Singapore mumpreneurs: She holds a PhD in medicine but became an accidental fashion designer
Adored by stylish women
Influencer Andrea Chong, entrepreneur Tjin Lee and Sing! China's second runner-up Joanna Dong have one thing in common - they've all worn outfits from The Missing Piece and shared their photos on Instagram.
You'll recognise its cheongsams, dresses and jumpsuits instantly, thanks to the luxe fabrics and a signature cut-out on each side, just above the waist.
I'm a mummy first
Young Parents tracked down the woman behind this under-the-radar label, which launched in end-2015 and organically captured the attention of local celebrities and influencers.
But Dr Fock Ee-ling is quick to dismiss the title of entrepreneur-designer.
"At the end of the day, I would still refer to myself as a mother. Even if The Missing Piece ends today, or in a few years' time, being a mother is what I'll always be for the rest of my life," quips the 36-year-old, who has three children - Jamie, seven; and twins Alana and Cameron, five.
Here, the PhD holder in medicine reveals how she started the successful apparel brand, and her thoughts on achieving a work-life balance as a mumpreneur.
You picked up sewing and started making your own clothes when you were studying in Australia. How did that passion develop?
I'd always loved clothes and fashion. When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Australia, I took up sewing classes and I really enjoyed it. Then I started making my own clothes, which was very therapeutic and calming, and it became a hobby.
It was only after I had kids and moved back to Singapore that I started making matching clothes for my daughter and myself, then for my friends and family, and it grew from there. So, I wouldn't say it's a passion, but more of a hobby.
What were you doing before you ventured into fashion?
I have a PhD in medicine, and I did research in blood disorders for a few years in Australia before going into the corporate world when I moved back to Singapore.
I then worked for Johnson & Johnson, and managed its medical affairs department, a job I enjoyed very much, but had to leave when my husband was posted to the US for six months. I was expecting my first child then.
And, when I came back, I found out I was carrying twins. So, I made the decision to stay home and look after the kids.
The fashion industry is very competitive. Why did you start The Missing Piece?
The Missing Piece was never planned; it started because I was a stay-at-home mum. A lot of people say being a stay-at-home mum is the hardest job you could ever do, and it's very true.
I was going through a phase where I was struggling with losing my identity, and having left the corporate world, I lost a lot of affirmation as well.
I found it very difficult, and The Missing Piece came out of that - it was an outlet for me to do something I enjoyed without it being too difficult.
So I started making matching clothes, and it went on to small capsule collections for family and friends, and the rest is history.
Your pieces for women have a signature cut-out at both sides, above the waist. How did that come about? What is your brand's unique selling point?
From the start, I always design clothes which I and busy mums or women on the go would wear. So, a lot of it has to be comfortable and practicable - I'll only wear a dress if I can move around with the kids, and still look good in it.
I think that's the feedback that I've always gotten, which is why all my customers are return customers. They always come back and buy multiple pieces because it's so comfortable and the cut-outs are at strategic locations, which hide the tummy area.
All mothers - especially when you have multiple kids - will have that tummy, and I have that problem, too. The signature cut-out pieces are designed to hide that problem.
My aim is not to dress models or super skinny people. It's to dress real women, women who are busy and have parts of their body which they want to hide and make less obvious.
Even though the direction has changed and moved towards womenswear - because that's where it has really flourished - I still try to remember the roots of the brand, which is a family store that is targeted at mothers.
So for every collection, I always try to make something for everyone, whether they are new mums, nursing mothers or the ones with grown children.
And, I think that's my unique selling point. I don't follow seasons or trends, but I cater more to what real women need.
Many influencers and celebrities are fans of your pieces. What did you do to get them to support the label?
I haven't really done much marketing (it's probably my weakest point). Everything was by word of mouth and through various social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and it has grown organically since.
I am also very grateful for the right people I've met along the way. When influencers like Tjin Lee (pictured above, right) discover your brand and they start to wear your clothes, this makes the brand take off.
And, how Tjin stumbled onto the brand was really God's timing - or as she would call it, fate. I was at my first fair then, and Tjin was walking around when she chanced upon this green dress on the rack. It was one of a kind as it was the only midi-length item, and Tjin only likes to wear that length. So she tried it on and it fitted her perfectly. She pretty much owns one in every colour now!
She also posted a picture of herself in the dress on Instagram, and the word spread tremendously thereafter. Not only that, she introduced me to Crib - a social enterprise which helps women become successful entrepreneurs - which I'm also very thankful for, as it was through one of their events that I met Andrea Chong and (former DJ) Rosalyn Lee. Since then, they have become my customers - which is very fortunate.
Joanna Dong wearing one of my dresses wasn't planned, either. I think her stylist picked up the dress, and I only found out about it when my friend texted me. It was a very nice surprise as I went to the same school as she did.
So, I've never really done much, but I've much to be thankful for. It's humbling to see those who've chosen to wear The Missing Piece and have showered so much love on it.
The brand grew very rapidly in a short period. Could you give us a sense of the company's growth?
I have two interns now (laughs). When I first launched my collection, it was for around 10 friends, and subsequently for around 20 people in my second drop.
Now, we have over 4,000 loyal followers, we sell our clothes in two stores - Trixilini and Keepers - and we have continuous orders and requests coming in.
And, not long ago, my friend messaged me saying she was at a wedding and there were four people in my dress. My first thought was: Oh no, I hope it's not the same dress. Thankfully, it was four different ones.
So, when you get to the stage where four people are wearing your dresses in one setting, I think that's pretty amazing!
How did you grow the company?
I am a very cautious person. My strategy has always been to put everything I've made from the first collection to the second, and to the next and so on. That's how I keep growing the collections.
I've started to put in more money in the recent years because I've covered all my costs and am able to make it back easily. The margins enable me to do that to produce bigger collections.
But I always said The Missing Piece is a business that has grown organically by its own. I am a religious person, and I always believed it has been a blessing from God.
What are some of the challenges you faced as a mumpreneur?
I guess it's probably the same as all mumpreneurs, and that's striking a balance. Juggling work and not compromising my time with the kids is quite a struggle.
I try to work only in the mornings when they are at school, and at nights when they are asleep, and I end up sleeping late. It takes a lot of discipline to put away the phone and not reply to e-mails, messages and orders when the children are around.
I want to be available, not just physically but emotionally and mentally available for my children. I think every mumpreneur has their own arrangement, and I'm still trying to find one that works best for my family.
Another struggle is that since I come from a medical background, I'm very new to the business side of things. I do need a bit of help and there are certain decisions I need to make - do I want to take the business past a point where it's no longer a hobby? How much more do I want it to grow?
At the end of the day, I don't want to compromise family. So, until my family and the situation with the children are all settled, then will I think a bit more about how to take the business further.
You mentioned that it's not easy to juggle a business and your family. What does work-life balance mean to you? How has your husband supported you?
I don't know if work-life balance is achievable. I think if you can have allocated time for your business and have uninterrupted time with your kids and family without feeling stress, then that's work-life balance.
The only way to have it all, if it's even possible, is the day where you can find someone to do your job for you, or you probably can't have it all. Something's got to give.
But my husband has always been very supportive. Even when I was still at the "hobby stage", he would tell me that it's not important whether this makes money. As long as it helps, and it gives me an outlet from my daily regime with the kids, then do it.
He also shares my excitement, sometimes he's even more excited than me when he hears about the business. From day to day, he can't support much as he works full-time as a doctor. But when I go on sourcing trips during the weekends, he'll take care of the kids on his own.
You can never strike a balance if you didn't have family support.
What are some tips you would give to mums who are starting a business?
Start small, and definitely start it. Do something that you really enjoy because if you're passionate about something, it will work most of the time.
It's also very important to have a support system, especially if you have more than one kids. For me, when I hired interns, it was a lifesaver. Or, if you can get a good helper to help you at home with the kids, it works, too.
Ultimately, manage your expectations of yourself and your business, take small steps and let it grow.
This article was first published in Young Parents