A world of fashion

Chantelle Cheang and Kelvin Mac, of Chavin Art & Costume Design

Co-founders of a start-up specializing in haute couture in the MSAR, Chantelle Cheang and Kelvin Mac, of Chavin Art & Costume Design, reveal plans for their brand to expand beyond the city, and discuss their overall views of starting up a business in the city

What is your background in fashion?

CC: We have mainly done haute couture and some dress renting too. I myself started designing fashion pieces for clients in 2013. Most of these pieces were costumes for performances on stage and in movies. We have spent two years, since 2015, to officially launch the brand to work on this, using this time to create our own showroom as well as a team. The showroom was only launched during the early period of this year, and we created a workshop space in mainland China. I myself mainly do the design, Kelvin also does a bit himself, but he focuses more on marketing. Although our team is not a big one, the production line for our products is well equipped. We have one fashion line specialising in embroidery and we have our own qualified workers to do the embroidery, so the quality is guaranteed. The production will be carried out on the Mainland, and the shop will be in Macau.

How is your customer base?

CC: We took part in the Hong Kong Fashion Week earlier during summer, and it led us to some new ideas and directions. We are thinking of setting up another line selling pieces abroad because there were several interested buyers asking whether we ship our pieces to other places.
Initially, our sales were focused locally, but we are planning to expand our sales to the Mainland or other regions outside of Macau.
Previously, the majority of my clients were casinos or hotels, like Suncity had asked me to design their uniforms. There are also clients asking me to design their wedding dresses.

How is an order placed?

CC: Usually we have two groups of clients. We have some colleagues that contact clients and clients examine our samples and try on some of the actual pieces, because not all of them will meet me to discuss design or want me to design for them. But they could ask us to make some slight changes to the piece.
The other group would be those who really want to meet me and talk about a special design for them. Clients must pay the reservation in advance so I can commence the design, and the reservation would usually be half of the total price.
Clients who come over to our showroom are served tea and cakes. We provide a service with a comfortable environment in order to allow better communication between clients and the designer.

What were some of the difficulties or challenges you encountered when starting up your business?

CC: We had huge challenges when we set up this business. First off, we had difficulty finding workers. We have a stable team in the Mainland, but it’s really difficult for us to find a suitable person for the showroom in Macau.
We want someone who knows sales and fashion marketing, since both of us are fashion-design graduates so we have limited ideas for marketing. We need someone who knows fashion marketing because we wish for this person to help us promote our brand outside the city.
We only got to know many of the fashion buyers when we took part in the Hong Kong Fashion Week. So we might need to set up a lot of meetings and handle deals with potential buyers. Within the fashion industry, notable fashion online stores have their own buyers to outsource brands around the world that they think are suitable and sell on their websites, and we very much hope to have more contact with these buyers.
Another difficulty would be the distribution of capital. Production costs for our products are high; for instance, the cost of the cloth that we use for our dresses and working time for workers. We have been putting a lot of effort into sorting out the time and costs.
Also, one thing is that the market in Macau is too small. In Macau, there is only a minority of people who would need tailor-made high-end dresses to attend a party or ball. As such, I’m now figuring out how to make my designs more accessible. For instance, I could design a piece for the upper body that could be suitable for both special occasions when the client wears a dress, while the same piece could also be fitted for casual occasions when the client wears a pair of jeans. We wish to gain a balance between pieces that could be worn on all sorts of occasions.
KM: Since all of our products are designed by us, unlike operations run by a normal boutique, we have a lot to consider, from the design to the promotion of our products.
CC: Aside from that, there is not a big textile market in Macau and many of the times we need to outsource our materials from the Mainland or Hong Kong.

How many people are there in the workshop?

CC: Now we have five workers in the workshop in Zhuhai.

Why did you decide to start this business?

CC: I just wanted to do something that no one was doing, and in Macau there isn’t really anyone in this field.
Also, my mum used to work in clothing manufacturing, and I have been interested in design since I was a kid.
If someone had already done something similar, we wouldn’t have done it.

What approaches do you take for your business?

CC: We are planning to make another line that allows clients to buy completed pieces with different sizes.
KM: The market in Macau will be focusing on tailor-made pieces, but the market outside of Macau involves marketing, which would bring a brand from Macau to outside the city. We mentioned that we need someone who is familiar with fashion marketing, and that person has to know first- second- or even third-tier fashion brands in the world, to see which of these brands we can cooperate with.

What is the price range for your pieces?

KM: Since our products are tailor-made, our average price would be MOP3,000 to MOP8,000.
Obviously, we also create pieces such as customised wedding dresses, which could cost over MOP10,000.

Have you considered promoting a more casual line in the MSAR?

CC: Definitely. Even pieces for banquets are more casual nowadays. [We’re pursuing this option] because the evening gowns that we made before are expensive and they wouldn’t wear them when out for casual occasions or a second or third time at special occasions, because people would recognise the dress.
So we thought about creating something which could work at all times.
In the beginning, the business saw more rentals than tailored dress-making.
Also, clients tend to be worried when I show only my sketch of the design.
Despite our products becoming more market-oriented, I still do some personal creations in series for fashion shows. But after fashion shows, I ponder how to make my pieces more accessible to the majority of clients.

What’s your view of the fashion industry in Macau?

KM: The market in Macau is too small. I personally think that our design is not bad and we would like to go out to the world to test our capabilities. Going out is a long-term target and we are building that currently.
We came across a lot of different buyers at the Hong Kong Fashion Week, some of them from places like Italy and who worked in the field for over 20 years. We got comments from them that our designs have potential. From the event we got the chance to exchange experiences and ideas, apart from making business.
And it was at this event that we got to know that our products have potential, which further enhances our goal to continue our business.
CC: There is no opportunity to develop this field in Macau. In Macau, we can only do tailor-made dresses. For pieces that have different sizes we would not choose to sell them in Macau, because the demand is small.

Have you ever thought of creating your own market in the city?

CC: Initially we were thinking of creating this market in the city. But we realised that our market is outside of the city after taking part in Hong Kong Fashion Week. It gives me this impression that people outside of Macau are more interested in our products than people in Macau.

Do you have any concerns about competition with designers outside of the MSAR?

KM: I don’t worry about competition. I would say that in Macau you have limited demand in terms of fashion, but there are different demands outside the city.
CC: It would be more a consideration of quality. Of course it is very important to have the quality of our products up to the standards of big brands.

Do you receive any government support?

CC: I personally applied and received funding from the design funding scheme for three years. The scheme is run by the Cultural Affairs Bureau. I would say it helps me and our brand a lot. Prior to the launch of our brand, the scheme allowed me to produce one series, with at least eight to ten pieces, and the series provided exposure for my design. The scheme did have some significant impact on the launch of my own brand.
KM: Regarding the cultural funding, we will apply for that. Honestly speaking, people normally apply for the funding and only start creating after they receive the money, but we began creating before we received the funding.
We have applied for the loan for SMEs [small and medium sized enterprises], but we didn’t ask for help under the purpose of developing a cultural business.

What is your opinion on the government’s efforts to provide a better environment for the growth of the fashion industry?

KM: I can see the government is attempting to develop this field, but our approach is to do our own business first and only if it’s suitable then we would approach them for help; the government’s support is additional for us. We would not refuse the support but our aim is to promote the Macau brand to the rest of the world.

What is your short-term plan?

KM: I think it would be the business in Macau. Initially we didn’t put a lot of effort into promoting our brand. Since we only launched our brand after Chinese New Year of this year, people only found out about us through word of month or discovered us on their own. Now we would like to let more people to know about our brand.
CC: That would be our really short-term goal, but the final goal would be to go out of the city. In addition, we would like to attend more Fashion Week events around the world. We made a five-year-plan a few years ago, and we are moving towards the goal step-by-step.
We had planned to open our showroom within two years and we did it. Now we are going to expand our brand to the rest of the country in three years time because the market in the Mainland is huge. We might not aim to open our own showroom in the Mainland because it will cost a lot. Probably we could start by putting our designs in others’ shops and selling them.

What advice would you give to those who also want to build up their own businesses?

KM: Honestly speaking, the environment in Macau and the MSAR Government are the hindrances for start-ups, hindrances for people who want to make money out of their own business. Macau is not a suitable place for start-ups.
For myself, it is not the first time to start my own business. I have been running my own businesses for decades and I’ve learned a lot from that. First of all, inevitably the size of a region’s population affects the market a lot. Second, the government’s policies [are a large deterrent]. It is alright for the fashion industry, but any businesses that require a license are a different case. If anyone does not end up closing and successfully obtains their licenses, I would congratulate them.
For example, the license requirement for playgrounds in industrial buildings. A couple of my friends who are currently working in the government themselves said that the government is always very slow in its procedures. So if you are waiting for the approval of a license in order to operate your business, you will have to provide all the documents they require, otherwise they seize the stores. When asking the government when the license will be approved, they always say ‘we don’t know because we have a lot of documents to deal with,’ while also telling us we can first pay a half-year rental for the shop, but we still can not operate until the license is issued.
The government is well aware of their problems, so they roll out a wide range of funding. The government knows people can’t continue businesses if they have no assistance.
Thirdly, the gaming operators are the biggest enemies of SMEs. Regardless of the market and obtaining resources, in particular human resources, we always compete with the gaming operators. That is the abnormality of Macau.
Although it is a fact, we still put all our best into our business.
My advice for young people who want to start their own business is not to start the business in Macau.