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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Queen of quirky

Jo Soh, founder of kooky clothes label hansel, goes by the design ethos 'her style, her way'
The Straits Times - January 9, 2012
By: Adeline Chia
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Queen of quirky With the help of her father who gave her $20,000 in startup capital, designer Jo Soh has turned her label into a successful brand. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

You could pick any number of words that mean either 'whimsical' or 'kooky' and throw them at hansel, the local fashion label, and they would stick.

The clothes are vintage-inspired with the right level of quirkiness in their designs - a playful animal print, a prominent bow or a bold colour contrast.

Its logo is a Jack Russell terrier. The collections are given whimsical (that word again) names such as Flyaway Donkey, Geometric Swan and Lily The Lady. Prices range from $59 for a cotton T-shirt to $189 for a cotton knit dress.

The brand's girly cutesiness belies its success. The eight-year-old label has chalked up $500,000 in sales at its 600-sq ft unit at upmarket shopping mall Mandarin Gallery. The store retains an anarchic DIY spirit - the walls are scrawled with hand drawings of jewels, magic lamps and sparkly stars.

Ms Patricia Lee, 31, senior fashion writer at Female magazine, says the brand 'has broad appeal but maintains its point of view'.

'The clothes are not so avant garde that they are inaccessible. Yet they are not mass market either. It strikes a very good balance and that's very important to the longevity of the brand. It's commendable that it has maintained its style and branding as an independent label for so many years.''

hansel's founder Jo Soh, 35, has said that her designs are an extension of her personality. And just on appearance alone, she does conform to the image of the brand.

She is wearing a mustard hansel dress with teardrop-shaped cut-outs along the collar line and gold sneakers from Steve Madden. Her face is framed by a stark black bob and a pair of retro-cool cats-eye glasses.

But she is far from the impish, playful sprite that her looks suggest. In the first few minutes of meeting, her manner is brisk, cold even. She answers my greeting and a smile with a business-like 'Oh, you're here'.

It takes a few minutes of conversation at a nearby cafe before she thaws and throws in some smiles. Fiddlng with a Prada wallet that is scrawled all over with cartoon drawings in a marker pen, she tells me about her childhood playing dress-up with her fashionista Mum's wardrobe, her training abroad and a brief run-down on the history of hansel.

In 2003, after graduating with first class honours from Central Saint Martins in fashion design with marketing, she designed a 12-piece collection for the Mercedes Australian Fashion Week which was snapped up by a Melbourne boutique.

She then started a wholesale business which targeted working women from 25 to 35, supplying to boutiques in Japan, Australia, Hong Kong and Malaysia. She says the business, which produced its clothes in China and Indonesia, pulled in about A$200,000 a year in a good year.

Then the 2008 financial crisis hit and she suffered losses, the value of which she declines to reveal. She decided to concentrate on retail instead and opened a widely successful pop-up store in Stamford House in 2009.

A year later, she moved to the upmarket Mandarin Gallery. The shop has just celebrated its first anniversary.

She is keen to stress that fashion is a business, not an airy-fairy artistic pursuit.

'When I started out, I was winging it. I had to wear many hats. I had to do the design, the production, the public relations, the finances.'

On hindsight, she says some financial training would have been helpful, but 'it would involve taking time, which I don't have'. But then, work experience was a 'living, breathing MBA', she adds with a laugh.

Her design ethos is uniquely self- centred: it is about '(her) style, (her) way'. That means a mix of whimsy and humour, such as a print that looks like a kid scrawled asterisks with a black crayon all over, with an emphasis on wearability.

She tries to put pockets in all her dresses for a hands-free night out. Her clothes also fit different body types and usually come with detachable belts.

Her favourite style period is the wartime 1940s. The motto was 'make do and mend', she says. 'Elegance was created from very little. People didn't have enough fabric so they used contrasting panels and collars. The clothes were very practical, with quirky touches.' Sound familiar?

From her boutique, we move to hansel's headquarters in an industrial estate in Geylang East. The time-saving Soh asks if we want to continue the interview in the taxi, and I say no.

The office is a practical 600-sq ft working space shared by four staff. Half of the place is storage space. On a rack hangs the next season's clothes, which are inspired by the colourful layered kueh lapis cake. The name of the collection is Tiers Of Joy.

Soh comes from a relatively straitlaced business family. Her father continued her grandfather's business making tarpaulin and canopies 'for prison vans and ice-cream vans'.

She inherited her fashion sense from her mother, a flamboyant dresser whose wardrobe spilled into her two children's cupboards. Soh's only brother, who is two years older than her, used to charge their mother 50 cents a month for storage.

He now works in the banking industry and is married with two daughters. She lives with her banker boyfriend in a condominium in Ulu Pandan. Her parents divorced when she was nine.

Soh loved the clothes worn by her secretary mother. 'She had wigs and she dyed her hair often. She taught me about the importance of appearance, how it affects her and other people when they see her well-dressed.'

From the age of 12, she knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. When she was 16, she spent one year at Lasalle College of the Arts doing an art and design foundation course, and left for Britain.

First, she went to London's Kingston University but flunked the fashion degree course. 'I underestimated how difficult it was for an 18-year-old who has never been on her own. It was a very intense degree course.'

She went on to do a diploma instead at Manchester University, and later, a degree course at London's Central Saint Martins.

hansel came about only after about three years of searching on her part. After she graduated, she took a job as product manager for Sandy Dalal, a now-defunct American menswear label. She had to work in Isernia, an isolated Italian town. She quit after three months.

She decided to come back to Singapore, and worked as a fashion design assistant for the home-grown Song+Kelly21 label for six months. Then for the next two years, she dabbled in illustration, freelance styling and taught art at a preschool.

In 2003, with the help of a $20,000 start-up capital from her dad, she designed her debut collection, titled Me And My Camel, inspired by a vintage fabric with a camel print she found in a warehouse in Little India. She named the brand after her family dog.

After that collection was bought up at the Mercedes Australian Fashion Week, she decided to continue her business as a wholesale business, with her father as partner.

She worked out of the dining room, with the family dog running around. How was it like working with her father? 'Well, sometimes the father and daughter dynamic was brought into the work environment,' she says, but she held her own.

She also picked up financial skills such as cash flow forecasts, and profit and loss statements from him. He retired from the business in 2009.

When the credit crunch hit, overseas distributors wanted to concentrate on their own retail businesses and orders for hansel fell.

To clear her stock, she set up a pop-up shop in Stamford House for $6,000 rent for one month to sell her old collection. She made $50,000 in profit. Emboldened by her success, she decided to lease the Mandarin Gallery space.

Before she knew it, a year has flown by and she celebrated its first anniversary in December last year.

Quizzed about her personal style, she takes off her trademark cat's eye glasses and says that she has four pairs of the same frame.

She bought the first pair off a Florida optician on eBay for US$40 a pair, and fell in love with them. She replaces the diamante pieces that fall off at the side with Swarovski crystals.

But she has not always been the retro chick. During her university days, she shaved her head. It all started with a two-week cycling trip she was embarking on. 'I didn't want to take a hairdryer. So I shaved the back and kept a patch of fringe in front, like Tintin.'

She kept a variation of the short hairstyle for about 10 years. 'People didn't know whether I was a boy or girl.'

When she returned to Singapore, she decided to grow her hair out because 'it made it easier to work'.

'Most people don't feel comfortable with a shaved head. Everyone thought I was a lesbian or a man.'

She also had to tone down on her forthrightness. 'By Western standards, I was considered quite quiet. Here, I'm considered quite outspoken.

'But I do get away with it more sometimes by having my own business.'

I ask her to show me the items from her psychedelic kueh lapis-inspired collection. On the rack are T-shirts with bold, multi-coloured horizontal stripes and dresses with a geometric print.

She is planning to make a boxy bag that looks like a gigantic kueh lapis.

She is already thinking of the next collection.

'My mind's always ticking, no matter where I am,' she says. 'I'm thinking of ways to tap into opportunities in marketing. Or a colour combination I see in a magazine can inspire me.

'It's not work to me, it's almost like my purpose in life.'



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