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Tjin Lee

Become – High Profiles
October 15, 2015

Two months ago, I sat diagonally across a table from Tjin Lee. I was absolutely certain she was at Catalunya for the same reason I was there – to witness a scintillating fireworks display that marked our nation’s 50th birthday. Tjin did not know who I was, but I knew she was the founder of Mercury, and her name had always been synonymous with Singapore Fashion Week. As fireworks erupted into the coal-black, dusky sky, I thought about Jack Kerouac’s description of people in his novel On the Road: “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me . . . the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Deep down, I had a feeling we would meet again.

The wooden door swings open. As I enter, squalls of “Mummy! Mummy!” linger in the background. Bubu looks more adorable in real life. His hairstyle reminds me of a disconnected undercut worn by David Beckham – shaved sides, with the top left long. He’s going to be a heartbreaker in no time. Tjin’s helper informs me that “mum is not home”, and suggests I wait in the living room facing a walkway where natural light shines in through the skylight of her three-storey heritage shophouse. Baby toys are strewn across the floor, an archipelago of plastic islands.

Fifteen minutes later, an enduringly beautiful, neat figure dressed in an all-black ensemble of a sleeveless blouse with a unique collar that vaguely resembles a bow tie, and below-the-knee lace skirt, appears before me. “I like to make my own clothes, and I tailored this outfit in Vietnam. It has always been a hobby of mine to design my own things.” Tjin says in a honeyed tone.

“How long have you been living in this house?” I ask. “Seven to eight years. I love my neighbourhood. Spottiswoode Park and Everton Park have become quite the hipster place. When we moved in, it didn’t use to be this cool.” She confides, while adjusting her ALT rose gold cuff bracelet by Curated Editions.

Tjin is more voluble than ever when we talk about her business. “I’m a very intrepid person. I struggled for so long when Mercury first started in 2000. However, in the face of adversity, I always find a way around. I am like a cockroach that can never be killed.” Since then, Tjin’s resilience combined with her perspicacious sagacity has propelled her to astronomical heights – she has 9 businesses, and she’s not stopping just yet.

“Sometimes, I read business quotes that say: ‘If you have passion, you can do it.’ That’s so untrue.” Tjin contests with aphoristic brevity. “The doing is what puts people off.”

The self-confessed science fiction fan and geek at heart, who loves Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov proceeds to expound on her beliefs: “Entrepreneurship is really the path to empowerment. It gives you freedom and flexibility, but it is not for everyone.”

Conversations with Tjin Lee

Founder and CEO, Mercury Marketing & Communications
Text by Wy-Lene Yap
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

WY-LENE YAP: Congratulations on your second child, Jake! Do you have plans for more?

TJIN LEE: No. Two boys are enough for me. As much as I would like to have a daughter, my fear of having three boys outweighs my desire to have one. [laughs]

WY-LENE: How has parenthood been like for you?

TJIN: It takes over your entire life in some ways. I had to build a schedule around my sons, but I think that’s part of what being a working mother is all about. I am fortunate to have some form of flexibility – a lot of working women don’t have work-life balance. And it doesn’t mean I work less hard – in fact, I think I work harder than many people. I’m still on maternity leave, but I have been in and out of work.

WY-LENE: Does your home reflect your personality?

TJIN: Ummm, not at the moment. This is a family home. We [my husband and I] rented out our apartment so that we could stay here. When the boys grow older, we will move out. This home is filled with my grandmother’s antique/mother of pearl furniture that we have inherited, and it’s really not my style.

WY-LENE: What is your ideal home decor style?

TJIN: I like modern furniture actually – classic pieces. And there would be a lot more of that if this were my own home.

WY-LENE: I am aware that you have nine businesses. Can you tell me what they are?

TJIN: The first 4 were very organic – an Events company, a PR company, Marketing & Communications and lastly, Mercury Creative: a branding and advertising arm. I used to be an advertising and PR executive from Club 21, and we were a one-stop shop. I learnt everything! It was a really good experience because it gave me all the training, knowledge, and contacts that I needed to start Mercury PR. However, what I enjoyed the most was conceptualising and organising events. The execution part wasn’t my forte, so I took on a partner [Jeremy Tan] in 2009. About 5 years ago, I setup Wolfgang Violin Studio with my mum because my sister [Min Lee] is a violinist. The sixth business is Curated Editions with Angie Lai, and she is the most stylish girl I’ve ever met. My seventh venture is Wonderland, a kids’ photography studio, but it is sort of dormant now because it didn’t take off. Finally, the last two are Baby Style Icon and CRIB.

WY-LENE: I read that the tenth is on the way.

TJIN: I’m very excited about it, and we are at the fundraising stage now. It is a physical co-working family-friendly space. Sometimes when I tell people about the idea, their response is: “That’s so brilliant, doesn’t it exist?” There are women-centric co-working spaces, but none of them cater to a space for children. There are spaces that have a nursery/playroom area, but it is in the heartlands. This idea also stemmed from the fact that my son grew up in ION Orchard. [laughs] He was pushed around in a pram while I had my meetings, and I didn’t feel good asking my clients to come to my house. There just wasn’t an in-between.

WY-LENE: When are you targeting to launch this?

TJIN: Hopefully, by early next year.


WY-LENE: Do you play the violin yourself?

TJIN: Oh, my mum tried to make me play. She failed 3 times and that is why Min is the success story. I have 3 other sisters. The reason why Wolfgang Violin Studio is so successful is because my mum experimented on the four of us. People use the word “mompreneur” very disparagingly at times, and I don’t know if it is a good or bad word. But I turned my very own mother into an entrepreneur because she wanted to inculcate the love of music in children from a young age. I also helped her with the design, marketing, branding, and renovation – when we first started, we were the only violin studio to have a pop art print of Mozart on the wall.

WY-LENE: Which is harder: being a mother or a CEO?

TJIN: It is very difficult to compare as both of them have their challenges and joys. I enjoy both roles immensely and I don’t think I can give up one for the other. I thrive on what I do – if I wasn’t working, I would be bouncing off walls and driving my kids mad.

If you love what you do, you are never actually working.

WY-LENE: How do you juggle so many businesses? Are there times when it gets too overwhelming?

TJIN: No, you do it with a really good team of business managers. That’s why my ABC model works, and that is the basis for CRIB: “A” for angel investors, “B” for business managers and “C” for creatives. Every team needs to have that trio. I am always full of ideas… even at 3am. I try to refrain from sending my staff text messages after 2am. [laughs] I get excited about my ideas and I tend to forget things – so as long as I am awake, I am always connecting and communicating. I don’t expect people to act on it immediately and follow my hours. If you love what you do, you are never actually working. It almost feels like a guilty pleasure because it is so fun. For example, I started Baby Style Icon because I love baby clothes! I have 100 pairs of baby shoes… and I’m not exaggerating. One time, I went to Seoul to do a market buy with Angie and I found incredible little leather jackets, leggings, and dinosaur hoodies for children. Why can’t you find them in Singapore? And why doesn’t anyone sell such cool Kpop style clothing for babies?

WY-LENE: Alexander Wang’s niece is so fashionable.

TJIN: Right! Girls’ fashion is still not so bad. For boys, it is khakis, jeans or little choo-choo trains. Where is all the swag stuff? And that’s how Baby Style Icon came about – I wanted to buy all these baby clothes from Korea, but they were only going to sell them to me if I bought 20 pieces of each item. So I bought all of them and came back with 20 pairs of little leather leggings, even though I did not know what I was going to do with them. Instagram also had a part to play… I don’t know if you know about Bubu…

WY-LENE: Of course, I do.

TJIN: I used to dress Bubu up, and people would always ask me: “Where did you buy that cute hat? Where did you get that mustachifier?" And I said: I wish I could sell them to you! Anyway, Belinda, who is my business manager for this venture also had a baby the same time I had Tyler (aka Bubu). She was one of those mums who wanted to work and did not want to be a full time stay-at-home mum. So I encouraged Belinda to start a business, and she said: “What kind of business?” Coincidentally, around that time, Xiaxue messaged me on Instagram because she wanted to know where I had bought all of Bubu’s cute clothes. [laughs] I looked at her number of followers and she had 280,000 followers (back then). Whenever Xiaxue posted a picture of Dash, she would get 40,000 likes. Imagine if 1 in a 1,000 people bought something… that would be 40 sales per post. Not bad, right? So I asked Xiaxue if she was keen on setting up a business and I introduced her to Belinda. We all met up, brought our babies, and the rest is history.

WY-LENE: How did you come up with the nickname “Bubu”?

TJIN: My mum came up with it. Tyler looks like a Bubu right? Well, when he was a baby, he looked like a baby Bubu. Now, his features are changing and he is more grown up. [sigh] I miss baby Bubu.

WY-LENE: Children grow up eventually. Do you have any regional expansion plans for the Mercury group?

TJIN: We have a China operation, but it is not branded under Mercury at this point in time. I like to let things run on its own first. We execute events regionally for clients in Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. Ultimately, it has got to be the right partner. We have had offers, but I don’t want to enter into a market with just Events, I also want Marketing, PR, social media… everything that we do here – the 360 degree approach has to be replicated in the other countries. We have been asked to setup a Mercury PR in Malaysia and we get that request all the time. I am waiting to see what kind of opportunities come along, and we’re always open to them. With business being so good in Singapore, we haven’t ventured as far as we would like to yet… but we will.

WY-LENE: What was your net profit last year?

TJIN: Ummm, I can’t share that with you. [laughs]

WY-LENE: How about estimated revenue?

TJIN: Around 16 million.

I like my team to walk with me, not behind me.

WY-LENE: What is your leadership style?

TJIN: I like my team to walk with me, not behind me. My leadership style is very flat and there is no hierarchy. I choose to sit in the centre of everyone in my office because I like to be in the thick of the action.

WY-LENE: What strategies do you implement to foster a healthy working environment?

TJIN: It is important that my team understands the direction that we’re moving towards. They need to be excited and believe in my passion and vision.


WY-LENE: What are your thoughts on the current media landscape?

TJIN: I think the media is evolving very rapidly – with the onslaught of social media, even as a PR company, I need to re-evaluate what my team does. Magazines have value because my clients like to see glossy articles. But increasingly, they are asking how we can infiltrate the online space. Singapore is the second most connected country in the world after India. I feel the media is also transitioning. Every print publication is developing an online presence, and they have to, because clients want that. Nowadays, the ones who have adapted the best, not only have a physical magazine, but they also do events as well as provide online coverage. For us, we need to find new ways to engage the client, and a lot of it has become influencer seeding and marketing. There is a shift from traditional PR to social/digital marketing.

WY-LENE: Will print media be phased out?

TJIN: I don’t think so. There will always be books and I cannot imagine a world without books. Similarly, I cannot imagine a world without magazines. But I think they may take on a different role. Magazines will exist because they are like beautiful things – you cannot replicate beautiful editorials and photo shoots online. So they will serve a different audience in a way. Here’s what I see: eventually, there will be a backlash because everyone can be a writer, or a media outlet. But is it reliable? Is that a good source? You can’t be certain, but if CNN says something, people take their word for it.

WY-LENE: CNN failed to fact-check their Breaking News tweet on our founding father earlier this year.

TJIN: [laughs] Maybe CNN is not the best example. If I wrote something about the stock market versus Bloomberg, you would place more value on what Bloomberg says because it is my personal opinion. The media will still be seen as an authority that has the knowledge.

WY-LENE: Not everything in the media is real.

TJIN: I mean, accredited media.

WY-LENE: People whom I have interviewed before have told me that they have been misquoted or taken out of context by some of our accredited media here.

TJIN: But that could happen too.

WY-LENE: Let’s talk more about Singapore Fashion Week. How did the Fashion Futures programme come about?

TJIN: If you look at the history of Singapore Fashion Week, or Audi Fashion Festival, or even Asia Fashion Exchange, there was also something called Star Creation. SPRING always had an interest, and a commitment to support Singaporean designers. But the commitment that they can give to Priscilla of Ong Shunmugam for example, is as such: here is X amount of money to develop your own collection, branding, etc. If a local designer wants to do a show at Fashion Week, I can only have 3 shows per day, and 5 on the weekend – that’s 15 shows in total. I have been asked many times before: “Who gets to decide the shows at Singapore Fashion Week?”

WY-LENE: That’s one of my questions too!

TJIN: It is definitely not me. It’s sponsorship-driven. For example, if Sony wants to sponsor a show, they will want someone with a lot of social media reach who can relate to their product. Out of the 5 designers we presented to them, they chose Collate The Label because Velda [Tan] has 120,000 followers. 

WY-LENE: How about Chelsea [Scott-Blackhall] and Sabrina [Goh]?

TJIN: They got accepted into the Fashion Futures programme on their own merit. But I only have one Fashion Futures programme.

WY-LENE: How were the 3 selected?

TJIN: They were selected by a panel of buyers, industry advisors, and editors from the media. For the next round, the panel has already picked 6 emerging designers to work with, and one of them will join the 3 and be part of the programme, as well as showcase at next year’s Singapore Fashion Week.

WY-LENE: Will there still be a CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] partnership?

TJINL Yes, we are learning so much from them. One of the key takeaways is that, European and American designers have set their sights on Asia, and the international brands are following closely behind. When I spoke to Victoria Beckham, Diane Von Furstenburg and Thakoon, they said: “Why do you want to come to the West? We want to come to Asia.” That got me thinking: why haven’t we conquered the East yet? Why aren’t we retailing and selling to Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and Malaysia? Why are we trying to sell in New York? In addition, when Thakoon looked at Priscilla’s, Chelsea’s, and Sabrina’s collection, he said: “Do you know anything about the customer in New York? But you do know your customers in Singapore. Asian women are modest and they like to have sleeves.” There are still a lot of unconquered markets in Asia, and together with SPRING, we are relooking at our approach to the Fashion Futures programme in 2016.


WY-LENE: Aren’t you the founder of Audi Fashion Festival, which is now known as Singapore Fashion Week?

TJIN: Yes. Audi Fashion Festival started in 2009, and is sort of a hybrid. The entire history is a whole separate story. Singapore Fashion Festival belonged to the Singapore Tourism Board, and Singapore Fashion Week used to be organised by TAFT [Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore] and funded by IE Singapore. One is B2B, and the other is B2C, so they have completely different agendas. But after 3 years, the government felt that it didn’t make sense because no one knew the difference, and it was very confusing.

WY-LENE: Yeah, I am trying to wrap my head around it.

TJIN: The government asked if we could bring the two together, but it’s not possible. What works for B2C, does not work for B2B because of the timing. Audi Fashion Festival is held in May because my objective is to bring international designers like Roberto Cavalli, Missoni, etc to Singapore. If I hold the event during March or April, they will not come as they are busy launching their own collection at Milan Fashion Week. Unfortunately, having a trade show in May is a challenge because the buying season is in March and April. This has been a huge dilemma, and even up to this point, it is still not fully resolved.

WY-LENE: So this year’s Singapore Fashion Week was a rebrand?

TJIN: 2015 is the first year that we launched Singapore Fashion Week. Singapore Fashion Week came about because our successful six-year partnership with Audi ended. There was a change in direction as well as the budget after the MD of Audi went to Hong Kong. We could not cancel the whole event especially since the government had decided to can SFW and SFF, on the premise of placing them under AFF. It should not even be called Audi Fashion Festival in the first place (but we needed the funding). So I thought to myself: we have to claim the name “Singapore Fashion Week”. In doing so, we also carry the responsibility, or rather, perception that we are an industry event geared towards helping local designers. We don’t get any funding, but we bear all the responsibility.

WY-LENE: How tough is it to get sponsors?

TJIN: Incredibly difficult in this climate. It wasn’t hard in 2003 to 2008. The landscape has changed, and people are using their funds in different ways. In the past, we had the Barclays Singapore Open (Golf), UBS Sun Festival, Aviva Ironman… but where are they now?

WY-LENE: How many sponsors were there for Singapore Fashion Week 2015?

TJIN: We had 45 sponsors. Currently, we are also working on a programme to reengage the big sponsors. We have to give them what they want – if they want a concert, we will have to evolve. I have plans to change Singapore Fashion Week into a more lifestyle event.

WY-LENE: How many Fashion Festivals/Weeks have you organised in your career?

TJIN: Nine.

WY-LENE: You’re going to hit double digits soon. Which would you say is your most successful one?

TJIN: There are all successful in their own way. Some would say that Singapore Fashion Week 2015 was the most successful out of all of them. This year, I wanted to celebrate women’s empowerment and I managed to get Diane Von Furstenburg and Victoria Beckham to showcase their collection. Cate Blanchett also came down to Singapore. It’s also not intentional that my Fashion Futures designers are all women. To be honest, organising Fashion Week takes a tremendous amount of work, and I don’t make a lot of money. The 16 million in revenue comes from all my other businesses. But I do it like national service, since I’m incredibly passionate about it. In 2003, when I first pitched to organise the Singapore Fashion Festival, I really believed that Singapore could be the fashion capital of Asia. In 2010, when Roberto Cavalli showcased his 40th Anniversary red carpet collection, I personally felt that I had accomplished one of my internal checklists because I had brought an international and world-class Fashion Week to Singapore.

WY-LENE: Do you find it challenging to outdo yourself after each year?

TJIN: Absolutely. The pressure is greater every year, so we constantly need to better ourselves.


To deal with divas, you cannot be one yourself.

WY-LENE: How do you deal with diva-like personalities with the nature of your job?

TJIN: There is very little ego involved for me. To deal with divas, you cannot be one yourself. It requires a very pragmatic approach. There were instances when my team got stressed out when someone was requesting for a yoga session at 7am in the morning, or they wanted 200,000 lights in the tent. Can I give them what they want? If I can, I will. If I can’t, then I will move on.

WY-LENE: Who’s your favourite Singaporean fashion designer?

TJIN: I am excited to see what the guys from IN GOOD COMPANY are up to after their successful store opening at ION. Priscilla of Ong Shunmugam has a strong point of view. I also like Collate The Label, and I think Velda has a lot of potential. She is also very down to earth.

WY-LENE: I have interviewed Velda before, and she is such a nice person. That aside, I really like what Chelsea is doing at the moment with her label, Dzojchen.

TJIN: All the showrooms in New York loved Chelsea’s designs.

If you are aiming for 100 percent all the time, things will never move.

WY-LENE: What is the best piece of career advice someone has given to you?

TJIN: Jennie Chua told me not to be a perfectionist. If you are aiming for 100 percent all the time, things will never move. I have learnt to let go and stop obsessing over all the details.

WY-LENE: What is one thing you do when you’re feeling stuck creatively?

TJIN: Travel. I love Europe, especially London. The city inspires me because it is always so vibrant.

WY-LENE: What are you most grateful for in life?

TJIN: My team. I have managed to find and attract all these really amazing people, and that’s truly a gift. I consider myself very lucky too.

WY-LENE: Is there one book you’ve read as an adult that you wish you could share with your younger self?

TJIN: I’m in the midst of reading The Art of War, and there are so many interesting insights. I definitely would have started reading the book a long time ago if I had discovered it earlier.

WY-LENE: Finally, given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

TJIN: Past or present?

WY-LENE: Both.

TJIN: Mr Lee Kuan Yew.