Interview

Interview: Yvonne Lin on the evolution of a family fashion business

Yvonne and Albert Lin (1).jpg

Yvonne and Albert Lin have re-energised their family's manufacturing company, and also begun their own fashion label, London-based Zelle Studio. 

When Yvonne Lin says that the Taiwanese knitwear manufacturing firm that her parents created was a family business, she really means it.

“All the staff were related to us,” she says. “Every single person. The accountant was my aunt, the quality control people and the ones who travelled to China were my my mother’s younger brothers.

“My dad’s older brother was more or less in the same business, but in Asian markets when we were in the European ones, all the wives and husbands were involved, except one. Everyone else at some point in their lives has been involved.”

The business started about 30 years ago and supplied clothing for large retailers in Germany, France, Turkey and Britain. Its family-ownership was undoubtedly a large factor in its success.

“There was a real sense that if this is a success then everyone succeeds with it. So everyone goes the extra mile to do it. If you have an employee they might not have that extra push,” says Yvonne. They never hired any non-family senior management.

“They all had some sort of share in the business, so they all got bonuses," Yvonne adds. "There’s a feeling that we want to succeed so that everyone had a better life and everyone can send their kids to private school, for example, a real sense that you really push forward together.”

Did she have the classic family business experience of spending her free time on the shop floor? Absolutely. “I remember when I was at primary school, my aunt showed me how to make my own scarves using the machines. I sold them at the school fair."

Yvonne is by no means blind to the “challenges” of family firms (“How do you tell your uncle off?"), but that has not stopped her from continuing the tradition. The 29-year-old and her brother Albert, who is four years younger, have now taken over the family business.

New start

“Our parents continued to run it until about four years ago, when their clients started retiring and they started thinking they would too. The business naturally died down,” she says. 

Yvonne has “fashion in the blood,” and had internships and jobs at Vivienne Westwood, Dior and Harrods. When Albert asked if she wanted to help him revitalise the family business, there was only one response.

The siblings, who went to separate boarding schools and universities, started off showing their collections at trade shows in Paris and Moscow, and slowly won some business. They now have big French and Canadian retailers as clients.

The benefit of their company, says Yvonne, is that they have the knowhow to develop a product from the drawing board and deliver it. “Zara do that too, but not many others,” she points out.

The client is effectively outsourcing their product development, which saves them money. Yvonne and Albert can do this because they were brought up watching the process.

“We can’t draw, we design on the computer. But we really know how to do that, and we know how the panels fit together, what works with what. For us, it is easy,” Yvonne says. "Our parents taught us to do it."

Not content with re-energising the family firm, Yvonne and Albert have also started their own fashion brand, called Zelle Studio (www.zellestudio.com). “We were selling our products via other people’s brands, so we thought, why don’t we become a brand ourselves?

"Most small brands’ biggest challenge is that you have amazing designs, but no manufacturing capacity because you struggle to find anyone who will make a small number of pieces.

“That is not a problem for us, because we know what factories specialise in what, and they will make small quantities on the grounds that if we get big that is good for them.”

The idea is to keep the products limited-edition. “We have experienced brands being very wasteful, and this has got progressively worse. People buy things and throw it away after three washes. They do not respect fashion.

“For me fashion is about buying something that you want to keep for a few years, maybe even pass it on to your daughter or a friend. We want to bring back the idea of respecting what you buy and own.”

That high fashion-focus is why Yvonne likes to be based in London. “It is the home of fashion,” she says. “We both agreed the brand needs to be here, there is more acceptance of being creative and different, and as a fashion label you get more support.”

Cloud-based

Does being in London make it hard working with Albert, who is based in Taiwan? “I get up at 5am and we Skype every morning. He keeps me up to date and I plan my day,” she says. The business is possible only because of technology.

“Everything, everything, is on a cloud based in the office in Taiwan.” Despite her love of London, Yvonne also travels a lot. She recently got back from Taipei, and is already planning a trip to Korea in spring.

Unlike many sibling pairs, Yvonne says that she and Albert have complementary skill-sets. “I always want to get things done now, now, now, and he is slower. At the beginning it was a bit of a challenge, to compromise to each other’s speed.

"But it works well. He likes to do all the technical side - the website, the photography, editing the photos - he is happy sitting in a room. I do the styling, and the day-to-day promoting the brand in London.”

Is there creative tension? “We fall out big time,” she laughs. “We fight like crazy. But being able to fight is very healthy. If you are not communicating, you are not trying to make it work.”

Most of the family have moved on from the original company. One has started a travel firm, another has become a financial advisor, following the trajectory of Asia away from manufacturing and towards industries suited to the new middle classes.

And Yvonne and Albert are evidently proud to be taking the family business in a new, exciting direction with Zelle, too. 

So is everything different? Not quite. Just like in the old days, their aunt is still their accountant. Once a family business, always a family business. 

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