By Julian Chua

Fijian-born fashion designer Jyoti Singh has been here in Singapore for few years now, and has since founded her very own Singapore-based fashion label, Jo Kilda. She describes it as collections of “polished chic and sleek sensibility”, catering to both women and children.

Jyoti has lived in various cities where she was inspired by the fashion culture in each. Driven by a passion for fashion and a desire to fulfil the lifestyle fashion needs of all women, she launched Jo Kilda in 2016 after graduating from Melbourne’s prestigious School of Fashion in Australia. When she settled in Singapore with her husband, who had a job posting here, she decided to open a boutique for her label in the city.

Since then, Jyoti has been on a fulfilling entrepreneurial journey with challenges, roadblocks and breakthroughs along the way. Her prominent clients include author Paige Parker, actress Kelly Dowdle and restaurant owner Erika Masiero. I spoke to her to find out how she crafted a successful pathway for herself in a highly competitive fashion industry, her advice to expats who want to start a business here in Singapore and empowerment through entrepreneurship and fashion.

What drew you to fashion and drove you to become an entrepreneur?

My interest in fashion started at a very young age. I loved seeing my dad in his smart tailored shirts, and my mom and sister in their colorful Fijian print saris. Growing up, I loved the sheer satisfaction from dressing people in fashionable outfits. I’ve always been inspired by the glorious opulent fabrics in Singapore and local designers in Australia, so I seized the opportunity to use these in establishing Jo Kilda as a fashion retailer for all. I believe fashion works as an expressive voice to amplify empowerment, particularly in women.

The label name Jo Kilda came about from Jo being my nickname, and Kilda being the road that I lived on in Melbourne – St Kilda Road. It’s a great conversation starter!

What challenges did you face along the way and how did you overcome them?

It was hard at the start to gain recognition in a highly competitive fashion and retail market like Singapore. With a shop front, I also faced human resource and retail challenges. But with the support of my family, a new business direction and confidence in my own abilities, I turned the business into the success that it is today.

What do you love most about what you do?

It gives me great satisfaction when customers find the perfect outfit that gets them excited and then they become a loyal return client. I once had a young couple visit my store at Scotts Square in search of a simple wedding dress. Before visiting our store, the bride was disappointed that she could not find a suitable dress that fitted her budget after countless shopping trips. She was overjoyed when she finally found the perfect dress from our range. The sheer happiness on her face meant so much to me. As a designer, I thrive on the satisfaction of customers. It’s the greatest form of compliment!

Take us through the process briefly from conception to the final product.

My love for fabric means I spend at least six days per month searching for unique fabrics until inspiration strikes, after which I work on the designs that do justice to the fabric and the season in various styles. Once I approve the samples, they go into production. I personally do the quality check for each unit before we ship the stock to Singapore or to New York for sale – every piece must be perfect.

What are the highlights and milestones in your career so far?

Looking back, I am grateful to have made many friends in the fashion industry and to have been able to work with an amazing team of people. I am also glad that I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with several associations and non-profit organizations for their causes. It’s always important to give back to society.

Here are some of my company’s milestones:

  • Official launch of Jo Kilda at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia 2016
  • Opening of Jo Kilda’s first-ever retail store at Scotts Square in November 2016
  • New York Fashion Week 2018, with Jo Kilda Autumn/Winter Party collection
  • Paris Fashion Week 2018, with Jo Kilda Autumn/Winter Party collection
  • Opening a new retail store at Orchard Gateway in 2018
  • Promising Entrepreneur Award 2019, organized by Women Entrepreneur Awards in Singapore in 2019

What future plans do you have for Jo Kilda?

I am currently working on the internationalization of the business. I have moved from bricks-and-mortar to e-commerce, and I’m in the process of securing stockists across Asia, followed by the Pacific and the rest of the world. My goal is to eventually work with e-commerce platforms, such as Net-a-Porter and Forward.

Could you share some tips on how expats in Singapore can start a business?

Be Mobile – Stability is a big issue with the expat lifestyle. After living in a few different countries, I have learnt that it’s best to venture out into a business that is mobile. Test the Market – Do a thorough research before starting anything. Know what is different about your product and ensure it creates value.

Register Smart – Always register your business in the country that you intend to operate to benefit from SME programs available.

Reach Out – If you are not a Singapore PR, you can explore going into a business venture with a local business partner who understands the business landscape.

Be HR Savvy – With the right hires, your staff and team can be your biggest asset. Never rush into hiring and always tap both the expat community and the locals. There are many talented people who could be a trailing spouse and happy to work closely with you part-time.

Scope the Talent – Interns are also a great way to cultivate and find talent. The new generation has a lot of potential with their creative perspectives.

Why did you decide on moving to Singapore?

This is the third time my family has lived in Singapore and we all love this cosmopolitan country very much. It’s a melting pot of cultures, races and languages that continue to inspire me every day. It’s a great place to start and grow a business too – with a strong economy, strategic shipping port and hassle-free company setup procedures. There are so many business opportunities here.

Who are your role models?

My biggest role model is Diane Von Furstenberg, a famous Belgian fashion designer. She has five entrepreneurial lessons that I keep very close to my heart:

On being a founder – She taught me that it’s important to be authentic and stick by my values and beliefs to showcase my passion through my craft.

On taking a step back to refocus on business – There are times when I did too many things at once without pacing myself. I learnt to prioritize on what is most important.

On living a balanced life – I was so preoccupied by work that I became too busy for family time. I found my own work-life balance, limiting my working hours to just weekdays from 9am to 5pm.

On scaling the business – I learnt to overcome challenges to reach the next phase of my business; access to good quality and durable products at an affordable price.

On never giving up – Passion and persistence are what matter. Dreams are achievable and you can make your fantasy come true, but there are no shortcuts.

What do you like about Singapore as an expat?

I love Singapore for its secure borders, having a stable government and more importantly, a multicultural society, that is very similar to where I come from. Not forgetting the world-class cuisine, convenience of public transport, great schools, brilliant weather and location. Singaporeans are also friendly and it’s not difficult to be acquainted with locals, especially in the retail scene. With expat clubs like the American Association, there are always social events to mix and mingle with locals too. It’s a great way to connect and find out what’s going on in this beautiful country.