If there is a word to describe 2020 so far, it would be this:
Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, people are starting to focus on what matters most: The health and lives of our families, friends and loved ones. The archaic fashion calendar is evolving. Rapid consumerism of fast fashion and material goods is dwindling, and more emphasis is placed around empathy and care for humanity. In some perverse way, we are all starting to live more simpler, albeit difficult, lives.
This makes Audris Quek a futurist. Since 2018, she had already been advocating for such a lifestyle, with her label Paradigm Shift Label.
But, unlike most fashion designers, predicting future trends has never been her intent. She never started her label to chart some social commentary of our times or imagine the future. In fact, it was the opposite.
She started PSL from a Kickstarter project, in her quest to fulfill her dream: A dream which had begun over a decade ago, when she was fourteen years old.
Back then, Audris was frequently on Tumblr, and seeing a lot of Western fashion styles that were very simple but looked very good. “However, I couldn’t find simple designs in Singapore,” she recalls. This gnawing frustration led to the birth of her dream, which she outlined on a questionnaire in Secondary 3. There was a question, “what is your dream?”
“I still remember really vividly the three things I wrote on that form,” Audris beams. “I wanted to design my own products, to have my own business and to use the money to help the less fortunate.”
However, as with so many of us, her wave of youthful idealism vanished upon graduating secondary school. She then enrolled into an Events Management course in Republic Polytechnic, and started her career in Events Management with internships, before landing full-time jobs. “Initially, I was doing really well. I was told that I’m good at my job, and so I thought to climb the career ladder,” she shares. While she liked the industry and found the roles she held engaging, she decided that it was time to close this chapter of her life after about 2 years. “I never felt a sense of fulfilment after running all the events I had the opportunity to, I decided to leave the industry.”
When prodded why, she shared that the demanding and fast-paced nature of the industry was draining. “I found it very hard to cope.” After a particularly exhausting shift, on her way home, she recalled the fourteen year-old girl she had once been, and the three things she had written. At that moment, she knew that she had to take a leap and just try a hand at her dream, before it was too late.
“So PSL really began when I was 22, it was like the fulfilment of a childhood dream. It was a restart button from a down place.” She shares.
Audris then recalls an interesting anecdote of how the universe conspired to help her upon making this decision. Two weeks after quitting her job in Events Management, her ex-supervisor from internship days called her to offer another job. However, she rejected, sharing with him her next chapter in life in pursuit of fashion design. “I then learnt that his wife is a local designer with her own label in Singapore,” she says.
One thing led to another, and Audris landed a role as a Sales and Marketing executive, working for the label owned by her ex-supervisor’s wife. Her new boss was also her mentor, and the guidance of her first foray into the world of fashion. While her label was quaint, Audris had the opportunity to learn a lot. “My boss knew that eventually, I wanted to start my own fashion label, so she kindly allowed me to come down to the studio and watch her draft, draw and cut fabric. She also taught me how to sew! We even worked together on our friend’s wedding dress. If not for her, I wouldn’t have the knowledge to do what I’m doing today.” She shadowed her mentor for ten months, learning the ropes through a mix of observation and hands-on apprenticeships.
While Audris shadowed her mentor closely, the idea of PSL was starting to formulate in her head, she knew there would come a day she would have to leave that comfort zone and continue pursuing her own dreams, and she finally did. She attributes one of the push factors to the difference in preferred styles — her boss has a penchant for bold prints and loud colours, while Audris preferred minimalist and subdued design. After shadowing her mentor, she was even more inspired to turn her dream into reality.
To do this, she continued to bolster her fashion design skills in a five-month part-time Fashion Design Course at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). This gave her confidence in her permanent change in career.
This year marks her second successful year running Paradigm Shift Label. “We don’t classify ourselves as a “sustainable” fashion brand”, Audris says. Instead, “that’s a buzzword that will fade with time, we call ourselves a slow fashion label.” This explains why the label’s entire design inventory can be counted with one hand.
She also shares how PSL is centered around three values: Modernity, Modesty and Minimalism. “All our designs have a shifty and boxy silhouette. They are also functional. This means they all come with pockets!” She gestures excitedly.
I then asked her about her decision to position PSL as a slow fashion label, instead of joining the many new independent labels who fall under the sustainable fashion umbrella. “Paradigm Shift Label is a slow fashion label,” Audris concurs. “Actually, we call ourselves a slow and ethical fashion brand. Ethical brands are focused more on people — the people behind the label and the craftspeople who make the clothes.” She chose to position PSL as an ethical and slow fashion label to highlight how her products are made by people who are respected and paid fairly.
So, what does sustainability mean to Audris? “Being able to give something a longer life, or to treasure and cherish it.” She says, pausing for a moment to reflect.
In a way, while Audris doesn’t brand her label as “sustainable”, PSL’s slow approach to crafting clothes speaks to her very advocacy. She encourages her customers to consume sustainably with this slow and responsible approach.
So, how can customers like us consume fashion more mindfully?
“Don’t buy for the sake of buying,” Audris says. “Think before you buy, and don’t buy just because it’s nice. Ask yourself — ‘Are you going to use it again? How long are you going to use it for? Don’t buy on impulse, and don’t do retail therapy. Make sure it’s worth the purchase, and worth your money.”
It might be almost heresy for a fashion label — a business entity! — to advocate for slow production for the sake of mindful consumption. How would the company make enough money to survive? How does Paradigm Shift Label navigate this tricky balance between mindful production and profitability?
“I believe this balance lies in knowing how to work with your numbers,” Audris explains. Slow production does not equate to producing small quantities. While most fashion brands produce as much as possible to strive for maximum sales, Paradigm Shift Label adopts a contrarian approach.
She goes on. “PSL is centered around one thing and maximises sales from production of that one thing. Focus on that one thing and be really good at it. Don’t follow trends and produce as many designs as possible. Focus on community and brand core values instead.”
This one item Audris refers to is the label’s The Long Black, a black calf-length maxi-dress. Longtime followers of the label might recognise it as the label’s top-selling garment, and the statement piece defining the brand. “The black dress was so popular that it sold out multiple times, and I only remade a new batch because there is demand,” She explains. This reflects the slow, mindful ethos of PSL: To produce small batches in limited quantities first, then only remake new batches if demand for the garment is high.
Thankfully, the dress continues to remain in high demand. In fact — it was the label’s only product for a year! Yet, demand was so strong that this product single-handedly kept the label afloat from November 2018 to October 2019.
How does a simple black dress continue to pull in so much sales, month after month? Audris attributes this to the power of her community and how they subscribe to the label’s core values instead. “A lot of customers buy one dress first and make that a wardrobe staple. Then, they buy it again because they saw value in it as a wardrobe staple.” Still, Audris is especially thankful for her customers, who she says are very loyal to her brand. Her customers’ loyalty stems from the label’s purpose-driven narrative, and how PSL walks the talk instead of using ‘slow fashion’ or ‘sustainable fashion’ as buzzwords that create empty hype.
In September 2019, the label finally started pre-orders for the next 2 designs.
Audris admits to questioning her modus operandi at times. “Yes, we are profitable and our business is sustainable, but could there be more sales?”
At the same time, striving for maximum possible sales would run in contrast to Audris’ values. This could estrange her loyal customer base. Therefore, she sticks to her purpose-driven pathway instead of striving for maximum sales.
Frankly, starting a label with only one unicorn product is more than luck. It takes brains, faith and bucketloads of guts.
Despite her progress so far, there is still an element of insecurity, uncertainty and even disbelief. “I definitely have the impression that I am inadequate and underqualified at times,” she admits. “Even today, I still doubt myself sometimes!”
Nonetheless, she takes these insecurities in her stride, always challenging and pushing herself beyond her comfort zone. “Make it happen. Don’t just sit and dream.” Whenever she encounters a problem, she strives to see it from a different angle (hey, a paradigm shift!) and tries to conquer it and find it a solution.
This dogged determination and growth is borne from months of sacrifice. 5 months, to be exact. Audris took half a year to set the groundwork of the Kickstarter project: 2 months of planning, followed by 3 months of sourcing and campaign building. Throughout this period, she had no stable income and had to live on less. Each day also forced her to step beyond her comfort zone, which felt like a herculean step, knowing there wasn’t a safety net of a “stable job” to go back to.
Admittedly, it was challenging at the start. “Everybody felt I was doing really well in Events Management. I was relational and had strong people management skills, and they felt that I could climb in this industry,” Audris shares. However, a deeper calling for fulfillment — something that Events Management did not provide — continued to tug at her. Eventually, to the shock of her professional circle, she left the industry, transitioning from employee to entrepreneur.
In making this shift to pursue her dream, Audris was guided by a heartwarming quote from Maya Angelou, one of her favourite authors: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” She then signed up for the part-time NAFA course with her own savings.
“It was then my parents realised I was being serious about this,” Audris chuckles. She shared that although her parents were supportive of their daughter’s courage to dream, they had initially been skeptical that she would turn this into reality. Her steadfast resolution changed them. Witnessing his daughter’s determination, Audris’ dad gave her $5,000 for her first recce trip to Nepal. Her mother, who had initially been doubtful, not only listened to Audris share her plans for her label, but also started dreaming together with her.
On launch day, Audris recalls feeling more excitement than fear. “I really felt like a girl on a rollercoaster, because Kickstarter was like seeing the fruits of your dream finally happening.” She grins, while remembering the very day she literally “launched” her dream.
Her first 20 backers — mainly close friends and family — pledged within the first minute of the campaign going live. Audris remains especially thankful to her personal circle, especially her family, who gave her a lot of support and remained with her throughout the journey of starting up. “I became close with my family and friends throughout this journey.” Not only did this project strengthen her relationships, but also taught her how to handle the backlash from some people, professionals and those who talked her down.
Having fought through the throes of entrepreneurship alone, what advice does Audris have for an aspiring founder who wants to start their own ethical fashion line?
“Find your purpose. Start with a strong ‘Why’,” she begins, once again reconnecting with the humanity of her label. “Don’t do it for the money.” When prodded about her own purpose, she shares how Paradigm Shift Label helps to be a blessing for people in developing countries so they can come out of poverty.
“Research well, do your homework well and do checks.” Audris continues. “Go down to the actual suppliers to look at the manufacturing process in person. Don’t just believe a factory when they say that they are ethical.”
She then shares strategies for effective sourcing. When looking for suppliers, look for chemistry and establish a connection. “Don’t do business for the sake of doing business,” she cautions. “Relate with them. Enjoy time with each other, and leave feeling better.”
Audris also encourages founders to conduct their own sourcing trips in person. She walks the talk, having embarked on her own sourcing trips to Nepal and China. “Your best classroom is in conversations with people who produce the source.” Still, she warns that it is imperative to stay safe and travel in a group or with trusted partners.
“Be careful with the timelines you have in your head versus reality; a lot of unforeseen expectations will happen. Put in a lot of buffer time.”
“Finally, be meticulous.”
Everybody can sound like a seasoned veteran when sharing advice. However, few actually walk their talk. Even fewer manage to steer a fashion business to profitability with below ten core products. And Paradigm Shift Label isn’t even two years old!
Yet, Audris has achieved this, despite never attending business school or even enrolling in university. This makes her the very embodiment of her label — living proof that paradigm shifts, while few and far between, are indeed possible when grounded in the right values and executed with dogged determination.
In this Coronavirus era, the entire fashion industry is teetering on the edge of change. Paradigm Shift Label’s growth acts as testament that mindful and responsible production can be balanced with profitability, as long as it is centered on the right human-centric core values.