#edGY: The Vivy Yusof touch

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VIVY SOFINAS YUSOF runs FashionValet, the fashion e-commerce site that she and her husband founded, from their headquarters in Damansara Heights.

When Vivy steps into the office, she’s wearing an understated power suit — a boxy tweed jacket from an Indonesian designer, cropped pants, heels, and a nude-coloured silk headscarf from dUCk, her up-and-coming label.

We know that it’s her second scarf today, because she had told her 119,000 Instagram followers how her son had stained her first scarf.

Social media is where Vivy wields her Midas touch. Anything she is pictured wearing from FashionValet immediately turns into social media likes, page views and purchases.

FashionValet shoppers know that dUCk scarves are constantly sold out. Bags that she’s seen carrying typically sell out within the hour, going to ardent fans who collect them in multiple colours.

FashionValet has raked in close to RM10 million in revenue this year alone, after 31/2 years in business. This year is also the year

FashionValet turned profitable.

What 27-year-old Vivy has got going for her and her e-commerce site is her already sizeable and loyal audience. She did not do what most blog shops and e-commerce sites tend to do: set up shop, then find an audience.

Still, it’s hard to pigeonhole Vivy. She is at once an entrepreneur, a celebrity of sorts and a social icon for thousands of young Malay women and everyday young mother.

Six years ago, Vivy started her blog Proudduck, which she kept while studying at the London School of Economics. She loved to write and started the online journal to pen her thoughts and experiences as a student abroad.

It wasn’t long before she built a loyal following of readers, comprising mostly young Malaysian women who connected with her wit, humour and aspirational style.

Fast forward to 2010, when Vivy and her then-boyfriend, Fadzarudin Shah Anuar, returned from London. In the Big Smoke, widespread e-commerce meant that everything they wanted was a mere mouse-click away. Coming home, the absence of mainstream online retail was a glaring gap that begged to be filled. So they set out to try something. Fashion was a clear opportunity for someone with a following of young, style-conscious readers.

“I thought the target was there already,” Vivy says. “My readers are female, in their 20s to 30s, people who can spend and who are fashion-conscious.”

Vivy is overwhelmed by the support she has received from her fans, and says she never imagined that her little blog could grow into the business it is today.

“When I started the blog, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, because I’m going to start FashionValet’. I was so surprised that people actually [wanted to] read what I wanted to write,” she says.

It was this readership that went on to follow Vivy on her social media accounts, including Instagram, where she posts updates on her life, offers sneak previews of FashionValet launches, and regular #OOTDs. Now more than ever, her personal choices have a way of more immediately influencing how people perceive FashionValet.

From the ground up

But the couple’s education prepared them for a world away from fashion — she had read law while he had studied aeronautical engineering.

Unable to design, they set out to replicate the multi-label model of popular UK-based online retailer ASOS, where a variety of designer brands are offered under one roof. To differentiate their site from others, they planned to stock local designer labels.

FashionValet made its debut just one month later as Vivy was relentless in making sure that it happened as soon as possible.

Word was that international conglomerates were looking for a slice of the same pie and she was adamant that they would be first in line to take fashion e-commerce mainstream. It was this objective that pushed them to take a leap of faith with no business experience.

When told that website development would take between three and six months, Vivy insisted that the pace be stepped up. “I’m very determined, I’m very pushy. So I was like calling them, ‘No I will help you, I’ll help you code!’” she recalls, giggling. “So, yeah, I’m quite glad that we have pioneer status.”

FashionValet was kick-started with RM100,000 and launched in November 2010 with 10 local brands. Today, what began as a start-up with just Vivy, Fadzarudin and friend Asma Nasarudin now has 30 employees and stocks more than 300 brands from across Southeast Asia.

This year will also see FashionValet’s first profits, after having budgeted for small losses for three years, Vivy says.

In its first year, FashionValet reported revenue of RM705,405 and a net loss of RM12,954, according to filings with the Companies Commission of Malaysia. In 2012, FashionValet’s revenue came in at RM1.21 million, with a net loss of RM166,793.

In between, they managed to secure RM1 million through the second season of reality television show MyEG Make The Pitch, which provided them with much-needed funds to further their marketing plans and expand their customer base.

A large part of FashionValet’s success can be attributed to Vivy, who is the face of her brand in ways a model or celebrity ambassador could never be. Her life as a young woman integrating career, family and motherhood is something many Proudduck readers and FashionValet shoppers identify with.

FashionValet also strikes a chord with many urban young Muslim women as a store that champions new designers while providing an ample selection of modest yet contemporary clothing.

The power of Vivy’s celebrity is reflected in the immense popularity of a line of shopper bags she designed with Sometime, a bag company that does frequent blogger collaborations. When the first batch of Sofina bags were launched in January last year, hundreds of the brightly coloured pieces were sold out within half an hour.

“We were like, ‘Oh my god. What’s going on? Do people love the bag? Do people love me?’” Vivy recalls, still amazed.

A new batch with different colours were later released, and again, in 30 minutes, they were all gone.

Thereafter, she introduced a second design, the Sofina 2, this time on a pre-order basis. Within a day, 1,500 bags were ordered.

In fact, every pre-order since has been a hit, and on the day of our interview, thousands of bags from the final batch of Sofina bags, sold in April, were being packed by FashionValet’s employees for shipping.

Growing pains

Like most start-ups, FashionValet’s challenges are ever evolving. In the beginning, it was about getting the word out with very limited capital. They had to apportion their money carefully and didn’t have a lot to spend on marketing. So, Vivy leveraged on her contacts, working with bloggers to spread the news.

Costs were also cut elsewhere. “When we first started, we used mannequins. Who was the stylist? Me. Who was the photographer? Me. And I knew nothing about photography! So the pictures were yellow,” recollects Vivy. “It was so funny.”

Fortunately, FashionValet can now afford to replace the one-Vivy production team with professional photographers and models.

“You can cut corners here and there but if it’s the website, you have to invest in what customers want,” Vivy says. “And true enough, after we used models, real ones with faces and nice poses, nice lighting and everything, sales grew a lot.”

Just when it hit its stride in the second year, international players like Zalora, Lazada and Rakuten began arriving on Malaysian shores, forcing FashionValet to work doubly hard to stay relevant to both vendors and customers.

In fashion e-commerce, a space where products and prices are commonly generic, customer service is key, and has been one of FashionValet’s main strategies in staying ahead of the competition.

There’s a personal touch in its service that keeps shoppers coming back, a testament to Vivy’s reminders to her customer service team to “do whatever it takes to keep our customers happy”. “When they shop at FashionValet, they feel like they know the people behind the brand, maybe me or one of the staff here,” she explains.

“Even when they call, they’re like ‘Can I speak to Lisa?’ or ‘Can I speak to Mel?’. They already know who they want to speak to. Whereas with other online stores, they feel like it’s just a transaction.”

Then there’s her Instagram account. Vivy’s accessibility means followers are quick to send queries directly to her. “If they’re not happy, they come straight to me, you know? They’re like ‘Hey, Vivy, can you please check my order?’ And I have to reply,” she says. “I make it a point to, because I care. I do personally check on these orders. I think that’s why they feel more loyal to the brand, because they know we actually care, and they can get to me. They can scold me,” she adds, amused.

To stay ahead of the game, FashionValet devised exclusive collaboration collections with local designers such as Mimpikita and INNAI RED. Price points vary, although luxury labels such as INNAI have developed more accessible, affordable lines for the collaborations.

This year, the collaborations were expanded to include celebrity collections, with the first being an eight-piece Raya collection with Nora Danish.

Moving forward, FashionValet has plans to collaborate with international designers and celebrities, beginning with personalities from Indonesia.

According to Vivy, their main challenge at the moment is in scaling up, adapting what has worked in Malaysia on a much-larger scale.

The company is expanding its local operations with a new office in Empire Damansara. Regional expansion includes the setting up of an office and warehouse in Indonesia. It already has substantial presence in Singapore and Brunei.

Through it all, Vivy’s motivation is grounded on her goals for FashionValet and her partnership with husband Fadzarudin.

“I’m very ambitious, and so is my husband. I think having both partners with the same aligned aims, you want to keep going,” she says.

“We don’t want to just be famous in Malaysia, we want to be known  and used throughout Asia and we want to elevate Asian designers, so that’s what keeps me going, and I know I still have a long way to go, so I can’t stop.”

This article first appeared in #edGY, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 06 - 12, 2014.