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Carol Chen's business card states her as Chief Hustler, but she could jolly well be a fairy godmother. Her company, Covetella, turns any girl into a Cinderella, with its over-1,000 cocktail and evening gowns to wear for the night. Although there are no glass slippers to slip into, there are diamante heels for rent. Pumpkin coach not included.
The 35-year-old, who grew up in Texas, has been running Covetella for the last two years, first from her living room, then a shophouse space in Chinatown, before moving to a 3,000 sq ft showroom in Henderson Road. The two-month-old showroom looks like a walk-in wardrobe of every woman's dream, stuffed with rows of dresses and sequinned gowns, sorted according to colour, and accessories, too.
The showroom looks like Ms Chen's own wardrobe (perhaps on a smaller scale) before she came up with the idea to sell or rent her excess clothes. The rental demand proved stronger, although the clothes are also for sale. Averaging at $150 per rental, Ms Chen and her five staff have dressed students for prom night and mothers wanting to look good at their daughters' weddings. The working crowd needing to dress up for events have also come flocking.
How did you end up with so many evening clothes in the first place? Are you a serial shopper?
Yes, I am a shopaholic, and as a former fashion designer, I designed a lot of clothes. Also, my time as a beauty queen, meant that I had to buy a lot of dresses for competitions and appearances.
Like most women, I don't wear everything I have. On a trip back home to Texas a few years ago, my mum asked what I planned to do with the tons of clothes in my closet. They were a waste to throw, and so I brought them with me to Singapore to rent or sell. Friends wanted to rent them, so I turned it into a business.
You grew up in Texas, and won several beauty titles including Miss Chinatown USA in 2005 and Miss San Francisco in 2006. You were also a fashion designer there. How has that helped you with Covetella?
I guess you could say I have a knack for the evening wear business! I used to be a tomboy and shy. Dressing up gave me more confidence and I hope to do the same for other women. Ten years ago I had a fashion line called C.C. Couture which was sold in 300 stores across the US. But the economy hit a downturn, and the brand went bust. Now I personally design a selection of the clothes in our collection.
How receptive is the Singapore market to the idea of sharing clothes?
Singaporeans make use of shared services, such as Airbnb or Uber. Clothes can be more personal, and while this concept works in the US, it's still a bit of a challenge in Singapore.
There are those who tell me they would never rent a dress, but they change their mind after their experience at Covetella. About 95 per cent of the women who come to us always return.
Have you always had an entrepreneurial streak? What other businesses were you involved in before Covetella?
After C.C. Couture, I started a company with a friend, producing cheerleading uniforms, out of China. We built a factory and I was living in the dorm and working all hours to meet orders.
After that, I started a mixed martial arts company with my then-boyfriend, with studios in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I didn't want to be living my life in a factory anymore, so I looked forward to this. But the relationship didn't work out and I decided to stay on in Singapore.
My parents are entrepreneurs, so I've always wanted to follow in their footsteps. As entrepreneurs, my parents had the flexibility to lead their own lives, and could make an impact on the community. I want to do the same.
What are the lessons you learned from your past businesses that you apply to Covetella?
There is a lot of trial and error involved, and you can't be afraid to take calculated risks. I admit I have more confidence in starting my own businesses, thanks to my supportive parents. You learn to be resilient, and to be resourceful as money can run out quickly.
Don't underestimate the power of networking. I only knew three people when I came to Singapore. Don't be afraid to ask for help either. But even after a few startups, it is always a struggle to stay relevant. There is always room for improvement, although I am content with Covetella's growth in the last two years
How far do you plan to take this business and do you intend to start anything new?
I tried a men's line for rental, but there was little demand. So I would rather provide complementary services, such as inviting bridal gown companies to loan their gowns through us. I also approach young designers to see if they're keen to rent their dresses through Covetella.
Covetella isn't my first business and definitely will not be my last.
What do you enjoy doing, outside of work?
I exercise a lot, and still do MMA. I do like to go on a retreat once a year just to find myself again and recharge. I went to Thailand recently, where I stayed at a resort, did yoga and meditation.