We find out how the founders of Style Theory are reducing fashion waste by teaching those in Asia about the concept of shared wardrobes
How I’m Making It is a weekly series in which Tatler speaks to influential individuals about their unique journeys and what keeps them going.
When Raena Lim and Chris Halim started Style Theory, they did so simply to solve a problem men and women face daily. The problem of having nothing to wear.
“One day Chris looked at me and my bursting closet and asked me why women often complain that they have nothing to wear when they have wardrobes full of clothes,” said Lim with a smile. “This was the ‘aha’ moment that led us to realise that there was a problem that we could solve in the industry.”
Today, with over two million rentals across Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong and 600,000 preloved designer wear items in its docket, Style Theory is Southeast Asia’s largest fashion subscription rental platform.
And it’s safe to say that the duo have managed to make a significant dent in the global fight towards less waste and more sustainable ways of living.
Considering how neither one of them had any experience in the fashion industry and Lim did not know anything about start-ups till later on in life, this was quite a feat.
Halim started his career as a senior associate consultant at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm where he dealt with clients in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
Lim on the other hand graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce in Finance and Organisational Consulting from the University of British Columbia and then went on to volunteer as president of the Global Initiatives for Village Empowerment (GIVE) in Kenya.
“I was setting up micro-financing loans to empower communities to break out of the poverty cycle. We also empowered women in financial knowledge through a financial curriculum and built a community savings plan to help them to save for their kids’ education and medical fees,” Lim shared before adding that she later moved on to Goldman Sachs where she was a senior associate for just over four years.
“At that point, I was a major contributor to the fashion industry and I was very ignorant about how wasteful it all was. I would buy tons of clothes and store them in my wardrobe thinking I’ll wear them someday, but eventually would throw or give them away in large bags during spring cleaning every Chinese New Year,“ Lim admitted.
This was when they decided to attempt to solve the problem of fashion wastage.
“I was looking to work in an organization where I could make an impact for a cause I believe in, so it wasn’t difficult when we took the plunge to start Style Theory, a startup that solves such an obvious problem for women and which can help shape a more sustainable fashion future,“ Lim said before adding that the couple, in a daring move, decided to quit both their full-time jobs and invest as much as possible into their new venture.
However, they were immediately faced with a major problem and that was how Singaporeans were simply not educated about wardrobe sharing.
“The concept of wardrobe sharing was new in Singapore and even the region. Customers didn’t understand what it meant to have a sharing economy for apparel and bags or have access to an unlimited wardrobe,” Halim said.
“It took a lot of time over the years to educate consumers on environmental issues and share with our users the benefits of fashion rental,” Lim explained.
However, despite initial reluctance from consumers, the duo noticed that uptake, in the beginning, was good.
“It was shockingly good for the target we set. We launched our first minimum viable product (MVP) in 2016 and it was fully subscribed within a month. We had to close a venture capital round very quickly so that we could have funds to scale up the concept back in 2016,” said Lim.
As the business began to grow, Lim and Halim had to start becoming more careful about the brands they chose to carry.
“We source from brands from all across the world—New York City, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Korea and locally as well. We also carry designers from Romania and Turkey. Basically, every brand is aligned with what we are trying to build in this region, we get them in,” explained Lim.
“We also source our bags and clothes from the largest collections out there—people’s wardrobes. We have many consigners who consign their bags and clothes to us and earn income on their items whenever their items are rented out or sold,” added Halim.
True enough, over the last five years, one of the most popular aspects of Style Theory is its consignment programme which allows consumers to rent and sell their bags with an 88 per cent commission.
“We share a very generous amount of revenue with them and have been improving the application that people can use to seamlessly consign their items. The idea of earning income on your unused fashion items is a compelling proposition for many,” said Halim.
Over the years, as conscious shopping has taken the world by storm, Halim and Lim have seen significant opportunities and growth in their business; two years ago, the pair decided to branch out once again to launch Second Edit by Style Theory.
Second Edit allows consumers from Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong to buy and sell authentic preloved designer wear.
“We felt that we needed to take resale seriously, especially as one of the biggest circular fashion players in South East Asia,” Lim said.
True enough, Second Edit proved to be a huge success and in the span of just 10 months, the company saw a growth of 10 times as well as double the number of designer bag orders despite the pandemic.
Today, the duo are working on extending their business pillars into different countries and have just launched in Malaysia. They are also looking to offer kidswear and menswear in the near future and they are doing all this while also juggling a newborn.
With only 24 hours in a day, Lim and Halim share how they do it all in their own words.
What is a typical morning like for you?
Chris Halim (CH): I start the day by catching up on the latest news during breakfast while sipping a hot beverage and reading through emails and the latest messages from the team.
Raena Lim (RL): I’m an early riser and usually meditate every morning before breakfast. Since becoming a mom, my routine has changed to pumping milk for my newborn, grabbing a quick breakfast and spending 30 mins playing with him before starting my workday.
What do you usually have for breakfast?
CH: I pretty much eat anything available but my favourite is kaya toast with butter.
RL: I love a peanut butter sandwich with a banana and a mug of hot milo.
What does a standard workday look like for you?
CH: I generally have my calendar packed with meetings throughout the week. This typically includes making key decisions with the team, discussions with investors, visits to our warehouse or stores, meetings with vendors and more.
I also try to dedicate two to three hours per day to do some deep work and thinking that will help chart our direction as a company.
RL: I’ll usually start the first hour of my day looking through my emails and work notifications to pick out all the urgent things that I’ll need to attend to immediately.
Following that, I’ll usually be in back to back meetings till the end of the day when I’ll do all my documentation and attend to all replies by 7 pm. I’ll put the baby to sleep before having dinner and attend to any work that I couldn’t before my wind-down routine at 10 pm.
How would you describe your working style?
CH: I like to think big picture so as to ensure that our team focuses on what’s most important while also pushing their boundaries and being logical at the same time.
RL: I’m collaborative and ideation oriented. I believe in trusting the people you work with so I tend to give great autonomy to my team.
What time do you usually have lunch? What do you usually have for lunch?
CH: I usually eat around 12 to 1 pm. I like to eat healthy rice bowls for lunch.
RL: Rice. I love my carbs so I’ll usually have rice, vegetables and toufu. Basically, cai fan.
Free time: overrated or underrated? Why?
CH: Underrated. It’s so important to carve out time to ideate and review.
RL: Underrated. Free time is really important to review the day or week. Reflecting also allows us to make more conscious and better decisions.
How do you chase your dreams?
CH: Decide on a goal, and work towards it. I also look out for opportunities every step of the way and make sure to take action when I see something promising. It’s okay to fail because anything you do, especially failing, allows for learning that will help you get back on track.
RL: Just do it, and then navigate and problem solve along the way. Don’t overthink it.
How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you set boundaries?
CH: I focus on what is most important and urgent for the company and prioritize those to ensure that they get executed well. Most days, it is necessary to work or have meetings until late due to critical timelines. However, I do try to ensure that my team has no meetings after 7 pm to allow for ample time to rest after a hectic workday.
I also try to ensure that our weekends are for family time, and are work free as much as possible.
RL: With a newborn, work-life balance is certainly a challenge. I used to set clear working hours and make sure I sit at my work desk to get everything done.
However, with a newborn now, I have to attend to the baby throughout the day so I’ve learnt to set up clear tasks to complete at the start of the day and whenever I get pockets of time, I’ll aim to get them delivered as soon as possible.
There isn’t a fixed time for me to work anymore. I might be replying to emails at 3 am when I’m pumping. I do make sure that weekends are work-free as much as I can though.
Risks: should you take them? Why or why not?
CH: Absolutely. I ask myself “what’s the worst that can happen?”. Oftentimes, they are very acceptable outcomes that are coupled with strong learning opportunities. On the flip side, taking these risks often opens up amazing opportunities and exposure that would never have been otherwise attainable.
RL: Always. I believe that the future is moulded by our actions today and the impact we make is oftentimes proportionate to the risk that we are willing to take.
How do you deal with your shortcomings?
CH: Find the right people to cover your weaknesses and learn from them. Consistently learn and build your skill sets and knowledge.
RL: Be honest about it and hire someone who has complementary skillsets to balance that out.
What is the best piece of advice that you have ever gotten?
CH: Always get real customer feedback on anything you want to build or have built. You will almost always learn new things that can make or break your product.
RL: Know that every generation shapes the next, what we do or do not do today will impact our children’s future. If our parents didn’t fight for women’s equality, I might not even be educated today. If we don’t fight for environmental sustainability, our kids might not enjoy the green world we have today.
What is an idea/thought that you heard recently, that you thought was interesting?
CH: How we might already have the technology to build a space elevator that could really accelerate space travel. We are sci-fi nerds for sure.
RL: How there are many Earth-like planets out there which implies that we might not be alone in the galaxy. Also, how living on another planet could be a possibility in our lifetime.
How do you unplug?
CH: I take time to play with the baby, read up and watch topics that I find interesting. I listen to podcasts while driving.
RL: I play with my newborn. I will also watch Youtube videos on different subjects that I’m into at the moment.
How do you stay grounded?
CH: I meditate almost every day and find ways to consistently appreciate the blessing that I have received.
RL: Knowing how small I am in the entire universe is a very humbling feeling. I’m very grateful that I have my team and loved ones who support me in the big things I want to achieve. There is no way I could have done it by myself.
How do you manage stress?
CH: We started an edible garden during the circuit breaker period in 2020 and today we have over 100 plants on our apartment balcony. I especially enjoy growing unique cultivars of figs, citrus, and mulberries, and can’t wait to share them with our child when he’s older! A home garden provides our family with a healthier and tastier variety of produce for our family, and it's something I enjoy doing to de-stress in my spare time.
RL: I write and meditate to manage stress. I find writing down my emotions and what I’m grateful for allows me to reflect and appreciate everything that has happened that day.
How do you stay motivated?
CH: I am very goal-driven so I review my goals and refresh myself on why they matter and that usually helps me to get going to achieve them again
RL: I’m not always motivated to be honest. I set up a routine so that even on my most unmotivated days, I can still get work done. My team and customers’ support are my biggest motivation today.
What is one item that has changed your life for the better?
RL: My newborn son. I am seeing life through his lens and I also feel bad for my mum about my teenage years now that I'm a mother.
CH: Having a baby is really an amazing experience. It's a constant source of joy, motivation and learning. Since Rae has already given that answer, another big game-changer is my electric car. I'm a huge believer in this space and driving it has been a game-changer for our lifestyle and our wallet (especially as oil prices are so high now).
Do you have moments of doubt and how do you overcome them?
CH: All the time. I carve out time to really think it through logically and I build models and arguments to help in doing it. I also speak to people smarter than me to help get their perspectives.
RL: Definitely. I actually talk it through with Chris who is extremely logical and analytical so we have always been able to find achievable steps to resolve whatever we have doubts about.
What would you consider your greatest accomplishment to date?
RL: Making a kid. That aside, making people realise that they can actually rent their day-to-day outfits. Prior to Style Theory, people only knew about car rental and probably wedding gown rental. We've reinvented one of the largest categories of clothes wastage by introducing a unique fashion sharing economy.
CH: Same as Rae above.
What would you still like to accomplish?
CH: Travel to Antarctica, go to the moon and Mars, and raise a kind son who will hopefully make a positive impact in the world.
RL: Go to Mars one day and influence more people to care about environmental sustainability.
What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?
CH: I pray and thank God for the blessings that I have received and ask for strength and guidance for the upcoming challenges.
RL: I write in my journal, and say goodnight to my son and husband before I sleep.