It’s hard to imagine your mum as a rule breaker. Especially when she’s spent your whole life making rules and suggesting you follow them. But here’s when I realised I have a pretty impressive mumma.
- At 16 she started tutoring kids to help her family make ends meet
- At 24 she started a children’s clothing company and grew it into one of the most well-known Singaporean kids’ fashion brands at the time
- She has been featured in newspapers, on TV and in books about high achieving women
- She basically told a gang member in Malaysia who tried to extort her to **** off (more on that later)
Her name is Stillfair. Yup, it’s pretty different. But then again, she has always been one to choose the uncommon path.
Her father fell ill when she was a teenager and was unable to work. So at 16 she started tutoring children and shared the substantial responsibility of supporting her mum, grandmother and siblings with her older brother.
She balanced work, school and family till the day she graduated. She couldn’t afford to rent a graduation gown so she didn’t attend her graduation ceremony.
It wasn’t an easy start. She had no business experience, only endless amounts of determination and a love for fashion.
With her life savings, mum purchased a sewing machine and hired one person to cut and sew patterns, as well as some contractors who created her dresses off-site.
She stocked her clothes in a small corner of a friend’s shop, while also helping with the day-to-day running of the store. One day, she opened a bag of new stock and spotted a dress with an identical cut to her own designs (mum later found out that her friend had contacted her contractor and stolen the measurements of all her pieces). She confronted her friend, who retorted, “It’s my shop. I can sell whatever I want!”
That was it. The next day, mum had taken back her stock and decided to start her own eponymous children’s fashion business, Stillfair Creation, at 24 years old.
To fund her plans, she asked a friend, Ong, to become her business partner. She would contribute half the funds, and Ong would borrow his share from his dad. Ong’s dad was happy to help. He thought his son going into business was a great idea!
They committed to a space and were about to pay their first month’s rent, when Ong’s dad realised his son’s business partner was a woman. There was no way this business would succeed, he thought. And there was no way him or his son were risking this much money on a business with no future. Abruptly, Ong pulled out of the partnership.
Distraught, and with her first month’s rent looming, mum told her friend, Eddie, what had happened.
“Take my scholarship money,” Eddie said.
Mum had helped him get the scholarship by teaching him Mandarin and preparing responses for his entry interview. He was insistent. So she reluctantly took the money and resolved, with even more determination, to succeed.
The first year of the business was focused on making the most out of very little. When mum and dad got married that year, mum made her own veil using lace from the business. The next day, she took the veil apart and put it right back into stock to make children’s dresses. Instead of an engagement and wedding ring, they used the same stainless steel band for both. The ring cost $29 and dad has always jokingly said, “this is the best investment I’ve ever made”.
Slowly but surely, production grew large enough to get a small factory. As neighbouring factory spaces became available, she would take them over until the business was operating from a 5000 square foot space with 50 permanent employees and 100 contractors. Within 6 years, Stillfair Creation was retailing at all the major department stores in Singapore and was stocked in shops in neighbouring countries.
Malaysia was the business’ largest market after Singapore, so mum decided to set up a base there.
Days after moving into her new office in Johor Bahru, she heard a knock on the door. She opened it. Two men stood at the entrance, smoking cigarettes.
In Mandarin, one of them said, “I’m here to collect for my Big Brother”.
She was confused at first, but it didn’t take long for her to work out that it was an extortion attempt. Gang members would target new offices and ask for “protection money” to safeguard them from theft, vandalism and intimidation (likely from the same gangs offering the service). As a female who clearly wasn’t from the area, she was the perfect target.
My poor mum was petrified, but before she knew it, she had taken a step forward, locked the man’s eyes with hers and said, “Who is your Big Brother? You tell him to come talk to my Big Brother! Meet me tomorrow, 12pm at the coffee shop downstairs,” before slamming the door in his face.
Door closed, she started shaking. She had no idea what had come over her. The coffee shop was owned by an old husband and wife team, and she felt mortified for dragging them and their livelihood into a potentially dangerous situation.
She ran down to the coffee shop to warn them, apologising profusely. The old man laughed and told her, “You said the right thing. I am a retired detective and they know who I am. You won’t see them again”.
And they never came.
It’s at these moments in her stories that I want to leap up and do a giant “that’s my mum!” fist pump. I’ve always loved listening to her tales. They’re told in Mandarin, and somehow they’re just so much wittier than I could ever imagine them in English.
This is a book my mum was in about 10 successful Singaporean women. Her story was about how she built her fortune from the ground up and created success from very little.
Stillfair Creation was in operation for around 3 decades. Mum closed the business to retire at 54 years old. She gifted her patterns to people who once were competitors and connected them with her best suppliers. That’s the kind of person my mum is – she has a big heart and always looks to help those around her.
Just writing this article, I can see exactly where my philosophy of creating jewellery for rule breakers and story makers has come from.
Ironically though, when I decided I was going to become a jeweller, my parents weren’t quite on board. Perhaps that’s because I decided to unceremoniously blurt it out at a Sydney Airport McDonalds at 6am, right after they stepped off their 8-hour flight.
“I’m going to quit my job and become a jewellery designer!” I announced.
I could see the shock on their faces and they tried to convince me to stick with my corporate job as a predictable source of income. Spoiler alert: I didn’t.
They’ve warmed up to the idea over the years. My mum owns one of the first ever Negative/Positive necklaces (alongside a few other jewels) and it’s her favourite piece to wear for casual and special occasions alike.
I asked mum what her 3 biggest achievements have been in life. She answered:
- Building a harmonious home and happy marriage, as well as inspiring our two kids to be confident and independent.
- Building a fulfilling business in my twenties and always being thankful for where I’ve come from and how I have gotten to where I am today.
- Giving our children exposure to an international education and providing opportunities for them to learn and grow.
It’s been 3 and a half years since I’ve seen my parents in Singapore (thanks, global pandemic). They’ve never met their grandson. But I’ll be heading to Singapore in a few weeks and I CAN. NOT. WAIT!