Knowing from a young age that she had always wanted to be a designer, Chong Shuenn Kee left for Parsons School of Design immediately upon graduating from high school in 1997. She graduated in product design in 2000, specialising in metalsmithing, and stayed back in New York for about five years to perfect her craft.
In New York, she placed herself under the mentorship of one of the city’s iconic leather craftsmen, Jutta Neumann, and launched her first label Nneuhs. She eventually moved the brand to Hong Kong. Shortly after the move, Shuenn Kee and her cousin Linda Chong observed that there was a gap in the Malaysian market in the space between designer leather goods and products at the other end of the spectrum.
“We realised that there was a market for quality leather products at an affordable price. Malaysians were becoming more discerning buyers and were increasingly open to the local design scene as opposed to just international names,” she says. Shuenn Kee returned home and together with Linda, launched Thirty-four.
“We come from a big family and there are thirty-four people in my generation,” Shuenn Kee answers when I ask her what inspired the brand name. Her family has always been core in her life. “I grew up in a very family centric environment,” she says. “One of my fondest childhood memories is playing with my cousins every weekend while my mum and aunts played mah-jong till the wee hours of the morning.” These close ties have been very much part of her growing up years and they are the very fibres that make her the person she is today.
Shuenn Kee considers herself lucky to have such supportive relationships. As significant as they are, however, they do not lessen the importance of Shuenn Kee having to take responsibility for herself. “I think the most important lesson of all is to be true to yourself and I have been blessed with a supportive family who trusts me to make decisions that will be good for me. At the end of the day, I do not want to look back on a life that has been filled with achieving the wishes of others,” she says, adding that as a daughter, her parents’ happiness is a top priority.
Shuenn Kee is also a designer and an entrepreneur. Both these roles, she states, are conflicting at times and she has to continuously balance them. “I have to transition really quickly from sketching my latest product range to calculating my finances,” she says. “Multitasking is the key. There is never a dull moment at Thirty-four!”
The brand is turning six this year and Shuenn Kee and Linda have managed to build a company that they both love and enjoy working for. “The Thirty-four family is made up of a bunch of enthusiastic, creative people who are full of determination. Most importantly, they view their job not as a job, but as a passion,” she says.
Building a team is building a foundation for the company. With the right team, all challenges and issues can be overcome. “Getting our label recognised was the biggest challenge. It is a common misconception that local products automatically have to be cheap,” says Shuenn Kee who has effectively built up her brand on the back of social media and word-of-mouth.
While Thirty-four has a core following, Shuenn Kee feels deeply that they need to penetrate deeper into the market. She talks about introducing a range of mainstream products that will appeal more to the masses. “But we have to do this without compromising the design and qualities that make Thirty-four the brand it is,” she adds.
Moving forward, Shuenn Kee hopes to develop Thirty-four into a lifestyle brand with offerings that go beyond fashion accessories. This gives her a lot to work on and while it does get busy, it is evident that Shuenn Kee is more than happy filling up her days with Thirty-four and her family. “Contentment is the ultimate measure of success,” she says.
Photo credit: Prestige