Founder of retailer and brand Sau Lee, Cheryl Leung, Photo Courtesy: Sau Lee
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sau Lee
While we have been inundated with troubling headlines since COVID-19’s global spread, it’s refreshing to hear of a Hong-Kong-based brand that is up and running, after having experienced a semi-lockdown situation and COVID-19’s wave of uncertainty.
Sau Lee is a women’s fashion brand geared towards the “city girl who loves to travel, enjoys fitness and health, but also won’t say no to a Sunday champagne brunch with friends,” describes founder Cheryl Leung. The label’s unique, feminine designs are available on its direct-to-consumer website, on e-retailers like Revolve and Shopbop, and in its own brick and mortar store in Hong Kong.
Find out how founder Leung managed her business during Hong Kong’s COVID-19 imposed semi-quarantine state, and what life on the other side of this world pandemic looks like.
Karin Eldor: Let’s go back to your company’s history first. What inspired you to take the leap in 2014 and launch Sau Lee?
Cheryl Leung: Starting my own label has been a dream of mine since I was young, but I never thought it was possible until I joined Lane Crawford and learned about different brands’ stories. I have always loved the glamorous Hong Kong fashion of the 1960s, of fitted cheongsams that emphasize and flatter the female figure. While I love that style, I wouldn’t necessarily wear a traditional cheongsam on a daily basis. I wanted to create dresses that were inspired by this aesthetic and had elements of Chinese culture, while still being very wearable. I sampled up some styles from local tailors here in Hong Kong and after receiving compliments on the dresses I wore to events, I decided to launch the brand!
Eldor: Sau Lee is based in Hong Kong. Is all your manufacturing and production done there?
Leung: Our clothing is made in a nearby city, called Shenzhen. To this day I work with the same manufacturer I began the journey with, and I have developed a close relationship with the owner and workers there.
Every collection starts with a trip to fabric markets in Guangzhou where we source unique fabrics and embroideries from China and Asia, and ends in Hong Kong where I design and flesh out every piece. Of course we haven’t been able to go to Guangzhou for some time now, so the past couple of collections we did, we did by e-chatting — so I would send over pictures of fabrics or details I was looking for, and then they would send over pictures on their end. We choose the ones we want and they ship us physical samples. So everything has been switched to online, which is a new experience for me. Initially, I was a bit worried about that but luckily we made it work, and all the fabric suppliers we work with in China are pretty efficient and eager to help, and to keep business going, so we’ve been able to source fabrics remotely.
Eldor: Sau Lee is sold on sites like Revolve, Shopbop, as well as Anthroplogie and Bhldn (Beholden). In addition to your direct-to-consumer website, you have a brick & mortar location in Hong Kong.
What did you do with the store when Hong Kong was under quarantine?
Leung: First and foremost, we are lucky that in Hong Kong we haven’t been in full quarantine, but we have been in a semi lockdown since January this year, and people here have been practicing social distancing since then. During this time, we have not kept the store open regular hours, and we have encouraged employees to work from home. Sau Lee has shifted its focus and attention to our website for direct-to-consumer sales, in addition to expanding our customer acquisition.
Eldor: When you were learning about the impact and spread of Coronavirus in mainland China in December 2019, were there some actions you took right away, to prepare for a potential lockdown or “shelter in place” situation?
Leung: We kept an eye on what was going on, and as the virus spread we followed government guidelines. We made sure employees had the option to work from home with company laptops. Employee health is our top priority and we wanted to make sure they felt safe during this time. We also set up regular online catchups so the team stayed connected throughout.
Eldor: How did this impact Sau Lee, in the short-term? What did the situation mean, for your business, and did there also seem to be a long-term impact?
Leung: There has been a ripple effect, industry wide. Initially China was in lockdown, which made getting goods out difficult for everyone. But as the virus spread globally, we started to notice a dramatic shift in demand.
As you know, people are staying in, they aren’t socializing as much, and as a result they are more focused on purchasing necessities. In light of this we have had to react quickly and make inventory adjustments on our side for this year. This will have a lasting impact, and from what we understand and what we’re seeing, business won’t be back to normal until next year.
Eldor: What advice would you have for business owners and / or designers, currently in the same situation? Was there anything you did that helped you recover quickly or smoothly, and get back up and running again?
Leung: The priority for everyone is to make sure they have enough money to pay their employees as well as suppliers, and make sure the business is around by the time this is all over by keeping a firm grip on cashflow, limiting exposures, and cutting costs wherever possible. We also believe that honesty is the best policy with our employees, and keeping them updated during this time helps with both physical and mental health.
The two things we are really focusing on now is:
1. Thinking outside the box and thinking of creative ways to collaborate and work with other brands during this time to get through this.
2. I have also found myself running full speed for the past five years, and we are looking at this time as a unique opportunity to really take a step back and reflect on how we want to position ourselves better for when we can bounce back.
What advice would you have for global consumers, today? After all, we are all in this together…
First and foremost, everyone needs to prioritize their health right now by staying in and taking the correct precautions. Secondly, stay active with at-home workouts, treat yourself to some great home-cooked meals, stay social digitally, and don’t forget to take care of your mental health as well.
Eldor: Is there anything you’d like to share that’s coming up for Sau Lee?
Leung: During this time, we believe it’s important to support and work together to get through this. This is why we are launching a month-long initiative to support local brands. Each week, we will introduce and endorse a different brand as a gift with purchase, for every order from our website. So if you shop with us this month, you will be supporting two independent brands at the same time, and receive a surprise gift.
Eldor: Any words of encouragement for retail brands and entrepreneurs, who are currently feeling the business impact?
Leung: It is okay to feel overwhelmed at times, but try to remember everyone is in the same boat, this isn’t an isolated event. Take a step back and solve immediate problems one at a time. Problems are more manageable when you break them up into individual actionable solutions, instead of seeing them as a cluster.
At the end of the day, every challenge and obstacle we face as entrepreneurs will help us become better leaders, better business owners, and stronger individuals. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the lesson.