Olivia Lee co-founded The Closeteur with her friend Vivien when she saw a gap in the online market for a vintage retail site in Hong Kong.
Specialising in providing background information and story-telling for the individual pieces, The Closeteur is a great site for people to buy and sell secondhand vintage items in Hong Kong and feel like each item is special. We asked Olivia about starting the company, some of her favourite pieces and where The Closeteur is headed.
Name: Olivia Lee
Occupation: Co-Founder, The Closeteur
Hometown: Edmonton, Alberta
Current Residence: Hong Kong since 2004, 13 years this May!
Your favourite vintage label: I have no specific labels, as I look for style & fit (weakness for wiggle dresses) and era (50’s). Although I do have some dresses under “favourite” by Ceil Chapman in Etsy at this very moment.
Can you give us a bit of background to yourself and how you came to live in Hong Kong?
I was born in Edmonton, Alberta and lived there until I graduated from the University of Alberta. Soon after, I moved to Vancouver where I participated in beauty pageants while looking for a job. After that I followed a childhood friend of mine to go to Hong Kong for a holiday to “refresh” before starting that job search again. My ‘two week stay’ became 4 weeks, then months, until I told my parents I wasn’t planning to come back anymore. They were extremely supportive (they immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in the 70s) and sent me my belongings and I’ve never looked back since!
What were you doing work-wise before The Closeteur?
I had short stints in the education and finance sectors in my first two years in Hong Kong. In 2006, I joined Swiss watch brand Parmigiani Fleurier as the brand manager, where I oversaw the brand and development, it was an exciting time to be in a growing luxury brand at the time. Luxury watches in Hong Kong (and China) was experiencing a rapid growth, it was extremely fulfilling to be a part of a brand’s foray into China, and opening stores in Hong Kong. I left the company in 2009 to start a family, but the burgeoning entrepreneur (to-be) in me couldn’t sit still. Within a month of leaving my job I was already planning an online platform for mums to socialise and share information and news. While I was looking for some freelance work, I came across a company that specialises in fundraising for charities in Asia. It was such a novel idea with a great business model, I couldn’t resist giving up my side business/project. I was offered the role of Operations Director and that role lasted more than four years, in hindsight, it was a very fruitful time as it gave me the opportunity to run a business first hand and gave me the confidence to start my own when the time came. Then that AHA moment came three months after leaving the company.
What was the kickstart for The Closeteur? Was there a moment you just went for it or a progression of things that slowly built up to get it off the ground?
After leaving my job, I was decluttering and selling my dresses on second-hand buy and sell groups on Facebook, and to my surprise, I was selling quite well. I took the time to describe all my items, measured it in details, described my own height, size and style and generally categorised my clothing i.e: “black dresses for every occasion”. Very quickly I had people I didn’t know message me on FB asking me if I had a specific dress they were looking for. It made me feel good, and that my attention to detail “how to style” did help sell my clothes. I knew then and there that if more time and effort was put into the story-telling of the pieces, there are people out there who would buy. The idea appealed to me greatly. Soon after, I asked my now business partner, Vivien, to start this business with me. As two fashion-lovers we saw the value in creating a well-presented site that caters to non-designer clothes for resale. We basically jumped in without any thorough planning, came up with the name a week later and took off building it from there, learning as we went along. It took eight months to plan and set up and we’ve celebrated our 1 year anniversary last November. Since then, the business and concept has changed from the very initial idea; our business is now more about conscious lifestyle that places more focus on fashion. As fashion is one of the second biggest polluters in the world, it makes sense that as fashion consumers we should be more aware and responsible for our choices.
What were some of the major challenges and/or surprises with starting the site and how did you find the reception from others?
There are a lot of challenges and surprises, but I truly believe that is part of the fun and process. One of the biggest challenges is the endless ideas that we have, and the lack of time and man power to execute it all in a timely manner. Another big challenge is staying motivated. It is an emotional roller coaster when you start any business, and sometimes it can feel lonely. It is great to have people around you to keep you inspired, focused, and determined. But when you believe in the idea like we do, it makes it worthwhile.
Regarding the reception of The Closeteur, it is mostly positive. We are on the brink of a new wave of consciousness. More and more people are now realising their impact from years of excess consumption. We are buying 400% more clothes than we did twenty years ago, and we are also not appreciating and taking care of them the same way we would have twenty years ago either, so we are in this for the long run, we are learning about how to be a better (conscious) consumer and world citizens as we go too. That’s why our magazine has gotten wide reception from many of our loyal readers so far - it has a mix of lifestyle, fashion and a little dosage of environmental and green awareness.
I love the concept that all the items are given a great description and story so you know where the item has come from. Do you have a piece (clothing or accessory) on the site that has stood out for you? Maybe your favourite back story to an item?
The item has recently sold, but I had a Prada bag that my mother bought for me in the early 2000s. I was a big fan of Vogue and first spotted this bag in the magazine. It was a huge deal that my Mum found it and got it for me as a graduation present! (It was in Vogue!). I was probably super annoying telling everyone every time I used it, “it was in Vogue!”. It was a sporty orange perforated bag that had done a lot of travelling. I’ve brought it on many trips over the years; Miami, Toronto, Paris, Asia. As Marc Jacobs once said “Clothes means nothing until someone lives in them”. The bag was tucked away in the back of my closet not getting any “life” and now it has made its way to Australia to a new owner.
What are things you look for when vintage shopping - a couple of tips perhaps?
As I tend to buy things online, I usually look for items that has a good return policy, and that the seller has given as much information as possible. For example, I wouldn’t have any problems with minor stains, tears or marks, as, long as, I was expecting it. I look for items that suit my shape and tend to stay away from styles that I know would be unflattering. So, no surprises there! From there I will not take the size of the dress listed, as sizing has changed over the years. I do get excited if there is a story about the item too! Lastly, be open minded and expect to do some minor tailoring if it doesn’t fit.
What exciting things does The Closeteur have in store this year?
There are a lot of exciting things happening. Firstly, we are heading to Melbourne this month as this is the next place we are planning to launch. We will be re-launching our website soon too, and also we’ll be doing some more pop-ups and events. There’s nothing more important than connecting with our customers and meeting new ones too.