If her name opens doors, it also keeps her grounded. Since launching her fashion consignment company this month, Yen Kuok has already drawn a torrent of attention, including a few criticisms.
“We never call ourselves revolutionary. But just because it’s not a new idea doesn’t mean people shouldn’t do it either. Business is business. And I want to raise awareness of the culture of disposable fashion,” she says.
“Just because something is cheaper doesn’t mean it’s less costly in other ways. The same resources go into making a wool sweater from a fast-fashion shop and a luxury brand – except one gets dumped and the other remains in the system for years.”
Yen, 26, is the youngest child of Robert Kuok, Malaysia’s richest man whose business empire spans agriculture to freight, hotels and properties. The younger Kuok conceived her online business idea almost three years ago upon returning to the SAR from the United States, where she developed a hobby of bargain shopping.
What sets Guiltless – a global site where people can sell off their luxury goods – apart from existing competitors is its business model, she says. Apart from taking consignments and delivering dry-cleaned products anywhere in the world as long as it is served by DHL, the website is curated tightly on brands, styles and conditions.
It also keeps its own stock – about 4,000 women’s clothing and accessory items from jeans costing several hundred dollars to Hermes Birkin handbags which can fetch HK$500,000 at auctions.
Kuok finances the business with proceeds from personal investments. She plans to expand eventually into men and children’s wear. But no matter what happens, there won’t be any crying on daddy’s shoulders.
She describes herself as headstrong, but attributes this to a rather ordinary upbringing.
“I have always been the black sheep of the family. Perhaps it’s because of my somewhat unique growing-up experience. I was the only one in the clan to be sent to local schools.”
Kuok attended Hong Kong’s mainstream schools Kiangsu and Chekiang Primary School and Diocesan Girls’ School. Her grades were average, and only improved in secondary one.
What motivated her to study hard was not a thirst for knowledge, but hurtful gossip. “I became a girl on a mission to prove the other kids wrong,” she recalls. “My parents begged me to get Bs because I would get up very early to revise, and still had my head buried in a book at dinnertime.”
The teenager didn’t budge. Adamant to prove her self worth with grades, she eventually got 8As in her HKCEE exams and full marks in the SAT college admissions test.
The streak continued at university. In 2012, Kuok, who read international relations, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University, an honor awarded to those ranked within the top 2 percent of the class.
“I wanted to stay in America because people wouldn’t take me seriously in Hong Kong,” she recalls. “But then my mom told me: ‘You can always live and work abroad but you don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to spending time with your dad.’ My dad is 93. She is right. So I came back.”
Upon returning home in 2013, Kuok worked full time at Kerry Properties, founded by her father, as assistant marketing officer in the residential properties division.
Counting her two other internships at Shangri-La and Wilmar International, both owned by the Kuoks, one would assume that the young heiress would become more involved in the family business empire.
However, she opted to leave Kerry Properties after only 14 months to pursue her entrepreneurial dream.
“Being a rich second-generation kid is a good and a bad thing. The curse is that a lot more people are watching what you do and are motivated to say bad things about you.
“But what I am trying to do is to get people to think about sustainable fashion consumption. If I am able to do it on a bigger scale, it will be a really good thing.”
The article first appeared in the Standard on May 20, 2016.