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Thu, Sep 12, 2013
The Business Times
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Sharing in the joy of new mothers
by Jaslene Pang

DECLINING birth rates may be a worry for governments, but for Milky Way, a home- grown company that designs and produces apparel for expectant and breast-feeding mothers which are sold online on its website, they are not an issue.

Established in 2004 by Kay Wong, Milky Way's managing director, the company has been in the black since its second year.

She says: "We are a very niche market and there aren't that many people selling maternity clothes and apparel for breast-feeding mothers in European countries.

"In fact, Singapore brands are very strong in offering maternity and transitional wear. So I think we are on a par with many of the international brands."

Transitional wear are clothes that mothers can don during and after pregnancy and when breast-feeding their children.

Hence, Milky Way is more concerned about the trends in breast-feeding. "Generally, there are more mothers breast-feeding now as women become more well-informed of its benefits. Most hospitals these days encourage breast-feeding as well," Ms Wong says.

She adds that the Year of the Dragon always marks happy times for Milky Way since the Chinese believe it is auspicious to have babies born in that year. Milky Way saw a 30 per cent increase in sales in the latest dragon year in 2012.

Overall, competition has become stiffer over the past eight years, says Ms Wong. But she adds that Milky Way is confident of remaining a leader in the industry.

"It's about embracing the journey of motherhood, so our products are all upbeat, happy and chic. "Women undergo lots of changes during pregnancy and it is a very trying time for them. But pregnancy is also a period of exhilaration. That's why mothers who want a pop of colour, zest, or any sense of celebration should come to Milky Way.

"The journey of motherhood does not have to be perfect, but as mothers, we should enjoy the journey. And I think Milky Way's mothers appreciate this; that's why we have mothers coming to us even though we don't advertise."

That was the spirit driving Milky Way's latest project, which involves turning five pieces of art work by Singapore finger painter Adeline Yeo into articles of clothing.

"This is a very ambitious project. Not all prints translate and there are many different methods of printing. Moreover, Adeline's works are very colourful and hence, very expensive to print. But Adeline's style resonates with what Milky Way is about.

"Our customers are all waiting for this and we already have pre-orders from Australia. I think people find it exciting because this is an actual textile printing instead of getting a printed image on a t-shirt."

Ms Wong says the line is different not just because of the collaboration with Ms Yeo but because the pieces will target all women, not just expectant or post-pregnancy mothers.

She met Ms Yeo during an overseas business trip organised by The Arts House last year. The two hit it off and thought it would be a good idea to work on a project together.

Excited about the launch this Thursday, Ms Wong reveals that she expects some 100 guests at the event. Such launch events can help the company, which relies on online sales, to expand its reach.

Apart from taking part in and organising events at which customers can make their purchases, Milky Way also has its own showroom that opens every weekend to let its clients try on the clothes.

"This is more of a service to mothers, and we also want to meet mothers and welcome them; this is the fun part for us," says Ms Wong.

Today, Milky Way's main market is Australia, which generates about half of its total sales. But Ms Wong says she is trying to increase the company's market share in other countries. "In July, we set up our UK sister site, so anything that customers can get in Singapore can be found in the UK as well. It is growing fast, so it is another main distribution point for us. There are lots of markets that are still untapped, so this is a very exciting time for us.

"We are very nimble due to our small size. So we respond very quickly."

The Singapore brand helps in building Milky Way's overseas presence as well, Ms Wong adds. "The Made-in-Singapore label is very strong in developed countries. About 95 per cent of our production is done in Singapore and we are very proud of our quality. So we make sure the brand stays strong so that our identity stays strong."

However, keeping production in Singapore is not always easy, as many textile companies have downsized. "Our business is about producing and designing, but there aren't many factories around," says Ms Wong. "In fact, the factory I go to has downsized, but luckily they agreed to continue producing for Milky Way exclusively. So we have a dedicated group of people working for us."

But given that the textile manufacturing industry is considered a sunset one in Singapore, the challenge of finding manufacturers here that can help Milky Way to keep its production in Singapore is one that is often at the back of Ms Wong's mind.

"I may have to look outside of Singapore, but when we work with people overseas, quality is an important issue. I don't foresee myself being able to leave the manufacturing to someone else overseas. I am always, and will continue to be, involved in design and production at Milky Way."

But why insist on producing in Singapore where cost is, as Ms Wong herself notes, some 20 per cent higher compared to other countries, and the turnaround time is slower than in countries such as China?

"Keeping it in Singapore means we don't have to deal with taxes, freight charges and things like that, and I feel it is worth the extra money just for the peace of mind and commitment to my manufacturer," she says.

Apart from finding manufacturers, one other challenge Milky Way faces is finding the right manpower.

"We want people with the right skill sets and the same values as us. Initially it was rather difficult to find someone to sit in the office all day to settle our inventories, online orders and so on. But now we have four ladies working permanently with us on flexible hours, so it is very family-friendly for them as well.

"We need our workers to have a thought for our customers because there is plenty of interaction between our staff and our customers. It is easy for me because I am the owner so I feel passionate about my business, but I also need a team to feel the same way as I do. Customer service is also important when we try to differentiate ourselves."

For Ms Wong, solutions to challenges come from looking outside the industry. "You definitely need to understand your market, know your target audience and so on, but looking outside your industry allows you to learn how to reach out to them and how to run your business differently."

And there is still plenty to be done, says Ms Wong. "We are definitely continuing to expand our wholesale arm and build our brand. In fact, we have started to have international models wearing our products.

"We want Milky Way to be a brand that every pregnant lady would think of. I think that our product catches a very special time in people's lives and we are so happy to be able to have this privilege of sharing this joy with mothers."

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