets and safety pins. As a child, she spent all her free time sketching dresses or styling her siblings, so it was inevitable that she would end up with a degree in fashion design
“I love fashion as a means to express oneself and help build confidence, but I am not a huge fan of trends or excessive materialism,” she said.
Growing up, she always felt insecure about her appearance and her abilities. She tried to overcome this by learning how to look put together, giving her best to everything that she did and constantly searching for ways to self-improve.
This eventually led to a lot of confidence-boosting achievements, such as winning a beauty pageant, which helped her gradually feel more comfortable in her own skin as she developed her personal strengths and identity.
Last year, Carol managed to win Singapore Stories 2020, a fashion design competition organised by The Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF). The win awarded her with a runway debut at Paris Fashion Week, an exhibition of her designs at the Asian Civilisations Museum, and a retail opportunity with Asian fashion-focused retailer SocietyA.
Just like how she started Maskela, she entered the fashion competition based on an immediate instinct. Despite having a background in fashion design and working around fashion most of her life, she is not a full-fledged fashion designer.
Acknowledging her rusty design skills, she said that she was up against reputable and talented fashion designers in Singapore. However, she was unfazed and went on to create beautiful designs out of upcycled fabric for the competition that won the jury’s admiration and approval.
Along with Maskela, she has now launched her own eponymous label called Carol Chen.
A serial entrepreneur
Born in the United States, Carol came from a family of entrepreneurs so being her own boss was a natural step for her.
Her first business was a clothing brand based in Los Angeles that eventually shut down due to the weakening US economy. The second was a cheerleading uniform company that is currently still thriving under her co-founder’s leadership. Then there was also a mixed martial arts (MMA) brand she did with her ex-boyfriend before they split.
It wasn’t always easy, but it wasn’t hard either since I have a high tolerance for risk and discomfort. All you need is an optimistic attitude, lots of resilience, and a strong belief in yourself.
Initial capital can come from savings and investors but I believe that if you have a good business idea and willpower, your path will open up and resources will come to your aid.– Carol Chen, founder of Maskela
She explained that the reason she moved out of her safety bubble in her home country to launch business in unknown places is because she thinks that world has so much more to offer.
Some moves were made because of love, some were out of necessity, others were just because she wanted a new adventure. There are so many amazing places and incredible opportunities all around the world that she feels it would be a shame to just stay in one place.
She moved to Singapore for love, but ended up falling in love with the country itself.
She said that the friendly, efficient and trustworthy regulatory and bureaucratic environment in Singapore is very conducive for setting up and operating businesses. Now, she plans for her businesses to be based in Singapore for the foreseeable future.
Maskela seemingly became a hit overnight
Right before Maskela, Carol ran Covetella in Singapore, a designer dress rental store which allows women to borrow and buy dresses, or customise bespoke dresses. Unfortunately, Covetella have had to suspend operations since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
She decided to close the showroom and switch her focus to Maskela. With events getting cancelled last year, she reasoned that it did not make sense for her to keep paying rent indefinitely when there was not a demand for their services. In fact, she still has many signature gowns in storage that remains unused.
Recounting the birth of Maskela, she said that at the beginning of the pandemic, masks were not mandatory but she still wanted to wear one to protect herself.
Surgical masks were the only option at the time, and as a fashionista, she felt embarrassed wearing them because they were so unsightly. This was how she came up with the idea of cutting up some of Covetella’s unused dresses to make aesthetically-pleasing face masks.
About a week later, Singapore announced the Circuit Breaker and she was scrambling to get everything she needed as soon as possible to build a business out of her apartment.
All fabric shops and factories were closed during that time, so it was extremely hard to get raw suppliers and scale up production.
Maskela was one of the hardest businesses I’ve ever built because I was stuck at home and the country was shut down. But out of sheer will, it still managed to happen.– Carol Chen, founder of Maskela
Then she proceeded to hire three interns, who worked alongside her out of her living room. It took her only two months since Circuit Breaker to hit a six-figure revenue.
They also had a lot of corporate orders that brought in significant revenue. Property management firm Frasers Hospitality for one, ordered thousands of masks for all their global hotels. Other big-name clients include Bulgari, Skin Inc, 1880, Design Orchard, TaFF, Tindle and Neiman Marcus.
Today, Maskela has become the most comprehensive mono-brand mask, selling everything related to mask: mask chains, mask clips, mask sanitisers, mask filters, and mask gift sets.
What made it such a success
True to Carol’s commitment to build socially and environmentally responsible businesses, just like Covetella, the origin of Maskela is rooted in sustainability. Their initial masks were upcycled from cutting up old Covetella dresses.
Even today, most of their styles are made out of leftover fabrics which means once the fabric is finished, they cannot produce more — this makes their limited edition masks truly rare.
I had the right product at the right time. I was one of the first brands in Singapore to do fashion masks in March 2020 and I worked incessantly on ensuring it was the very best mask I could make in terms of quality, comfort, and design.
I also spent time building the brand itself so that it also had value. There are a lot of masks out there, but you don’t see a lot of ones like Maskela, and our high repeat-customer rate proves that we’re doing something right. We also package our masks like gifts to encourage people to buy them for their loved ones to keep them safe and stylish.– Carol Chen, founder of Maskela
She also shared tips on her successful marketing strategies for consumer goods. The first is to create a superior product and service that will speak for itself. When people love it, they will market it for you through word of mouth.
The second is to launch a digital marketing campaign through social media, influencer engagement, content creation, as well as using traditional marketing strategies via public relations (PRs) and partnerships
For Maskela, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) was actually not available to them as an option since Facebook and Google initially banned anything Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)-related, so they had to rely on other creative ways to get their brand out there.
She invested in hiring a reputable PR firm in the US to get her masks worn by A-list celebrities and influencers. This is important so as to establish the luxury brand image for her target market audience.
She targets A-listers and the elites to ensure higher profit margins that will make her business more worthwhile.
Climbing up to be the top luxury mask in the world
According to Carol, her goal for Maskela is to become the top luxury mask brand in the world.
She plans to broaden her offerings to a bigger market and more variety of use cases, citing examples like masks for men and kids. She also wants to offer more bridal masks, mask accessories, as well as introduce more customisable options. The list is endless for her.
Even when the pandemic is over, Carol feels that people will continue to be health conscious, so they are looking at launching a line of hand sanitisers and travel kits, as well as incorporating other protective products like sunglasses.
For now, Carol wants to take things one step at a time, but she has absolute faith in herself that when the time comes, she will know what to do, as she has proven to herself time and time again.
“I put myself in situations where I know I can shine. Doing any business is tough, so you have to play where you can win. To compensate for my weaknesses, I surround myself with people who are better than me and try to learn from them,” she mused.
Her advice for other women all over the world who want to do their own thing is simple: start small and take it one step at a time, but don’t ever wait until you feel “ready” because you never will be.
Just follow your heart and know that if it does not work out, it is not the end of the world – you’ll just have some good stories to tell. Do not be afraid of failure, but rather embrace it as a learning and growth opportunity.
Life is short, so you better do what you can while you can. I also believe that if you’re going to do something, you should do it well and give your best. Otherwise, why do it at all?– Carol Chen, founder of Maskela
Featured Image Credit: Carol Chen