Cover Photo: Nana & Bird

Find out how Tan Chiew Ling and Georgina Koh found a way to be their own bosses at 30 while seamlessly juggling kids, family and (somehow) still managing to carve out time to relax

If you look at Nana & Bird today, you would never guess that this sleek and established luxury women’s fashion and lifestyle brand was once simply an idea dreamed up by two friends in vastly different industries and spaces in their lives. 

In fact, Tan Chiew Ling and her best friend, Georgina Koh, were both well into their individual and illustrious careers in advertising and marketing with Tan stationed in Shanghai and Koh in Singapore when the two decided to embark on a fashion venture together. Spurned by their love for fashion and strong friendship, this passion project slowly grew to be the staple fashion brand it is today. 

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Tan and Koh have a long-standing friendship that goes back to their days in Anderson Junior College when they were simply classmates who bonded over shopping, food and movies. 

Both their paths separated when they graduated and moved into university with Koh doing a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing at the National University of Singapore and Tan completing a degree at Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.

From there, Tan entered the world of advertising and joined creative agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) Global. After a one-year stint at the agency, the ambitious and talented advertiser was posted to Shanghai in 2005 to help lead and set up the company’s operations. Tan quickly adapted and spent the next seven years building her career at BBH as well as her life in Shanghai. 

Koh, on the other hand, became an associate producer at Active Interactive where she worked on Singapore-wide location-based marketing campaigns for the company. She was strategic and her skills got her top jobs at Yahoo, Apple and Nokia over the years. 

However, despite going their separate ways, both friends stayed close. In 2010, with Tan still in Shanghai and Koh still pursuing her career in Singapore, the pair began to float ideas with each other about possibly pursuing something they were passionate about together and that they could call their own. 

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“I kept in touch with Georgina even when I was residing and working in Shanghai and we both had an epiphany the year we turned 30 that we should partner up and do something we could call our own. Rather than working for others, we wanted to work for ourselves,” shared Tan.

This is where the idea of starting a fashion brand was born.

While fashion may seem like a sharp pivot and a completely random venture for the two to take considering their careers, Tan insists that it is not. 

“Georgina and I have always loved fashion. Back when we were poor university students, we window-shopped weekly when we could not afford to shop. We used to hyperventilate when we saw beautiful fashion objects and we still do now. So pivoting into doing a side hustle in fashion and retail seemed like a natural progression," said Tan with a laugh.

Tan added that when she was 23, she started a small custom fashion business where she handmade bags and clothes but that it eventually got abandoned due to a lack of time. 

Nana & Bird, a direct lift from Tan and Koh’s nicknames for each other, was born in 2010 as a sustainable and eco-conscious luxury brand that focused on helping its customers to build an enduring wardrobe with quality brands, timeless designs and with pieces that could be worn for years down the line. 

“I was very influenced by my mother and aunties who took great care in their clothes and tailor-made everything they wore. Some of my favourite childhood memories involve going to People’s Park Complex to find fabrics and trimmings before going to a seamstress to tailor outfits. Those experiences had a big impact on me, and I grew to love beautiful and well-made clothes," said Koh who added that she also wanted to be more fashion-conscious when she realised that she was using less than half her wardrobe at one point and that her clothes were going to waste. 

The initial concept of Nana & Bird was a monthly pop up store at Koh’s Tiong Bahru walk-up apartment.

“We thought that was a fresh idea as no one else was doing that in Singapore back then. We started curating products for the monthly themed pop-ups. It was in 2012 when we committed to a small 300 square foot brick and mortar space in Tiong Bahru’s Chay Yan Street,” said Tan who moved back to Singapore in 2012.

Of course, like any budding entrepreneur, Tan and Koh were quickly met with setbacks. In fact, it took them bringing in clothes and accessories that were not suited for their customers, battling fierce competition over price points and a variety of failed storefronts before they started to figure things out. 

“We expanded too quickly in the third and fourth year of our business. At one point, we had three stores in different parts of the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood. In hindsight, we should have done our numbers and evaluated our partners more objectively and focused on building a stronger foundation before expansion,” shared Koh reflectively.

Koh added that Covid-19 was also a major spanner in their operations. 

“On the day circuit breaker was announced, we were due to start the renovation. We had just signed the lease to expand our physical store footprint. It was nerve-wracking. We had to pivot 100 per cent online and operate the business out of boxes,” she exclaimed. 

However, Covid-19 ended up working in both Tan and Koh’s favour because it gave them a chance to take a proper look at their brand and offerings and to be ready to reopen when things returned to semi-normal. 

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“We felt that consumers were itching to seek out new experiences and connections and hence, having expanded our space and worked on the customer experience during Covid, it really helped us fulfil our consumers’ shifting needs,” explained Tan who has been juggling Nana & Bird along with being the Director of Talent and Operations at 72andsunny, a global creative advertising agency, since 2017. 

Koh on the other hand currently heads the Singapore Tourism Board’s Marketing Group as the Director of Digital and Content where she is responsible for strategising and overseeing the statutory board’s global digital and content channels. She also manages Nana & Bird alongside Tan while taking care of her two young children.

Currently, the pair are working on their latest venture, Re/love, a pre-loved segment of their brand that allows consumers to pass on well kept and well-maintained clothing items to someone else in an attempt to reduce their fashion footprint. 

“I used to buy things and only wear or use them two or three times or buy things and grow out of them really fast. More recently, I have learnt to buy less but buy better,” shared Tan before saying that she wanted to impart that to her consumers. 

We all have 24 hours in our day but clearly, Koh and Tan have found a way to fully utilise their limited time while also ensuring that they have time for their families, children and hobbies.

Below, Tan and Koh share how they do it all in their own words. 

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What is a typical morning like for you?

Georgina Koh (GK): I will typically snooze my alarm clock, check my emails and social accounts for messages, see my two children off to school, shower and get ready for the day. Breakfast for myself is usually coffee and on a decadent morning, a bowl of my favourite fishball noodles from around the neighbourhood.

Chiew Ling (CL): I am a mother of two so mornings are usually for preparing breakfast for the girls and getting them ready for school. I am quite low maintenance when it comes to morning prep myself though. I wake up, shower, do my basic skincare routine, dress up, get the girls ready and then we are out the door before 7 am.

I will usually hit the gym for a quick workout after dropping the girls at school and then I will have breakfast around 9 am. I normally go with the flow or my cravings so it can range from a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs on sourdough with a cup of long black coffee to fried bee hoon with an egg and Kopi O. 

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What does a standard workday look like for you?

GK: The work day is split into two parts. The first is typically packed with meetings with my team and partners at the Singapore Tourism Board. I’ll then try to block out an hour or two for myself to think and plan so I can be more effective at work.

The second part of the day, which starts around 9 pm, is occupied by Nana & Bird where I will work on marketing, finance or any launches we have planned.

CL: I hold two jobs that I love dearly. From Mondays to Thursdays, I am the Director of Talent and Operations at 72andsunny, a renowned creative agency. As a result, my standard workday is usually packed with calls and meetings but also has quite a bit of talent and business operational tasks daily.

My Fridays to Sunday afternoons are dedicated to Nana & Bird. I will typically spend time on the shop floor with my team. I also attend to Nana & Bird’s emails and work throughout the week after I put my two girls to bed.

How would you describe your working style?

GK: Focused, efficient and collaborative. I am always looking for and seeking feedback on how I can find better ways to partner and achieve my team’s goals.

CL: Methodical and efficient. I like to get to a solution fast and see things to completion. I don’t like ambiguity as I dislike the feeling of being unsettled.

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What time do you usually have lunch? What do you usually have for lunch?

GK: It depends on how the meetings in the mornings pan out. Now that we are working from home, I get to spend time with my husband, sans kids, over lunch which is the most precious hour of the day.

Lunch is whatever our craving of the day is.

CL: Around 1.30 pm. I prefer having late lunches so the lunch venues are not too crowded. Fish soup, yong tau foo or hearty salads are my top three choices. Anything that does not send me to sleepville and a post-lunch lull basically.

Free time: overrated or underrated? Why?

GK: Underrated. There is nothing more precious than having control over your time.

CL: Underrated. I think everyone, where possible, should be on a four day work week. I need my weekly personal time if not, I think I will burn out. I try to give myself Friday morning till lunch off so that I can relax, recharge and realign myself for the following week. 

How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you set boundaries?

GK: I manage my energy level so that I can be fully present as a boss in my day job, as one half of Nana & Bird, and as a wife and mum.

Most of the time, playing these roles allows me to draw energy from them because I love and am motivated to be the best version of myself.

CL: I protect my free time fiercely. I also set clear boundaries with my agency work (no meetings or calls on Fridays as I need that day for myself and for Nana & Bird), and thank goodness, they are very respectful of this boundary. I also keep weekend mornings for my children. 

How do you chase your dreams?

GK: There will never be a ‘right way’ so I believe in having a rough game plan and then taking the first step, any step, towards them.

CL: When I have a semblance of an idea, I will protect it. I will build on it, I will prototype it and will use whatever resources I can to bring that to life. I am blessed that I found a partner-in-crime (Georgina) to set up Nana & Bird with me, and a loving husband who is ever so supportive.

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How do you deal with your shortcomings?

CL: I am someone who is highly aware of what I am good at and what I am not good at and I am not shy to voice that at my agency and also with Georgina. I think the best people should be put on the right brief so you get the best results in the most efficient manner. It’s learning to use your strengths to your advantage.

What is an idea/thought that you heard recently, that you thought was interesting?

GK: NFT and digital fashion for your online identity. As our online and physical selves become more intertwined, this is certainly a space to watch closely.

How do you stay grounded?

GK: By recognising that there are so many things I don’t know and can do better at so that I can become my best self for my children. 

CL: I am a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with a rare and slow-growing form of lymphoma back in 2019. With that life-changing experience, I learnt to slow down, learnt not to overload myself, learnt to be less hard on myself and learnt that it’s ok to have a 70 per cent day.

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How do you unplug?

GK: I like to have a glass of wine by myself and do nothing.

CL: Going to Natureland for my tuina or 5-in-1 massage. I also go to the gym or for a swim and step away from my phone and emails from time to time.

How do you stay motivated?

GK: I take a step back, consider what I need to do, envision what I could achieve at the end of the day and just get at it. 

CL: love a good checklist. So checking off to-dos on the checklist usually motivates me to move on to the next task. I also will remind myself daily that no task is too small and that even completing something small can be rewarding at times. 

How do you prioritise tasks?

GK: I’m horrible at it. I talk it through with people around me and consider what is most important to get done first. Mostly, I find that tackling the most difficult tasks, the ones I tend to procrastinate on the most, first, helps me check off my to-do list most effectively. 

CL: Being a true blue Virgo, I put all my tasks in my calendar. By planning my tasks out for the week, it allows me to think about prioritization.

Also, as I know my energy levels well, I will clear the thinking or difficult tasks in the mornings between 9 am to 1 pm or after my kids go to bed at 8.30 pm.

The simpler and mundane tasks I will place after lunch when my energy levels are lower and hence not too optimal for critical thinking or output.

What is one item that has changed your life for the better?

GK: My husband.

CL: I would have to say it’s Philip, my husband (though he is not an item). He makes me a better person every day. 

Do you have moments of doubt and how do you overcome them?

CL: I have moments of doubt all the time across all aspects of life. Usually, I will chat with my husband and seek his advice during such moments. He is my confidante and I know he will speak honestly, openly and propel me to a place of clarity and resolution.

What would you consider your greatest accomplishment to date?

GK: My friendships.

CL: The ability to juggle multiple roles in life. Sometimes it can be hard to find the balance but I strive to be present and focused when I play the various roles. 

What would you still like to accomplish?

GK: I would like to have more agency over how I want to spend my time. 

CL: To continue to learn to be less hard and critical of myself. Also, it’s my dream to retire at 50. 

What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?

GK: Check-in on my children in their beds and tuck them in tightly.

CL: I give my husband a big hug and kiss. Just before I drift off to sleep, I will think about all the joyful things (big or small) that happened during the day and I will feel thankful to be able to experience them.

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