Cover Sarah Fung, founder and CEO of preowned circular fashion business HULA (Photo: Sarah Fung)

The founder of Hong Kong's preowned luxury retailer HULA had to learn early on to work hard, take risks and bet on herself. She shares the money milestones on her way to multi-million dollar annual sales

What’s your first memory of earning money? For Sarah Fung, it’s joining her aunt as an extra on film shoots in London’s Chinatown from age 7.

Next came helping out at her divorced mother’s beauty salon, tidying up and distributing flyers. “I started to get a feel for what it was like to have a small startup and the work she had to do to get herself off the ground,” says Fung admiringly. “The entrepreneurial spirit has always been in my blood because of the way my family hustled.”

Fung was 16 when her mother died in a car crash, and it kicked her ambition into high gear. She enrolled in Central Saint Martins while working all kinds of side jobs to make ends meet, picking up valuable insights into customer service and marketing.

After a first fashion startup and a corporate stint at Lane Crawford, Fung bet on herself again by launching HULA in 2016. She was put off by the waste of trend-driven fast fashion and took a gamble that Hong Kong could embrace preowned designer goods. HULA, named for its circular business model, resells women’s clothing, shoes and bags from coveted brands at up to 95 per cent off retail.

“We have since converted many shoppers into buying preowned and I feel really proud about that,” says Fung. “Mindsets are changing as sustainability, personal values and reduced costs play a big part in consumption choices. No longer is buying preowned deemed something unlucky that you should be embarrassed to do.”

Below Fung shares in her own words how she moved beyond struggles with money, why being childfree contributed to her financial freedom and winning over her first HULA investor—her husband.  

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Side jobs in retail (1990-1993) = earned HK$37 per hour

I thought Mash on Oxford Street was the coolest place when I was 15. The record shop sold rave pants, sneakers, sweat tops with UV reflective prints, chunky jewellery and, funnily enough, second-hand clothing. They invited DJ’s to spin tunes and dancers would take over the shop floor. I literally begged for a job. I worked every Saturday and got paid in cash. It seemed normal to my mother, as she had worked from 13, and I was able to buy my first Kicker boots and Nike sneakers with my discount card.

At 17, I enrolled in Central Saint Martins and worked at Kookai on Saturdays and odd week days. It was the same hourly pay of £3.50 (HK$37) plus commissions. The competition was fierce; girls fought to steal each other’s customers. When I witnessed a hair-pulling session, I no longer wanted to be associated with it and handed in my notice.

Market research, modelling and F&B gigs (1994-2003) = earned HK$211-2,109 per session

My friend and I saw a mysterious note on campus that read: ‘Are you a smoker? Contact this number to earn money.’ Out of curiosity, we did. We met at a swanky office with a facilitator who asked why we’re drawn to the brands we buy. That was the start of many sessions run by ad agencies. We worked once or twice a week, earning around £20-30 (HK$211-317) a night. Once a beer company paid us £100 (HK$1,055) for five hours; we created mood boards from magazine cut-outs and helped think of slogans. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot about advertising and marketing.

I dabbled in modelling for advertising as a photographer friend of mine, Valerie Phillips, would sometimes need an Asian face to show diversity. I was paid well, around £100-200 (HK$1,054-2,109), and it was fun. I also worked in bartending and restaurants, learning about good wines, good food and how to serve them; and retail, giving me an insight into customer service and the basics of the industry, which everyone takes for granted. I also worked in fast fashion production companies which gave me a taste of how much work goes into designing and manufacturing a brand, especially when sold for a low cost. Looking back, all those jobs taught me something, and I apply the skills to my work now.  

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Lingerie business (1998-2003) = earned HK$126,679–158,349 from Victoria’s Secret

I got into London Fashion Week for my range of fashion jewellery and started showing there every season. Later my best friend, who was a fashion stylist, and I decided to make underwear packed in chocolate boxes, and it became really popular. After two years, I dropped the jewellery and expanded the 1970s-inspired lingerie line on my own. I managed it for five years, selling at luxury stores like Collette, Selfridges and Henri Bendel.

Once I received an order for 3,000 pairs of knickers from Victoria Secret, which was opening a luxe department in its New York flagship. It was big for me, amounting to £12,000-15,000 (HK$126,679–158,349). We put it into production, but the factory told me about a month before delivery that it was closing and wouldn’t be able to fill the order. I drove up there in a van and said, ‘you show me how to make these.’ I bought two machines and sat there all day testing them out. Then I brought them back and turned my bedroom into a manufacturing station with machinists working day and night to complete the pieces. 

Lingerie is so specific in terms of machines, and factories were not accepting my orders anymore as the quantities were too small. I found it increasingly difficult and gave up the business. I was too tied to it to want to sell it, which was my mistake as a young entrepreneur. With HULA, I really work towards whatever is best for the business growth and worth versus being tied to it emotionally. 

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WGSN trend forecasting job (2005) = earned over HK$200,000 annually

I got my first proper job as lingerie editor at WGSN, a trend forecasting company in London. Most people would have jumped at that job. It was steady pay but the pace was a lot slower than owning my own business and I became a little bored.

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Relocation for Lane Crawford job (2006-2015) = higher pay, lower taxes and connecting with my roots

A friend introduced me to the creative director who was looking for a manager at Lane Crawford. We met in London and she offered to fly me to Hong Kong for five days. I didn't think I could live in Hong Kong, but I thought why not, I’ll see my granny who I haven’t seen in 15 years. I was single, and my future boss showed me the best time.

When I told my sister, who was living in France, that I’d been offered a job in Hong Kong, she shared that her partner had just been offered a job in China. So it was perfect; she came to live with me in Hong Kong, and he did long distance with her. While I couldn’t negotiate housing, Lane Crawford offered me a good wage plus a staff discount of 50 per cent. I stayed for nine years and my pay increased substantially.

Honeymoon in the Maldives (2014) = spent over HK$100,000, mostly from red envelope money

I eventually married, and money became a lot easier for me as our costs were shared according to how much we earned. My husband and I never had a joint bank account, though, as we didn’t have children and did not find the need for it.

When I was growing up, I saw how unhappy my mother was from having had us at such a young age, even though I knew she loved us very much. She would constantly tell us to live our lives, be educated and not have kids too young.

As we are childfree, our lives are pretty stress free—apart from work—and we get to go on blow-out holidays like the Maldives for our honeymoon. We were so lucky and grateful to have received a lot of red envelope money from our friends and family at the wedding, which paid for most of our dream holiday.

I’m conscious that I have freedom on my side, so I’m adamant to use my childfree status to the max. My mother would have wanted this, if she were alive to see us. I have the utmost respect for mothers and parents in general, especially if they run businesses too.

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HULA business soft launch (2016) = invested HK$3.4 million

I was helping set up Lane Crawford’s CSR department, nurturing young talent on their creative businesses and helping them to build brands, and I thought, I want to do my own thing again. I was observing the waste in fashion, and it was tiring me out. People would buy pieces that are very showy and specific to a season and then discard them; that was a very Hong Kong mentality. It’s changed a lot now but before it really was about buying the hottest, newest thing.

When I set up HULA, I had friends with a lot of stuff, and they trusted me to keep their precious pieces. Still, it was tough at first because Hong Kong wasn’t really ready for preowned.

I raised my first HK$2 million from my husband and added another HK$1.4 million of my own savings. My husband is a lawyer and more risk averse, so it took a bit of convincing, but it was great that he gave me the chance. I’ve worked so hard because I’ve got something to prove and earn back. 

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Wong Chuk Hang warehouse opening (2019) = borrowed HK$200,000

Initially my sister handled HULA’s operations and finance while I did marketing and PR, but we actually were not great at working together, even though we are very close. In 2017, she told me she was going back to the UK: ‘I don’t want to do this business with you anymore because I want our relationship back.’ She was right and very smart. I hired my first staff in 2018.

Getting the warehouse in Wong Chuk Hang the next year was a big aha moment for me. It was HK$43,000 a month, and I had to borrow HK$200,000 off my sister for the deposits and renovation (I’ve since repaid her). It was a huge risk, but I constantly have to take risks; this is one of the traits you need to have as an entrepreneur and, luckily, it’s worked out well so far.

It made a difference to have a walk-in space, and I used it for monthly styling events or panels. I was trying to build community and change the narrative that it wasn’t embarrassing or bad luck to buy preowned. It also helped that a big international player had come to town and shouted that preowned was cool. I was worried they’d swallow us, but in fact they did the opposite, helping us to market the business model, and it gave HULA a boost. In 2020, we surpassed US$1 million (HK$7.8 million) in annual sales. 

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Hollywood Road boutique opening (2021) = paid HK$85,000 monthly lease

We did a pop-up in Central in autumn 2020 and sold out. It was amazing and inspired me to find a permanent space just opposite at 56-58 Hollywood Road. It would have been about HK$145,000 two years ago; we pay HK$85,000, which is still a lot, but we manage. 

Since opening in March 2021, we’ve attracted passersby and more of a local crowd. We’ve converted loads of people into buying preowned—often they didn’t even know it was a second-hand shop because the quality is so new. There are some customers who get in a taxi to Wong Chuk Hang as soon as they learn we’ve got a bigger warehouse space with thousands of items. 

When people start shopping preowned and when they resell, they find it really addictive. At HULA, we allow sellers to swap the money they would have earned for HULA credit to receive an extra 10 per cent discount. They say that when they shop with us this way, they almost feel it’s for free. Plus they feel less guilty as it benefits the planet. We hope to expand our business in greater China and help spread the addictive qualities and benefits of shopping preowned. 

This article is sponsored by Citi Private Bank for our Money Milestones series, in which an accomplished woman reveals her financial thought process and the spending, borrowing and investing that reflects her growth. It’s part of Front & Female, Tatler’s platform to celebrate trailblazers and tackle timely, provocative issues through inspiring content and events. Join the community by subscribing to our newsletter and following #frontandfemale

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