In this edition of ‘How to Succeed‘, we speak to Lisa Cheng, the spunky founder of Sheer, about the search for the perfect bra, the launching of her business and the brand’s upcoming 10th anniversary.
It’s been a hectic but fruitful journey for Lisa Cheng. Growing up in Bangkok, studying in New York, and then eventually arriving in Hong Kong as an adult to discover the city her parents grew up in; she truly is a modern woman of the world.
Cheng started her career in the beauty industry, spending almost a decade as a product developer and marketer for multinational firms. At aged 29, following a serendipitous chain of events that led her to realise a gap in the luxury lingerie market, Sheer was born.
“When I first came to Hong Kong, I had to buy a strapless bra for a dress. I was unfamiliar with the city so I asked my friends for suggestions. To my surprise, they were all like ‘We don’t buy bras in Hong Kong’,” she says. “I discerned quite quickly that there weren’t a lot of options for well-made lingerie here. You either get the mass-produced brands that you see all over billboards, or you have the extremely high-end, extremely luxury brands that can cost HK$5,000 for a bra!”
In the decade since Cheng launched Sheer, she and her team have served thousands of grateful customers, offering a second-to-none fitting and sizing experience.
What makes the purchasing experience at Sheer stand out from other boutiques?
I’ll preface this by saying I think Hong Kong has improved a lot over the last 10 years. Back then, the staff you encounter while lingerie shopping tend to be fairly snobby. I mean, lingerie shopping itself is quite intimidating! For most women, a lot of them are unsure about their sizing; a bra they’re wearing might be uncomfortable all the time, but they don’t really know how to explain why. So, as an already intimidating experience as a customer, to add on this kind of judgement — I was really horrified.
Realizing that there was a market gap for a boutique like Sheer was a light bulb moment for me. A lot of our customers are returning customers because they trust the team here, and trust in the quality of the products we curate. Although I no longer work in the physical venues any more, I hear that some of my clients who have been with us since day one still ask about me when they come to the shop!
What were the early days like? Was it difficult launching Sheer?
I started by researching suppliers, and then travelling to France and the United States, meeting with brands and presenting to them my idea of Sheer. Back then, I had no shop, I didn’t even have a location! I just had a vision board where I’d cut out pictures from magazines. You know, the world wasn’t super technological yet back then.
It was very difficult because brands were like, “Who is this girl from Hong Kong?” There were also a lot of fears of copying, having their designs stolen and duplicated in the Chinese market, so it was very difficult to convince them that I was for real. They definitely took a leap of faith with me, and when I opened my store eight months later, it was with those ten or so brands. And now we carry over 40 brands.
Could you walk me through a day in your life back in your first year? And now?
So, funny story: I met my now-husband maybe a month or two after I opened my first shop. Back then, our shop was upstairs on Wyndham Street. We had no sunlight. We had no windows. But it was a beautiful shop, and I loved it so much. I digress — so, I met my husband and we started dating, and for the first two years, I didn’t see daylight. I was working in the store seven days a week, and then I would meet my husband after work. We would joke that we actually don’t know what we look like in daytime.
As the business grew and the shop grew, I slowly took a step back from the front lines. That was a bit of a transition. I really enjoyed the early years with my customers because I personally learned a lot about profiling and seeing so many different types of shapes and sizes and common problems.
In the last two or three years, I made the conscious decision to start building a bigger, stronger team. Everyone is amazing, and great at what they do. It’s a very specialised all-women team who are respectful of each other, and willing to help each other grow.
What was the best compliment you received from a customer?
I remember I had a customer come in and she was very upset with her breasts because she had just breastfed two kids and she shared that she hadn’t really taken care of herself. She walked in and she was very discouraged and was like, “Well, nothing fits me and nothing looks good, so I don’t know!”
I walked her into the fitting room we put on some bras on and I fit her properly. She walked out so happy and kept thanking me. She actually wore the bra out of the shop! She told me to cut the tag and just throw away her existing bra. And actually, thinking about it now, I have a lot of customers who have just told me to cut the tag and throw away whatever they’ve been wearing. So it brought me a lot of satisfaction, because I think I was really able to help women.
What was your primary philosophy for opening Sheer? Has that has evolved over the years?
My primary philosophy for opening Sheer was to provide a better option for women in Hong Kong, and to help women find the lingerie that they need. So, in that sense, it has not wavered at all. I still firmly believe in the products that we carry. We’re very hands-on as a company. Pre-pandemic, I would go directly to the countries to visit the suppliers, feel the product, see the collection, and make the purchase according to what I believe and think, based on our data and anecdotal information from the team, is what our customers really want to see and want in the store.
As a team, in our process of fitting women, we’ll explain to you why your previous products weren’t working and also why this one’s working. And so, even if they don’t buy bras through us ever again, we hope that they’ll be able to walk away with the knowledge and education necessary to fit themselves in the future.
What advice would you give for entrepreneurs regarding building a good work life balance?
I can’t speak for others, but in my experience, there was no work life balance in the first couple of years and that’s just something you have to accept. If you want to build something that becomes successful, especially in retail, it’s very difficult because you have to pay rent. Staffing is also expensive so, for me, it was either go all in or don’t go in at all.
I was also lucky that I didn’t have a family back then. It would’ve been very difficult for me with a family and to have the stamina to work seven days a week, ten hours a day. I stayed sane by doing the things I love on my off hours, going to dinners after closing the shop. But, you know, most weekends, I wasn’t hanging out with my friends or going to brunch and that’s just something that you have to accept in the beginning. I won’t sugar-coat it — you end up thinking about your business all the time. It’s nonstop.
It’s your 10-year anniversary this month! What is next for Sheer?
Wow the 10 years has really crept up. I feel like I’ve been working, hidden away for so many years, and then all of a sudden, I’ve looked up and realised it’s been a decade!
Since the year before COVID, we started growing double digits every year. We’re at a stage now where we’ve stabilised Sheer as a business. We have some really great ideas to bring in more lingerie for women and really build on this luxury category, because for us, it really is an underserved category in Hong Kong. With lingerie, you don’t know what you don’t know, as a customer, but once you do, once you’ve tried the experience and you’ve been changed, or your size is now finally fitting you, it’s a life changing experience. We have some very exciting things coming.
Sheer, Shop 310, 3/F, Landmark Atrium, 15 Queen’s Road Central, +852 2388 2876
Cover image courtesy of Fahad Waseem on Unsplash.