Yen Kuok is the founder and CEO of Guiltless, a new luxury consignment website that just launched in Asia. The youngest daughter of billionaire businessman Robert Kuok, her love for e-commerce began while she was still studying at Stanford, and grew steadily as she worked for J.P. Morgan, Google in Beijing and Kerry Properties Ltd. A self-proclaimed former shopaholic, Kuok has since then struck out on her own to develop Guiltless, and has ambitious goals to provide luxury services to a much-misunderstood second-hand market. #legend spoke exclusively to Kuok about her new business pursuit, and got a first-hand peek into the Guiltless treasure trove.
What is special about Guiltless that you can't find anywhere else?
Although the nature of the business is not anything new, the way Guiltless does things and approaches the second-hand industry is very innovative. We want to establish a reputation of having second-hand goods and first-class service. We can say we're the only one of our kind amongst second-hand retailers who first of all, offer free global consignment pick ups. A lot of times, companies, even multi-million dollar companies, don't do global and don't do free pick ups. Secondly, we're very proud of our inventory. We have a very sturdy selection process as we want to lend accountability and the reliability of an established brand. We won't accept a fraying wool sweater because we don't want our customers to receive something like that. Thirdly, and very importantly, we go through the styles. Literally no other consignment store does this. They're not picky when it comes to the style of the item and will take anything as long as it's a big brand, which I don't agree with. Our clothes here are not items you'll only wear to a vintage costume party.
Were you a huge fan of consignment stores before you started your own?
Definitely. I shopped in a lot of American and European online consignment stores. I almost only exclusively shop online for many reasons. The major reason being there's more choices, more variety. I became such an avid shopper at one of the websites, that they actually reached out to me and were like, "Hey, do you want to consign some of your stuff?" And at the time, I was in the States where storage wasn't an issue, so not really. But when I moved back to Hong Kong, I was like, "Actually yes, how do we do this? I've just moved back to Hong Kong." And they were like, "Oh sorry we don't accept consignments outside of the US." And I was like, "Huh! You guys are such big players in the industry, how can you only cater to the US?" And that was something I thought they didn't do well enough in.
In Asia, there's still a stigma against secondhand items. How do you deal with that?
That's exactly the thing. Say you buy something second-hand at a very good price, when they send it to you, everything about their packaging is like a reminder in your face that you bought this second-hand. The clothing tags are very flimsy and the clothes are put into these nylon, waterproof drawstring bags. And for us, we say, "Just because it's second-hand doesn't mean it's not highly covetable." That's why our packaging has to be so luxurious and our customer service has to be spot on. We dry-clean everything at a luxury fashion retailer level. Anyway, I'm not too scared of that. Asia is always just a few beats behind the West. In Europe and America, they started with vintage bags first, just like Hong Kong did with Milan Station. And now they've branched into pre-loved clothing. It's just a matter of time before that trend catches on in Asia. Asia has amazing potential for second-hand items because people are so pressed for space in the city.
Was it hard to launch a new concept - also your first business - here in Hong Kong?
It was very difficult because I guess once you do it once, you sort of understand it better and it's easier, but just going from a consumer to a retailer is a very big leap. It's completely different. It's difficult to run things on a professional scale, and one of the problems we encountered in the beginning was our name. At first we wanted to call ourselves The Guilt Store. But then, Guilt Group basically wrote to us and said no. The name is too similar. So we renamed it into Guiltless, which is a better name, but that took quite a few months and back-and-forth negotiations.
Did your father give you any advice along the way?
He's not an I.T. guy, to put it mildly. He doesn't even know how to text. He has a stockpile of Nokia because he's so afraid they're going to run out of stock. He's very old school. He thinks tech will be the end of mankind. And also, he's born in an age where fashion is not a thing to him. It's not a daily essential. He believes much more in putting a roof over people's head, which is real estate, believes much more in bringing food and grains. And so for us to be an Internet, fashion, secondhand start-up he's just like, whoa. The advice he gave me that was very useful was always to imagine yourself as the sneakiest and craftiest customer who is trying to cheat you in every way possible. Basically think of these scenarios and work up protocols to prevent that from happening. That's why we've taken so long in the preparation stage because we've been working with our lawyers. Let's say a consigner sends you something and you realize it's fake and you send it back, and they're like, "Why are you sending me a fake version of what I sent you?" No second-hand store does anything about that and it's like a gaping hole in the industry. I guess luckily people haven't wizened up. But for us we had to think about how to combat that.
Would you call yourself a shopaholic?
Not anymore. I used to be, very much so. I don't know why. I'm very savvy at getting a good deal. I never want to pay full price for things. It's happened to be so many times before where I see something, let's say an Olympia Le-Tan's book clutches. So. Cute. So I'm like, "I must buy it." Three weeks later, it's 50 per cent off. I hate that feeling of being duped. For me now, I'm a very savvy shopper. I've also gotten to the point where I have too much stuff. All the things I buy are in similar colours, similar styles. So I'm not really a shopaholic anymore. I definitely used to be.
What was something you bought that you ended up regretting?
So many things! I have to say I've gotten some gowns that I ended up regretting because I haven't worn them. And now there are newer, prettier gowns and so I'll never wear them. But gowns cost quite a lot. I don't know what to do with them.
Exactly. Exactly! I was fishing for that. But yes, those were pretty regretful purchases.
What happens when someone consigns their stuff and later regrets it and wants to take them back?
We do allow that, but we charge a handling fee. It also depends on the stage your item is at. Let's say it's put online and it's already sold and you say, "No I'm just kidding I want it back," then there's nothing we can do about it. But if your item is still online, then yes, we can pull it for you. It also depends on how long your item has been with us. It's almost like a countdown. If it's been with us for almost 11 months than we won't charge you anything above the dry-cleaning fees. But if you want to withdraw it within the month, then we'll charge a surplus on top of dry-cleaning. But you don't have to buy the item back.
Who is your style inspiration?
Anna Dello Russo. She's an Italian fashionista who's the editor-at-large for Vogue Japan. She's in her fifties. I would say she's my fashion role model now. What she's wearing now is what I would wear now. What she wears is very funky, very fun, very playful. There's a lot of colours, textures, there's a lot of cutesy, quirky things. I really like that. And I think fashion should be fun. The two words share the same first letter. It should make you happy.
How do people consign their fashion items with you?
We haven't launched our consignment platform so it's mostly word-by-mouth. Most of our consignments are from Hong Kong at this stage. Because we've just launched, consignments aren't something we want to push just yet publicly. A lot of the stock we have right now are our own inventory. We bought them either directly from the suppliers or overseas or the partners we work with.
Right now there's only women's fashion but on the website there's a lot more categories in home decor and lifestyle. Is that something you're going to add to your inventory?
That is something we will actually be willing to receive now. We're going to expand into menswear and childrenswear. Things you can see on the website, lifestyle goods, gadgets, we accept them. They can be limited edition Karl Lagerfeld dolls, Dr Dre headphones, Beats Pill.
Who's the kind of women who will shop at Guiltless?
Age-wise, anyone from 17 to their late 40s, early 50s. In terms of non-age selection, everyone. As long as it's the right size and they're able to see themselves in it. Because who wouldn't like a good deal?