SINGAPORE - Amid the uninspiring administrative work of their national service days, creative types Lionel Low and Hariz Lim hit upon an idea that has since resulted in fashion label Lion Earl.
"Being the only two in that office with an arts background, I think we clicked," says Mr Low, a fashion graduate from La Salle College of the Arts.
As he has long drawn inspiration for his designs from architecture and Mr Lim had studied architecture at Singapore Polytechnic, collaboration became a natural prospect.
"But the opportunity didn't actually come till much later," recalls Mr Lim, now an architecture undergraduate at National University of Singapore.
That came with the chance to be part of fashion design incubator project, Parco next NEXT, a joint initiative of Parco (Singapore) and the Textile & Fashion Federation (Singapore) that is supported by Spring Singapore.
Lion Earl was officially launched in April this year, part of a third batch of 18 designers to be incubated at the Millenia Walk retail space.
But planning began a full year earlier, with an initial investment of $12,500 to secure the maximum possible funding from Spring Singapore.
And the two 24-year-olds pumped in more funds along the way to bring their total investment in the start-up so far to between $20,000 and $25,000 - a combination of their own savings and family support.
"Lion Earl" actually came about as no more than a pun on Mr Low's name and the fact that he likes Earl Grey ice cream.
"But we figured out another answer too," he laughs.
"It's a play on alphabets from both our names, the "ar" in Hariz and in "architecture", and the "ion" in fashion," says Mr Lim.
That reflects the synthesis of architecture and fashion in Lion Earl's designs.
The heavy influence of urban architecture in his designs results in structured, exaggerated silhouettes, Mr Low says.
Although he sketches when inspiration strikes, and sometimes while listening to music, Mr Low says that his designs do not exist in a vacuum.
"We did a few market research projects on our target audience to find out the needs of people of this generation and of this era. And from there, we came up with creative solutions that meet those needs, sketches and designs with functions to them," he says.
That is also how Lion Earl differentiates itself as a design label, the duo say.
"Traditional womenswear is often soft, feminine. Ours is more structured, making her look like she's a bionic woman of the future," says Mr Low.
He sees this as answering to the "modern-day woman" whom he designs for and who is revealed through their market research.
"More women now are more independent, they are not afraid of who they are. They want to express themselves," says Mr Low.
That feeds also into the overall concept and thinking behind the aesthetics of the label's logo - such as the gender-neutral, strong font - and other graphic designs and the concepts behind its campaigns, which Mr Lim plays a larger role in.
Some forward-thinking has gone into that, they share.
"We want to inject a lifestyle essence into Lion Earl, so we can go into product design and come up with heels, bags or accessories in the future," says Mr Low.
There are plans to expand into menswear too, they share.
Apart from the 269 sq ft space rented at a subsidised rate at Millenia Walk, the label is now also stocked at multi-label store Threadbare & Squirrel and on several online portals.
"Business has been okay, sales have been quite good," says Mr Low.
For now, keeping costs low is a priority, so they have no intention to open a full-fledged physical store.
"We can use the money saved to improve the quality of our products," says Mr Low.
They have plans for Lion Earl beyond Singapore's shores too and intend to export to regional markets such as Taiwan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea soon.
"We are working things out with a Taiwan multi-label store at the moment . . . We aim to go into exporting with our Spring '13 - next year's collection," says Mr Low.
They will also be visiting multi-label stores in Shanghai in January to see if any will stock Lion Earl.
"I won't say it's been smooth," Mr Lim says of their journey into the world of business so far.
For instance, there were the times when production was tardy.
"There were down times, when the goods were late and we had to churn out things to showcase. But now, we've grasped the concept of time better, so it's functioning better," Mr Low says.
"It's been challenging, but we have been fortunate because general support for local fashion designers has been growing. Rewind two, three years, local designers were pretty much unheard of. The community of local designers promoting themselves and spreading the word, that's been helping not just us but other local labels as well," he adds.
Being part of an incubator project also offered more value than the cost-savings from subsidised rentals. "We had courses to prepare us for the business aspect of things. We learnt about customer service and how to react to different situations on the sales floor," says Mr Low.
Also helpful were the two industry veterans, Daniel Yam and Paul Khor, who were their mentors as part of the incubator project.
"We get to discuss and share our ideas with them, and they offer us feedback, but without directly changing our designs," says Mr Low.
On the creative side, this has meant guiding them on the choice of fabrics, and how to conduct quality inspections on finished products.
"And for the business side, it's how to govern your retail price, how to do promos, and generic feedback on what consumers are looking for," he adds.
Mr Lim says the respect these fashion veterans have for the ideas of young designers like themselves helps: "While they appreciate your designs and concepts, they will also tell you what sells, what doesn't sell, and suggest that if possible, do more of what sells. So we do more of what sells, as long as it stays true to our concept!" adds Mr Low.
In fact, even before starting Lion Earl, Mr Low sought internships with more established designers, something he intends to continue.
He counts Nicholas Wong, head of the label Saturday, Kevin Seah, who has a bespoke menswear range, and fashion stylist Kovit Ang among his mentors.
"It's a neverending journey, from them I learn and apply," he says.
Learning also comes from interacting with their customers and understanding them better.
Most are working executives in middle management, women in the 28-40 age bracket who may not be from creative backgrounds but have an interest in the arts, film or music, Mr Lim says.
There is no escaping the design industry for either.
"If I did not have my own label, I'd still be designing. I'd love to be a fine artist or a sculpture maker too," says Mr Low, who sculpts with papier-mache in his free time.
Mr Lim is set on practising architecture when he graduates, but not at the expense of Lion Earl.
He intends to join a local architecture firm that will allow him the flexibility to divide his time between his day job and growing the fashion start-up.
There is also the idea that the two toyed with before the opportunity to join the fashion incubator came along, which has been placed on the back-burner for now.
"If not for Parco next NEXT, we'd probably be setting up a design studio, a cross-disciplinary one. It would do graphic design, some print, advertising and interior design," says Mr Lim.