By Jay Nachman
From the Penn Law Journal Fall 2013 issue.
Armed with years of experience for some of the biggest names in fashion, Joanne Ooi L’93, a born entrepreneur, decided to start her own business in 1997: she opened two boutiques in Hong Kong with merchandise targeted to the style cognoscenti. With the vision of a curator, she sold items like vintage Grateful Dead tees reworked into embroidered one-of-the-kind skirts and hand-painted lambskin bags.
One store, Style Trek, turned high profits. The other boutique foundered. The mass market location didn’t bring in the kind of discerning customers Ooi sought. Throw in the divorce she was going through and Ooi decided to close up shop and move on.
But fear not, fashionistas. The indomitable Ooi has returned with a new venture predicated on the lessons she learned running the e-commerce hub of Style Trek. Plukka, an online fine jewelry company, takes its name from the words “pukka” (which means genuine, reliable, proper) and “pluck” (a synonym for courage and resolution). The reviews have been sterling. Jewelry News Asia, the world’s largest jewelry fair, declared Plukka the Most Innovative Retailer of last year and in 2013 named her company e-tailer of the Year. IDEX, the industry’s most authoritative news outlet, praised the business model in a story headlined “Wake Up & Smell the Paradigm Shift.”
With its online-only, made to order stock, Plukka cuts out the middleman and eliminates many of the costs associated with brick and mortar stores, showrooms and inventory, and the high markups of designer jewelry retailers. Having no inventory frees Plukka to offer edgy and unconventional jewelry, such as the diamond “Ramses II” ring with three projecting pyramids of 18 karat rose gold and the diamond “Serpent’s Birdcage” earrings, which feature an intricate bird cage suspended from a curled snake and a setting of pink sapphires and tsavorites, a rare gemstone; or classic pieces such as the Eterna, an adjustable sterling silver necklace coated with gray diamonds on the front and sides.
Ooi learned from Style Trek that there is a customer base “one inch wide and ten miles deep. In a flat world,” she says, “very deep, rich niche markets can exist because of the ability to network together customers all around the world, to create economies of scale.” A decade before it became, well, fashionable, Ooi found while running Style Trek that e-commerce and fashion turn on the idea of curation, which is to say, the idiosyncratic tastes of the owner.
Plukka’s motto is, “What we make is what you want.” The company doesn’t make a piece of jewelry unless someone wants it, and goes a step further with what is called a reverse auction in which consumers set the price. Prices go down — sometimes as much as 20 percent —in proportion to the number of customers who place orders. Not bad for a site where the average price is $1,500 and the average value of each sale is $750.
Ooi, who still lives in Hong Kong with her second husband and 14-year-old son, was born in Singapore to parents who were medical researchers. They decided to move the family to Cincinnati to advance their careers. It was a childhood similar to the one chronicled in the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a best-seller that described the Asian emphasis on work
Ooi returned to Asia after graduating from Penn Law. “I wanted to step out of the typical law grad narrative as soon as possible and, based on a vacation to Hong Kong, decided that it was the place for me. Twenty years ago, Hong Kong really had a Wild West entrepreneurial atmosphere which I found very compelling and still do,” says Ooi.
She started her career with what she called “lowly, hard work” supervising fashion brands manufactured in China. She spent her formative years as Asian sales chief for French shoe designer Stephane Kélian. “I learned everything except how to make products, literally,” Ooi says. “I used to take shoe samples in a suitcase to virgin markets like Indonesia and just figure it all out on the fly. I would visit the top shopping malls, identify the most prestigious retailers and wheedle their salespeople into calling the boss, so that I could introduce myself and Stéphane Kélian to them in person. I was completely fearless and nothing could embarrass or intimidate me. This is really the foundation of what success I’ve enjoyed in my career: developing the mettle to deal with rejection and adversity. To my mind, that’s what’s most important. It’s about character, not genius.”
Ooi built ’character’ through a series of experiences in the fashion industry, first with Style Trek, her luxury accessories shop and e-tailing venture which became the model for Plukka, and then with a high-profile position with Shanghai Tang, a chic Chinese brand owned by the Richemont Group, the world’s second largest luxury goods conglomerate. As creative director for seven years, Ooi had responsibility for every single product, ad campaign, and store window. She invigorated the brand, revamping the entire product line and company image. All of which put her on the cover of Fast Company magazine.
At what seemed the height of her career, she took an unlikely detour and became an activist, serving as chief marketing officer of Filligent, a manufacturer of filters that are said to reduce the toxicity of a cigarette by about 30 percent. Ooi says she saw the product as a means to reduce the effects of smoking in developing countries such as China and as an opportunity to participate in a global grassroots campaign and learn about public health and NGOs.
She steeped herself in this world, co-founding the Clean Air Network in 2009 with Christine Loh, a former Hong Kong legislator, and others. So successful was their work in bringing attention to the environment and lobbying for legislation that Time magazine nominated the two women to its list of the world’s most influential people.
To an outsider, the professional 180 might have seemed a radical leap. But for Ooi, it was business as usual. “I enjoy mastering new areas of knowledge,” says Ooi, who explains that she has spent her life avoiding the easy and conventional paths in favor of seemingly insurmountable challenges. “The main impetus to dramatic career change has been intellectual stimulation.” Despite her newfound interest in environmental work, Ooi wanted to get back to running a business, where the metrics are more definable and easier to measure. Casting about for ideas, her opportunity came when she and her business partner met a veteran of the fine jewelry trade at a dinner party and decided to apply their group buying and manufacturing model to a new business named Plukka. It didn’t hurt that Ooi, a self-described style iconoclast, says that she is “nuts about
Plukka went live in late December 2011 with a three-times-a-week digital newsletter. In May 2012, the company launched its e-commerce site. Today, Plukka is moving toward the exclusive sale of made-to-order jewelry and weekly flash sales. It is also expanding beyond the virtual world with pop-up sales and private viewings. Ooi envisions a showroom that gives customers the opportunity to see and handle the product. Customers always want to see high-ticket items in person, so they can judge gemstone quality, colors, materials and craftsmanship.
Customers who take the time will see one-of-a-kind jewelry, such as the Ying Yang Ring with curving loops of white and black diamonds, emerald teardrop earrings, or a U-shaped asymmetrical green garnet bracelet.
Ooi is not immune to the charms of her merchandise. “I own a lot of jewelry from our site,” she says. “I wear our Eterna and Parabola necklaces most days.”
She clearly knows what she likes, as both a customer and a seller.