Interview with Olivia Lee
Interview with Olivia Lee , co-founder of The Closeteur.
A story about passion for fashion & how second hand online shop gave life to fashion and conscious lifestyle magazine.
Tell us about yourself and your business
I'm from Canada, and I moved to Hong Kong in 2004. I was a Brand Manager for a luxury Swiss watch for four years, in 2009 I worked for a charity-fundraising company as the Director of Operations. It was a wonderful time, but I left in 2014 to focus on my two kids.
(laughing) Oh those life changing babies
And during that time, funnily enough, my (now) business partner, Vivien, said: “I bet you won't last three months.” Knowing that I would get bored easily. And exactly three months later, I asked her if she wanted to start a business with me. And that business is The Closeteur. Until recently, The Closeteur was an e-store selling second-hand clothing. We focused on storytelling, and lifestyle images, our idea was through the use of personal style, we can change the perception of secondhand clothing. We started the second-hand store in January 2016. We also launched a magazine at the same time. As most business change as they find their ground, what was supposed to be the “blog” of the store is now our full-time business.
Olivia: Fast forward to 2017, now, the Magazine is our main focus. In the past two years (12 issues and counting), we've had excellent feedback with our magazine. Over time, our focus is to create a conscious lifestyle magazine, focusing on fashion. While running the store and the magazine, we learned so much more about fashion waste and it shined a light on our consumption habits. Studies have shown that our consumption behaviour has changed significantly. We are buying 400% more than we did 20 years ago. And only wearing 20% of it, 80% of the time. In Hong Kong, where space is insufficient, what do people do when we run out of room? We throw it out. Fashion waste is a serious issue, and it’s not slowing down anytime soon if consumers and fashion lovers like myself don’t know more about it. So our magazine is our way to communicate the idea that we can embrace fashion as a part of our conscious lifestyle too. When it comes to fashion, whenever we can, we should buy locally, second-hand, or vintage. Our magazine likes to mix all of the above with international brand coverage too.
And where can we find your magazine?
As a conscious magazine, it is only available digitally, online, on thecloseteur.com There are also a lot of rich media to give our audience an engaging experience.
Right. And so your industry has naturally changed, you started with the clothes, but now you went into the publishing and media sector
Isn’t it funny how passion drives you to find your dream career path! I’ve always loved fashion, and at first, I wanted a platform to sell my clothing, in other words, solve my problem. So, we built a store, and then we had the idea of the magazine. It turns out, Vivien and I both had the secret dream of being publishers, or owner of a magazine. That was a strange thing we discovered about one another. And so, we had to do it! And things are straightforward now. There are many tools and programs online to start. We just made it happen. And the first issue was published in November 2015, a total of 28 pages. When I pressed the “publish” button, it was pure joy; we were high-fiving each other. Can you imagine, they were all blank pages, and we filled it up. We were extremely proud. Now, we have slowly increased more categories, fashion editorials and exclusive stories.
Amazing. And you have a co-founder, you work with your friend, what did you learn? How did you meet? What would be your advice for someone starting with a friend? You know that happens all that time and it doesn't always go well.
Absolutely. I do believe there are people out there, and I've met a lot of female entrepreneurs that do think to do it yourself is the best. But you have to evaluate and assess your personality, and for me, I think I have the passion and the creativity and the big beautiful picture of the result, but then I'm also the type that needs a little bit of a kick once in a while. So, for me having a co-founder is a must. Vivien was the only one I thought of partnering up with, we've been friends for about seven years. We also hung out for the first time at swap party; it was one of the first parties at the time, you bring clothes and swap with others. Vivien has 20 years of experience in fashion. So, with no doubt, she was the one. The thing is we never had a proper talk; we didn't know each other's strengths or weaknesses. Just that we are good friends and that we had common interests, in fashion, in business. And over the years, we've been working together closely; we discovered each other's strengths and weaknesses. And there is a lot we learned. There are a lot of compromises too. You pick your battles. Certain things you just let it go, there is no point bringing it up, if it's not really important. And then, there are things that you feel so strongly about it, it is best to bring it up and talk through it openly.
What would be practical advice, how do you divide the work? My part is Marketing, Finance. Or nothing like that?
We didn't start with knowing each other's professional backgrounds. My advice is, to find out each other's backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses. Start off with writing out the common goal. What do you want to achieve? For instance, my first goal was I didn't wish (the store) to be on a small scale. I wanted to go big. This is the time we started to hear about fashion tech and startups, so I wanted investors, to pitch, to get into the whole start-up scene. So, this was something that we didn't talk about from the start. I’m sure she would want the same thing, but at the time, she wasn’t as keen, and now I also know why. In hindsight, there was value to that decision to not get into the start-up scene. We didn't know our strength, and we didn’t know our core mission and future goal. It was still a lot of trial-and-error, “where do we fit in”. She wanted to run things, run it longer, to make sure it's sustainable and there's an audience.
Other things I would suggest is to decide on your roles and main tasks. It might change all the time, but it’s a good idea to have a “core” role. After three years working together, I spend more time on the writing (now defunct) store operations. She is great at connecting with people and finding amazing people to interview. But we are also good at switching. For a new company with a small team member, our work will overlap, but it’s always good to communicate. We are good at that. So, we are more open-minded with finding our separate direction with the common goal of getting our message out there.
Tell us more about the magazine!
The magazine is about leading a conscious life, but, by no means be extreme in your choices. I applaud those that can lead by example a “zero waste” life, it is a big challenge, especially in Hong Kong. The Closeteur Magazine promotes fashion as part of our conscious lifestyle, and along the way, we share news and stories on topics that matter to us, in a voice that’s not patronising or too serious. We also talk about other aspects that we enjoy, and that there isn’t need to feel guilty. We want to talk about adding elements of consciousness into our lifestyle, so it can be eating no meat just one day of the week, or to mindfully re-use something plastic one more time before it goes into the recycling bin. There’s a lot of buzz around the term conscious consumers. Our magazine is focused on fashion predominantly because we have an interest in it.
Personally, I love fashion, and I will never stop buying things, but, over time, I choose to be a conscious consumer. I'm making better decisions in what I want to buy and use my dollar, but that doesn't mean I'm going to forego my habit of Starbucks, or travelling to fancy places, or buying the latest pair of designer shoes. It's just that I'm integrating this aspect of buying carefully, also, how to care for it, so it lasts longer into my overall message. And I think this is probably the best way to approach people.
Our target readers aren’t people that are already aware of how detrimental our habits have become. It’s to reach out and appeal to those are may not know that something so seemingly guiltless of buying a t-shirt from their favourite fast fashion store is affecting the environment on a more prominent level. In other words, those that have not reached there yet, like myself, but once it’s made aware, we are eager to make an effort to change.
What is your biggest motivation and inspiration when you were starting?
My parents were business owners, so I’ve always wanted own business. I also wanted to do something my children would be proud. They are at the age where they understand more, and they see that I create. Being able to create something can never be replaced by computers. I think it’s an important message for your young generation. I built something from a blank page. I started with one issue; now it’s twelve. I work from home sometimes and my daughter goes into my room, and she would ask 'Did you make this? ‘Did you create this page?' She’s very curious, and she sees the outcome of consistent work. So that motivates me.
That's amazing. It's really nice. And what was the most challenging part of starting your business?
There's a lot of, 'It's not going to work.' (the second-hand store) There's a lot of close friends, family, strangers, people you don't know, telling you things that you don't want to hear. And it takes a lot of perseverance and determination to believe in what you want to achieve.
Who were the people or the situations which gave you confidence, which made you persistent to keep on doing your work?
Opportunities like this is special because it's someone like you noticing my work and noticing what I am doing that motivates me. Other things would just be the other ladies, other entrepreneurs with same vision, ones that have already achieved it, others that are on the same path or even those that possibly haven’t started. It's always nice meeting new people that have something they want to achieve. And of course, having the support of my husband. His encouragement for me to pursue my dream to start this business and not to work in the traditional sense puts more liabilities on his plate. He gave me a lot of strength as well.
It’s been three years since deciding to start this business, what is the biggest thing you learned? What is the thing you would have done differently?
There could be many. What I would have done differently. I think to stay busy and having a schedule. And why I say that is I can get a little, maybe disorganized. There are some days where I’m questioning if I will ever succeed, especially when you hit bumps along the way. So, at this moment I would imagine I would have discussed with the partner on how much money we can invest in the magazine and hire a team to get things done. Simply put, we don’t have publishing and digital media background. It would be a good idea to know when to hire help. However, we did do everything ourselves. We are 100% proud of what we have achieved so far. People are delighted and willing to help us because they see that we are very lean and we are not pumping in money, throwing out money, so they are a lot more willing to help us. And that we appreciate that, but we are also at a new stage where getting a professional team is the goal.
Who advertises in your magazine? Who are your clients?
We want to work locally as much as we can. We have a lot of readers internationally, but our focus is to build our brand awareness in Hong Kong. For example, working with eco-conscious brands, new brands, local designers, young talent. And at the same time, we also appeal to established brands. It's a reflection of our brand. We can enjoy the fancy things, but also can choose consciously and locally.
About marketing. What did you do that works well for online platforms?
Right now, our biggest asset is our content, and we are on the right wave, you can say, regarding the message that people are concerned with trying to live better and mindfully. Our content and idea that you don’t have to be “one-or-the-other” is on the right track. But regarding other aspects of marketing, we are helpless! We are getting better now; we mainly use Instagram and Facebook. It also helps we have interesting people in our stories, so that helps to get more readers.
So what is your big plan for the future?
We want to be a magazine that people believe in, be excited. It would be wonderful to establish ourselves as one of the first “change-makers’ that are starting something new. We also want to improve our usage of digital tools and effects. So, the magazine will continue to be visually stimulating, has an element of “what are they doing this time” due to its interactive features.
What is the hardest part of running your own business?
Time management. Absolutely. Time management and discipline.
Any tips for that one?
No. I don't know. I’m working on it still.
Then maybe some tips on being an entrepreneur and mother? Or how to manage these two efficiently?
Well you have to love what you do. I couldn’t wait to start working on the magazine today because I was on holiday for a very long time. Regarding balancing, being an entrepreneur and a mother, just don't be so hard on yourself. Seriously I’ve had incidents where I've forgotten to pick up my kid completely. And then somebody calls me,... “are you coming?” It shouldn’t even be a surprise, I pick her up every day, but that one day for some reason my mind was blank. I don't feel bad about it, I think it's hilarious. I tell that, oh my gosh. So just don't be so hard on yourself. They are both priorities.
It happens. What would be your advice for someone who is debating whether to start their business or not? Especially in the online magazine industry?
You need to have a clear idea of the magazine. Is it a fashion magazine, business magazine, or a magazine focusing on fashion start-ups? You have to be very specific. We needed time to find our way too. But we are clear on our target readers now. I have done a couple of talks in the past, and people would come up to me afterwards and ask the very fundamental questions and concerns, such as “How do you know it’s the right time, and how to start”? Sometimes I hear great ideas, but they are also scared. For good reasons too. In general, I think mostly, if you have an idea, and you believe in it, and let's say you’ve done your due diligence, researching if it's feasible, just try it. Just do it. Don't overthink. Just get in there and do it.
But it's easier said for me because my business is a digital magazine, it's just online right? I don't have to print and distribute. Nothing is holding me back. Even if no one wants to read it, I will still enjoy making it. So I think you just jump in because there are always more reasons why you shouldn’t do it than for you to do it.
Another important question, what do you say to yourself, what do you do when you feel you need to recharge, or when you feel like you can't do it anymore and start questioning what you do?
I love fitness. I love working out. So instead of spending time having high-tea with girlfriends, that kind of thing, I love just gathering my thoughts and going to the gym. That's it. There is nothing else I would rather do. If I’m at home, and timing permits, I also enjoy making things with my kids.
What do you love the most about what you are doing? What is your favourite part of the day?
I love planning content and doing the layout for my magazine. It sounds like such a simple thing; it's just fulfilling skills I never thought I had. It's like filling up a canvas, like an artist starting on a blank page. I enjoy it. That is probably the more significant part of the job for now until we are at a point where we can hire a full-time team, it makes me happy.
What a wonderful story about entrepreneurial wisdom and day to day struggles.
Thank you for your interview and I am sure that your story has empowered many inspiring female entrepreneurs to try even harder to make their dream come true.
You can read a new issue at: http://mag.thecloseteur.com/issuetwelve/
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