This is part of an on-going series of interviews by Yinsey Wang with East Asian voices around the globe. The series aims to introduce perspectives from different walks of life.
American-Chinese entrepreneur Jennifer Chen’s unorthodox route into fashion is a cause for celebration. Having worked in banking and financial analysis at Citigroup and American Express respectively, she felt it was time to move towards her calling. Luckily for us, this means quality accessories and clothing that not only espouse style but also wear-ability. Business-savvy Chen has applied the lessons from her experiences with the technology world to her own fashion startups – Mila Fiona and MM Lust (“Monday Morning Lust”).
Mila Fiona has developed the refreshing concept of the mini wallet for women – a surefire future classic in our view! Ever feel jealous that your male friends just carry their whole life in a wallet? Forget chucking everything into a clunky bag – Mila Fiona has the answer! Whereas fashion handbags over 2013 got bigger, Chen’s novel approach to accessories for the modern woman will help many fashionistas cut the clutter and the weight.
Monday Morning Lust is a project that features a new piece of clothing each week (hence the name). The idea is to counter pure flash-consumerism but instead celebrate fashion pieces by investigating the inspiration and stories that went into their creation. Each piece is limited edition and made with visual narratives that are explained and explored.
Chen’s debut is noteworthy not only because of the unique relationship she has with her pieces, but also because of the courage it represents. Brought up in a traditional Asian family, Chen graduated from an Ivy League University and pursued what she thought was often perceived as a “successful career”. She decided to change her path and choose to follow her true passion: fashion.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got where you are today.
I was born in Xi’an, China. When I was six years old, my parents went to the UK for graduate school and several years later, we immigrated to the U.S. I spent the rest of my childhood in the suburbs of New York and then went to Columbia University for college. After graduation, I went to work in finance, doing investment banking at Citigroup, and then financial planning and analysis at American Express.
I had been sewing my whole life, and I became more interested in fashion as I got older. While I was working in New York, I took a fashion design class at Parsons and loved it. I kept going and eventually finished the programme. At that point, I decided that I wanted to devote more time to design, so I left my job at American Express and started my own company.
Jennifer, it’s amazing you’ve found a niche in the market that you’re gearing your products towards. Tell us about the creation of Mila Fiona.
Mila Fiona started with the mini wallet. I noticed that while men have a lot of options when it comes to compact wallets and money clips, women do not. So, I decided to create a fashionable yet functional mini wallet for women.
The Mila Fiona brand is focused on accessories that are stylish yet practical, great for modern women with active lifestyles. Right now we are showcasing the mini wallet, but we will be offering other types of accessories as well in the near future.
What inspired you to pursue a path of entrepreneurship?
There has been a lot of activity in the tech startup space within the last few years, and I became involved in some projects here and there. What I came to realise was that the startup world is full of hard-working individuals trying to make their mark on the world, and I loved the sense of passion and optimism I saw within this community.
At the end of the day, I decided that I was more interested in fashion than I was in pure technology, so when it came time to start my own company, I decided to focus on fashion. Fortunately, a lot of the lessons I learned from the technology world are applicable to all types of startups.
What attracted you to setting up your own business?
When I am running my own business, I am involved in all aspects of the business from product development to manufacturing to marketing to legal & accounting. I love that there is always something new to learn so that it never gets boring. There is also a tremendous sense of ownership and responsibility that pushes me to work hard every day to make my vision come to life.
Marketing is just as important as the product itself; are you looking to expand on social media platforms and engage fans?
Absolutely! Over the coming months, I will be testing the various platforms to identify which ones are most effective for reaching my customers. There are links to all of Mila Fiona’s social media pages at the bottom of the website. Please follow us to find out about promotions and new product offerings.
What do you think are the main challenges of developing a brand?
To me, a brand is a living organism, much like a person. Think about the journey each of us takes to figure out who we are. It’s the same with a brand. You can do all the research you want ahead of time, but you never really know how the market will respond to a product until you actually get the product into their hands. Then you react to it and go from there.
Brands that have been around for a long time tend to have a more stable set of core values, but even some of those brands reinvent themselves from time to time.
Tell us about the current collection. What sort of woman does the brand epitomise?
The Mila Fiona woman has an active lifestyle. Her day is packed, from work to yoga class to dinner dates, and her accessories complement that lifestyle. Because she is always on the go, she travels light and carries only the things she absolutely needs. She is fashion-conscious, but practical at the same time.
Who would be your ideal Mila Fiona model?
I could see Jennifer Aniston as the face of Mila Fiona. She is the epitome of a style and beauty icon, and she leads a very active, healthy life. She works out regularly and eats very well. In fact, her fitness routines and dietary habits have been copied the world over. I also like that she is always fashionable, but still appears very down to earth. She has an accessible, almost effortless type of beauty. I would say Jennifer Aniston is the perfect Mila Fiona woman.
Who is your entrepreneurial role model?
Earlier this year, I attended an event at the studio of designer Amy Matto. Amy had been a VP of Sales at another company before deciding to start her own fashion brand. She sold her condo to finance her business, and spent two years on the ground learning the ins-and-outs of the fashion industry.
The reason I love Amy’s story is that she came into the industry with absolutely no experience, but was able to build a successful company out of sheer willpower and perseverance. While there are many designers who emerge from design schools and have years of apprenticeship with other established designers, Amy had to build everything from scratch – from technical design skills to relationships with suppliers, manufacturers, and retailers. She is the true embodiment of “where there is a will, there is a way”.