Founders without borders: the women-led brands changing the game
by WSNXT Team·
Written by Jade Scott
“Everything stems from passion.” - Johanna Ho, founder, PHVLO
The world has witnessed an unprecedented year of, quite frankly, chaos, and, statistically speaking none have been more affected in the workplace than women. Specifically, women in independent businesses. In part due to the sectors and industries that we boss (weddings, hospitality, beauty, wellness, the list goes on) this sharp change has signalled a shift in the way we work and the way brands are built.
For most, the onset of the Pandemic saw new challenges ahead and for some, this meant taking a whole new overview of how their brands would function in the world. Bolt Beauty is the UK founded capsule beauty brand that launched on the very same day the UK went into lockdown. What are the chances?
For founder Lisa Sexton, that meant new considerations for her business, including remaining empathetic to her potential customer who would perhaps be viewing beauty and consuming in a different way, “It's hard talking about something people can't do - it's a fine line between acknowledging what a product can be used for and re-emphasising a loss of something people long for. More widely, I questioned whether it's "right" to talk about beauty when people are facing more challenging circumstances. How can skincare be at the top of someone's priorities when they or a loved one are sick, they are financially struggling, or their mental health is severely impacted? I didn't want to be insensitive to anyone or act in isolation to the wider issues everyone faced. Similarly, not launching would mean not being able to pay staff, influencers and freelancers.”
With the world viewing itself in a whole new way, female-led brands continued to emerge and thrive in a way that proves innovation combined with a mindful attitude is, and always will be, a recipe for success. This is something Sally Kim, Founder, Crushed Tonic, the collagen infusions brand, is an advocate for. “For us to be innovative and fresh, it all comes down to the marketing we do. We have to be sensitive to why people are going to purchase something, so we’re trying to be really mindful and intentional about the benefits and before and after, because I think otherwise purchasing something off of a brand play is not effective.” Sally is just one of many innovative founders whose emphasis is on the experience that comes into play, regardless of the location and current ‘trends’.
As we slowly move back to a safer, more physically connected world, we can see where brands have paved a new way of working and ultimately, established themselves as ‘omnipresent’ in a sense. Time zones blurred, our ability to connect endless, launching a brand with a mission to carve out a niche in a space has never been a more exciting prospect.
Where to ‘originate’ is an idea that gives credibility and resonance to a company, but, the free-spirit of brand presence is where the magic can really happen. From kitchen-table to cross-continent clout, businesses, as we know them, are more frequently operating in different ways.
TH&TH is one such example: A British founded brand, TH&TH (To Have & To Hold) originated in Leamington Spa, England (serious Bridgerton vibes) by three best friends whose backgrounds with international fashion brands brought them together to ‘set up shop’. What could be more enticing than working with your best friends right?
Well, in establishing the brand, with bases not just in the UK, but Hong Kong and China as well, it meant that they could capture audiences, suppliers and manufacturers on a global level from the get-go, as they built their brand creating distinctly different bridal and occasionwear for the modern-day bride and her tribe. While co-founders Louie and Kitty reside UK side, the third co-founder in the trifecta, Ping, heads the creative design and product development and designs and makes the dresses in their Hong Kong workshop. What is brilliantly clever is that the brand remains distinctly British but with a global flavour that allows them to flex wherever their audience needs them. Their star is rising too, with plans to expand into the USA.
This beautiful enterprise was self-funded and founded during a period of maternity leave, based on the acknowledgement that affordable luxury in the bridal market was not only missing, but undervalued by an industry that in the UK alone, contributes over £14bn a year to the economy. With this in mind, focusing solely on the UK would have been an easy choice, but not for the team at TH&TH. Their mission is much bigger, and so, positioning themselves as a globally present, without borders brand, they have tapped into and reinvented the bridal market as a team of three. Across continents, always connected by technology and a passion for pushing the envelope in the modern wedding industry.
Next on the agenda is a spot at the Madame Fu Spring Wedding Fair (14 March) where Ping will be on hand at the event to connect in person and offer up a slice of that personalised TH&TH experience that they have become known for.
The appeal, of course, is the sentiment that comes with independent brands. We all know that large corporates have the finances and adaptability to spread far and wide, but with independents, there is something very personal about the message.
Johanna Ho is the founder and creative director of PHVLO (pronounced "flow")and PHVLO HATCH, a sustainable fashion brand and, more importantly, a platform that looks at sustainability on every level. Interestingly, when the pandemic hit, Johanna and her team stopped producing clothes and switched business heads, something, which was possible because of their borderless approach to brand and business.
Johanna explains, “It comes from my upbringing, how I was brought up as a kid. Born in Hong Kong, I spent my early childhood here, which was under British rule then. Hong Kong is so cosmopolitan. All sorts of people come here to work, to visit, and so it’s always been a very contemporary city in that sense. At the age of 14 I was shipped off properly to the UK, to a boarding school. Attending boarding school was a very big eye-opener in terms of meeting all kinds of people. That early training has given me a lot of worldly views. Meeting people that I wouldn’t usually.”
It wasn’t just Johanna’s education that set her up with a global view of the world. “Back in Hong Kong, actually, I used to play Tennis for the HK junior team, and that was a very cool experience... it sent me off to different parts of the world, whether that was to Japan to compete or other Asian cities. During those comps, all kinds of people come together. So, through sports, you really get to meet a lot of different people of different ages.
“That was really my first taste of exposure with ‘oh there’s more Chinese people or more than just people like myself. Then, being in the UK at boarding school, that broadened my horizons even more. I had friends from Africa, France, Germany. Very different parts of the world. That really created the foundation for me in terms of working and preparing myself to work with all types of people around the world.”
It’s cool to think about how Johanna looks to the sporting arena and her boarding experience as her first set up to working internationally. Finding her passion was easy. “I’ve always had that luxury to daydream. At a very young age, three or four, my mother told me that I just wasn’t interested in anything but drawing. My parents would find me underneath a table drawing away, not knowing the world outside could be crumbling down. Ever since then, I think my parents have gone with the laissez-faire approach for me. My mother also went to school in the UK as a teenager so by her sharing her stories with me, right from the beginning, there has been a cosmopolitan approach in our family. My father studied in Sydney, you know, opposite ends of the world.”
“I was always telling people my dream of becoming a fashion designer. That calling never really changed so I went with it. After school I went onto Wimbledon School of Art, which just blew my mind in terms of creativity. You’re living in a nutshell at school and then you go to art school and it's a whole new world. Then after Wimbledon I went to Central St Martins and that was another completely different world again!”
All of these experiences were setting Johanna up in ways that her business would adapt and shift around the world, not necessarily stemming from one place but flexing according to the natural progression of the brand. “You think you’ve hit fashion, then you get to St Martin’s and you realise you haven’t hit fashion yet... All of those experiences built me up to who I am. I received some great advice from a tutor at Wimbledon who said, even though I had my mind set on fashion, I should go and explore. I was good at drawing, good at graphics, so why didn’t I broaden my horizon a little bit and see what’s out there.”
That made Johanna’s year in Wimbledon so fruitful. All the experience in different fields lead to the inevitable star up mode. “I started my own brand pretty much right after I graduated from St Martin’s. I think that was almost the ‘norm’ thing to do, either you go straight to somewhere like Celine or Versace or the next thing is you create your own brand. That was it! That’s what I did.”
On the subject of where to launch, the idea was on her doorstep, “I launched my brand in London, purely because I had contacts I had really good support there. However, I made my production base in Hong Kong because I knew then that there was a good resource in Hong Kong. Every other designer then was making stuff out of China, so I thought, why not.”
This positioning instantly gave Johanna the global perspective to interact with her audience on multiple levels and establish a brand free of the constraints of one city. It led to further, amazing opportunities, “I was very lucky from that point. I was picked up by Barney’s New York and then the Japanese clients came and, in short, a Japanese company who owned Burberry in Japan then, came knocking on my door, asking if I was happy to be in their portfolio to help me open shops in Japan under my name. I said to my friends ‘I can die tomorrow’ after that as it felt like every dream of mine had come true. I lived in Tokyo for a year before coming back to Hong Kong and developing my brand in Asia.”
Johanna’s perspective is key to her brand’s position and her ability to adapt to any situation. “COVID has changed our whole mindset and how we view the world. That, in turn, has changed how we view how we want to run and direct our business. Pre-COVID little did a lot of people know, I had stopped producing products. What you see on our site now is just an ongoing collection of what we’ve designed from the beginning. Why I decided to do that with our team is mainly because I’m a fanatic of sustainability. I’m proud to say that I was one of the first to start sustainable fashion, 10 - 15 years ago, in Asia. As the years go by, I understand that being sustainable doesn’t mean it’s just using recycled fabrics and zero wastage. No. It’s a 360 experience. It’s about branding, it’s about how to tell the story, it’s how to execute and deliver it. For me, producing a product for the sake of producing something sustainable, isn’t sustainable.
“With that idea, I moved on, realised that my role was more useful to young people that I’ve come across. The main idea of PHVLO was to go with the flow. To use my experience of my years, whether being my own brand or working for others, the contacts that I’ve established over the years, to help to pass that and the know-how on to the next generation. We call ourselves, not just a brand, but a platform for how we can connect with young people, not just in fashion, but creatives.”
“Creating or connecting without borders is really just that. Art and design creatives really have no boundaries. Having lived in Hong Kong and London, I’ve experienced all kinds of people. There should be no boundaries working together. More so now. It is not just about creating something but connecting people. It is more rewarding and exciting to me. Everything stems from passion. I’ve moved on from designing things to sharing my passion with others, creating a community that we can all share together.
“PHVLO comes with a PH from the chemistry - PH neutral. The idea is that creating neutrality and balance in the world we live in and the way we connect with people. How do we create a balance between all people?”
With the opportunity to create and devise product and business plans on multiple levels in various locations around the world, the restrictions of office life need not apply. Go-getters, like Johanna, Louie, Kitty and Ping of TH&TH around the world are embracing the ability to stretch across continents and redefine the meaning of the term ‘international’ without losing a sense of the personal, human element of a brand. Long may they reign.
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Are you a new and exciting woman-led brand looking to expand into the global market? we’d love to hear from you!