We chat with co-founder Coral Chung about how this cool direct-to-consumer retailer became the bag of choice of It Girls all over the world. IR: Senreve is a digitally native brand, but physical stores seem to be a core part of your strategy, like the recent pop-up store at Pacific Place in Hong Kong. Coral Chung: We’ve always thought of ourselves as omnichannel and customer-centric, so [physical retail] is a service we provide for women who want to see, play and touch our products in person.
rson. We’re less of a pure distribution channel; it’s much more about brand and customer relationship building — that’s what our physical stores are. We get a lot of demand to see our products physically, and I think it’s understandable because we are a young brand and our products are very multifaceted. We’re multifaceted bags for a multifaceted woman; They’re not straightforward. People want to wear them as a backpack and in different ways. Part of our goal is to create opportunities for people to interact with our products in person and to satisfy that, we’ve done it in a bunch of different ways. We have our permanent flagship store in San Francisco with our office cleverly attached to it, so it’s like a laboratory for the team, who can always communicate with our customers. Some people will fly in from Singapore and be in the city for just two days. They’ll come in to meet the team and say, “Wow, the CEO and founder is there!” It’s a way for us to make a personal connection, which is great for our brand. It’s an amazing community hub, where we host a lot of events like entrepreneurship panels. That’s how we think about retail. It’s not really the traditional retail framework. We’ve done some partnerships and pop-ins in the US with department stores like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. Then we’ve partnered with Fred Segal in LA and a high-end lifestyle boutique called Artifacts in Taiwan. We’ve also done pop-ins with local art galleries and brands, sometimes just for a weekend. Lastly, we’ve done pop-ups like Pacific Place. It’s been so successful that we want to do a few others in Asia, like Mainland China and Singapore. Then we have plans to do one more in Hong Kong around the holidays. Senreve is aimed at the modern, multi-faceted woman, says Chung. Image: Supplied, IR: Let’s talk about Senreve’s current expansion into Asia and the strategy behind it. CC: Like with many things, we have a very organic approach, and so in Asia, we saw that there was just tremendous organic demand very early on. At the time, we had not made any specific efforts to localise marketing or product, we didn’t have anyone on the ground on our team, but we saw interesting customer behaviour. I did a small private event with an art gallery in Hong Kong, and it was wildly successful. People loved our product, the quality and price point. Asian customers are extremely discerning. They’re savvy and confident; they own many luxury bags, so they can see through some of the marketing stuff. They were like, “The quality is amazing, the design is clean and minimal. I feel special using your brand because I don’t see it everywhere.” That positive feedback really seeded this idea that we should really start thinking about Asia more purposefully because of that organic demand. The other thing is my cultural heritage and the time I’d previously spent in Asia. I started my career in Hong Kong and worked throughout Singapore, Mainland China and Taiwan — all over — and I had such an affinity and understanding of the market. I knew Senreve would be successful there, so it’s a combination of having that instinct and that early demand. Coral Chung, co-founder of Senreve. Image: Supplied. IR: Tell me about your digital strategy in Asia. CC: We’re very nimble; we’re always testing different things. We actually started with WeChat and Little Red Book [Xiaohongshu], and we worked with various influencers and participated in holiday campaigns for China specifically. We launched Tmall recently, but haven’t done a huge marketing push there yet. It’s still in the soft-launch stage, but it’s been very strong in terms of performance. In the first week, we hit a million RMB in sales. It’s exciting because Tmall shares a lot of data and a lot of the demand is organic. People are already searching for Senreve, the Maestra or Aria bag — they’re excited we’re finally available on Tmall. In terms of our mid- to longer-term strategy, there are a couple of things. We want really localised market-specific campaigns like influencer partnerships, and that includes localised relevant holiday campaigns. It’s something we discuss with our US marketing team a lot. A lot of Western brands are centred around holidays in the US, like Memorial Day, July 4th or Labor Day — these things don’t mean anything to anyone outside the US. We’re re-orienting our entire marketing calendar around that, so we have a more international approach. It just makes sense. It’s not rocket science, but it’s hard to execute. You need to have a global mindset. Those are some of our main strategies. It’s amalgamous to what we’ve done in the US, but we’re customising it for Asia. That includes product, too. We did the exclusive Luna launch at Pacific Place. It was designed for a petite Asian woman. In the same way that the [Hermès] Birkin and Kelly bags are from the same family but they’re quite distinctive, that’s how we thought about the Maestra and Luna (“master” and “student” in Italian). That was a great launch, and the bag has become popular globally. We have more than 1000 people on the waitlist, and we’re working towards a global launch for that. We’ll do things like that which are exclusive and Asia-first, see how it goes, then introduce it internationally. IR: It’s interesting you decided to launch into the luxury bag category because it’s a hugely saturated market, filled with huge brands that have iconic bags with so much heritage. So it’s quite a feat to have created your own It bag like the Maestra. CC: If you rewind a few years ago when I was thinking about the concept of Senreve and speaking to a lot of advisors and mentors who were former CEOs of major luxury brands, the feedback was, “You’re crazy.” I was at a hot tech unicorn startup, and people were saying, “Wow, you’re walking away from so much. It’s going to go public, why don’t you just invest and not worry about [your business] because it’s so competitive?” But in the Senreve world, we talk about how art meets science and Senreve means “sense” and “dream”. It’s about the existence of those dichotomies. It’s about how the modern woman shouldn’t make a trade-off between what’s luxurious and what’s versatile and practical. I felt very strongly that as women’s lifestyles and preferences and behaviours have shifted, traditional luxury brands haven’t shifted with them. I think e-commerce and this direct-to-consumer [DTC] business model is a huge portion of us making that shift. We have an open dialogue with our customers, and luxury brands don’t do that. Because of all the disruption and change in retail, new brands and new ways of doing things are emerging. I felt it was a really critical time for me to start this company. The market dynamics were just ripe for disruption and I had a specific product vision to complement that. Senreve has now become known for our convertible luxury bag. Before the Maestra came out, there wasn’t that category in some ways. We have established this innovation and category, in some ways. I think quality and the DTC pricepoints are huge elements of it and lastly, we think about the brand, the story and our products in a much more culturally relevant way. We’re focused on female empowerment and we want to use our platform as a voice for good. We care about sustainability and creating a better world for our kids. All these things are genuine and authentic to our brand, and they resonate with people. The Senreve store at Pacific Place in Hong Kong. Image: Supplied. IR: These days, I think good online trailers are a mix of fashion, tech, marketing and logistics — you need all of them to make it work. You and co-founder Wendy Wen didn’t come from a fashion background, though. What was it like to enter this market that way? CC: I had enough of a fashion background to be dangerous, if you will. I had spent a little bit of time at Prada, and while I was at [data analytics company] Medallia, I worked with a lot of clients who were top brands and retailers from around the world, ranging from Sephora to Apple. So from a knowledge and strategy perspective, I felt like I had some insight that I was quite confident about, but my gap was in operations. Senreve was stealth for 18 months when I spent a lot of time learning about design, product, development, materials and meeting with many different groups all over Italy, Europe, Asia, China, the US. I just took that time to really learn and absorb. It was so important because to start a company from the ground up as a founder; you really need to know all those operational details. That investment and time has paid off tremendously. As an example, we work with manufacturers in Italy that work with some of the world’s top luxury brands. They won’t randomly pick up anyone’s call. It required a lot of upfront relationship and trust-building and demonstration of knowledge and seriousness to show I wasn’t just this random lady from California! It required a lot of scrappiness and leveraging of my networks; it required being resilient to people saying no or who were pointing out obstacles and saying this wasn’t really realistic. Putting the time and work into it was really important. IR: What are some of the invaluable lessons you learnt from your previous roles in tech? CC: I’ve been fortunate to work at companies with amazing cultures. I think part of the old-school fashion culture is like The Devil Wears Prada. The movie makes fun of [the industry], but to a degree, there’s some truth to it — there’s the impression that it’s catty and cliquey. From a culture perspective, as a disruptive luxury brand, I think of our culture more like a Silicon Valley tech company in some ways, or [consulting firm] Bain & Company — companies that have amazing cultures. What does that mean? That means there’s a culture based on innovation; it’s not one of fear. It’s based on the idea that people support each other through mistakes and challenges, and everything is based on open, honest, direct feedback, whether it’s from the community, customers or within the team. It’s something we absolutely aspire to and it’s a big priority for us. It includes other things like leadership and diversity, and I recently committed to having a person of colour on our board at the most senior level. These types of values are really important. IR: Let’s be honest, there’s always been a certain level of elitism and unapproachability around traditional luxury brands and a lot of stores have been created in a way to keep people out, not welcome them in. CC: On the one hand, there are so many things we want to honour about traditional luxury, like the craftsmanship, design and effort that goes into each product. But on the other hand, there are other things we want to shine a light on in the traditional industry, like practices that are from the past. How do we create a little bit more inclusivity and re-define the experience for the more modern woman? Traditional luxury brands have a very narrow customer segment that they’re trying to meet the needs of. Often, it’s a woman who lives on Madison Avenue with a driver and her bags are merely ornamental. She usually has someone who carries her bags. But women are more multifaceted now. Senreve is about a lifestyle, a mindset and an attitude that’s more progressive and modern. That’s the woman who we’re serving and we’re empowering her with the products that she really wants and needs in her life. The other thing is some traditional luxury retailers honestly do some crazy things to preserve their brands. There was a big expose on those big fashion and luxury brands that burn millions of dollars’ worth of product. We want to do things differently. We have a huge opportunity to do things more sustainably and not over-produce. Everything we produce is sold, is used and appreciated, we’d never burn our products. We started our handbag revival program last year. Twice a year, we sell gently used or almost-perfect bags or sample items with a substantial [discount] to our customers. That transparency and open communication are really rare, so we’re certainly taking risks when doing things like that, but I think it’s important. That’s the point of being a new brand. We have an opportunity to set a new standard, and I think women appreciate that. One of the things we take seriously is that we presume intelligence in regards to our customers. We assume they’re savvy and intelligent; everything we do has to be fact-checked and researched, and we get a lot of feedback if we even make a typo in an e-newsletter — they’ll call us out on that. It’s great because it holds us to such a high standard and that standard of finish and perfection is what we want to carry on in luxury. IR: Earlier this year, Senreve received $16.75 million in series A funding from Norwest, so now you’ve raised more than $23 million since it launched. What are your plans around that investment? CC: It’s three-fold. One is the geographical expansion that we’ve talked about. We’re starting to establish ourselves as a global brand and thinking about what it means from an infrastructure and operations perspective. The second is growing our team and preparing for that global scale. The third is investing in the product, continuing to expand the assortment and exploring other product categories. The fourth one was around physical retail, but obviously, that’s changed because of Covid. IR: You deliberately went looking for a female investor. Why was that important to you? CC: We’re all about women supporting women at Senreve; it’s in our ecosystem. There are very few female investors at top venture capital firms, and there are few founders and entrepreneurs who get venture capital and private equity funding. If you look at any of the stats, it’s ridiculous — only two per cent of female entrepreneurs or founders or execs get venture capital funding. It’s so skewed. It’s not close to being 50 per cent and similarly, less than 10 per cent of partners at these funds are female. IR: Was it hard finding a female investor who fits with Senreve? What was that process like? CC: Finding fit with an investor is really challenging in general. It’s very much like a marriage in some ways. It’s a long-term relationship. I think taking on capital changes things about a company, whether it’s the leadership, the growth trajectory or the fundamental expectations and strategy. To me, it was important to find someone who is aligned with my vision. That was first and foremost. And we wanted someone who is really eyes wide open about it. I love Sonya [Brown] because she’s got experience investing in female entrepreneurs with various levels of success. I just thought she was a great fit from many different perspectives for us. I felt strongly that it was important to have female representation on our board to support women. I felt it would be inauthentic for us to say, “We’re a female empowerment brand, but all our board men are elderly white males.” It’s cognitive dissonance. I’m excited we’re going to continue to be successful, and I think the more proof points there are, the better. When you try to think of a female entrepreneur who has done well, there aren’t many examples. I wanted to take this opportunity to generate more proof points and hopefully inspire more female entrepreneurs and investors in the future. This article was originally published in the Inside Retail Asia November quarterly magazine.