ZaoZao Wants to Help Emerging Fashion Designers Produce Their Designs

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The founders of ZAOZAO, Ling Cai (L) and Vicky Wu (R)

Lots of times, we go looking for cool startups, but every now and then, one falls right into our laps. That’s the case with ZaoZao, an interesting service that I stumbled upon after one of its founders retweeted something I said on Twitter. Curiosity led me to click some links, and I came across the company’s official site and this cool blog about the founders’ experiences running a startup in Hong Kong. It all looked very cool, but I wanted to know more, so I got in touch with co-founder Vicky Wu, who gave me the lowdown on ZaoZao’s plans for world domination promoting indie fashion design in Asia.

Can you give us an overview of what ZaoZao is all about?

ZAOZAO [yes, the founders prefer all caps for the name!] is a web-based platform that allows designers to post projects and garner funds for production through crowd-funding. “Funders,” who are effectively shoppers, can discover cool, unique designs and fund them by placing pre-orders on ZAOZAO within a limited time. If target funds (pre-orders) are achieved within that time-frame, then ideas become reality. If not, then they won’t get produced, and those projects get dropped from the site.

So, if I were to call this ‘a Kickstarter for fashion in Asia,’ would that be inaccurate?

If we are going to use startup analogies, the best way to describe ZAOZAO is probably Kickstarter meets Fab meets Moda Operandi.

What kind of market is there for this sort of service?

There is an untapped market out here in Asia, particularly Hong Kong, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Many young, talented designers see their work and dreams disappear overnight because they do not have the means to sustain a business. The way our model is structured allows designers to manage the creative process all the way through production, while minimizing excess inventory and warehouse costs. In this manner, ZAOZAO provides a space for designers to experiment creatively with mitigated risk.

So what led you to create ZaoZao?

While Ling and I are equally passionate about supporting designers and obviously share a mutual love for unique fashion, we also possess complementary skill sets to make this startup work. Ling studied fashion at NYU and counts Oscar de la Renta, Lanvin, Intermix, and Harper’s Bazaar in New York amongst her work experiences. Prior to ZAOZAO, she did a stint at Gucci in Hong Kong. My first introduction to the fashion world was through modeling, as a teenager in New York and then in Boston. Although I studied neuroscience during college, I spent most of my time starting and running the fashion show called Identities at Harvard. Post-graduation, I helped set up hedge fund businesses with Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong (great training) which I intend to parlay into the set up of this fashion business (infinitely more sexy). The culmination of these experiences lent naturally to ZAOZAO as a next step for both of us, which brings us to where we are today.

What has it been like running a startup in Hong Kong?

So far it has been pretty nuts and you can read about our travails and triumphs on our blog. It started with me being homeless, crashing on friends’ couches while using AirBNB to offset rent so I could save up to survive on $0 salary. I figured it was totally doable in Hong Kong because if I ran out of friends, there was always 24-hr McDonald’s or Tsui Wah! Then, shortly after we both quit our jobs, Ling found out that a family member had been diagnosed with leukemia, with six months left to live. Without question in either of our minds, Ling hopped on the next flight to Singapore to effectively become a full-time caregiver. Fortunately, Ling was a compatible bone marrow donor, which ultimately saved her loved one’s life. While undergoing the transplant, she would send me these grotesque photos of tubes protruding out of her neck (tricking me with subject lines like “check out my new accessories! LOL”) yet still generate amazing new ideas for our business.

Working from different countries the first few months was not the initial plan but we adapted to the situation – emailing, Skyping, whatsapping – to keep each other in the loop. Since being reunited, we have continued to find ourselves in interesting predicaments. Once, during a designer scouting trip, we got horribly lost in an abandoned warehouse containing what resembled medieval torture devices and potentially unhealthy levels of asbestos. Often in business meetings we end up leveraging our extensive knowledge of hand gestures and a smattering of Cantonese and Mandarin (sometimes Korean or Hokkien) in addition to English vocabulary to convey our thoughts. When language is not an issue, bullshit sometimes is. People who don’t know us well say ridiculous things expecting us to eat everything up, only to be stunned silly when we call them out. In the startup world, you don’t know what to expect on a daily basis, and passion for these challenges in the unknown are what we wake up for (if we sleep at all) every morning.

Where did the name Zao Zao come from?

ZAO is a play on the words 早, 找, and 造, which mean “early,” “discover,” and “make” in Mandarin Chinese. Through early discovery and subsequent production, ZAOZAO transforms emerging designers’ ideas into reality.

On a related note, if the target for this service is Asia, I’m assuming you’ll also have at least a Chinese version of your website as well at some point?

Correct, traditional and then simplified Chinese is the plan.

When will the site launch? Any plans for mobile apps?

ZAOZAO will launch in July. Mobile app plans TBD.

What advice would you offer to anyone else considering doing a startup in Hong Kong?

“[Be] the opposite of moderate, immaculately polished with the spirit of a hustler and the swagger of a college kid.”

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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