Young Fashion Entrepreneurs

Building a Fashionably Sustainable Business

Singaporean designer, Chee Sau Fen, developed her own sustainable fashion brand Heads of State Millinery after being awarded two prestigious prizes last year, which kick-started her business. She won the Asia-wide Pitch It! competition for creative entrepreneurs, and the Fashionably Sustainable competition, organised the by the Textile and Fashion Federation in Singapore.   

Sau Fen’s philosophy focuses on eco-friendly design solutions, using only natural raw materials and recyclables. Recently, Su Fen contributed to the revival of endangered weaving traditions in the Philippines. She started working with tribal villages in Cebu who produce unique hand-loomed Abaca fabric, one of the main materials she uses to create one of her line of hats.

In her interview, Sau Fen shares her ups and downs, from being a self-taught designer to being an entrepreneur.

1. What inspired you to become an entrepreneur and what was the beginning like?

I worked for more than 15 years as a self-taught designer in the visual arts and events industries. At the beginning of 2011, I decided that it was time to focus on my own creative work. I wanted to find a way to be an artist and at the same time to run a viable business. While I was exploring ways to do this, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper about a sustainable fashion design competition, organised by the Textile and Fashion Federation in Singapore and I decided to take part. The competition – a five months long journey and my subsequent participation in the Pitch It! 2011 contest led me to set up my own hat brand – Heads of State Millinery.

2. The fashion industry is a dynamic and challenging environment. What are the difficulties you face so far?

Fashion has an image problem and as part of this industry, I feel responsible to change this negative image. It is often deemed frivolous and seen as an industry which heavily exploits the environment and cheap human labour. Fashion is also an ethical problem. Seemingly, it appears as an industry that makes its profits from encouraging mindless and excessive consumption without regard for the environment or human treatment. However, fashion, besides just clothing us, can inform, uplift, inspire and transform communities. There are already brands in the industry which have begun to do serious work in the field of sustainable fashion, and we are among those who are gathering momentum. I believe that sustainability is a key success factor in the fashion industry; therefore I put sustainability at the heart of the Heads of State Millinery concept.


3. Why did you decide to focus on sustainable fashion?

When I created the Heads of State Millinery brand there were two things which were important for me: one was to build a sustainable business and the second one was to work on changing the image of the fashion industry, which is often seen as wasteful and exploitative. I believe that fashion has the potential to become a champion of sustainable development through innovative design and popular advocacy. Heads of State Millinery’s aim is to take the lead and create headgear made from entirely recycled materials, produced by sustainable sources. To achieve this goal, I started working with indigenous craftsmen to elevate the status of handcraft traditions in the Asian region, thus creating fresh applications for these skills and new livelihoods in the communities.

When thinking about my designs I always think of how a particular design will affect our partner communities, our production partners and our environment. A hat that looks good on a customer makes her also feel good because she knows that it is made by people who love their job and who love the world they live in.

4. Last year you took part in several prestigious contests among which was the Asia-wide Pitch It! competition for young creative entrepreneurs. How did the recognition help you to develop further your business?

On one hand the Pitch It! competition, part of the Asia on the Edge event, is a great opportunity to meet entrepreneurs from the creative industry from all over Asia, who are looking for ways to start a business. Moreover during the three day event you can network with potential investors and future business partners. The organiser of the Asia on the Edge was very supportive even after the event. In March this year (2012) I participated in Creative Cebu, a lead-up programme to Asia on the Edge 2012. The networking opportunities there allowed me to meet good potential partners for my business.

I also participated in the Fashionably Sustainable contest, organised by the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFf), where I also emerged as a winner. Part of the first prize was a trip to Paris Fashion Week, where I visited the fashion trade shows. More importantly, on top of the competition prizes, TaFf offered me additional support to develop my fashion industry knowledge and skills. They gave me scholarships and a training grant support from Workforce Development Agency (WDA). I have been enrolled to two Diploma programmes at the Textile & Fashion Industry Training Centre:  in Fashion Design and in Fashion Marketing & Merchandising. I am very grateful to the trainers and staff at TaFf and I gained a valuable experience about the fashion industry from them (from buying and manufacturing, to product design and development). They also became my mentors, offering advice and linking me up with potential partners and opportunities.

Winning these competitions opened many new doors for me. A lot of people in the fashion industry approached me afterwards to explore potential business and creative collaborations. Gaining credibility in this way has been critical for me, as I am new in the fashion industry.

5. What are your long term business plans?

We would like Heads of State Millinery to be for hats what Jimmy Choo is for shoes. We are interested to build a presence in the overseas markets, particularly in the top fashion capitals of the world. When our designs gain prominence this way, the trendsetters will spread our message for a more eco and socially responsible world to the greater audience.

6. What advice would you give to young creative entrepreneurs when starting a new business?

Study! I have tremendous respect for learning. Endlessly study what others are doing, look for new ideas and creative work – whether within or outside you areas of interest. Knowledge is never wasted – all the things your curiosity leads you to explore will be useful for you when you least expect.

I also relish being a “newbie”, to approach a design problem with a “beginner’s mind”. Try to think “out of the box”.  Try to step out from your comfort zone and challenge yourself constantly – this will allow you to see the world from a different angle and to generate original ideas others have not imagined before.