By Tian Yuan
On March 1, there was still a chill of early Spring in the Beijing air when I visited the UBRAND Designer Experience Store. Run by CEIBS EMBA 2014 alumna Ji Yanmei, this bespoke fashion house is the embodiment of Ji’s long-cherished dream. She opened it last November. Located across the street from the Australian Embassy in Sanlitun’s diplomatic area, the store conveys a discreet but delicate appearance, with an overall atmosphere of luxury.
The moment I stepped inside, I was fascinated by the blend of East and West, the faddish and the classic. Well-tailored suits made of the very best material, Chinese-style frocks decorated with stunning Shu Embroidery and paintings done by hand competed for my attention with the rest of the store’s vivid colours. It was all as unforgettable as Ji herself. Like her store, she struck me as the perfect blend of elegance and wisdom on the inside, conveyed externally through exquisite fashion and open-mindedness.
Just about to ease into her late thirties, Ji has learned a lot from her two years of being an entrepreneur. She had already racked up experience as the boss of a professional design company specialising in brand visions when years of dreaming and genuine interest led to the launch of UBRAND. “I was just working with my friend who’s a senior designer, and before we knew it we had the birth of UBRAND,” she explains. The company was launched to solve a problem that was all too obvious to Ji and her business partner: Chinese men need suits for formal occasions but the cut of traditional western ones is often not flattering to the typical Chinese male. Their solution was to provide China’s own bespoke men’s suits by adding Chinese elements to traditional western styles. The end result was a much better fit. But it is amazing just how much detail has to go into getting that perfect fit each time.
“There are 118 different procedures, 300 detail treatments, 25 ironings and pressings, 10 quality inspections in the production of suits. The sleeves must be curved, and the legs of the suits must have the shape of the shanks. It calls for attention to detail at every step,” Ji explains. This is a recurrent theme for UBRAND. The store’s hangers come in various sizes, to match the shoulder width of different items of clothing. It has an APP, with data from 8000 people, which helps clients get perfectly fitted garments. UBRAND employees pride themselves on remembering each customer’s name and there is a lot of sincerity behind the little touches – a card that goes with an order, a bouquet of flowers that brightens up the store, a cup of coffee, a natural tendency to make clients feel at home. This has a lot to do with how the company began.
In the early days, UBRAND’s client list was mostly made up of Ji’s friends and fellow students. So the little personal touches all naturally became a part of the company’s culture. Word soon spread within the CEIBS community about the quality of UBRAND’s excellent products. Today, it boasts many CEIBS professors, including Xu Dingbo and Charles Chen, among its clientele.
Ji is proud of the brand she has created, and she is also grateful to CEIBS. For her, the school constantly embodies its motto of “Conscientiousness, Innovation, and Excellence”, and its atmosphere of mutual assistance and openness has influenced her profoundly. CEIBS is also the place where she experienced the most significant turning point in her life so far. It was where she learned the management skills she needs to run her company, where friendships with professors, staff and classmates blossomed, where she found likeminded peers who helped her grow. Now she is honoured that her UBRAND line is making CEIBS professors and her former classmates more graceful.
For her, there is also a great deal of gracefulness in reading; maybe that’s why she’s such a bookworm. “When I was younger, I read all kinds of book with subjects ranging from literature, history, sociology even to the science of success. I seized every single opportunity to read books,” she says, eyes lit up with excitement and pleasure. Now she focuses on philosophy. She’s already made her way through the works of Western philosophers such as Socrates, Kant and Nietzsche, and these days she’s fascinated with Chinese ancient philosophy. It’s all related to her quest for self-improvement, to be the best that she can be in both her personal and professional lives.
Read on for TheLINK’s exclusive interview with Ji Yanmei.
TheLINK: Before you chose to start your business in 2013, you worked at a well-known Chinese fashion company for 10 years. What would you say was your biggest gain from that experience?
I gained management experience and learned about branding. I also learnt how to look at the development of the Chinese fashion industry from the perspective of branding, and found out what I really wanted. Life is not only about money, but also about dreams. From the consumers’ perspective, I dreamt of improving Chinese men’s tastes; from the perspective of the entire industry, my dream is to achieve the “transgenosis” of suits, and establish China’s own bespoke suit brand.
TheLINK: Why did you become an entrepreneur?
It’s something that interests me. I’ve already had 10 years as a professional. In the next decade I hope I can do things I really like. Plus this was something the market needs. After I joined CEIBS, I met many successful and excellent fellow students that needed good suits. This inspired me and supported my initial idea. So I started my business.
TheLINK: What’s the meaning of your company name, UBRAND?
It represents three brand concepts. First, UBRAND is a short form of Your Brand: it’s a brand creating products only for you; it provides you with professional, customised service. Second, it represents a Unique Brand. By using a combination of big data, the body structure of individual clients, 3D digital collecting and cutting, we create for each client unique images featuring elegance, maturity and impeccable taste. Third, it means United Brand: by combining your inspiration and our expertise, our brand epitomises your multi-dimensional life.
It also embodies three layers of service concepts: brand for you, brand of you, brand in you. It speaks to the core of UBRAND: We are here because of you.
TheLINK: Has it been difficult to launch and successfully run your own company?
I’ve had a lot of difficulties. In the early days, I was often anxious about the brand’s development, product quality, building a strong team and our limited funds. I later realised that worrying doesn’t help, and I’d better invest my time taking action. I have enjoyed finding ways to improve our products, as well as studying and growing up along with the team. I’m grateful for all the help and encouragement from the CEIBS community. At the early stage of my business, many CEIBS professors and fellow students helped me determine the direction of the brand and the company’s development strategy. When my confidence was shaken, they encouraged me, and shared their experience and stories with my staff. This formed a new study culture in our company. We have the “BOSS Forum” where we invite experts to share their knowledge and experience with us, so that my team and I can improve ourselves. I’m very grateful to CEIBS and friends who have been by my side.
TheLINK: As a young brand, what’s UBRAND’s strategy to succeed?
No matter what happens in the external environment and economy, we stick to our principle of “customers first, products second, and staff third”. We see our staff as family, not just “helpers”. Producing good products is the core of our operations, but we place even greater emphasis on providing high quality service. We provide our customers with clothes that are perfect for them from three different perspectives: the perfect size; designs that are suitable for customers’ identities and various occasions; and our staff will advise our clients on suitable colours and fabric based on clients’ identities, age, dressing habits and bone structure.
TheLINK: As a clothing designer, what does craftsmanship mean to you?
When I was a volunteer teacher in Guizhou Province in 2013, I visited many local traditional handicraft workshops. I also went to Sichuan and Yunnan learning local skills for weaving and dyeing. I also visited Shu Embroidery workshops and traditional handicraft workshops in Yunnan. I was touched by the craftsmen’s attitude to work, their dedication to excellence and their devotion to their jobs. And I often think of something Taiwan musician Li Zongsheng said about craftsmanship: “However noisy the world, the craftsman’s heart must remain quiet and stable. With all the materials nature has provided me, I have to first make them a success before they make me successful.”
TheLINK: How did studying at CEIBS help prepare you for being an entrepreneur?
During a class activity I once said: “CEIBS gave me a second lease on life.” It’s true! CEIBS helped me complete my transition from a business executive to an entrepreneur. CEIBS made me realise what I am living for. I have my own motto: live truly, be intensely happy, and love genuinely! I will always be grateful to CEIBS, to my professors and my fellow students.
TheLINK: CEIBS has a strong CSR culture, which it tries to instil in its students and alumni. In your efforts at giving back, what has been your most memorable experience?
When I was a volunteer for the Beijing Public Welfare Foundation, I taught reading and music to local children in an impoverished mountain area in Guizhou Province. Every minute of the time spent with the kids, I reminded myself that my goal was not to simply experience urban life as a visitor would, but to integrate myself into their lives so that they can realise how beautiful their hometown is, while learning from me that the outside world is also exciting. I was deeply touched by their simplicity, kindness, politeness and thoughtfulness. These kids had already experienced life’s hardships. But they were so good natured and calm, so pure. I think I got even more out of the experience than I gave to them. It also influenced me professionally, helping me better express my own attitude to life via fashion design.
I see the pursuit of wealth as never ending. Simplicity and purity are life’s underpinnings, whether your company is big or small, or whether your time and material resources are limited or not. I hope I can do more good deeds, and be more altruistic.