Friday, July 24, 2009

The Fairy Treatment

A tutu maker puts her childhood memories into a business.

JOANNE Lee’s study area looked like something out of a tableau. There were yards of tulle floating like mist on the floor and puffy clouds of tutus hanging from the wall. Lee herself was clad in a multi-coloured tutu and looking like a life-sized Tinkerbell, she completed the picture of a dream-like fairy workshop. This is the impression one gets upon entering Tutu Workshop, a home-based enterprise Lee started three months ago.

But the whirl of thoughts in the 24-year-old’s head was a contrast to this pretty picture. Lee, who is currently selling her tutus via her blog and through consignments at three outlets in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, has admitted to a common ailment that besieges all new entrepreneurs – self-doubt.

Sweet memories: Joanne Lee ventured into tutu-making because it reminds her of how special she felt when she was picked to be a flower girl at the wedding of her nanny’s sons.

It did not help that some of the people closest to her have commented that tutus may not be relevant in this current economic time and even hinted that she should opt for something that would bring faster returns on her investment.

This tutu-maker, who started off with a capital of RM3,000, revealed that she has spent the past three months setting up her business from scratch.

The graphic design graduate who has worked with retail brands like Girls, Teddy Tales and Party Princess revealed that work pressure often left her in tears. One moment of despair came when a fabric supplier in Selayang (Selangor) refused to give her a refund for a batch of moth-eaten tulle.

All set for a fancy dress party in a tri-colored tutu in purple, black and lilac tulle with black bows.

“Can you imagine? I quietly walked away when he got rude about the refund issue. I should have given him a piece of my mind but being so new in the business, I thought it would be better not to make enemies,” she said, shrugging.

Admittedly, Lee has had to develop a thick skin.

“Being a newcomer means having to knock on doors and hoping that the people who answer your calls will help you. For now, I am just thankful that the retailers are letting me put my goods in their shop so that I can make my presence felt. There are times when I feel that I am being taken advantage of but for now I’d have to take it as a learning experience instead of being a fighter cock,” said Lee.

The tableau-like setting of Lee’s home tutu workshop

This means that she is determined to plod on, reassuring herself that she will find a niche market for her exclusive, custom-made tutus. Taking stock of her strengths, she counted the good rapport with her customers and the quality of her soft, tulle fabrics as pluses.

“Am I being realistic? That depends on how I am going to handle my business. If I give up, then Tutu Workshop is as good as gone. I don’t want this to happen and let my critics gloat,” said Lee.

The one fear that Lee knows she has no control over is the threat from copy cats. There is always a possibility of a richer and bigger fashion house taking her idea and making it their own but Lee’s strategy is to persevere, develop new products and maintain the quality of her tutus.

In effect, Lee has no urgent need to put herself on such an emotional roller coaster. The second of four siblings, she already has a secure position as a business consultant in her parents’ acrylic factory in Kepong.

The factory, which specialises in exhibition displays and sales stands for shopping malls, art galleries and museums, is into its 20th year and Lee’s experience as a designer is appreciated by her parents as an asset. In fact, when Lee announced that she was starting Tutu Workshop, the news was not well received.

“I wanted something of my own,” was Lee’s answer to why she had forged ahead with her entrepreneurial plans.

Meanwhile, what is spurring this single girl on is a personal vision to fulfil the dream of little girls who want to live out their fairy princess fantasies.

Lilac princess tutu complete with tiara and magic wand

“Though my childhood influences were predominantly Chinese, I had a Eurasian nanny who exposed me to this Western aspect of fairy princesses,” revealed Lee.

Lee’s tutu-making venture has its roots in her childhood memories.

She was chosen to be a flower girl twice when she was five and eight at her nanny’s family weddings. Having the chance to dress in frilly pink dresses and lace bonnets left a lasting impression on Lee, who recalled how special she had felt during these occasions.

“The idea of making tutus was a natural choice because it had a special meaning for me,” she said simply.

Her past experience with the retail industry also convinced Lee that she could fulfil the demands of this niche market.

“If you look around, most tutus are either restricted to pink or purple. Having taught art to children before, I know that these are not the only colours that girls like. So, by making tutus in colours that they like, I am giving them a chance to express their sense of style and fashion sense.”

Speaking of her work, Lee highlighted that she has made black tutus with orange bows for a witchy effect and striped ones topped with bows. Available in different lengths and various styles, Lee also adds the glam element by hand-sewing sequins on her tutus.

While the fantasy factor has worked well for Tutu Workshop, Lee opined that one can also use her tutus as an accessory with jeans, tights, T-shirts and tube tops.

“There is a lot of sweet loveliness involved, very romantic,” she enthused.

And coming from an individual who still says “Hello” to her Mario doll every morning, one can be assured of the magical element in Lee’s handmade tutus.

Tutu Workshop products can be found in the Klang Valley at Kidz Spot in Tropicana Mall, Little Haven in The Curve and The Baby Loft at The Waterfront @ Parkcity. Lee’s tutus can also be ordered online at For enquiries, call 012-369 7996.

Published in The Star, Star Two on Thursday July 23, 2009

No comments: