What to Expect from Recovery, According to a Hong Kong Entrepreneur
Cheryl Leung knows what the future looks like — and it’s looking pretty good.
Leung is the founder of Sau Lee, a fashion brand based in Hong Kong, the city where she grew up. It’s also a city that felt the effects of the coronavirus crisis well ahead of the United States and, in turn, got a head start on its recovery.
“We have seen Hong Kong kind of come back to life,” Leung said in early May, just after the city had started reopening businesses, restaurants, and gyms. “Businesses are starting to get more crowded, and you can feel a sense of positivity when you go out. People are still quite careful, but there’s a more vibrant energy going around.”
Her hopefulness comes after a brutal few months that upended what should have been her brand’s biggest year. After five years of slowly building the business, Leung had secured a number of partnerships with U.S.–based retailers, including Shopbop, Rent the Runway, Revolve, and BHLDN. “It was our year going into 2020,” Leung says.
When Hong Kong and China started shutting down in January, Leung worked overtime to manage a disrupted supply chain and coordinate with factories to ensure she could deliver orders to those U.S. retailers on time.
“We didn’t know that this would become a global crisis and actually also affect the consumer side of our business,” she says. As the breadth of the pandemic became clear, Leung had to rethink her operation — and force herself to find a new approach to problem solving.
“The initial shock was quite hard to take,” she says. “But I’ve learned to take a step back, to take bad news and break it down a little bit. I try to solve small problems one at a time to make them more manageable. Because in the beginning, that big bad news was really hard to handle.”
Her measured approach helped her take pragmatic steps with partners, shifting deliveries and cutting back on order volumes as business slowed. It also helped Leung find the headspace to think about what her operation might look like after the crisis, and she identified two big opportunities: product assortment and target audience.
“We predominantly make dresses for occasions and events, so now we’re thinking about how we can be a part of our customer’s everyday life,” she says. “And we’re focusing our sales a bit more locally, promoting more in the Hong Kong market, especially as we see a change here.”
That local focus is already creating positive results, and Leung encourages founders around the world to embrace other local businesses as a support system as the global economy struggles to regain its footing.
“This has opened people’s eyes, and everyone wants to be supportive of their own local community,” Leung says. With every sale on Sau Lee’s website from April through mid-May, the brand offered a gift with purchase that directly supported another Hong Kong business. “It’s been great to connect with other people in the industry and in our community, and try to brainstorm new ways of surviving.”
Local consumers are responding. “We’ve seen an increase in demand here in Hong Kong, and we’re trying to just keep costs low as we drive steady sales so we can get through the next few months,” she says. She anticipates a similar shift as other countries ease restrictions and is feeling optimistic about the rest of 2020.
“I think we’ve managed to get through this, and we’ll see a good return toward the end of the year,” Leung says. “It can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you can survive this, you’re going to be stronger for it. There are lessons to be learned.”