The Star, August 23, 2012
By JOHNNI WONG
FOR someone who admits to being close to 50, businesswoman Steffanie Chua still looks as fresh as a daisy and stunningly attractive in her signature Shiatzy Chen couture outfit and immaculate coiffure.
Ever charming, articulate, tall and svelte, Chua speaks in soft, delicate tones over tea at the Starhill Gallery Tea Salon. But don’t let her demureness lull you into believing the Kuala Lumpur-born lady is too soft for the cut-throat and fickle business of fashion.
“I have always been surrounded by people — both relatives and friends in business — and have always admired those who are entrepreneurs, either on their own or with their friends or family,” Chua points out.
“I started my own business mainly due to my love for travel. I took a year off from work to see new places and discover new experiences, both physically and spiritually. I also had a lot of encouragement from close friends who had always urged me to venture out on my own. Perhaps, they had more confidence in me than I did in myself at that time! And, of course, with a calmer and more spiritually-inclined outlook, things just seemed to fall into place naturally,” she said.
And like multi-talented, international celebrity Heidi Klum, who often repeats in her TV show, Project Runway, “One day you’re in, the next day, you’re out,” Chua is ever conscious of the capriciousness of the business world in which she now moves.
Previously involved in managing and leasing retail space for the 23,000 sq m Starhill Gallery — owned by Starhill Global REIT — in Kuala Lumpur, before venturing out, Chua has established Identity Lab Sdn Bhd to capitalise on her contacts.
Her business ventures include landing the franchise of the Taiwanese fashion brand, Shiatzy Chen.
The fashion label has been described by Le Monde — a French daily evening newspaper — as the “Chanel of Taiwan”.
The Financial Times and the Asian Wall Street Journal have both noted the ascent of the brand in recent years.
“Fashion is really only one aspect of Identity Lab,” explains Chua, “But Shiatzy Chen is truly an outstanding example, as the brand represents so many significant qualities in culture, art, history and heritage, which I admire with the deepest respect.
“We are honoured that Shiatzy Chen is a part of our corporate identity, but Identity Lab, as a whole, is essentially a corporate branding consultancy focusing on brand image and identity to help corporations — both local and international — to streamline, strategise, define and deliver their corporate profile with a distinct identity.
Nevertheless, Chen tellingly splurged over RM1mil to create the first Shiatzy Chen boutique in South-East Asia at the Starhill Gallery, where she formerly worked.
Incidentally, this is the only franchised store, so far, approved by the Taiwanese principals, Shiatzy Chen chief designer Wang Chen Tsai-Hsia, 61, her husband, Wang Yuan Hong, 60, who is company chairman and their son, Harry Wang, 34, chief executive officer.
According to Chua, all Shiatzy Chen boutiques are designed by a world-acclaimed designer who is on the list of the world’s top 100 retail designers.
“We work in collaboration and compliance with this standards set by Shiatzy Chen International.”
Although reluctant to reveal financial figures, Chua admits that the Shiatzy Chen brand sells anything from RM1,500 for an accessory to RM35,000 for a dress.
“The price range is vast because the designs are so wide-ranging; suitable for everyone from 25 to 60. Generally, it starts from RM1,500 to about RM8,000 extending all the way to signature gowns, including the Swarovski commissioned collection which can cost about RM35,000,” she said.
Since, she was in the mall leasing business, Chua knows precisely how much each of the international fashion brands are selling per month. The top-most brand rakes in an average of RM8mil to RM10mil a month, while other premium labels each chalk up sales of between RM400,000 to RM800,000 a month.
According to Chua, the brand has registered an average of about RM500,000 in sales a month since the launch of the boutique in January of this year.
This is a remarkable figure by any measure, given that the Taiwanese brand is not actively promoted in this region, compared to the multi-million dollar global marketing campaigns of top Western brands that includes South-East Asia as a significant market.
According to a recent report in Forbes Asia magazine on the Shiatzy Chen fashion house and the rising prominence of Harry Wang, the Kuala Lumpur outlet at Starhill Gallery “did US$300,000 in sales in the first month”.
Apparently, this has prompted Harry to look at another three locations in Singapore and the likelihood of opening in Jakarta and Bangkok.
Love at first sight
Apparently, for Chua, securing the brand was more than just business.
“I was introduced to the brand by a friend and it was love at first sight for Shiatzy Chen and its rich, lustrous fabrics of the purest silks, brocades and breathtaking embroidery with the finest details. And best of all, its cultural values with contemporary relevance.
“When I first met up with Shiatzy Chen designer Wang Chen in Taiwan, I told her that I really loved the meaningfulness of the brand and what it meant to me. Not only in fashion per se, but what it represents in terms of heritage, cultural pride and identity. She must have agreed with me when I mentioned that the brand was highly relevant in Malaysia, where multi-culturalism is embraced.”
Chua’s persuasiveness is an enduring trait that has opened many doors for her since her early days in the service industry.
“I have always been very people-oriented,” reveals Chua.
“And hence, my initial attraction to the hospitality industry came naturally. My interest in the arts, architecture and culture eventually took me to the Chelsea College of Arts in London, with study stints in interior design, including fashion retail merchandising.
“Generally, I enjoy meeting people and sharing their points of view and also learning new things which led to marketing and promotions and subsequently, to project management and consultancy for international companies, including national projects.”
In business, Chua describes herself as still a “newbie”, although she has been involved in project management and consultancy related to Malaysian food as well as Asia’s largest watch and jewellery showcase in Malaysia.
“In the past, I have been in charge of numerous businesses and their bottom lines — from luxury retail, fashion and designer concepts to gourmet wining and dining.”
According to Chua, her Identity Lab consultancy is now working on exporting Malaysia’s first heritage village or hutong concept of local comfort food.
This involves bringing the legacy of Malayan Chinese cuisine to Guangzhou, the “gateway” to the vast China market.
“We are also in the process of assisting haute jewellers with centuries of cultural heritage that can be traced back to the early days of British monarchs, to establish their presence in the region.
“And I have always been passionate about tea, enjoying it from an early age. There are some heritage brands from Taiwan, China and European marques like Mariage Frère and Fortnum & Masons and a Singaporean brand, which I admire. So why not our very own Malaysian maison de thé offering the finest and artistic tea canisters and accessories to match? We truly look forward to making it happen soon.”
Chua acknowledges that the fashion retail business is tough but exciting.
“Fashion is so dynamic and volatile with constant change and developments season after season — which is precisely what makes it both so interesting yet challenging.
“However, a distinct and unique identity such as an icon in style, and not just fashion, goes the distance in cutting through the clutter. As Wang Chen say, ‘With over 5,000 years of civilisation, culture, art and history to draw upon, there is more than enough to be inspired by,’”Chua added.
As for her characteristic style in handling business matters, Chua, who is regarded by her “colleagues” as a perfectionist, alludes to be being guided by a higher spiritual force.
“There has been a shift (in my character) due my own personal and spiritual development. Perhaps, more noticeable now than before when I was responsible for someone else’s brand, I always believe that there must be a sense of joie de vivre in everything that we do — no matter as a mother, a woman or a leader and a friend. Only then can we be passionate enough about what we do to do it well.
As for her grooming habits, Chua obviously chooses to wear “mostly Shiazty Chen” either to meetings or special occasions.
According to her, the apparel in the women’s collection is not only contemporary in style but also well-tailored so that the cuts flatter Asian women.
The label also offers a menswear collection.
“The detailing that goes into its couture pieces are veritable works of art featuring the world’s finest Suzhou embroidery techniques that date back more than 2,000 years.
“The dimensionality of the embroidery is breathtaking as the Suzhou technique uses over 40 different types of needles and over 1,000 different silk threads to create the lively designs. Many are also inlaid with jadeite, pearls and coral, while gowns that are commissioned by Swarovski, the Austrian crystal house, also features Swarovski crystals.”