KUALA LUMPUR, July 19 — Would you give up a cushy desk job and a five-figure salary to sell clothes online? Sherlyn Tan did and while it wasn’t without some trepidation, she was certain that it was the right thing to do — because she had a dream to realise. “I’ve always wanted to run my own business,” Sherlyn relates. “Just before I turned 24, I decided to go ahead and register my company name, Twenty3, which reflected my age at the time.”
That was four years ago and at the time, she didn’t have the faintest idea what kind of business Twenty3 would end up being. Armed with a Bachelor of Business Administration, Finance with Multimedia, the graduate from Multimedia University joined Groupon Malaysia and worked her way up to the Business Development Director position. Having sold second-hand clothes online during her student days, fashion was always something Sherlyn knew she could fall back on. In 2012, she decided to quit her job and take the plunge.
Twenty3 began in January 2013 as an apparel reseller, with an initial capital of RM15,000 but two thirds went down the drain when the company she hired to design the brand’s website made a mess of things. Sherlyn was left with just RM5,000 to spend on stocks, which she sourced from Bangkok on monthly trips. Many would have thrown in the towel but she pushed on.
“I handled everything myself, from merchandising to selling, packing and I even modelled the clothes,” she recalls. While sales were brisk, Sherlyn soon realised that she couldn’t scale up her business if she was to continue in that vein.
Six months in, she decided that it was imperative for Twenty3 to produce its own designs. With no background in fashion, Sherlyn could only draw simple sketches and tweak fabric on mannequins. She focused on the clothes she liked: Girl-next-door styles with a touch of the 80’s, such as flare skirts and boat neck dresses.
Limited as they may be, her designs sold like hot cakes. At the end of the first year, Twenty3 pulled in close to RM1 million. Her manufacturers in Bangkok could not even keep up with her orders, and the quality had also begun to drop. Sherlyn shifted her production to China and continued to expand the brand’s designs.
In its second year, Twenty3 raked in USD1 million worth of sales, an impressive figure by any count and particularly so for a one-woman show, with just two part-timers assisting her. It was only this year that she set up a full team of about 20, including fashion designers, as she began building Twenty3 into a proper fashion label.
From one person with a few thousand ringgit in hand to this — what’s the formula for her success? “Determination,” Sherlyn says without missing a beat. “If you really want to achieve something, nothing can stop you.” In her case, there were a lot of ‘nothing’ that she had to overcome.
As hers was a cash-based business, money was always tight so Sherlyn took on other work to support herself, tapping into her talent for singing and dancing. She performed at various functions, and sometimes organisers ran off without paying. She was also training to be a burlesque teacher but had to stop classes as there were days when she couldn’t even afford to pay for petrol. Nursing an ambition to be a professional singer, she auditioned for a popular Taiwanese singing competition and was shortlisted, but it required her to travel often on her own expenses. She gave that up too.
Even after her finances had stabilised, other challenges were hurled at her. “People called me fat,” she recounts, referring to the days when she modelled her own designs. “Competitors accused me of stealing others’ designs, or that I sourced from Taobao and relabelled the clothes. I found out later that it was the factory that had sold me out.”
When she contracted dengue earlier this year, it was nearly the final straw that broke the camel’s back. “I was depressed, suicidal even,” she admits. But she stayed true to the tagline she had chosen for Twenty3, which is ‘beauty through perseverance’ and pulled herself out of the gloom through exercise.
“Exercising is as much a mental activity as it is a physical one. Sometimes you think you can’t go on anymore but it’s just in your mind, your body is still able. The last five minutes is always the hardest but once you get through it, you will feel very good. I learned to see every obstacle as that last five minutes.”
Sherlyn also discovered an unlikely source of inspiration when she started drinking coffee, and coined it her ‘black coffee theory’. Life, she discovered, is not unlike the popular beverage. “At first, it tastes bitter and complicated. Keep drinking it and after a while, you don’t notice the bitterness anymore... you start enjoying the taste.”
Above all, she learned to focus on herself and not what others think. She shares that self-empowered approach to life through Project 23°, an e-newsletter that captures inspiring stories about women who have worked their issues or hang-ups, or the milestones they have achieved.
It’s the same message that she now channels through her signature line, Sher by Twenty3, launched earlier this month. The debut collection, Razor, is made up of 10 designs in black and grey tones, and each look is limited to just 150 pieces. Every piece comes with a serial number on a card that will also indicate who packed the outfit.
As the name suggests, the designs boast of sharp cuts and structured lines, giving the wearer an air of femininity while projecting unmistakable strength. The muted palette is part of the message. “You don’t need loud colours if you are confident within, your true aura and charisma will shine through.”
Come August, Sher’s aesthetics will shine under the spotlight of KL Fashion Week 2015 (KLWF 2015), marking the brand’s first appearance at one of Malaysia’s most important style events. While Razor is all about workwear, for KLFW 2015, Sher will be presenting a sportswear collection.
“The looks are inspired by Sherlyn and her lifestyle — that of a fashionable career woman who has an active lifestyle, who is confident and loves challenging herself,” So Bu Yeow, Twenty3’s Creative Director explains. There are asymmetrical dresses and two-piece ensembles with interesting cut-outs in Sher’s signature monochromatic hues tempered with hints of other shades.
Constructed from Duchess silk and mesh — which represent strength and femininity, respectively — the workmanship is impeccable, with subtle details that add to their tactile appeal. “We use softer fabrics to bring out the strong, sharp lines. Another key feature of this range is that nearly every piece is reversible.” That’s symbolic of transformation, of Sherlyn’s triumph over hardship and also that of the woman the Sher line was created for, who transits effortlessly from work to workout.
Besides their official website, Sher and other collections by Twenty3 can be browsed at their boutique, Chapter One, in Petaling Jaya. Its location is well off the usual shopping mall grid but that has not stopped fans and fashionistas from seeking them out since it opened last December. Already, revenue from this physical store is neck-to-neck with their online sales.
Chapter One, says Sherlyn, is a great platform to interact directly with customers and encourage them to try new styles. “A lot of women tend to stick to the same looks and are hesitant to change. Our dresses are made from fabrics that are friendly to all body types and we always have Asian sensibilities in mind so we make sure to include extra inches in the hip area, for example.”
Such subtlety is one of Twenty3’s strong points, with small but significant details worked into the designs. Pants that look snug actually have a bit of flare, shift dresses and cheongsams have drop shoulders for a sportier feel and improved body line. Thin fabrics are double layered so as not to let undergarments show, tops and dresses have cut-in necklines to create a slimmer silhouette.
An important building block in Twenty3’s development is customers’ feedback, something they prioritise through efforts like Project Canvas where they test out new fabrics and construction techniques by offering any two pieces for just RM100. Items that do well will then go into full production. Lukewarm response is never taken as an absolute no but simply that it needs to be worked on further.
“As a start-up, I know that the focus should not be on profits but making a name for ourselves, so we have to offer something different,” Sherlyn says wisely. Twenty3’s price points are very reasonable, with nothing over RM159 and they offer free returns if you’re unsatisfied with your purchases.
You can find style tutorial videos on their website, including one that demonstrates multiple ways to wear their popular Marilyn dress. It’s a design from their bestselling bridesmaid collection, which came about by accident: Sherlyn had styled a floaty dress into a bridal spread, promoting the idea of colour-coordinated bridesmaid dresses which has long been the trend in Western countries but not locally. The idea took off so well that some actually know them as a bridesmaid dress label!
Whether it’s girl-next-door styles of Twenty3, the strong and feminine looks of Sher by Twenty3, or their dreamy bridesmaid outfits that may appeal to you, one thing is certain: You are not just buying quality fashion but embracing a brand that wants to empower you.
Most of all, Sherlyn wants to promote a happy life filled with hope. “When you dress well, it boosts your confidence and makes you feel powerful. When you love yourself, your life will change.”
Chapter One is at C-G-03 Block C, Jalan PJU1A/41B, Pusat Perdagangan NZX, Ara Jaya, Petaling Jaya
Tel +603 7802 8710 / +6011 1232 6023
Opens 11am-7pm daily. Shop online at www.twenty3.my
Vivian Chong is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer. Read more of her stories at http://thisbunnyhops.com/