Banker turned Fashion DesignerWritten by Julianne D
Hong Kong based Sarah Lai has proved that two different career paths can happily coexist by managing a full time job in finance and a side hustle in fashion.
Sometimes it’s better to keep the stability of a day job whilst fulfilling your dreams as an entrepreneur. For some, it’s all about the side hustle, and that was the case for fashion designer Sarah Lai, a banker with her own clothing brand. Sitting in her new pop-up store in Pacific Place, Hong Kong, she talks to us about how she managed to get a brand off the ground with no previous experience in just a few months, and all whilst continuing her full-time job at Morgan Stanley.
Sarah Lai’s obsession with fashion started when she was young, but was discouraged by her family. Growing up in a traditional Chinese household, career options based on personal interests were scarcely encouraged. “Chinese culture is about practicality,” she says. “You need to reach all these goals set by your parents, so there is a clash when you’re trying to find the balance between your passion and goals. Chinese parents have trouble understanding the importance of a dream because they grew up in a difficult environment where nothing was stable. There is a difference, and you can never fully expect them to understand.”
After graduating with an Economics degree from Cornell University, New York and with home on her mind, Sarah booked a one-way flight back to Hong Kong to continue her finance journey, landing a job at Morgan Stanley in 2005. But, after almost a decade in the finance industry, the local designer found herself wanting to branch out. She enrolled at a handful of short courses at Central Saint Martins College, London in the summer of 2013, where she learnt the process of pattern making as well as basic embroidery, gaining invaluable understanding of the foundations of fashion design. Armed with a basic knowledge, Sarah started drawing plans for her eponymous label for affordable designer clothes. “There was a gap in the market for clothes that are midway between luxury fashion and fast fashion. There weren’t many choices in the middle. I couldn’t find modern clothes that were wearable, elegant and affordable,” she says.
Citing the fashion designer Tory Burch as a role model, who built her way to a megabrand with little-to-none experience, Sarah debuted her label in 2014 after a speedy 9 months of preparation. Tapping into her personal savings to fund her label, she also received financial aid from the Hong Kong government’s SME Small and Medium-Sized enterprises funding scheme, growing her team to 3 and her reach via fashion shows, pop up stores and international trade events. She has also focused heavily on advertising, digital marketing, social media and influencer marketing, spending a lot of time, she says, relentlessly contacting notable figures in the industry to use her product. Local celebrities like Karen Mok and publications such as the SCMP have all given her a lift.
Being an entrepreneur whilst also balancing life in her corporate job has made the young designer appreciate help from others. “When I first started my corporate job, I took the other departments like the secretarial assistants for granted because I didn’t recognise their contributions and efforts,” she explains. Along the way, she has also learnt a great deal about responsibility and self-growth. Solo business trips to China have forced her to tackle difficult situations face to face, whereas in her corporate life a call would have sufficed when it came to addressing problems. Whilst juggling her full-time job, she now spends her weekends and evenings growing her brand through building connections, networking, designing and sourcing materials. “I do everything for the Sarah Lai brand after work. At the weekends, I join networking events just to get word out.”
Despite the apparent distinction between fashion and finance, Sarah says that the thing the two worlds really have in common is networking. “At the start, I pushed myself to network with a lot with people in the finance industry, so I brought this skill to my brand,” she explains, saying that, today, anyone else wishing to do the same should follow suit. It was networking that landed her with her first pop-up space in the luxury mall Pacific Place, for example, helping her reach a huge milestone and gain recognition for her brand in the process.
Sarah’s story is one of sticking to convictions and following a dream. She says there have been times when she took too much advice, causing her to lose focus on her original ideas and become easily swayed by others. “You can’t have one piece that fits all,” she explains. “The fact is that you’re not going to please everyone, so it’s best to believe in your own creativity and trust your gut.” She hopes her brand and story give people the confidence to do just that. “Stand out. It can be any dream that you desire, so long as you follow it. Dreaming gives hope to our lives.”
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