Cover Valentino dress; Panthère de Cartier jewellery

The creative director of Bonia is a style savant who has found her calling

As the creative director of Bonia and Braun Buffel, Datin Sri Linda Chen cuts a striking, stylish figure, often wearing edgy streetwear looks that best reflect her personality. While some describe her as enigmatic, she begs to differ, saying she is an open book. She says that fashion makes her feel confident, in control and puts her in a good mood when she does dress up.

Chen has had an understanding of the importance and impact of style from a young age. “You know how kids would normally carry their backpack to school?” she asks. “I carried a striking red patent leather shoulder bag from a luxury brand instead. I was kind of particular about the bag and wallet I used; I loved fashion and styling myself, so I guess I was already very into fashion [aged] 13... I wanted to be different.”

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I remind her of the bodycon dress with the feathery neckline that she wore for our Style File shoot in 2019, and ask if her style has evolved since then. She says, “I feel like it changes as I get older. Right now, I’m more of a deep thinker—not so bubbly anymore. I find myself moving away from the past ladylike or feminine [looks]. So I would say my style has changed to more chic, edgy, minimalist. I tend to go for things that lean towards the more masculine side nowadays—maybe because of my career, the experiences I went through that shaped my character and my mindset over the years; I’m more grounded and settled.”

Chen was born in Johor Bahru, attending primary and secondary school in Singapore before joining her elder brother in Kuala Lumpur to enrol in the Canadian International Matriculation Programme in college. She then moved to Melbourne to do a degree in management and marketing; upon graduating, she had to decide between moving back to Johor and helping in the family business or seeing what else was out there. Recalling the fun she had during her short time in Kuala Lumpur, she made up her mind. “I was in Singapore for many years, and felt like I hadn’t really explored KL enough, so I decided to move here—and a lot of things happened.”

She was accepted as a management trainee but was bored after a few months, so moved into banking. She became a top sales banker within six months but again, the job soon lost its allure and she started getting restless. “I’m the kind of person who, when something stops exciting me, feels the need to move on to something more challenging. I’m constantly seeking to improve myself because I feel like I can do even more.”

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Around this time she became friends with Dato’ Sri Daniel Chiang—the man who would become her husband. A year or so later, they started seeing each other; when a job opportunity in Taiwan for Chen came knocking, she contemplated going but Chiang had other thoughts. Not wanting to be separated, he asked her if she would consider helping him in his family business. At the time, he was operating out of its Singapore office. Not initially keen on the idea of going back to Singapore, she said she’d think about it for a while.

“During those weeks, I could see he was really sincere; he really wanted me to stay. So I thought maybe just give it a try and go back to branding and marketing. That’s my calling, my passion, and I feel very alive doing it.”

Thus began her career in fashion. “Daniel told me that the brand that I was going to [work with] needed some help, and that’s it—that was all he told me.”

Accepting the challenge, she immediately got to work and did a market survey, finding out what went wrong, what was not selling, what was selling, and what kind of products people liked. After studying the data and reports for a few months, she saw a need to re-examine the creative development of products and look into research and development.

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Chiang mentored her in all aspects of the business, from product development to sourcing leather. She would also frequently fly to Italy and Hong Kong, dealing with factories, visiting leather exhibitions and learning about the leather goods production process. “I enjoyed it so much; [in fact,] I grew so attached to the extent that I couldn’t switch off even after work hours. I worked late nights literally every day with just one goal—to see the business grow. My efforts paid off; eventually business grew year by year and the turnover achieved threefold within three years under my management.”

Since she was 18, Chen had always dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur before turning 30 and being her own boss. In 2014, she left the company and started Madame Waffle, an artisanal Belgian liege waffle shop. She says, “[Being a foodie], I thought that F&B was the easiest [option] if you want to start a business.”

She lets out a rueful laugh. “I was so wrong! It was 10 times harder than working for my husband! While in the company, I worked until 7pm, 9pm, but with my own business, I worked up to 2am or 3am, then woke up at 7am and continued.”

Within three years, Madame Waffle had become a chain with eight outlets at popular malls including 1Utama, MidValley, Genting Sky Avenue, and Genting Premium Outlet. “It was like my baby,” Chen says. “Every two to three days I would go to different outlets, take care of the central kitchen then go to the office. It was a start-up; I didn’t have budget to hire a big team of people, so I had to wear multiple hats in the beginning—central kitchen manager, the one that checks the recipe, the purchaser, the one that checks accounts, the finance, operations, marketing...”

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She had a good run for five years, then Chen returned to Bonia at the end of 2019. Looking back, she realises her solo entrepreneurial endeavours taught her to think of the bigger picture, and the importance of drawing up a five-year strategy roadmap before starting anything new. “I think because of age, or lack of experience, I wasn’t a very big-picture person before. I liked food, I liked waffles and so I start a business selling what I liked. But it actually takes more than passion to run a sustainable business. Because I wasn’t really looking at a wider vision, I encountered a lot of unexpected challenges which I felt could have been avoided if I was more of a visionary person.”

Would she do it again? Only if she were working with a group of like-minded people. “That’s the second biggest thing I learnt. You can [scale] it fast alone, but if you want to go far, you need the right team players who are aligned with your vision and values, and who complement your weaknesses and strengths.”

She’s currently working on an exciting collaboration for Bonia with designer Dato’ Sri Bernard Chandran. She hopes to show her three children, aged 12, 10 and six, how to be open to new ideas and discoveries of their own so they can figure out their dreams and what they want to pursue in life.

“I don’t want them to feel lost in life—that’s a very sad thing. It’s important to encourage them to dream big, not spend their growing-up years just doing homework. By the time they’re out there, it’s too late. They need to know what they are motivated by, their dreams and purpose in life; so that will keep them going.”

Her kids would be prudent to take the advice from a woman who went after her dream and found fulfilment in a career that she loves waking up to.

Read Linda Chen's Style File where she reveals her favourite fashion item and model by picking up a copy of Tatler Malaysia September 2022 issue on newsstands or get the digital copy here

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  • PhotographyChee Wei
  • StylingColin Sim
  • Make-UpRae Seok @ Plika Makeup
  • HairKeith Ong
  • LocationElse Kuala Lumpur
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