At Eurasian Vogue we love a smart, entrepreneurial business woman and no one fits the bill more than Hong Kong designer, Sarah Lai. A graduate of Cornell University, Sarah has pursed and achieved a successful career in finance, however from a young age Sarah always possessed natural creativity and a love of fashion.
Enjoying her career in finance but still loving the world of fashion, Sarah says, "I immerse myself in the fashion scene through reading editorials, blogs and shopping both online and offline." In doing so, Sarah saw a massive gap in the market, "I noticed a lot of the beautiful designer pieces are so unaffordable and impractical." However instead of just being frustrated by this, Sarah decided to do something about it and whilst still working in finance, simultaneously set about starting her own collection. "I started to come up with an idea to start a clothing brand that is elegant, practical and timeless in the contemporary space.”
Having been inspired from her Grandmother’s designer wardrobe Sarah launched the Sarah Lai collection in 2013. The collection is made up of equsite feminine and functional pieces that retain a timeless elegance at a reasonable price point. “My fascination with fashion began as a child in my grandmother’s designer wardrobe – the impeccably tailored suits from Giorgio Armani, colorful fluttery silk dresses from Leonard, and anatomically prominent shoulder pads from Thierry Mugler. They all projected an aura of sophistication, femininity, and timeless refinement that deeply impressed me."
The collection is designed for contemporary and sophisticated women with the savoir vivre and cosmopolitan world-view, while embracing a timeless aesthetic of grace and refinement.
Sarah’s line is incredibly impressive, especially when you learn that she only took short classes at Central St. Martins in London and is primarily self –taught and wasn't exposed to much art growing up, "Being educated at a local school in Hong Kong and from a traditional Chinese family, I was not that exposed to art growing up. I’ve only been to museums like the Louvre with my family but never really studied art and art history. It was only when I started working that I began more interested in art and art history.” Sarah then went on to take a course in tradition Chinese painting, “It really gives me the basic drawing, sketching and painting skills in designing my clothes.”
When you see Sarah’s collection it’s apparent that she has an innate gift for creativity. I wonder if it was a big decision to start her collection and how long it took her to commit to the idea? “It was not just a heat of a moment but rather it took me months of research through reading, talking to people, taking a class at Central St Martins (CSM), attending fabric fair, etc. that led me to begin my own clothing line.”
Having stepped into the creative world, I ask how Sarah feels about retaining both careers, does she love one more than the other? “I really have to say that I love both equally. They gave me very different perspectives and surprisingly both skill sets compliment each other. Finance gives me the business mindset that helps with starting my fashion brand, whereas fashion gives me creativity to express myself. It is only from starting my own fashion brand that I truly become entrepreneurial and understood the bread and butter of making a business work, which in turn applies back to finance in understanding the fundamentals of each business.” I agree with Sarah, that the reality of running a fashion line is not all about design, in fact it’s arguably a small portion of it, whilst the marketing, and business side of it takes up more time than perhaps designing itself and Sarah’s background and study reflect this, “I actually took 3 short courses from CSM. First was before I started my brand, called Starting Your Own Commercial Fashion Brand. It really helped me understand the basics in making a brand work, e.g. for a commercially successful brand, actually only 10% is design, the rest is really how you manage your business, marketing, etc. The other two classes were pattern making and embroidery. As I have never studied fashion design before, both classes gave me the foundation in further developing my skills in designing my pieces. “Never stop learning” has been one of my mottos in life!” And how about balancing both your career in finance and your own line? "I see my fashion brand as my baby, so I am like a full-time mom. Sacrifices need to be made like working on weekends but when you enjoy what you do, it really doesn’t matter.”
Sarah tells me it took her only 6 months from idea to realizing her own brand. How was it starting your own business? “Extremely challenging but can also be very fulfilling when you have achieved a milestone. There are so many unforeseen obstacles and one is bound to experience a lot of trial and error before reaching each milestone."
Sarah has always had a strong vision when it came to the market positioning of her company, “but in terms of aesthetics, it was really by trial and error.” Looking at her latest collection the trial and error has clearly paid off, her pieces are so beautifully structured with such a distinct cut, I can instantly see the woman she is dressing, I ask her what her creative process is, “finding inspirations, creating a mood board, researching fabric and lots of sketching.” Sarah certainly finds inspiration in everything she sees, “The Spring Summer 2016 collection is inspired by the Stockholm sky!” What was the most challenging part of this new collection? “Finding the right fabric to create the silhouette that I imagine is both the most challenging and exciting moment!” And the most challenging when starting the company? “Trusting the wrong people to help bring my brand to the next level and the extremely competitive landscape of the fashion industry.”
Sarah’s experience and background in finance has helped her offset some of those challenges, “It really helps me refine my business model, control cost and always think ahead with different options in case the current path doesn’t work out.” What would your advice be to new designers starting their own line? “Have a business plan, talk to as many people as you can and truly understand the competitive landscape before starting your own line”
A strong role model herself, Sarah also has a ‘Be Inspired’ section on her website featuring women who inspire other women. I tell Sarah I think it’s a really important message to send out to be inspired by one another, especially with the increase of social media sometimes having a negative effect on young girls. I ask her how important she thinks social media has become, and how she feels about the use of Instagram and the rise in popularity of bloggers? “I think social media really bridges the gap between designers and customers, and gives everyone a voice to express themselves. One of the most unexpected outcomes of starting my own brand is this really inspired quite a few people around me to pursue what they are truly passionate about. After hearing what they have to say led me to start my “Be Inspired” page.
Someone who inspired Sarah herself was Coco Chanel – “I read the book “Chanel – An Intimate Life.” Her story alone, coming from poverty to starting her own brand, back in those days was already very inspiring. When there is a will, there is a way. Do not be afraid to think outside the box, just like how Coco Chanel had broken so many rules to create what she believed in.” Sarah is certainly embodying this spirit and we couldn’t love it more.
For more information on Sarah Lai visit:
Sarah Lai Website
Sarah Lai Instagram