Sustainability awareness is increasingly influencing our purchasing behaviours, and small slow-fashion brands like Tove & Libra are finally getting the love they deserve for their efforts in reducing carbon footprint.
“We’ve not only survived this difficult year, but has emerged with 30% sales growth over the last year,” says Christine Chow, founder of Tove & Libra. “We feel that we have a very relevant message for these times – advocating for fashion that’s more sustainable, and comfortable – so we have worked really hard to get this message out in whatever way we could this year.”
Launched in 2018, Hong Kong-based label Tove & Libra is built on three generations of clothing manufacturing and centred around ethical sourcing and production. With access to deadstock yarns and materials, Chow and her team repurposes what already exists to create premium-quality pieces that last. Every garment also comes with a clear, detailed information on its contents and how to keep it looking its best wear after wear.
Ahead, Chow gives us an inside look into her business and what she’s looking forward to in the new year.
Name: Christine Chow
Profession: Creative Director and Co-founder of Tove & Libra
Industry: Sustainable Women’s Fashion
Startup since: October 2018
Company size: 5-10
Tell us about your business. What do you do?
My business partner Ivan and myself had been running our families’ heritage apparel companies for ten years, and lamenting how the market has been turning towards cheaper, disposable fashion. Backed by three generations of experience in clothing & textiles, we finally decided we should put our expertise towards making fewer but better clothes that fit well, feel great and don’t cost the earth (in more ways than one).
Thus, Tove & Libra is a sustainable womenswear brand with a uniquely vertical production process – our brand is produced through our own sourcing and factories, ensuring a tight control on ethics, quality and pricing.
How has your business changed in the pandemic?
This has of course been a difficult year, with so many unpredictable changes and roadblocks – in January we were preparing for a line-up of exciting popups and speaking engagements, which of course then got cancelled. Early in the pandemic, my partner and I quickly decided to use any downtime to make some long-needed improvements, so we actually invested in improving our website and overall content. We also reached out to many other small brands to share knowledge and create collaborations.
What are you most tired of hearing in your line of work?
There’s an ingrained fast fashion mindset nowadays that’s always focused on ‘new and next” – what are your new pieces? When will you drop something new?
We’re advocating a return to slower fashion, which means we put time and effort to perfect the fit and fabric of each item. So on the one hand, it would be impossible to do that and constantly churn out new things; on the other hand, we’re proud of what we put out and would rather lengthen each product’s lifecycle by looking at various ways to mix and match, dress up or down using the same pieces.
How has your business changed your life?
I’m a lot busier! This brand grew from my experience managing my family’s heritage manufacturing business. I’m still simultaneously running that business – just very fortunate to have an experienced and loyal team, who handles most of the day-to-day tasks. With Tove & Libra, it’s more of my own baby, so there are really no boundaries between work and weekend. Plus we’re a very small start-up team so I have to be much more hands-on in all aspects, from packing orders to designing our collection.
Looking back now, what would you have done differently?
Initially, we didn’t believe back then that most consumers would be especially interested in sustainability, so we didn’t try too hard to bring that aspect of our brands to the fore. We just felt that minimising waste on both the front- and back-end should be a given, and we were acting based on our personal principles, not necessarily for a marketing purpose. So we launched with more of a focus on a classic fashion message, like timeless, work-to-weekend wear. Then, as we started talking to more customers and press and even other brands, we realised we had underestimated the interest in our back story. We kept getting feedback to be more vocal and transparent about our sustainable goals and actions. We’ve found our voice since, and this not only differentiates our brand, but also helps us find the right collaborators to continue learning and growing.
When we first started we were also too idealistic and didn’t realise how much effort – and dollars – other brands were spending on marketing. So we weren’t great with social media off the bat, whereas for so many new brands now you see them setting up beautiful SM accounts before they’re even close to shipping any products.
What is a normal work day like for you?
There is not much routine being part of such a small team, since we have to deal with whatever comes up. Our office in Kowloon serves multiple purposes – our stockroom is next door so we pack ecomm orders ourselves; it is also a showroom, and occasionally a customer may drop by. My business manager and I spend an hour or two each day reviewing current activities and make upcoming plans for events and promotions. We are always exploring different opportunities and collaborations, and often take meetings at our shop in Central, so I pop by there several times a week.
About twice a year we’ll do a series of pop-ups. Recently we did three pop-ups almost back-to-back around Hong Kong from September through November while also stocking our pieces at Zerrin’s pop-up in Singapore. Pop-up periods are an intense exercise in multi-tasking!
How hands-on are you?
I’ve always loved being super hands-on with whatever I do. At Tove & Libra, I design all our pieces, I respond to our customer emails and DMs, and you can find me occasionally manning our retail shop and pop-ups! We really are like a guerilla start-up, where each person wears many hats. I am technically Creative Director, Marketing Director, Copywriter, Ecomm Manager, Visual Merchandiser…
I would love to eventually work with some seasoned professionals in certain areas, like art direction for example, but we are privately funded and very pragmatic about our budget.
How do you avoid burnout?
The flip side to being hands-on is also recognising which tasks and when to delegate. I also have two kids at home – I would be the first to acknowledge that no one can do it all by themselves!
We’re very lucky to have assembled a small but great team. While I keep a tight watch over many things, there are specific areas and projects that I will assign to others to take ownership. I know that someone else may handle things in a different way but we’re all aligned towards the same goals in the end. By letting others help, it’s not only making time for yourself, there’s also a mental burden that’s relieved.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start up?
I’ve had a lot of acquaintances and younger people approach me about this over the years. I think my key advice would be two-fold: One, don’t focus too much on whether it’s “been done” before, what usually matters is not being the first, but doing something well. Two, it’s therefore important not to just focus on your idea, but also the execution, basically the logistics. Launching a business can be easy but maintaining it is hard. Having worked in the creative industry in New York for seven years, I saw many talented designers close up shop simply because they could not run the operational or financial side, and unfortunately I think the market has become even more commercial and unforgiving.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you do now?
Well I do have the other business (manufacturing) to run! However being a manufacturer has been tough for many years now. Previously I had done some freelance writing and product trend consulting, so I’m always interested to explore those directions if it could be coupled with my advocacy for conscious living.
As a child, what did you aspire to be?
One of my earliest ambitions was in fact to be a fashion designer. I used to draw fashion sketches at the dinner table as a six year old! I’ve also always had an entrepreneurial streak: when I was in primary school, my dad bought a home photocopy machine so I started writing and producing a “magazine” that I sold to classmates! (I made up crosswords and stories.) So Tove & Libra is kind of coming full circle in many ways. I am very glad to have picked up technical and production expertise along the way that helps me turn my ideas into reality.
What has been your biggest challenge with starting the business and how did you overcome it?
I was about to turn 40 when I started seriously considering to launch this brand. Then I found out I was pregnant with my second child. I had to really ask myself if I could manage everything emotionally and logistically. I decided to lean in with an attitude of “now or never”. I didn’t get a confinement nanny for my first birth, but I did with this second one so that I could go back out for our fittings and photoshoot. My business partner Ivan is a very calm sounding board, so that helped a lot throughout that whirlwind period.
If you were to start another business or invest in another start up, what would it be?
I’m so proud of what we’re doing and haven’t had the head space to think about other investments, but we are looking into and talking to others about various ways that we can expand on what Tove & Libra is already doing. For myself, I’m looking into conducting sustainability workshops for entrepreneurs and established businesses alike, sharing my unique perspective that covers all the bases from sourcing and production through to branding.
How do you define success? Do you consider yourself successful?
We certainly feel some measure of success when customers return to our brand, and when we’re invited to share our ideas on conscious fashion such as at Fash Rev SG this year. Hopefully this means we’re really motivating a wider audience to rethink their fashion habits.
However as a privately funded business, I’m also going to be very pragmatic and say that being profitable is certainly an important part of being successful! We do want to prioritise people, not profits, but at the same time we can only sustain our mission if our business can sustain itself.
On a personal level, I would only apply the idea of “success” to a task, a mission, I don’t believe in using “successful” to define a person. There are different things I’ve chosen to do out of interest, or duty, or love, and I try to handle them all as best as I can — some days certainly go better than others. But I try not to let that make me feel more or less than who I am.
What’s next for your brand?
We’re looking at doing more pop-ups in both Hong Kong and Singapore, as physical retail is key for us especially in terms of winning over new customers. Fingers crossed that the travel bubble goes forward smoothly! We’re also exploring different takes on the concept of sustainable fashion. For example we want to rethink how to deal with our excess stock and materials, other than having a fire sale which we feel devalues the whole clothing industry, so we’re working on a special capsule built around this idea for 2021.
(All images: Tove & Libra)