Helan Tan is not the stereotypical brash, zealous, and overconfident entrepreneur. Formerly employed by a bridal gown design company, she started her Singapore-based business after leaving her job as a means of attaining a more balanced lifestyle.
Her husband wanted to start a family with her. ”I didn’t want to be so hectic, working till 3am when I have kids. At the same time, I wanted to bring in some income, and carry on enjoying my interests in fashion and design,” she says.
Now, she runs Gioielli Bridal Accessories (pronounced ‘gio-eh-lei’) out of her showroom in Clarke Quay.
While she has no grand plans for world domination, this lady is no lightweight. Her accessories have been featured in prominent bridal magazines like Tatler Weddings and Her World Brides, local celebrities like Fann Wong and Zoe Tay have donned her pieces for charity shows, and she has done work for television commercials and print ads for large brands like Lux, Fujitsu, and HSBC.
With such an impressive body of work, I wanted to meet her for myself.
So I headed up to Helan’s showroom, which turned out to be quite humble — a table and a cupboard full of things — and we discussed her business. She fished out an intricate crystal bouquet, painstakingly handmade.
“A client wanted something like this made to propose to her girlfriend,” she says, holding up the glittering thing of beauty. Depending on the size and complexity of the bouquet, it could fetch up to S$2,888. An ornament like this could contain up to 1,000 crystals.
Helan started the business seven years ago, and she found the early going tough. That’s because she could no longer ride on her previous employer’s brand name.
“Initially, I was suffering from low morale. Before I quit my job, I had a lot of referrals. When I quit a job, I’m a nobody. I was also transitioning from having a career to being a housewife. For a while I didn’t see results,” she says.
But as she gained more recognition for her creative pieces, the clients kept coming back. It helped that she had a friend in the TV industry, who fed her a constant stream of lucrative work.
Over the years, she has used the Internet to help her business. But she confesses that technology isn’t something that comes naturally to her.
“I get my husband to help in this aspect,” she says.
Nonetheless, maintaining an online presence, such as a website, has become an important component of her business. Whipping out her iPad, she shows me how users are finding her site through search engines like Google.
Up to half of her sales now come from customers that found her from Google. Most of them are from Singapore, but she does get some orders from as far afield as Australia, Holland, United States, and United Kingdom.
As a result, business has been brisk. On average, she sees about three to five customers a week, and even up to seven brides a day on more hectic periods. Some of her customers turned out to be inhuman — literally.
“I once did an outdoor wedding where the bride requested for a huge hairpiece to be done for the dog. She paid more for her pet than what she paid herself,” she says, chuckling.
Helan is a good example of how lifestyle entrepreneurs can make a decent living as long as they put their passion, hard work, and ingenuity into their work. She uses unconventional materials like dry wheat, plastics, net’s and even children’s clay in her pieces.
“I’m doing this out of interest. It began more as a hobby, and it’s definitely much better than working for people. The more I don’t pay too much attention to money, the more I receive. I prefer to stay low-profile, so I didn’t expect to be featured by all these publications. Timing, luck and opportunity played a part too,” she says.
She did it, of course, with a little help from her friends.
“I don’t have to pay rent because a friend is sharing her office space with me. The editors of magazines are helping me. And so are the bridal boutiques. Without all these friends in the indusry, I will not have my daily bread.”
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