The Singapore Shawl – Empowering Marginalised Women
One glimpse of The Singapore Shawl tells you it’s not just another shawl. Each hand-embellished piece has its own unique Singapore story to share – from its flora and fauna to its history, arts and culture. Marked as one of Singapore’s premium gifts, they have graced the shoulders of world leaders, royalty, celebrities and politicians alike.
But like its products, there’s more to the brand than the name suggests. The Singapore Shawl is actually a creative social enterprise that offers employment and additional skills development for marginalised women. To find out how it all began, we spoke to its founder, Ms. Shelley Siu.
Before starting The Singapore Shawl, Shelley Siu used to command a few thousand dollars a day, working just 10 days a month as a corporate trainer. She was also a highly sought-after conference speaker both locally and internationally. And at the peak of her career, she did what many wouldn’t dare to… she gave it all up to start a retail business with absolutely no retail experience at all.
“The Singapore Shawl was started during the 2003 market crash. Before that, I was asked to work with the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHIRI) and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to retrain retrenched executives. However, even after the retraining, a number of them still couldn’t find work,” recalled Shelley.
She added, “The women had it worse – some as young as 30 something were told by employers that they were too old! So I spoke to SHIRI and asked them to let me help them beyond the programme, to train them to start a small business – free of charge.”
Having learnt about the booming, billion-dollar turnover pushcart business in the U.S. during her conference visits there and how businesses like Sunglass Hut first began as pushcarts, Shelley decided to train these women how to run one. But what were they supposed to sell, they asked? “Sell Singapore,” she said.
Shelley has always loved shawls and designing. To her, a shawl isn’t just for keeping warm, it enhances the outfit and wearer. Coupled with her dream of wanting to be a designer since young (but never getting the chance to become one as it was frowned upon by her traditional father who thought it lacked career prospects), this offered Shelley the perfect opportunity to pursue something she was truly passionate in… or as she likes to put it, “obsessed with”.
Thus, The Singapore Shawl was born. As a start, Shelley would pick up beautiful shawls that she could restyle during her trips overseas. She continued to do so until she was able to secure the help of two factories who agreed to supply her small quantities. The shawls are then delivered to her production staff who would execute her designs from their home. Once completed, these are sold by her sales team in stores along Orchard Road.
Right from the beginning, Shelley refused to sell her shawls as merely souvenirs. They had to be positioned as tasteful, elegant and fashionable pieces – something people would be proud to wear or give away, while helping to support marginalised women.
The Singapore Shawl’s three tenets – Country (to promote Singapore), Community (to help women, especially older ones) and Environment (to use eco-friendly materials) – were also incorporated into the company’s mission and philosophy.
Today, The Singapore Shawl can be found in luxurious retail fronts such as Goodwood Park Hotel and Conrad Centennial gift stores, as well as Isetan Scotts, Metro and Takashimaya’s special events. The Singapore Shawl also actively participates in fund-raisers, helping raise money through fashion shows and auctions.
“One of my 100% bamboo shawls (designed for Hong Kong Canto-pop singer Frances Yip) was auctioned for an amazing $44,664 during the Standard Chartered Bank’s ‘Seeing is Believing’ project, which helps raise funds to prevent avoidable blindness in women and children. I was truly humbled by the experience,” Shelley said.
Another charitable cause The Singapore Shawl supports is the Breast Cancer Foundation. For all of its fundraising events, Shelley invites breast cancer survivors to model her shawls for a fashion show that she calls “The Singapore Story”. She said, “Not only do we help raise funds for them (the Breast Cancer Foundation), but we also help rebuild the ladies’ self-esteem and confidence.”
When asked what’s next for The Singapore Shawl, Shelley replied, “I would love to hand over my counters to like-minded organisations to run as their own business, supporting their clients in employment skills under my training and supervision while they run the daily operations, and of course to continue raising funds for worthy causes such as scholarships, new buildings, humanitarian and environmental projects, medical research and development.”
But in the same breath when asked her thoughts about Canon’s Think Big initiative, she said, “I think it’s very good. But instead of promoting only the big boys, Canon could give a leg up to micro retail enterprises by helping them secure good retail presence and collective space for sales. I would be more than glad to share my experience in this area that I’ve picked up in the U.S.”
“But regardless of whether I’m at the helm or not, I’ll always make sure that The Singapore Shawl remains a mantle of blessings for women who need it – whether for fashion, elegance or as basic as a means of livelihood,” said Shelley reassuringly.
It’s no wonder Shelley describes herself as never being able to retire, only ‘re-fire’.