Kuok scion pushes the second-hand gospel- Nikkei Asian Review



uiltless founder Yen Kuok speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review in Jakarta on Dec. 2 2016 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

uiltless founder Yen Kuok speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review in Jakarta on Dec. 2 2016 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA — For women in need of a little black dress — but not feeling up to paying $1,500 or more for a new one — guiltless.com might be the place to look.

Guiltless, an online second-hand luxury goods bazaar run by Yen Kuok, the youngest daughter of Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, has a Little Black Dress section, with, for example, a Versace number going for $230 — 85% below the new price — and a Stella McCartney marked down by 61% to $450.

Kuok, who was brought up in Hong Kong, set up Guiltless when she returned to the self-governing Chinese territory after studying international relations at Stanford University. There, she said, an emphasis on innovation and self-reliance helped her overcome the risk aversion she had absorbed in Hong Kong.

In an interview in Jakarta, Kuok said there was a downside to the faddish “start-up” ambitions expressed by other students. “People just said they would like to do start-ups, but often did not know exactly what,” she told the Nikkei Asian Review. “But for start-ups it should be that there is a need for something. You see the need, you do it yourself.”

Guiltless was the product of Kuok’s love of fashion and the online start-up culture she encountered at Stanford. But it also showed that the 26-year-old has her father’s nose for a business opportunity. “In Hong Kong you have much less space, and less wardrobe space. When I moved back I had such a lot of items,” she recalled.

“I said to myself that rather than just throw these out — such a waste — I’d like to sell these items online, give the money to charity. But to my surprise none of the top 10 second-hand luxury sites accepted items from outside Europe or North America.”

“Someone needs to fill this space,” she told herself. But while Guiltless now boasts an intricate website with dozens of “pre-loved” categories from handbags to jewelry, and big name brands from Chanel to Hermes, getting the start-up started was not straightforward.

“In Asia [shoppers] want something new, the newest thing,” she said. Being seen to buy or wear second-hand clothes comes with a stigma that has long disappeared in the West. “It’s a loss of face,” Kuok said.

Being an online-only shop helped get around that dilemma, though Kuok concedes that, for now, most of her orders are from Hong Kong. “We don’t want to risk people bumping into each other at a storefront, and the packaging is discreet,” she said. “People can purchase guilt-free.”

Kuok said she hopes that people in Asia will slowly come round to the advantages of second-hand designer gear.  “Everyone wants a good deal,” she said. “If they want limited edition, or if they want discontinued lines, we are the only option,” said Kuok, amplifying the sales pitch.

Black sheep to black dress

Describing herself as both her “father’s daughter” and “somewhat of a black sheep,” Kuok said her upbringing in Hong Kong was different from those of her Malaysia-born siblings and the wider Kuok clan.

“My dad decided that he would do things differently with me,” Kuok recalled, explaining that when she reached school age, Robert Kuok’s business empire, which spans hotels, real estate, sugar, palm oil and media, was becoming more China-focused, shifting away from its earlier base in Southeast Asia.

Rather than send his youngest daughter to an expensive international school her father opted for “a very strict all girls Catholic school,” said Kuok. “It was the first of several culture shocks,” she said. “For me, going to local school was very tough. Family background and privilege were not seen as good things, they were looked down on.”

“If I got mediocre grades, [classmates] would say, ‘Oh that Yen, she has her future in gold.’ After, when I knuckled down, and shot to the top of the class, they would say, ‘Oh that Yen, she has all the money for the best private tutors,'” Kuok told an audience at a recent Forbes CEO conference at the Jakarta Shangri-La hotel — part of the Kuok empire.

Continuing to reminisce about her schooldays Kuok told the NAR that, “It was so tough. We had to memorize two pages of Chinese text. And if one student got one word wrong when asked to write out the pages in front of the class, we would all have to copy out the text.”

However, the experience was formative and Guiltless would not have come about without it, Kuok said, adding that the discipline and competitiveness in a school where hard-working “tiger parents” pushed their children to get into university meant that she was well-balanced by the time she went to California to study.

“If I had gone to an international school and I was part of the ‘popular’ group because my family has money, that would have taught me a lot of negative values,” Kuok said.

Does Kuok’s upbringing mean that she sees herself not getting more involved with the family business? “You get to travel, you get to control five star hotels, to head up magazines,” she said, pointing out the obvious allure of stepping into a leading role in her father’s realm.

But, she added: “I wouldn’t want to go back to the family company just because it’s a big company and I could be a high level executive.” For now, the youngest Kuok –a self-described black sheep — sees herself focusing on spreading the second-hand gospel around Asia.

“You know, people worry about hygiene, they worry about the condition [of the clothes],” Kuok said, explaining more of the challenges in selling luxury second-hand. “But, most of the stuff, it only gets worn once or maybe twice,” she said, discussing the carefree habits of the image-conscious shopaholic. Spending quirks mean luxury second-hand clothes are often as good as new.

So that dress you’re wearing today, will we see it on you again? “You’ll find this on Guiltless” said Kuok, with a laugh.

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