Starting a fashion business with handmade reversible bags
Jia Yin and Wu Li of The Stupes share what it's like following their dreams and entering the fashion industry.
It is said that a good bag is one you choose without hesitation for any outfit and it is versatile for every occasion.
That is exactly what 22-year-olds Wu Li and Jia Yin wanted to create with their brand, The Stupes. Started in early 2020, the youths handmake reversible and androgynous bags to fit any style for anyone, anytime.
“We came about with The Stupes as we were aware of how bad the fast fashion industry is and wanted to do our part to not further contribute towards the damage,” said Wu Li.
With few brands focusing on a fully reversible concept, the youths took the opportunity to create their own reversible bags that they hoped could “last as long as possible”.
A unique twist on handmade bags
The youths launch monthly collections comprising seven bags each with varying sizes and designs inspired by their personal preferences. One inspiration is their individual fashion styles, with Jia Yin preferring feminine pieces and Wu Li liking anything loud and red.
Despite their differences, they both share a common goal to create bags catering to a variety of preferences so that anyone can choose a bag without having to worry if it suits them.
Each collection takes five to seven days of production and are made with new or preloved fabric contributed by their family members.
Once a bag is designed, it is drafted onto Calico, a loose unbleached cotton fabric, where a prototype is created to make any further adjustments. The design is then transferred onto the fabric for sewing which usually consists of a solid colour and a patterned fabric.
However, sewing is not as straightforward as one might assume and is a process of trial and error.
“Because our products are reversible, we have to figure out how to sew two bags into one, yet make it seamless. Sometimes we put one stretchy material with a non-stretchy material and we end up with a lot of excess material that we would have to unpick and redo,” said Wu Li.
Starting from the basics
Before delving into the field of fashion, Jia Yin and Wu Li were spatial design students in polytechnic.
Wu Li grew up interested in the arts and had planned to be a stage director in the fashion industry. But her aspirations changed when she realised that she enjoyed another aspect of stage direction – the clothes.
She decided to join Jia Yin, who also had an interest in sewing because of her mom who sews, when she found out that they both shared similar ambitions in starting their own businesses.
But starting a brand in the local fashion industry was not easy due to the small market, and especially so without the required skills.
With no prior experience in sewing, the youths took a gap year in 2019 and enrolled into basic sewing and drafting classes at TaF.tc, where they learnt how to make simple tops and skirts. As their interest grew, they decided to enroll into Lasalle to further their studies in fashion design.
This ultimately became one of the most beneficial factors in their journey as they learnt the relevant skills in production – like blockprinting and fabric manipulation – and familiarised themselves with the industry further.
By January 2020, the youths had finalised their brand – which was name after a joke about their “stupid” mistakes during their drafting lessons – and made their first appearance with their collection, First Borns, in April.
But business did not pick up immediately. In their first month, The Stupes only reached 35 followers on Instagram, most of whom were their friends.
The collection was also launched during the circuit breaker period where they faced greater competition among other online businesses that began at the same time.
“We each had doubts about the launch. We did not have a big following of friends on our personal Instagram accounts so we had nothing to kick start our brand. We relied on ourselves as we didn’t want to ask our friends or people with a bigger following to give us a shout out initially,” said Wu Li.
To raise awareness about their brand, the youths later tried social media advertising and reaching out to influencers for reviews.
Their friends and family also played a part by commenting on their posts and even supporting them as customers.
Juggling expectations as a brand
Besides running the brand, Jia Yin and Wu Li split their time as full-time students and part time work as waitresses at a bar – which they took up in part to support the business too.
They manage their workload by planning their collections up to eight months in advance. The bags are prepared during their holidays to avoid busy weeks in school when their workload intensifies.
Even then, there are moments where the stress of keeping up with the collection catches on, and they would find themselves working overtime just to prepare for a launch.
“We had once notified our followers of a new drop (collection) but we were still finishing up the bags the night before… Eventually, we had an impromptu photoshoot in school with really bad lighting. It was a photo that I really wanted to take down but it is still there today,” Wu Li recalled candidly.
Deciding a price for their goods was also a challenge the youths faced initially.
“For someone who does not sew, the bags may look perfect. But from our perspective, we know our areas to improve on. While we initially wanted to price it higher, we couldn’t look past its imperfections and had to lower it so that it wouldn’t eat into our conscience,” shared Wu Li.
As a handmade business, they also had to consider various factors including the cost of materials and effort invested, while ensuring that their products remain accessible to others.
It was also a reason why the youths had decided to create non-wearable pieces for their brand as custom apparels utilises a lot of fabric – especially if it is reversible – which leads to higher prices.
“We surround our brand around sustainability and we hope to keep the reversible aspect of our brand… Making [reversible] apparels would be more challenging so we might consider single-sided apparels for our sub brand in the future instead,” said Wu Li.
Growth as a small business
When asked how they think The Stupes has grown over the past year, Wu Li said: “We aren’t growing as fast as others with a large following, especially with the pandemic and [greater competition from other] online businesses.
“Although our growth is slower, it is gradual and steady. With every new drop, we also see an increase in our followers too.”
Despite the many hours invested in creating each bag, the youths shared that the effort feels worthwhile when their works are appreciated by others.
Once, a classmate spotted their bag being carried on the streets. The incident was made special when they found out that the customer was someone they did not know personally.
Having previously relied on the support from friends and family, they felt a sense of accomplishment knowing that their brand was growing beyond their usual followers.
Running a brand might not be easy but the experience has been a positive one for the youths.
Wu Li said: “Running The Stupes meant that we had to be very responsible for our brand. Since whatever we put out is our work, we don’t wish for it to leave a bad impression on our customers and so we need to do our best for each bag.
“While this means constantly planning ahead and working during our holidays, I’m glad that at least we are doing what we like.”