There was a time when Vivienne Lin had to conduct her business in public toilets.
Nothing unusual, you might say, except that she is in the business of selling fashion.
When Ms Lin decided to quit a well-paid marketing communications job to start her fashion label Fuchsia Lane in 2007, she had no money to set up a shop.
She posted pictures of her designs – then mostly modified or re-engineered T-shirts – and her phone number on her blog.
“Customers would call and ask where they could meet me and try on my things. And I’d tell them I could meet them in a shopping centre and we could do it in the toilet,” she recalls with a laugh.
Her clients obviously did not mind as Ms Lin has done well enough to now have a 1,500 sq ft atelier and a production team of 10 “artisans” – from designer to pattern maker to embroiderer – producing workwear, cocktail dresses and evening gowns ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
“It didn’t miraculously happen overnight,” the 36-year-old says of her professional journey. “A lot of things which happened in my career, I made happen.”
Her drive, says the younger of two girls, is fuelled by a chip on her shoulder and a deprived childhood.
Her mother came from a rich family in Penang and grew up with three amahs (housemaids) and a chauffeur. She, however, chose to marry an insurance agent and lived with him in a village in Kluang in Johor.
Although it was a strain on their pockets, the couple had big dreams for their daughters and decided to send them to school in Singapore.
Whenever he could, Ms Lin’s father would cross the Causeway to see his family who lived in a 100 sq ft room in an Oxley Road apartment owned by her paternal grandfather and occupied by her uncle and his family.
The fashion entrepreneur says: “I didn’t see much of my dad when I was young because he was trying to make ends meet. Our school fees in Singapore were expensive, especially when converted from Malaysian currency.”
She adds: “We didn’t have anything. We had to do our homework on the floor. And we could watch TV only when my uncle and his family were not at home.”
Although some of their relatives, like her third aunt, were good to her, Ms Lin could not shake off the feeling her family were treated like second-class citizens.
“I worked very hard to prove myself. And I always wanted to prove myself so that no one would look down on me,” she admits candidly.
A self-starter, she helped to ease her parents’ load by earning scholarships and bursaries throughout her education.
She aced her PSLE at St Margaret’s Primary, and scored eight distinctions for her O levels at CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School which help to earn her an Asean Pre-University scholarship at Temasek Junior College.
“I studied English literature, physics, economics and maths. It was very strategic, I could go into arts, engineering or law,” she says.
As it turned out, she did not read any of those subjects at the National University of Singapore.
Instead, she was in the pioneer batch of the university’s Industrial Design programme.
Although her mother always tried to discourage her from artistic pursuits in favour of academic ones, she had her heart set on becoming a fashion designer since she was in secondary school.
“My aunt had a good friend who owned a tailoring business in Penang. I have very clear memories of going to her shop and watching her cut and sew all these beautiful fabrics into dresses for tai tais. I remember drawing what I wanted and she would make them for me,” she says.
She chose Industrial Design because the programme covered not only design and aesthetics, but also conceptualisation, business, branding, law and engineering.
In her third year, Ms Lin went on a seven-month student exchange programme at the Politecnico di Milano – the largest technical university in Italy.
The stint, she says, unlocked the doors to a totally different world.
“I studied fashion retail, fashion accessories design and did a case study on La Rinascente, one of the most famous and established department stores in the country,” she says.
The path she took after graduation was unconventional, to say the least. She applied to become an intern at a fashion magazine because she wanted to learn about the industry.
“It killed my mum, who didn’t understand why I wanted to become an intern and earn only a couple of hundred dollars when I have a degree,” she says.
The stint, however, was not quite how she imagined it would be.
Instead of writing articles, she spent the first few months loaning and returning dresses and other items from boutiques for the fashion editor.
“Finally, one day she asked me to write something. A few days later, she came to me and said: ‘I don’t think you can write.’
“I tried to ask her what I did wrong and which part she did not like but she just said I had to leave, and the very next day too.
“I felt like someone who was asked to leave because I had stolen something. I told myself that if I were in a position of power, I would never do what she did to me. I would let the other person know what she did wrong.”
She spent the next five years at a series of different jobs – designer at an event company, copywriter at an advertising agency and marketing communications executive at a ticketing company – while figuring out how to break into the fashion trade.
In 2007, she took her first tentative steps as a fashion designer entrepreneur while working as a marketing executive.
“I bought T-shirts, took them apart and re-engineered them by adding things like Mandarin buttons or collars. I later became more sophisticated, cutting them up to turn them into cardigans,” she says.
Ms Lin would peddle these designs from a pushcart or at stalls on weekends at the National Library or at MAAD (Market of Artists and Designers) at the Red Dot Museum.
On her first outing, she sold only one piece, to a good friend who dropped in to see how she was doing at the National Library.
Sales remained sluggish for several months.
Fortunately, engineer Gary Ong, her then-boyfriend and now husband, kept her spirits up, even helping to fashion portable, makeshift dressing rooms for her stall.
Sales picked up slowly, from a few tens to several hundred dollars each time she peddled her designs.
After half a year, she decided to bite the bullet and quit her marketing job to run Fuchsia Lane.
It set her on a life-changing professional journey that was exhilarating and exhausting.
“I started with less than $2,000. People think you need at least $200,000 or $2 million to start a fashion business but I think it depends on how you use your resources,” says Ms Lin, who started out by renting a table in a shared space in the Red Dot building.
The first thing she did was to write to the fashion writer of Lianhe Zaobao, who showed interest in her re-engineered T-shirts.
“Instead of a small article, they gave me one full page,” she recalls.
The publicity gave the business a fillip, and that was when she started entertaining customers in the toilets of shopping centres.
“Mind you, when a customer expressed interest in one design, I had to bring three sizes – so if they liked 10 designs, I’d be lugging around 30 pieces on the bus or the train,” she says.
Once, a wealthy woman called her up and told her to bring her wares to her apartment in Bukit Timah. She lugged a heavy suitcase up a hill to the apartment only to be told by the woman that her things were nice but too expensive and unceremoniously shooed out the door.
Fortunately, her customer base grew, thanks to write-ups in other publications.
Her designs grew more sophisticated, although getting seamstresses to execute what she wanted proved daunting.
“I knocked on so many doors, from tailors to mums of friends. Nobody wanted to do it; they thought I was crazy to take T-shirts apart. I finally found a couple who were willing to take on the challenge.”
To move her business into another gear, the gutsy woman decided she needed to stage a fashion show.
The only snag: she had no money.
On the suggestion of a magazine editor, she wrote an e-mail to the boss of On Cheong Jewellery seeking sponsorship. When there was no reply after a week, she called up his assistant only to be admonished for her audacity.
“But one week later, I received a reply from the assistant saying (the boss) was interested in meeting me,” she says. True to his word, Mr Ho Nai Cheang, who is also head of the Singapore Jewellers Association, met her in a tiny meeting room in her shared office.
“When he left, I thought that was it. But the next day, the assistant called me and said that he would sponsor my show,” she says.
“Maybe he admired my guts or sincerity and drive or maybe he just wanted to help a budding designer,” says Ms Lin, who went on to stage a successful show at the Arts House in 2008 with her designs modelled by friends of friends.
Emboldened, she embarked on an even bigger showcase two years later. With a grant from the then Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica), she collaborated with three artists to create eight gowns showcasing intricate Peranakan beading.
Undaunted by sceptics and naysayers, she knocked on many doors – including Ion Orchard and the Singapore Tourism Board – in search of sponsorship.
She even wrote to Mica, inviting then-Minister Lui Tuck Yew to be guest of honour.
“Even my husband thought I was crazy. He said: ‘What makes you think you can ask a minister to your kacang puteh event?'”, she recalls, using the Malay word for peanuts.
“I replied: ‘If you don’t ask, you will never know.'”
It took a bit of convincing but the minister agreed to attend the show, which ended up with 16 corporate partners and involved 9,000 hours of preparation and 8,000 Swarovski crystals.
The gowns – exhibited at the Ion shopping mall for three weeks – were also auctioned off, with 30 per cent of the proceeds donated to The Business Times’ Budding Artists Fund.
The show also caught the attention of the Financial Times, as well as the Thai embassy, which invited her to stage it again at a trade fair in Bangkok.
She continued to hone her craft, and even came under the mentorship of veteran local designer Thomas Wee, who is as well-known for his exquisite design aesthetic as for his acerbic tongue.
“I’m very grateful to him for telling me truthful things that hurt because I learnt so much. It’s dangerous if people sugar-coat things,” says Ms Lin, who now counts many affluent professionals as her clients.
She moved as her team and business grew, from a table to a shared office to the second floor of a shophouse and then to her own atelier in Ubi, her current space.
Her dream is to expand overseas and she took the first step towards this goal by staging a stage show in Tokyo in 2013.
“I’m not making huge profits,” she says, declining to reveal numbers. “My parents say I could make better money elsewhere but I have a vision for my brand and myself.”
And this vision is to create a value and a legacy.
“I know it sounds big and lofty but we really have a limited time on earth. Money is important but besides earning money, what are you passionate about?”