Theresa Shuman is the founder and owner of Thérèse De Vintage, an independent fashion boutique based in Hong Kong that specializes in vintage goods and apparels. Through Thérèse De Vintage, she has been passionately working within a niche market, actively broadening the demand and interest for vintage goods. Originally hailing from Hong Kong, Theresa developed a creative passion for fashion and a vision for an independent career, at a very young age. As a child, Theresa would often fix and alter her own clothing to her personal liking. Her talents were eventually recognized, as she was accepted and read Fashion Design and Women’s Wear, at the renowned London College of Fashion. Having built her own technical expertise and industry acumen, Theresa decided to start her own boutique focusing on vintage goods, a passion she acquired whilst living and studying in Canada in her teenage years.
The Asian Entrepreneur is joined by Theresa Shuman today, in an interview session about the valuable and interesting insights she has developed working on her own business.
So tell us about Thérèse De Vintage.
Well, Thérèse De Vintage is really a store that specializes in vintage goods that I have personally sourced and collected from different parts of the world that I’ve traveled to. However, I feel my store goes beyond that because to me, these goods are more than goods or products in the conventional business sense. To me, they are items of significance. I say this because as vintage goods, each of them possesses a history and a story, you are buying a piece of time, you are buying a piece of that story from the totally quaint world of where it originated from. So, I like to think of Thérèse De Vintage as a store that deals in stories.
What kind of vintage goods do you deal in?
At Thérèse De Vintage, I think you can find a bit of everything. I predominantly deal in fashion goods which is my forte. On that front, you can find clothes, hats, bags, and various fashion accesories. But you’d be surprise to also find other things at the store. I also source and deal in other goods like watches, calculators, camera and unique jewellery.
And what drove you to start Thérèse De Vintage?
Actually ever since I was young, I’ve always had a love for vintage things. I think this love comes from my nolstagic appreciation of things from the past. I find vintage things to be very different, as I was just trying to explain to you earlier. I think they possess distinct memories and stories, locked in time and that is reflected in their appearance as well which is vastly different from their modern counterpart. I’ve always loved that and I found myself collecting them at a very young age, for me its a very natural thing. For example, I would see a quirky vintage watch by an antique shop and I would think to myself, “I want to bring this story back home with me.” I see it as collecting stories.
The actual idea for a vintage store was an idea that I had for quite awhile. In fact, I can trace it back to high school. The concept is something that is very immemorial, it stems out of my own passion to share the stories that I have collected with others.
When did you decide to open your store?
I wanted to start this store earlier than I did. However, back then I did not actually have the support and expertise to actually initiate this idea. I was quite young. Believe it or not, my family and friends were against it. Many people were concerned about whether I was capable of actually managing my own business. It was not until last year that I actually opened my own store.
And why did you decide to open your store in Hong Kong as opposed to abroad?
That is actually a very good question. Initially, I was interested in setting up my store in the United Kingdom. However, being from Hong Kong, I find myself more familiar with the market and the business environment of my country. I understand the culture and the mentality of the customers. I believe this sense of familiriaty is something that I could capitalize on in the pursuit of my own business. It was something that I wanted to operate on. So I would say, it was a practical move as well on my part.
So tell us about the startup process.
The process of starting up Thérèse De Vintage was quite specific and methodical. Prior to starting this store, I’ve already developed a sense of how the business model would be like. This was based on my experience of visiting and seeing many vintage boutiques over the years. With a keen eye, I was able to almagamate their approach and their model for operating such a business. When I was finally back in Hong Kong, I committed myself to market research. The priority for me was finding out whether there were other such stores, where they were and how they operated. Along with this, was a consideration of how I could set myself apart from these stores and how I could offer something valuable to the consumers out there. So there was a lot of planning went into what I wanted to do.
When I reached the stage where I thought to myself that I actually had a sense of what I wanted to do and how to do it, I went ahead to seek out a location for my retail space.
How is the vintage market like in Hong Kong
To be honest, I think the market for vintage goods in Hong Kong is very, very small. I find it to be quite underdeveloped and fraught with many difficulties. It’s safe to say that it has not reached the levels of the markets that you find abroad in the West. By that I mean that abroad, in the West, they possess a serious appreciation for vintage goods. There is a great demand for them. They’ve come to not only understand the vintage culture but also to admire it. So, for example, in Canada where I was introduced to this culture, you will find many such stores which are very popular with the locals.
On the other hand, in Hong Kong they’ve not come to totally grasp the concept. To the people in Hong Kong, they see such goods as old goods and nothing more. They don’t see the sentimental significance nor come to appreciate the style of vintage goods. They prefer new goods and they just can’t bring themselves to understand, let alone appreciate, why they would ever settle for something that is not new. I say this with personal experience, as I’ve personally encountered customers who have queried as to why the goods I was carrying seemed old and this has been something that I have been working to overcome.
Did you change your business approach to cater to this fact?
Yes. It’s quite interesting actually, the nature of the vintage market here in Hong Kong, has had an effect of how I marketed my goods. Initially, in selecting the retail location for my store, I had my mind set on opening the store in Central, Hong Kong. There were already a few similar stores in Central, so I can imagine that the location would be frequented by a lot of vintage lovers, who atleast understood the goods that I was trying to sell. However, I settled for another location that was quite far from Central. Many of the people I have encountered here, just fail to see the signficance and value of the goods. This has required me to do certain things differently. I have often found myself tirelessly trying to explain the signficance of the goods to those who can’t seem to wrap their heads around it.
Greater business decisions had to be taken as well. So for example, in my boutique, I’ve also introduced non-vintage goods along with vintage goods. This has helped me attract customers and has allowed me an opportunity to sell the vintage goods themselves. As in the initial phases, I found that it was very difficult and quite infeasible to operate my store entirely on vintage goods in such a market. I’ve also had to take a different approach to pricing, more specifically, I’ve had to cut down on the profit margins because people in Hong Kong are only willing to spend so much on vintage goods. Whereas, I believe if I were doing this overseas in the West, I would be able to operate on a higher and more fruitful profit margin.
Have you encountered any disappointments so far?
I’ve found some customer remarks disappointing. I’ve met some customers who’ve said things along the lines of: “Why is it the things you are selling, seem like they came from the dumpster?” Sometimes I have to deal with some ignorant and often confused customers, who often make comments like this. Though unintentional, they can be quite hurtful in regards to what I am trying to achieve. Despite this, I believe in professionalism, so in dealing in my business I put personal sentiments and emotions aside.
Do you have a lot of competitors in Hong Kong?
In Hong Kong there aren’t a lot of competitors in this field. The main issue does not lie so much in competition but rather the fact that the market has not developed into a market that widely accepts goods of this kind. So I believe that is matched by the amount of players in this industry, which based on my research there really are less than 30. I think there would be more competition in the West.
Could you share with us any insights you’ve developed about this industry?
There is quite a few things that can be said here. Given the niche nature of the industry in Hong Kong, market research becomes very important aspect of the industry. In Hong Kong, people have very specific tastes when it comes to vintage goods. You have to find out exactly what their tastes are and cater to it. In my experience, I’ve discovered that they are more interested in vintage bags as opposed to other goods.
Aside from this, I think ambience is also an important aspect in surviving in this industry. In this industry, I think you would have to go the extra mile, again because of the nature of the industry. You would need to know how to attract your customers beyond the basis of just the goods you carry because they don’t fully understand the value of the goods you carry. So the presentation becomes very, very important. In my store, I’ve fully utilized music, scents and specific self-designed lighting, altogether to create a unique ambience that makes potential customers raise an eyebrow.
In your experience, what kind of people in Hong Kong buy vintage goods?
I think most people who buy vintage goods in Hong Kong, are mostly bargain hunters. They don’t really buy it for the same reason, as one might overseas. They don’t buy it because they have a genuine appreciation for the vintage value of the goods, rather because they appreciate how such goods are undervalued monetary-wise, compared to many of the non-vintage goods out there. So for example, one might buy a vintage bag because they find it to be cheap and they think they’ve scored a good bargain on it. Personally, I’ve not met many vintage lovers, this is quite disappointing but again, this is a really young market.
In your opinion, what is the key to entrepreneurial success?
Having an understanding of what you want to achieve is very important. I believe that many successful entrepreneurs possess a foresight of where they want to be and to them their journey are just incremental steps that they take towards the goal. Having that kind of direction is important. The adequate amount of preparation is also important, and this may include having done the right market research. But most importantly, you should have genuine passion in what you are doing. If you have the right passion and motivation in doing what you are doing, I really believe that will take you really far.
What are your own plans for the future?
Aside from the vintage boutique which I plan to develop further, I am also currently working towards establishing my own fashion brand under my own name. This has always been a dream of mine that I have been slowly working on. Essentially, I would like to set up such a brand in the near future, focusing mainly on intricately designed women’s wear.
Any parting words of wisdom for our readers?
If you have never dreamt of living in a castle, you will never live in a castle.
Connect with Theresa Shuman and Therese De Vintage today: