*Interview originally appeared in Localiiz*
Fashion, in many ways, is everlasting. Whether interested in haute couture or ready-to-wear, there’s no way one can exist in modern society and escape the influence of large fashion houses and high-street fast fashion brands. After all, we must all clothe ourselves!
Hong Kong, in particular, is a fashion-forward city where many are fixated on portraying personal style through the clothing they wear. This is reflected in the large numbers of fashion boutiques dotted around the territories, dressing Hongkongers in lesser-known looks that are less high street and more exclusive.
We had a lovely chat with Cici Zhang, co-founder of one of Hong Kong’s most beloved boutique brands, Black Coral, and learned more about becoming an entrepreneur in this fast-paced city, consumer trends in fashion, and the advice she wishes she had received when she first started.
Fortune really does favour the bold
It’s obvious from the get-go that the well-dressed and vibrant Cici Zhang has a strong passion for fashion—after all, it’s what she studied at university and she has been in the industry since her first job—but after working as a designer for a mass company for close to three years, it became apparent that there were some gaping holes which she found hard to reconcile with.
She tells us wistfully that while the lingerie, swimwear, and sportswear products she designed for a French apparel company were beautiful, at the end of the day, cost was always the final deciding factor on whether a piece would be approved, so it was difficult for designers to really unleash their creativity. “Sometimes we’d have to take off everything that made a garment special to meet the cost parameters. The process was quite demotivating, and not as creative as I’d have liked. In the end, it was really about cost-cutting and pushing your factory to make the nicest products you can for the cheapest price.”
Is that not the case with any business model, you ask? “Yes, but in a huge mass-market fashion company, the business model is to churn out things that are nice-looking at the most cost-effective price, that seem like a good deal to the customer. Because I was working in Hong Kong for a French brand headquartered in Paris, there was also a bit of a disconnect where they don’t tell the designers why things don’t end up in the final collection. So you don’t have a lot of say, you don’t have a lot of control, and sometimes you don’t even know why.”
Fed up with the circumstances and getting increasingly bored, Zhang began making plans to finally take action on her dreams of having a business to call her own. Put bluntly, she directly went against her employment contract and launched Black Coral with her best friend under the table, while still working full-time. For the first year and a half, they didn’t run any ads or do any publicity, because Zhang couldn’t be seen being associated with another fashion brand—they merely got the word out there through friends and friends of friends, and people who stumbled across the website or their social media platforms.
Even though production was kept very lean, and they only held a few pieces of each style in the most popular sizes in Hong Kong, her apartment was still overflowing with products—she had to shove clothes into every spare bit of space—under the couch, in the bottom of the wardrobe, under her bed, because they couldn’t afford warehouse storage.
Often, she also wouldn’t eat at lunchtimes, running to the post office instead to send out orders before rushing back to the office. As Black Coral picked up momentum, it became apparent that something would have to give. “I realised that I had to either stop doing my own thing on the side, because I couldn’t give it my full attention and I couldn’t give my job my full attention, or I could quit my job and focus on the business full-time to give it a real shot at success,” Zhang says. Of course, she took the bold leap of faith, and it has since paid off.
It’s not just Cici who embodies the enduring spirit of a rising generation of confident, independent young women. The other half of Black Coral, Christine Wang, joined the business while working in finance, and to this day juggles two cross-continent jobs: a full-time bank employee by day, and Black Coral’s other co-founder by night and on weekends. “It’s intense but rewarding, especially when a collection is released and you get a positive reaction from your customers!”
Knowing where to start is the hardest part
Sure, the idea of being your own boss is a very enticing one, but there are plenty of hurdles in the way. As an expat, all the paperwork, documents, and visas needed to start a business can be difficult to understand and compile.
In order to stay in Hong Kong and work on her own business, Zhang had to procure her own work sponsorship. Before she quit her apparel design job, she prepared an exit strategy, doing her research on visas, speaking to immigration lawyers, and saving as much money as she could. She was eventually granted an entrepreneurship visa to remain and work in Hong Kong, at which point she left her nine-to-five job to focus on Black Coral.
She reiterates the importance of planning ahead and saving up. “Aside from the normal difficulties of starting a business anywhere in the world, the other biggest barrier is finances. Living in Hong Kong without a fixed income is incredibly stressful, so the high cost of everything has to be factored in when quitting your job and starting your own business.”
“Be lean and smart about how you spend your limited finances, especially at the start, and try to bootstrap and hack your way until you start seeing a profit,” Zhang instructs as someone who has been on the same journey herself. Black Coral did not begin with a huge budget or seed money, and was simply born out of passion between two childhood friends. They both put $20,000 into starting the company, which went into web design, stock procurement, and photoshoots.
She shakes her head fondly, “If you know anything about business, you’ll know that $40,000 is nothing to start a company with. Our initial stock was so limited—we had maybe 30 styles when we launched—and every time we made a sale, we put the money right back into the business.”
Entrepreneurs should find a gap in the market to fill
A huge part of the impetus behind the Black Coral brand was how frustrating shopping was for Zhang and her friends in Hong Kong. “There are really limited sizes and choices, the styles are really not that flattering, and the fit can be awkward for non-standard Asian body types.” She tells us about how she herself could range from XS to M sizes in brands just depending on the fit.
What about online shopping then? “Well, there’s usually high shipping costs. Then you’re not exactly sure how it’s going to fit, you might have to wait a while to get it, and by the time you do receive the clothes and find that it doesn’t fit, you really can’t be bothered sending it back, or the cost to send it back may put you off. So now you’ll just keep it, but never wear it.” This hit a little close to home, and we’re sure most readers will also have faced the same issues.
Instead of just griping about it, Zhang sought a solution to this problem, eventually creating Black Coral. Inspired by both co-founders’ love for travelling, Black Coral offers bohemian, resort-wear pieces which bring to mind exploring tropical destinations, balmy summer weather, and lazing on the beach—altogether a very Australian vibe. “In Australia, bohemian styles are not uncommon, but I don’t know of any other brand in Hong Kong that offers this, so I wanted to bring that kind of aesthetic here and fill the gap in the market.”
Of course, it’s hard to directly compete with fast-fashion giants, as they have the manpower, funds, and resources to produce huge quantities at a break-neck speed. But this, Zhang reckons, is also their downfall, and where boutiques like hers win out. “No one wants to walk down the street and see five other people wearing the same outfit!” We agree vehemently and the young entrepreneur laughs as she explains that due to small production runs, Black Coral offers their well-designed pieces in limited amounts; once they’re sold out, it’s unlikely they will be reproduced.
There is a misconception that working in fashion is glamorous
As much as Zhang loves what she’s doing, she is quick to point out only parts of it can be considered glamorous. Apart from the design aspect, many parts of building a business are not that fun. When Black Coral was just starting out, it was all about figuring out the flow of business operations: shipping, packaging, return policies, and constantly tweaking the website. Now the vast majority of work is like in any other industry—lots of hard work and long hours.
“Just a tiny percentage is the product and how good everything looks in the photography. That part is fun, but there’s so much back-end work that needs to be done before and after. We were learning on the fly as we were going, and there was a lot of trial and error,” she insists, not wanting people to fall into the industry under misled circumstances.
In fact, that was exactly what happened with Zhang’s first business partner, one of her best friends from Canada. “I convinced my friend to move to Hong Kong, helped her find a job in a fashion start-up, she even moved in with me and my boyfriend, and during nighttime we were working together on Black Coral for about nine months on the side. Then she pulled out of the business a month before we were due to launch—she realised it wasn’t as fun as she thought it would be. No hard feelings though; it ended up being a blessing in disguise.” Luckily, that’s when her current business partner Wang came on board, something for which Zhang is still grateful, but she would still rather people who are thinking of starting a fashion business know more about what they’re getting into.
There’s no need to “wait until you’re ready”
Even with these ladies’ can-do attitude and history of leaping into the unknown, they insist that one is never going to be “fully ready” to start a business. Those looking to do the same should simply dive in when possible, take that first step, and just don’t stop.
The two business owners also want new entrepreneurs to remember that “there is no one recognising you for the endless hours of work you put in, no one singing your praises, and some people may even question the wisdom of leaving the security of your full-time job.” It’s times like these when you’ll get tired of everything, but you’ll also need to become your own number one supporter.
Other tips they wish people had told them when they started their entrepreneurship journey? “Don’t let a ‘no’ get you down—you’re going to be hearing that a lot. Find another way—there’s always one, and if you haven’t found it, you’re just not looking hard enough! Finally, bootstrap everything but don’t be afraid to invest in marketing, but make sure it’s the right kind of marketing for your brand. It plays a much bigger role in the success of your business than you may think.”
Finally, Zhang excitedly pipes up with the advice to enjoy the experience. “Constantly learn, seek advice from experts, stay focused, dedicated, and committed, even when things aren’t going your way. You just have to learn to roll with it, adapt, and move on. You may want to cry and rip out your hair sometimes, but it’s all part of the journey!”