What do you do when your boyfriend is too busy studying for the bar exams to spend time with you?
Create a business, of course.
At least, this was what Kaye Ong and Jackie Tan did. The two ladies are behind Suelas, the first foldable footwear brand in the Philippines. Not that their boyfriends had no hand in the business. “They handled the legal side,” the daintily-dressed Tan told InterAksyon in an interview. Today Ong’s boyfriend remains a partner in Suelas, while Tan’s ex, well, decided to leave.
“We started it in 2009,” said Tan. She and Ong were off to separate trips and were “having a hard time fitting several pairs of shoes in the luggage. So we were [wishing that there were] more compact shoes so we [could] bring several pairs with us.”
Both were also required to wear heeled shoes to work.
“I’m not used to wearing heels all the time so I always had to bring flip-flops or spare shoes to change into after. So that’s how it came about. [We wanted] something light, compact, and comfortable for us to use for those purposes,” she continued.
They launched their brand with a line of simple ballet flats in keeping with their vision of basic, yet wearable fashion.
“I think every girl is conscious about how she appears to other people,” said the well-accessorized Ong. “More than being fashionable, what’s important to us is to wear something we feel beautiful in and comfortable in.”
“We do look at color trends, and [trends in] materials, like snakeskin patterns or leopard print. But we try to tweak it to make it our own,” added Tan. They collaborate with stylists and fashion bloggers as well, with a personality working on a wedding collection in light of her upcoming nuptials.
“A lot of our friends are getting married,” said Ong. “We just recognize that there’s a need for brides and their entourage to have more comfortable wedding options.”
Other brides have already ordered shoes to give to their entourage. “The market is really there,” said Tan.
Apparently so. Today Suelas has close to 20,000 likes on its Facebook page, as well as a kiosk at the Alabang Town Center. Pairs are also being sold in Cebu, Davao, Dumaguete, and Cotabato City.
“Overwhelming” is how Ong described their success.
“Before you put up a business, you have your conservative projections of sales, how much it will grow. We really didn’t expect for the market to respond this positively,” explained the visibly pleased Tan. “Yes, we did have conservative and ideal projections, but our first two months we saw that even our ideal projections were being met. We just didn’t expect that people would collect five of the same style in different colors.”
On top of that, one of their customers is the proud owner of 25 pairs of Suelas. And that was according to a survey they conducted last year.
“Just imagine how many pairs she has now,” said Ong.
Travel-loving customers have even brought their Suelas to Peru, Brazil, Morocco, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, among other places.
“Yes, Suelas is a product, but what we’re also trying to sell is a lifestyle,” said Ong. “Travel is aspirational but at the same time it’s something you can do and use to reward yourself. We really encourage our customers to go after their dreams and their travel aspirations.”
Walking their talk
The two seem to have followed their own advice, both in traveling and in following their dreams.
“What I’d never got from my job before is that sense of fulfillment that I actually see what I’m working for,” said Ong, who worked for six years in a bank and one year in retail before finally putting up her own business. “Sometimes when you’re in a corporate job, even though you give so much effort, you get so little in terms of fulfillment.”
“It’s really different when you love what you’re doing,” said Tan, who used to work in real estate. “Even if you know that you have to work the whole day, even stay up until 6a.m. to answer all those inquiries and e-mails, you feel very fulfilled that you created this and people are actually responding positively towards it. You have a sense of pride, like, wow, it’s not just me enjoying this brand and these products but other people also like it so much [so that they] keep on coming back.”
Ong admits that it can be difficult to be a local brand in the Philippines, as malls in particular would rather carry international brands in the belief that this will bring more people to their outlets.
Patience is key, she believes, and says to budding entrepreneurs, “If you have a concept and you really believe in it, definitely you’ll succeed. Success doesn’t come overnight; you really have to work for it. You can’t be frustrated right away.”
The pair are also staunch advocates in giving back.
“So many people are doing production of shoes in China,” said Ong. “But from our end, we said, the expertise is actually here in Marikina. After Ondoy, we really wanted to make the shoe industry in Marikina get back to where it was decades ago.”
The two were actually on their way to the riverside city to meet with the shoe manufacturers when the typhoon struck. They ended up stranded on the street. Ong added, “The bags that we use for the shoes are made by a Gawad Kalinga community in Payatas Trese. They’ve been our partner since we started.”
“If you can do everything in the Philippines, that would help so much in terms of uplifting the lives of other people. [It will] also help the economy.”