Vriko Kwok: From Selling Fish to Fashion Millionaire

Photo by Jim Megou

Vriko Kwok is the founder of Poupée de Papier, an international fashion and handbag brand. With roots in Paris, Poupée de Papier–which means paper doll in French–has expanded to become a fashion sensation, with thousands of bags sold around the world. Vriko shares her story of founding the brand at 23, her experience as an entrepreneur, and gives advice how others can follow their dreams.

Can you tell us about your background?

I’m 24, before I started Poupée de Papier, I was a translation student in Hong Kong, then I went into Scandinavian studies in Norway. Traveling is my biggest passion. I travel 200+ days every year, and so far I’ve been to 50 countries. Traveling has greatly shaped my personality and values. We are often told that there is only one standard of beauty, but when you travel, the world tells you a different story: The beauty of diversity. That is something I want women to celebrate. This became the foundation of Poupée de Papier. We celebrate a fun and colorful lifestyle, and that is reflected in everything from our underlying brand philosophy down to our designs.

How has travel affected you & your work?

Every day is a new learning experience. Traveling teaches us how tiny we are in front of the world. Yet somehow your unique experiences in different places inspire you to see things differently. I love to extend my traveling story into my designs too.

For instance, living in Los Angeles was one of the happiest times of my life. Life there is colorful, the weather is always nice, and there is a spirit of being young and free. That inspired my first collection, Lala Stunner.

I love putting my travel stories into my designs, and letting the spirit of travel live in another form. This is also the backbone of our social media hashtag #MyBagMyStory on Instagram.

Just do what you love and you become great at it, the money will come.

Why did you decide to produce handbags?

I love handbags. I don’t know why. Since I can remember actually, I’ve been fascinated with all sort of handbags. I think I can actually tell which handbag someone is using in just a glimpse.

Lots of people have dreams of making a fashion brand, but how did you make it a reality?

My mother had been in European fashion trading for over 30 years, and growing up I often traveled with her and got in touch with the industry. When I was 16, I went and lived in Milan for a summer, where I picked up some fashion design skills. And soon after studying in Norway, I went to Paris to learn how to really put together a design.

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Vriko and her Godsister Tata Miyamoto, photo by Jim Megou

So you learned in Paris, and then what did you do?

Then I went back to Hong Kong with the design draft, and went on to produce the first sample. I commissioned a test run, and after I was done, my bank account had only 50 Hong Kong dollars left.

Wow, that’s only $7 US dollars left.

Basically I had no money at all, so I figured well, shit, this isn’t gonna work. It’s really important for a business to be sustainable; you have to have cash flow.

I knew that my parents, who are both business owners, would be willing to finance my business, but I figured, well, I’ve only got 50HKD left in my bank account so basically I have nothing to lose anyway. So in order to sustain my business, I went back to the fish market in Bergen, Norway, the largest fish market in Europe, and worked there for a summer. Since I speak multiple languages, they paid me really well. That was quite an experience.

That is tough, do you think you were trying to prove something to yourself by taking a more difficult path?

One thing I believe is that if you make your own money, you will invest it more wisely. At least if I fail, I can say that it was my money that I invested.

During that summer, I would clean the floor, make sandwiches, wait tables, sell caviar. It was hard. I would work until 12 or 1 am, go back home and work on my business, then it was 6 am again. It was 4 months like that, some very tough work.

I have maids at home, I never had to wash dishes or clean floors. But without that experience, I wouldn’t be appreciating every penny that I’ve earned so far.

That’s a great story.

I still remember when I was working at the fish market, and people would ask me, “So hey, where are you from?”, especially Hong Kong people, and Chinese people would ask, “So what are you doing here?” They would recognize that I was from their home, and I would say, “I’m working here to save up, yeah I design handbags as well.” I still remember many Chinese would give me that face, “Oh, you’re selling fish and you design handbags? The two don’t go together, you’re doomed to fail.” You just get that every single day and it motivates you to move forward and work harder.

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Poupée de Papier staff members, Boey, Angela, Maggie, Sharon & Rita

Did you know it was going to be successful? Or did you just love your bags so you decided to do it?

I remember one thing I was told by a good friend. You can love something so much, but if you think about the money, it loses all the fun. Just do what you love and you become great at it, the money will come. To be honest, I didn’t know that it would be what it is today.

When I first started, my mom said my design was very ugly, and it wasn’t gonna work.

What? Your mom told you that?

Yeah, my mom said, “This bag is everywhere. I don’t think you can make it.” But she
said it because she wanted to protect me. She doesn’t want me to try everything and fail. But of course my parents are very supportive. I have the most supportive family I could ask for.

How did you market your bags in the beginning?

There is this golden proverb in Chinese:

Provide what the market does not, 人無我有
Provide a better quality version of what the market does have, 人有我優
Provide a less expensive version of good quality products, 人優我廉
Walk away when everything becomes inexpensive, 人廉我跑

Learn your strength & always pay attention to the market. This is the golden rule I always follow.

As for my handbag business, women will always buy handbags, but it is important to differentiate your brand from the market and hopefully, win your target crowd over. Our handbags are very colorful, with fine quality at an affordable price. I want every woman to be able to embrace her true colors and style herself with her own attitude.

Quoting my idol Iris Apfel, “Fashion you can buy, but style you possess. The key to style is learning who you are, which takes years. There’s no how-to road map to style. It’s about self-expression and, above all, attitude.”

I believe that standing by our founding philosophy will eventually lead us to the right crowd and help us grow.

Every woman can be beautiful if they are confident and comfortable in their skin.

So how long did it take to make your first sale?

It wasn’t that long because my godsister used her network to help me promote my products. Lots of her customers took her advice to shop with me.

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Vriko and Iris Apfel

If you were starting a new brand with no connections, how would you bring in
sales?

In today’s market, I would recommend making good use of social media platforms and showcasing the philosophy of your brand to attract the right crowd and grow it from there.

Where do you get most of your sales? Facebook ads? Sponsoring bloggers, or like organic traffic, when someone searches “Great Handbag”?

Definitely not organic traffic. There is nothing like this. (Laughs) I know it’s really sad. Facebook is one important channel.

I would say advertisements on Facebook are only the beginning, after that it’s about how you communicate with your customers and learn about their needs. A customer may only get one bag, but if you do it right, word of mouth will connect you to her friends too.

I also sponsor fashion bloggers, many of them are friends I met while living in the States or Europe. Some I met at fashion events. It does help.

So what about the fashion bloggers? Earlier you mentioned to sponsor fashion
bloggers, how does that work?

At first I was everywhere, I sponsored every girl that I thought was cute or with a lot of followers. But displaying the bags to the wrong crowd is a waste of resources & could even result in bad publicity.

So now I target bloggers that style their outfits with assorted new brands, or someone whose target audience matches mine. And we work with girls of different colors, different styles, different sizes. This is another way for us to display our philosophy, the beauty of diversity. I don’t think there is only one standard of beauty; every woman can be beautiful if they are confident and comfortable in their skin.

Can you get into some of the details? Do you just email someone and say I’ll pay you X to review my bag? How does it work?

It doesn’t work like that most of the time. Many times, popular bloggers that can actually transfer a sponsorship into sales usually have agents or a manager. So you contact the agency and do it. Sometimes if you get lucky you can just contact them. One key reason to contact fashion bloggers is that they provide good photos. Of course some bring in sales, but it’s not just that. You need to pay a lot to get them sometimes.

How much might a successful blogger get paid?

Ok, I can give you the market price. One girl is from Australia has 500,000 followers on Instagram. Very interactive fan base. And she charges about $1,000 US per Instagram post. You need to send her all the products for free, etc. That is on the high end, but it can get quite expensive.

So in return, she will link to your profile, and you get to use her picture on your profile page?

Yes, that’s how it works, and she’ll tag your Instagram and, you really need to prepare. For example if you’re sponsoring her in one color, you need to anticipate how many sales she’s going to bring in. You need to have the stock ready, and be able to give a good experience for the customers she’s bringing in, so they can be happy customers.

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So if you get a successful fashion blogger to talk about your brand, how much of a sales boost can you expect?

Usually 6 to 8 times. So If I sponsor someone for $1,000 US, I’m expecting them to bring in $6,000 to $8,000 US in sales. But it doesn’t work like that in Hong Kong. In the west, the US, Australia, New Zealand, UK, it will work like this, but it doesn’t reflect the Hong Kong market.

Do you mind saying roughly how many bags you sell a month?

In low season, roughly 1,000–1,500, but in a good month we sell around 3,000-4,000 bags. According to our performance so far, we should reach an annual revenue of $2 million USD this financial year.

That’s awesome. But how long did it take you to get to 1,000 a month?

I started last summer, and in the beginning, I had around 100 bag sales a month. At that time, it was more like a trial thing, and I was sitting in my room with the stock. But then I got a studio and an office to work on my orders, and I started hiring people, and I reinvested the profits I had made. During Chinese New Year 2015 we started working with marketing experts to develop a more engaging marketing solution for our brand.

It really made a difference; it drew in a lot of sales and traffic. It brought in a lot of new customers. After that I had no hesitation anymore, I decided to make it big. I hired more people and started to launch new handbag designs. With more money and new designs invested in it, it really grew the business; and we slowly eased into 1,000 sales a month.

How do you prevent fakes? Are they a problem for your business?

There are different layers of work actually. First you need the brand name really to be part of the product. Then you need the packaging to be part of the product. We differentiate ourselves from other local handbag brands, and we trademarked our logo around the globe. Once you are trademarked, you can proceed into legal action against people that violated your design.

Have you had to do that?

So far I haven’t, so I’m really blessed. I would say it would be very difficult for them to do it as well. My handbags have too many colors! If you try to do a fake of LaLa Stunner, you’d have to do 12 colors. That’s quite an investment.

Speaking of trademarking all over the world, what are your biggest markets?

I would say Hong Kong and the States. Hong Kong takes about 70%, but it’s really
interesting, in the past few months, we’ve seen the U.S. and Australian markets on the heels of the Hong Kong market. So we’ve started to get a lot of new customers from the States.

It’s nice to have a dream, but it’s even nicer to have that dream come true.

Is that because you started to sponsor some U.S. style bloggers?

Yeah, it was that, and we also did a lot of advertisements on Facebook, and you know, really targeting the U.S. market. It was also because, on Instagram, we started to follow a lot of American customers and started really interacting with them. We also started to organize our Pinterest, which really brings in customers.

Does someone need to speak Chinese to work with a Chinese factory?

[Laughs] No. It’s really funny. Every factory in China has an English-speaking guy, so they always have one particular English speaking person to help you. It’s just that if you speak Chinese you’ll understand if they are scamming you. But they scam the Chinese anyway.

What sort of scam?

Overcharging you, or lets say you pay for A-type leather and they give you B-type leather.

What do you do if you get B-type leather?

The thing is, you really have to bargain with them.

So you return them, you move to a new factory, or what?

Well, you can’t just work with a Chinese factory the way you work with another factory in the world. For example, I told them my bag needs to be made with A-type leather, with this kind of technique, and all of the fringes have to be colored by hand, etc. So this is the order. You can’t just make your order, pay for your order, leave, and expect it to be right. You have to follow up, you need to work smart.

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Photo by Jim Megou

Can you describe your experience as a young, female entrepreneur?

It’s pretty amusing, because 6 months ago I joined the Hong Kong General Chamber of Young Entrepreneurs. In the Chamber, the average age must be over 35. The proportion of men to women is 8/2 or 7/3. At 23, I was the youngest chamber member, and when you look at the statistics, only 4.4% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies are women. You can’t help but ask, where are the ladies?

However, in my own experience—maybe it’s because of my business nature—I think being a female is a plus as we know what our fellow ladies want for handbags, and so far I have been lucky enough to meet many pioneers that are willing to share their experience with me.

What are your goals for Poupée de Papier and yourself as a businesswoman?

In the short term, I want to fully expand our market share in the US. I recently attended some fashion week events in the States and am blessed enough to have met many fashion directors from leading department stores and brands. Hopefully that will help.

In the long run, [laughter] well, all I can say is I do look up to fashion gurus like Rebecca Minkoff & Tory Burch.

What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs, particularly female entrepreneurs, who as you mentioned are underrepresented?

My advice would be, it’s nice to have a dream, but it’s even nicer to have that dream come true. You don’t want to dream about it every night; you want to do it everyday. If you have a dream, if you have something you want to do, I wouldn’t just say, “OK, go do it.” That’s not how it works. Learn about yourself and your situation. Seek help. Surround yourself with the right people. Be kind and grateful. Good attitude will lead you to good people, and people, very often, are the key to your success.

Anything else?

Success doesn’t just come to everybody. You need to work hard, be grateful, and give
back to make it work. I’m blessed to have all these opportunities, and anyone who wants to learn more can contact me at any time, I love meeting new friends.

Keep up with Vriko on her Instagram and Poupée de Papier on their Facebook page.

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