'There's a time for profit and there's a time for making a difference': How a mobile tailoring business turned mask provider
In conjunction with Total Defence Day on Feb 15, CNA speaks to the co-founders of a mobile tailoring business who exemplified social and economic defence by creating new employment opportunities to those hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
SINGAPORE: As the COVID-19 pandemic began to creep its way through Singapore, Kenneth Chia and Lyn Chan began to receive calls from fabric sellers in Chinatown.
"The aunties and uncles in Chinatown called us and they said: 'Oh, things are very quiet, do you need any fabrics?' So we went down and it was like a dead city ... just nobody around," recalled Ms Chan, who along with Mr Chia co-founded mobile tailoring company A Gentleman's Tale six years ago.
"They were saying that there were a few days where they didn't have any sales. So we thought - let's buy the Chinatown fabrics that are interesting, and we can make shirts and then sell it to our customers."
But as Malaysia's movement control order and then Singapore's circuit-breaker kicked in, Mr Chia and Ms Chan realised that it was more than just the fabric sellers that were being hit hard.
"The seamstresses that we have who come in and out (of Singapore) every day, they had to choose to either stay in Singapore, or go back to Malaysia and not have continuous income," said Ms Chan. "So those that chose to stay in Singapore, when they heard Singapore was going to implement the circuit-breaker, (they) all panicked. Because seamstresses around the world earn very low basic pay, they earn commission based on every item that they make."
With excess fabric on their hands, and the need for masks among Singaporeans, Ms Chan and Mr Chia decided to take matters into their own hands.
"(We asked ourselves) what we could do for the people around us, basically the people in our industry, so we thought - let’s start this initiative of doing masks," said Ms Chan.
The duo decided that they would keep costs low and ensure that those they roped in to produce the masks would make some money.
"At that point in time, it was very hard to get reusable masks in Singapore. Everybody was using disposable ones. If you could buy reusable masks, it was priced very, very high. And I think there's a time for profit and there's a time for making a difference," explained Ms Chan.
"We sold it at S$6 - not a profit - and at the same time we could use fabrics that were from the Chinatown aunties and uncles. Our seamstresses, our cutters, and our drafters could also continue to earn a living."
This was also a small way to give back to those who had helped them in the past, said Mr Chia and Ms Chan.
"(When we started our business, it was only) after the Chinatown people, the uncles and aunties were supplying us fabrics, that's where the big brands of fabric suppliers started to come to us. Put it this way, the Chinatown uncles and aunties did help us in our initial stage when we started to go full time into tailoring," said Mr Chia.
"It was very much about helping the people in our circle, in our community," added Ms Chan.
"We listened to what the people around us were going through, what they were dealing with and we asked ourselves, what can we actually do to make a difference as individuals and as a business."
A LEARNING PROCESS
But first, they would need to figure out how to make masks.
"We didn't know how to make masks, we are tailors for outfits," explained Mr Chia. "Lyn and myself did a lot of prototypes, cut a lot fabrics, to make sure we perfected the curvature to fit the mask.
The prototyping of the mask designs took about two weeks, recalled the duo. They roped in family members to help, enlisting their mothers and godmothers to help with the sewing.
"Day and night, we just kept testing. We also had to test different shapes of faces, different sizes of faces. And then we had this thought that maybe we had to look at kids and toddlers as well. We kept trying," recalled Ms Chan.
After perfecting the mask designs, Mr Chia and Ms Chan then enlisted seamstresses from a variety of businesses to help with the production.
"There are easier ways to make masks, like for example: you cut the rectangle shape, and you pinch the top and pinch the bottom," said Mr Chia. "But to us, it is pretty ugly, so us being vain and liking to wear this funky stuff, we want to match the pattern, that’s why it took a bit of work."
While the first few weeks of production were slow as it was a "learning curve", things eventually picked up, added Ms Chan.
Clients of the business even chipped in to help in their own way, some by delivering the masks to customers, and others by giving them money to make the masks in order to "pay it forward" to others.
"We were very thankful and the experience ...(showed us) people are actually wanting to do good," said Ms Chan. "There’s a lot of community spirit, sometimes I think you just have to ask."
While their business also was hit hard during the pandemic, the duo managed to sustain themselves due to a "war chest" initially reserved for expansion plans.
"With proper planning that war chest came in very useful, we didn't use it for expansion, but we really used it to survive last year," said Ms Chan.
Called Starfish Project Love, the initiative is still going strong today, almost a year on. About 60,000 masks have been produced since April last year, with about 5,000 masks donated, 5000 masks paid forward to others and 40,000 sold.
"Mask wearing is the norm now … We've had a lot of feedback from people that bought our masks, and then went to try the cheaper range. They came back to us and said (they chose us), (for) one because of our material, two of our design, and also three because of the price," said Ms Chan.
Through the initiative, the duo said it has opened new doors for them in their mobile tailoring business.
"As we were exploring doing the masks, one of the things that we asked was how we were going to sell the masks? So the first thing was that we sold to our existing customers and secondly thing was we actually did personal posts on Facebook," said Ms Chan.
"Then we thought let's try online ... And while we were doing that, what struck us was that we could actually set up an online shop for our brand. So yes, we were worried about retail business. But instead of focusing on this worry ... we actually found a solution for our own business."
Mr Chia and Ms Chan noted that the initiative was about doing their part for society.
"When people talk about Total Defence, people always think about military about defending the country but I think each Singaporean has a role and responsibility to defend the country in different ways." said Ms Chan.
There are six pillars to Total Defence: military defence, civil defence, economic defence, social defence, digital defence and psychological defence.
According to the MINDEF website, social defence refers to Singaporeans making an effort to trust one another and strengthening the bonds across the different ethnic groups, so that the country is strong and united, especially during times of national challenges.
Meanwhile, economic defence is partially about about keeping Singapore's economy strong and resilient, enabling it to carry on and recover quickly.
"The entire (concept of) Total Defence is like a bicycle wheel. The spokes represent different different kind of defences. And for us, one of these ways is being socially responsible, having masks made," she said.
"We funnel money back into the economy in our small little way. We make sure that everything is bought in Singapore ... so that the money goes back locally and people can still continue doing what they're doing, just (to) keep the wheel going."