Can someone with no prior experience in design or in the wedding industry start a successful gown business? Val Lee, owner of Blessed Brides, says “Yes!” She speaks to Denise Li about how she did it.
The wedding industry – whether in Singapore or anywhere else – can be a highly competitive business, with many vendors fighting for a slice of the holy matrimonial pie. So we thought it was extremely brave of Val Lee, who had no prior experience in the industry, to start a business selling and renting wedding gowns four years ago. We speak to her to find out what inspired her to leave her previous job as a polytechnic lecturer, and about the challenges she faced on her entrepreneurial journey with Blessed Brides.
1. What inspired you to start Blessed Brides?
It all started when I was on the hunt for wedding vendors a few years ago. My then-fiance (now husband) and I visited many bridal shops in Tanjong Pagar, and the thing that struck me was how they all tried to sell me an all-in-one package. This was something I wasn’t interested in because we had already engaged the services of a very talented photographer. I started Blessed Brides in 2009 specialising in wedding gowns because I feel that brides should have the option of customising each and every detail of their wedding, rather than be pressured into buying a package from one vendor.
2. What were you doing prior to starting Blessed Brides?
Prior to starting Blessed Brides, I was teaching Life Sciences at a polytechnic. I enjoyed what I did, but I’ve also always dreamed of starting my own business since I was in primary school. My dad is a businessman himself, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy because the risk of failure is always present.
3. How has the wedding industry changed since you started Blessed Brides?
Back then, there were a lot of local wedding gown designers, but few people were bringing in designer gowns from foreign labels. That’s what made Blessed Brides different back then: I wanted to focus on bringing in gowns from Spanish labels such as White One by Pronovias and Rosa Clara. Now, there are more multi-label boutiques bringing in gowns from designer labels.
4. How do you deal with the increased competition?
By offering service that’s very personalised. We can customise existing gowns by adding a little detail, or create new ones from scratch. This was a huge challenge for me because I had zero design experience before starting Blessed Brides. I had to teach myself how to draw and design, and learned from making mistakes along the way. I’ve lost track of the number of times I had to re-draw my technical sketches because they just weren’t detailed enough! One thing we don’t do, however, is cheap copies of existing designs.
I believe that technical skills are just one aspect of the business. I think my own strengths lie in the fact that I listen to my customers and am able to understand what they want.
6. Did you start Blessed Brides alone? And how many employees do you have now?
I have a business partner, but she’s more involved with the finance and administrative side of things. I currently have six full-time employees, most of whom do the designing and stitching.
7. How did you raise the capital for your business?
I used my personal savings, but we started really small. Our shop used to be at Albert Court Hotel, and it was a far smaller space than our current studio. I consider myself lucky because we broke even within the first year. Most of our customers heard about us through word-of-mouth.
8. What is your customer demographic like?
We have a good mix of Singaporeans and expat brides. Expat brides like coming to us because they usually hold destination weddings and are only on the lookout for a gown – not the whole package of photography/makeup/hair services.
9. How would you describe your management style?
Honestly, I know I have the tendency to be a bit of a micro-manager, but I do have quite an open and consultative style. I make the effort to listen to ideas and input before implementing anything new. I believe that with younger staff, you can’t be too much of a “dictator” around them. They don’t just want to work with a boss – they also want to work someone they can call a friend.
10. What’s the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
Satisfied customers! I love it when they send us photos of their big day wearing our gowns, and when they take the time and effort to write to us expressing their satisfaction with our services.
11. Any advice for budding entrepreneurs?
Cash flow is everything. Don’t over-hire or over-commit if you/your business is not ready for it.
Blessed Brides is at 11B Mohamed Sultan Road, #03-01. Tel: 6735 6334.
About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.