EILEEN YAP HWEE KOON
NOMINEE'S NAME IN CAPS
A full-time fashion entrepreneur and mentor to many fashion graduates and people from all walks of life who like to venture into fashion, Noël Caleb is the brainchild of Brand Strategist and Creative Director Eileen Yap. Though the label is 3 year old, Noël Caleb has received great reviews and has an active community of 8,000 fan followers.
A first in Singapore, Noël Caleb offers personalized fitting services to its customers, before purchase, to a customer in Singapore. A true believer that fashion has to be wearable and not just looking good on sketches, Eileen sees to it that every design and piece she creates go through vigorous fitting and styling sessions with customers so that various body types and silhouettes are taken into consideration in the design creation of every piece.
Prior to starting Noël Caleb , Eileen Yap has more than 15 years in the advertising, branding and marketing consultancy of various products and services, spanning across industries like fashion, FMCG, technology, banking, F&B and sports. With a strong knowledge of branding and marketing, Eileen decided to launch Noël Caleb.
Noël Caleb means “Christmas” and “Devotion”. It seeks to redress the woman who embodies the thanksgiving spirit and devoted to her talents and dreams pursuit. The label has launched 6 collections since its 3 years of inception, designed for superstore Tangs the “Teddy Girls” collection and had made appearances at leading stores like Isetan and Takashimaya. Noël Caleb pieces are colourful, mix-and-match and reversible. Designing for the confident, modern woman who seeks to showcase her feminine and creativity while dressing up, Noël Caleb’s designs are edgy yet practical, colourful yet wearable, adventurous yet adaptable.
Noël Caleb has garnered more than 8,000 fans who follow the label, and had been mentioned in Straits Times, Urban, Lianhe Zaobao, Her World, ELLE, Vogue and Seventeen. What makes Noël Caleb unique is that customers can try the clothes through organised fitting and styling sessions before they purchase the items online – a FIRST for a local independent label and online store.
More than a fashion label, Noël Caleb also offers a platform for fashion designers, writers, artists and anyone interested to collaborate through fashion and lifestyle. One on one fashion courses such as sewing, fashion designing, fashion styling and running fashion business workshops are available too to enable those who love fashion to understand more about fashion.
The interview is one of the most inspiring and fun session in my process of learning more about entrepreneurship. Not only being a good mother of 3 children, Ms Eileen Yap also portrays herself as a capable business woman who is very clear of what she wants to achieve. I am impressed by her passion in what she does and her mindset of helping others to realize their dreams. More than just an entrepreneur, she helps people to be one. More than seeing customers as consumers, she values them as company ambassador. The way she aspires to help others achieve their dreams shows her generosity. The way she values her customers shows her humbleness. Even after the interview session, Ms Eileen Yap shares her life experiences and indeed, the life skills and experiences she possesses is one of the qualities that make her successful.
Q1) What is the nature of your business?
Eileen: Breathin’ Brand is a marketing and branding consultancy and has its own main fashion label Noël Caleb. Noël Caleb is a local based fashion brand which mainly concentrates on designing and producing women’s wear. More than a label, it is also a fashion platform for people who love fashion to come together and I do so by hosting mentorship programs, styling workshops and fashion events to form a community of fashion lovers.
Q2) When and why did you decide to change track and become an entrepreneur?
Eileen: Initially I started Breathin’ brand as marketing and branding consultancy since all along I have always been in advertising and marketing. However, I wanted to come up with my own brand and own product because doing marketing and branding consultancy is more of helping with others’ products. In addition, in the real world today, there are many various integrations of the different industry. Hence, I felt that it is always good to be exposed to different industries to learn about different areas and strategies. Thus, I decided to venture into the fashion industry and become an entrepreneur. Noël Caleb brand is then born 3 years ago as a testbed of creativity and ideas.
Q3) Is there any reason to why you choose to venture into the fashion industry instead of others?
Eileen: When I am thinking of starting my own brand and own product, I hope that at the end of the journey the brand or the product is closely related to people’s life and touched their life. We are a Singapore based company, so I asked myself what Singaporeans like. Other than food, the next very apparent thing is clothes. When you look at the person, 90% is about the clothes and thus, I ventured into fashion because I thought that it is something that people can relate to immediately.
Q4) How do you put together all the resources to start since you are new in the industry? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.
Eileen: I think I am very lucky that when I first started and conducted interviews for designers, production crew, people from the fashion industry to join me, I was able to get good responses and that was how I actually assembled my team. The Singapore government is also very spontaneous in coming in to help young entrepreneurs and I got help from associates like SPRING and Singapore Textile Federation. For customers wise, it was very important to test the products when we just started. Networking is really important and I am very thankful that there are friends who told me that I could bring the clothes to their house parties to introduce me to their guests and try on the clothes. I got very good responses and that was how I got my first pool of customers.
Q5) Are there any interesting stories about your first few customers or the first few years of your business?
Eileen: From my friends support and invitation to bring the clothes to their house parties, I realize that this home personal fitting will actually work and this was how incorporated into my business. Thus, we actually provide personalized fitting services if customers opt for it. The interesting thing is that sometimes customers will ask their neighbors to join them and hold a mini fitting party. We will also provide some snacks if they choose to have a party. It is also interesting that it may be that the host is the only mutual friend of all guests and while the guests do not know each other, they gathered and know each other through this personal fitting session.
We also observed was that Singaporeans are willing to open up their office to us. For corporates, they organize a clothes fitting day for all ladies during lunch period. Male bosses are also okay with going back to office later than usual just for the ladies. It is interesting that corporates are quite open in letting a label going to their office and let their ladies employees to try on clothes.
Q6) Does your family support your decision?
Eileen: As a mother of 3, family support is really critical for my success. When I first started, there were many things that I had to do and my family had put in their effort and gave me their support and helped me in a lot of matters. I am really thankful for their support, especially my husband who helps me along the way.
Q7) Is there any vision and mission statement for your company? If not, what is it that governs you (e.g. values) in running the company? What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members?
Eileen: When you look at our packaging, there’s always a sentence “feel the love”. We want Noël Caleb to be a brand that brings all the fashion lovers together and through the delivery of clothes and progress, people can feel the passion and love. We do so to the extent that when people want to try the things online, we also meet them face to face because after all in fashion, it is important that the clothes fit them. By allowing them to try, they will feel quite happy and this makes them feel quite love most of the time.
To convey this to my team, I think in whatever we do, I will make sure that at the end of the day, they are able to see the fruits of their hard work. The fruits will be when the clothes that they partake in the designing and producing are being launched and delivered to the customers.
Q8) Apart from the interesting things that you encounter, what are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
Eileen: I think the main challenge is that in Singapore especially, we have no raw material. Thus when you want to start a fashion label, everything is more or less imported so finding fabrics is an issue. Another challenge is the manpower aspect. We have difficulties in finding young sewer as not many young people want to sew. Sewing is like a dying trade unlike in the 1970s where there were many tailors and even our mother sew. Importing materials, hiring people to sew require quite a high cost and together with rental cost, managing the high cost was a challenge.
Q9) How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
Eileen: As mention earlier, we are associated with SPRING and Textile Federation and this helped us to overcome some of the cost related and resources issue. The government also helped me in terms of the network, resources and manpower.
Q10) Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up?
Eileen: At the starting phase, I was pregnant with my 3rd child. Since we provide personal fitting session, I still had to carry a few bags of clothes to my customer’s house and serve them. When I was about 4 to 5 months pregnant, I was still doing so and customers was a bit shock that a pregnant lady was still carrying so many clothes around. At that period where I still did not have a place to showcase and sell my clothes in physical brick-and-mortar store, I was thinking what would happen if I could not meet my customers. It was quite tiring and that was the time when I felt like giving up.
Q11) When was the moment you realised the business would work?
Eileen: After our first year, Noël Caleb managed to get into most of the departmental stores like Tangs, Takashimaya, and Isetan and has a place to display and sell our clothes. I think being able to enter into the superstores was recognition as these superstores do set certain criteria for brands to enter and customers of these stores have pretty high standard. That was a moment I realized that the business would work.
In addition up till now, we are still serving many of our loyal customers. For Noël Caleb, we came up with different collections as I think that this would entice our customers to continue to support us since all our collections are different. Since many of them still stay with us up till now, it confirms that our business direction is correct and will work.
Q12) What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
Eileen: The proudest achievement is that this year we started the mentorship program. This makes us move closer to the next stage of what I want the brand to be: to be more than a fashion label and become a movement and a vision. In the fashion industry, it is very competitive and some people probably wonder what if a lot of them start their own label after the mentorship program, wouldn’t that be more competitive? As I mention Noël Caleb is about spreading the love for fashion, feeling the love. You cannot stop people who love fashion to pursue their dreams. With the mentorship program, it gives them a head start. Youths, people who want to start blog shop, people who want to start label or fashion marketing join this program and this helps us in terms of reaching out to the next step.
Another notable achievement would be that in 2012, I was awarded by Cozycot.com as 1 of the most inspiring woman. This nomination by Spirit of Enterprise is also 1 of my proudest achievements.
Q13) Can you describe the company culture that you have? How does it contribute to the performance of your company growth?
Eileen: I think it is very important that all members in the team must feel the ownership. I don’t really call them staff. In the company, I emphasize more on learning. I feel like if they can learn something, eventually they will add value to themselves and the company. I hope that they feel the passion and drive from whatever I do and see the overall results.
Q14) How do you promote learning within your Company? What are the training opportunities that you provide for your team?
Eileen: I try to expose them to various events to gain experiences. One of the events that we participate in is trade show. Not every fashion brand is able to go to trade show. With this, they are able to meet the professional buyers and audience, be it whether they are the backroom support or at the frontline. It is a good exposure for them.
Q15) What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
Eileen: The next stage is to help others who want to realize their fashion dream with the start of our mentorship and internship program. In addition, Noël Caleb is now very strong in social media and since social media is integrating into our life, I hope that in 5 to10 years’ time, Noël Caleb can become a very friendly brand. Being a friendly brand means be it whether you are a fashion or non-fashion brand, you can collaborate with Noël Caleb to do something to reach out to fashionable people. Whether you are selling drinks, shoes or a café, as long as you want to reach out to the fashionable crowd, you can actually co-partner with us and make it happen very quickly. Other part of my plan is actually to invest in the customers. This is why we keep running personalizing service, events, workshop so we will always know who our customers are and reach out to them.
Q16) Any plans to bring Noël Caleb out of Singapore?
Eileen: For the last 3 years we have buyers from overseas such as Hong Kong, Korea, Bangkok as well as United States. These 3 years is the phase of testing our products and brand so for the next phase it will also be venturing into other countries. This is also one of the reasons why we started the mentorship program. It allows people who want to venture the fashion industry to consider our brand immediately and take our brand out of Singapore rather than starting brand new.
Q17) In the industry there are other competitors. How do you differentiate yourself? What are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business?
Eileen: We differentiate ourselves through the programs we run and the service we provide. Specific examples are like the mentorship program and the personal fitting session in customer’s house.
Another distinct feature that we differentiate ourselves from our competitors is using our customers and fans as our models for fashion show. I realize that half of our profile of customers like modelling since every women want to gain confidence and look good. I think fashion show will slowly no longer be exclusive for people in the fashion industry. We organize fashion show very often as compared to other labels. By using customers as our models, they can feel the fabric and weight of clothes. Other customers will then be able to imagine themselves in the clothes too as they no longer think that it will only look nice on fashion models that are tall. This helps us to build a larger base of loyal customers and aid in the business growth while differentiating ourselves from others.
Q18) Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
Eileen: The core of the business is customers and you can say that I get my ideas by thinking about what customers want. In fashion, there are a lot of choices, especially in Singapore where the moment you walk out, there is a mall everywhere and there are a lot of brands. It is difficult for customers to come to us and thus, I continue on with the personalized fitting service at their houses.
Other than that, as a fashion label, the whole process of producing a new collection takes time. To keep the dialogue and relationship growing with customers, we cannot be hoping that they would stay with us when we are not communicating with them. This is also 1 of the aspect of how the idea of mentorship program came about. I thought that rather than growing more fashion brand by myself, another way is to empower those people who have the interest to grow so that they can quickly come up with something and continue the dialogue with our customers.
Q19) How do you think your business have made a positive impact or contribute to the community that you serve? For example: creating jobs for Singaporeans or underprivileged; upgrading the skills of employees; improving livelihoods or lifestyles of customers.
Eileen: Just 1 month ago, Northeast CDC incorporated our mentorship program to help the less privileged. Under the North East Social Innovation Fund, the mentorship program is 1 of the application that is funded to mentor those who aspire to work in the fashion industry. It thus helps the less privileged to have a chance to pick up skills in sewing, product development and sales and can produce their own mini collections without worrying about the cost.
Other than that, we also want to inculcate a value system to our customers through our collections and this help in making positive impact. For example, for the recent mirror collection that we launched, it was inspired by the disabled after we visited the School for Autism and Red Cross Hope for disabled. When we look at mirror, we see reflection so the intangible part of mirror collection is to get one to reflect as we always compare ourselves with others. We are much more fortunate than the disabled. The word ‘Noel’ in our brand name means Christmas so what we want is also to spread the spirit of thanksgiving instead of thinking about getting presents during Christmas.
Q20) What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Eileen: Entrepreneurship means that you live for what you want. It also means working hard. If you want recognition, success and financial aspect like money, you can’t be sitting there with your ideas and not do anything but expect things to come to you. I would also say that entrepreneurship is about creativity, problem solving and involves lot of life skills.
Q21) What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?
Eileen: Being creative and having the ability to solve problems are some of the entrepreneurship qualities that helped me come this far. Another important quality will be having integrity. Some people may think that as an entrepreneur, making the most money is the best. However, I think as an entrepreneur you also need to have ethics and a good sense of direction of what you want. You may sometime lose out some business opportunities but in the long term, if you have certain vision that you want to realize, it will come. Another quality will be having the determination. You cannot expect to see the end results of the decision you made and effort you put in immediately and determination is needed to pull through the journey. You have to endure any hardship in order to achieve what you want in the long run.
Q22) In your opinion, what is a good and ethical business?
Eileen: You value your customer as your brand/company ambassador. Entrepreneurs should not have the mindset that you sell something to the customers and hope that you won’t meet the customers again. You should hope that your customers are convinced by your products and belief of the brand. They will then become a very natural spokesperson of your business. Customers will speak louder than you. They will introduce your business to others who have same belief and value system and thus, bringing the right profile to you.
Q23) With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so?
Eileen: I think that it has become harder. If you are starting in the fashion industry in the 1970s, there were really no mass brands and giant malls so I think back then it was easier to survive. Without the internet, people’s choices were very much based on referral and relationship. After 1970s, the fashion scene change totally. There are malls opening everywhere, mass fashion brand appearing and fashion has become like fast food. People have more choices so it becomes harder.
Q24) Are there any advice for people who want to start their own business?
Eileen: You have to do your financial check because at the end of the day, business doesn’t come to you that easily so you need to have some sort of financial safety system in place. If you have a lifestyle where you need to spend so much, it will be difficult because you would not be able to generate revenue at the start and will face difficulties with no money to spend. Thus, financial checks are important before you even come into the picture. People always say out of 100 businesses, 99 fail. The rate of failure is very high and most businesses cannot last after 3 years. Thus, it is important to have sufficient funds.