Retrenched, she bootstrapped her way to an award-winning studio creating storied designs for five-star hotels
White Jacket has designed for some of the world’s most exclusive hotel brands including Intercontinental, JW Marriott and Shangri-La. Its founder, Patricia Ho Douven, tells CNA Women how she built her dream company, one sharp business move at a time.
Stepping into the White Jacket design studio in Boat Quay is a somewhat stunning experience.
Outside, the nondescript four-storey warehouse building looks like a home for long-forgotten printers and fax machines. But on the third floor, which the studio fully occupies, it’s a hopeful new world.
Living in Singapore, you would be forgiven for overlooking some of its most important landmarks and classic landscapes. Here, these scenes are given modern, almost futuristic interpretations – reminiscent of White Jacket’s signature vision.
The adventure begins from the moment you step out of the lift.
Following the clockwise flow of the 400 sq m space, you would be greeted first by the break-out area, with stepped seating echoing that of a stadium grandstand. A void deck table lookalike in mint and russet brown is accompanied by stools custom-designed by artist Chen Jia Wen, a former student of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).
Through a hangout area is the main meeting room, its piece de resistance a custom-built modular figure-eight table. Floating above it is a pendant lamp – an homage to a childhood activity favoured by White Jacket’s founder: Making suspended mobiles by hand.
If you turn right from the lift lobby, you will be led down a narrow corridor displaying the aforementioned stools, given breadth and depth by the painting and drawings of other NAFA-alumni artists. White Jacket plans to use this area, what it calls its retail gallery, to showcase other local artists over time.
At the end of the corridor is a show kitchen, swathed in shades of stone and lapis lazuli. An oil painting of a tiger-fashionista hybrid by Singapore artist David Chan draws the eye. A large floral arrangement itself worthy of a museum decorates the bar.
A few steps away is White Jacket’s atelier-gallery space – mostly bare for now – which will be dedicated to art exhibitions and artist-in-residency programmes.
The main work area – the only space bathed in white light and housing nearly 20 employees – is an original mural commissioned to another local artist, Dawn Ang. It’s a massive piece of abstract art depicting Clarke Quay’s iconic bumboats and riverside steps.
All the spaces are divided, and connected, by arched walls – a nod to the historic Elgin Bridge.
Finally, we arrive at the luxurious private office of White Jacket’s founder, Patricia Ho Douven.
Her desk, made of wood and leather, is sculptural and expansive, and unexpectedly bare save for a MacBook and some brand-name stationery. Even the freestanding playpen, for Ho’s new dog, looks rich. For one, it takes up half the room.
It was hard to believe that someone could start all of this from scratch. It was even harder to believe that the award-winning White Jacket studio, with clients like Intercontinental, JW Marriott and Shangri-La, was a one-woman show that started in an apartment just 12 years ago.
But sitting down with the 44-year-old founder, I began to understand.
“I DIDN’T TELL ANYONE”
Ho had always wanted to have her own design studio. It wasn’t just a pipe dream either. She had spent her twenties working for interior design firms and saved what she could knowing that she would one day leave to start her own business.
That day came unexpectedly.
In 2009, she was retrenched from her position as a design director, which came with a clause barring her from working with the company’s clients for 12 months.
“That put me off-track a little. For a couple of months, I mostly stayed home,” said Ho.
But in 2010, Ho put herself to work.
She registered her business and moved into a little office along Seah Street. She painted the walls herself and did her own repairs. She didn’t pay herself for a year and for several years after, only gave herself a “bite-size” salary. She needed to stretch out her savings.
She also didn’t tell anyone for a while.
“People couldn’t understand why I was doing this when the economy was so bad. They told me I should get a job instead. I understood their concern because we’re in the property industry, right? And at the time, there were very few new projects happening.
“I knew my family would have been very worried to hear that I’d been made redundant and was planning to start my own business, so I didn’t tell them until I’d already registered the business,” said Ho, who is a Temasek Polytechnic alumna.
Without any financial or even much emotional support, it was a rough, lonely start.
“But I’d been wanting to do this for so long that I had a lot of adrenaline and passion. I just blocked out the noise and carried on,” said Ho.
The clause in her redundancy contract meant she couldn’t dive straight into what she wanted – hospitality – so she took up residential projects.
You could say those early leads were born out of her obsession with writing and stationery.
“Throughout my career I’d kept a book in which I jotted down my research and the contacts of clients, consultants and suppliers. I even used it to journal about my frustrations.
“At the beginning, I was focused on planting seeds so I met the people I had listed in my book to tell them about what I was doing and to ask them if they could make introductions for me. I had to be shameless because I didn’t have a finished portfolio.
“I still have that book,” said Ho.
This networking led her to a profitable opportunity – one she had never done before in her decade-long career: Design-build.
Through recommendations, Ho found a client who wanted to revamp a three-storey bungalow in Sentosa Cove. They had wanted to flip it – completely styled and sold as a finished home.
“I was working alone and had never done design-build projects before. I had to learn. It was tough, but fun.
“I needed capital quickly and that brought in quite a bit of money,” said Ho.
From there, Ho turned to renovation projects, which she described from experience as “better” opportunities.
“Starting renovation on a hotel is like opening a can of worms. Some of the hotels have been around for so long – you never know what you’re going to find. Most designers find these projects difficult.
“But renovation projects also complete much faster than new ones. And once you hack a wall, you can’t go back. So I knew I could get something from this segment,” she said.
Ho said she consistently noticed in her career that the F&B and hospitality industries largely favoured design in two categories: Luxury commercial and thematic.
“It was either grand staircases or bright, outlandish decor. There was little in between – something more understated, more elegant, more story-based,” she said.
Today, White Jacket has about 10 completed projects in its portfolio, most of them luxury hotels and offices. Projects like the JW Marriott Resort in Maldives and Shangri-La Residences in Kunming, China are ongoing.
In 2022 alone, the studio won three awards – all for its freshly minted space in Boat Quay. The new White Jacket office was completed just last year.
Foresight and diligence have obviously been instrumental to Ho’s success. Passion, to her, is also key.
“When I started my company, my goal was not to make a lot of money. If that was what I’d wanted, I would’ve done something else. I would’ve worked for someone else. That would’ve been easier.
“But what I wanted was for my design sense to be recognised,” Ho told me.
“Our work at White Jacket is not about a look but about a feeling. It has a personality and an attitude. That’s what I wanted to bring to the industry. I’m satisfied with what I do and that’s how I know I’ve succeeded,” said Ho.
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.