Interview with Alexandra Foster
Can you please tell us about yourself?
My name is Alexandra Foster, I am originally from Melbourne and I have worked in the fashion industry for about ten years now. I moved to Hong Kong almost 3 years ago, specifically to start my business: to be close to my manufacturing partners and to have a real sort of startup business here in China.
Tell us about your company - A.C.F?
A.C.F are the initials of my name: the brand started with me and my beliefs, on how I want to change the fashion industry. It's a gender neutral and sustainable fashion label. We use deadstock fabrics to make limited edition, vegan, fashion garments.
When you started the business, how did you know that the time to start your business was the right one?
I was looking at my future and it was either I go corporate or start my own label. My Dad told me before passing away "You've got to do it now”, be it failure or success, the important thing is being in charge and take risks. I was turning 27 and I thought: "I've got nothing to lose. It is now or never.
How was the idea born? When was the idea born?
I always wanted to have my own business with a story behind it, thanks to my Dad being an entrepreneur himself. By working in the fashion industry for so long, I realized there was so much dirtiness, waste that I wanted to change, so the two things came together organically. I start with a Men's and Women's line separately, and then a more gender-neutral collection started to form when our customers wanted to wear everything. I realized in the 21st century it is just insane to keep it separate still and it is being received super well. It is also important to have a niche target market for a startup business, and this is a great niche in fashion.
What would you want to be a key thing? And, what do you want people to think when they wear the A.C.F brand?
I suppose I want them to realize that sustainable fashion can be the norm. Obviously, our environment message is really really strong but I also want an ethical principle to be really strong as well. I want that to be sort of a key thing.
I also want them to really love the garments because they love the look and love wearing them too because, without this, it is not genuine.
Who are your clients? Who are your brand ambassadors?
Our brand ambassadors are the people who buy our product, people between 25 to 35 years old who care about the environment and sustainability. They are educated, artsy and very cultured; I like to think of them as the A.C.F Army. Our biggest markets are the USA, Australia, Hong Kong, and the UK.
When you started, in the very beginning, what did you start with, what were the main challenges?
The main challenge was to be alone and isolated, being a single founder is very lonely. I am naturally a very social person and I love being around people. That was a massive challenge for me to sort of overcome, especially when I was having a mental breakdown, thinking "I just can't do this anymore, I cannot do everything myself". Unfortunately, it took me to get to that breaking point to hire my first staff members after 18 months in business.
Which roles did you bring them in? How did you find them?
I did not have a strong marketing background or digital technical knowledge, so you really need to look at your strengths, know your weaknesses and be comfortable with them. So I needed my weaknesses to be their strengths. I was working 18-20 hour days and not sleeping, leading me to question what my time was worth, that's why I decided to hire.
I started with a marketing manager to run all marketing initiatives and a digital manager, who built our website from scratch, manages all our digital marketing and advertising. I found them through recruitment ads and in a small team it’s almost just as important that you get along as people and share a vision for the brand.
When the times were getting tough, what was your main motivation?
Fundamentally, I really believe in the business. My family and entrepreneur fiancé was a massive influence and support, as well as my team; that responsibility helps keep you motivated. I think one of the key things, when you are an entrepreneur, is to surround yourself with other entrepreneurs, so I found the support network through other founders.
The biggest fear everybody has is how to fund your business. What about your funding plan?
Mine was a little bit naive, to be honest. I thought that I would move, launch my first collection and it would go really well. I thought I would have strong sales from day one, and then, I will get an investor….It did not go like that! I went through my savings very quickly, I was really living on next to nothing and I still do not pay myself. I paid for my rent and for food; I practically lived on rice for about a year. I attempted some fundraising but I walked away after a bad experience which forced me to go back to basics; I refocused and kept on going. My business is therefore completely self-funded. At the moment, I am not looking for an outside investor because we are growing organically and it is a strong business now but I’m sure the time will come to bring in a strategic partner.
What are the qualities that helped you overcome most of the challenges?
I am a fighter, like my dad. Deep down inside me, there is something that just will not give up, a little bit of ego and a strong belief in myself. Also, there is the fact that I really believe we can make a difference, and people want to listen, they have faith in me.
What are the convictions that constitute the core of your business?
I wanted to make a positive impact, looking at the big problems and trying to find solutions. Essentially, solutions for fabric waste is at the core, alongside ethical and nurturing manufacturing and educating consumers about fashion impact and their responsibility too.
Can you imagine running a fashion brand without this ethos?
No, I would not be able to sleep at night. I love fashion, but it is not good for the environment – as simple as that. Fashion reflects your personality and is apart of your daily life. Through education: once you are aware of a problem, you have to be responsible.
What would you wish someone who is starting an ethical business in Hong Kong is to be prepared for? What you wish you knew in advance?
Hong Kong is a fantastic networking city; you should be taking advantage of that. Tap into those networks and platforms, ask questions. There is so much knowledge about the ethical and environmental solution to help you on your journey. In hindsight, I wish that I had moved here and partnered with someone who was likeminded; I will never start a business as a single founder again! Having support that will help shape your business is a key thing.
Thank you very much! It is such an inspiring morning! Great business story!
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