By: Susannah Jaffer
A former model and brand strategist, Lisa Crosswhite – founder and owner of online retailer Gnossem – has been touted as one of Singapore’s major style influencers, topping best-dressed lists and sought after for her expert fashion advice. With her strong work ethic and refreshing take on style, it’s no wonder that the Gnossem brand has gone from strength to strength and developed a devoted following.
Launched in 2012, Singapore-based e-commerce destination Gnossem promotes dressing in the best independent fashion available worldwide.
And with its steadily rising success in the Asian market, particularly amongst discerning shoppers looking for exclusive pieces, it makes perfect sense that the personality behind the Gnossem brand is just as individual a character.
Upon meeting and chatting with Lisa – who hails from Vancouver and moved to Singapore five years ago – I find her attitude towards online retail and her devotion towards building her brand very refreshing, especially in such a typically sales-driven market.
After focusing on growth within Singapore since launching the site in 2012, the company now has a roster of 200 independent designer labels for shoppers to browse, at the same time providing insights into each brand’s story and design philosophy. And having expanded into the US market, the Gnossem brand shows no sign of slowing down. We met up with Lisa to learn more about the brand and her entrepreneurial journey.
There are plenty of online shopping destinations in Asia, so what have you done to make Gnossem stand out?
Our efforts have been two-pronged: building up a location with the best designers in the world from a global market, while simultaneously telling our brand story.
I’ve noticed that in terms of independent fashion, most companies are quite regional or local in their outlook, focusing on, say, solely Asian designers and so on. None had a truly global feel, and this is what we aim to achieve.
I also work to build a brand curation behind the online store that people respect and want to be involved with. This is one of my main aims, together with getting all the best independent designers in the world on my site for our customers.
What were the most significant challenges of building Gnossem from the ground up?
I’d say the biggest challenge overall was to step up to the occasion and to learn on the job. When starting a company from scratch, everything is new and needs to be tested and refined. I’d never done any of this before! I needed to learn quickly in all areas. I was creating business models, figuring out merchandising plans and building mock-ups and ideas for the website, using strategies based on my own research and help from my advisors.
You support independent designers. How does this feel in a market saturated with designer brands?
I’d say the online retail space is split between mass fashion, which ASOS owns; luxury fashion, which Net-a-porter owns; and discount luxury fashion, where websites like Shopbop come in.
I started Gnossem because I realised there was an underrepresented consumer group out there – people who wanted to buy things in the middle, who didn’t want to fork out for expensive designer items all the time, or, on the flip side, shop in H&M or Topshop for clothes everyone else would have.
I sell independent designers whose pieces have been on Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Beyoncé – even on the cover of Vogue – and yet it’s very difficult for the designers themselves to scale and sell. I saw that demand here, I decided to act. Gnossem is for the “middle ground” shopper who appreciates quality, distinctive fashion with an affordable price tag.
Some women avoid shopping online due to concerns about sizing, fit and quality. How have you dealt with this?
We’re very specific with our curation process. Before anything goes live on our website, we see, try on and wear the samples ourselves. We also record a full-screen HD video showcase on every single product to show how it truly looks on the body. So far, we’ve been very lucky – our return rate is just five percent, way below the industry average.
Do you have a healthy balance between your business and other aspects of your life?
I haven’t quite conquered that yet, as I’m still a workaholic! When the site was in the start-up stage, my whole life was centred on work and it did eventually become physically trying. Now I give myself enough time to relax when I can.
I have a few survival tips. For one thing, I stay hydrated. I don’t have a lot of time to exercise, so I’ve tried to incorporate this into my daily routine instead of trying to fit in time for the gym – for instance, walking everywhere I can.
One great piece of advice passed down from my mother was, “If you don’t have a lot of time to rest, when you do get time, rest properly.” It sounds very simple, but it’s quite difficult to do. You could be in a taxi from one meeting to the next, but still pointlessly checking emails, not giving your brain time to switch off. Now, I try to disconnect from work at little points throughout the day, and this has really helped my productivity.
What made you choose entrepreneurship over modelling full-time or continuing at your previous advertising agency?
I started modelling while I was in college. Although I enjoyed it, I realised that my chances of being the next Kate Moss were quite slim, and what’s more, you have a very short time span when you can really make good money – it’s not a stable income. When I was studying, any successes and failures were mediated by the fact that I wasn’t solely depending on the income.
I studied political science, and what I loved about it was the critical thinking and social and consumer research, so after graduation I went into advertising, where those skills came into play. While doing brand planning, I found that I was really passionate about building up the story behind a product – in the end I decided I wanted to build both, thus Gnossem was born.
You encourage people to connect with clothes and give them personal significance. How are you doing that?
In the Singapore market, we hold events every two months or so, whether it’s pairing up with AWARE – a women’s rights charity – or running cool pop-up events with interesting panel speakers or fashion shows.
Beyond the site and social media, we’ve been able to communicate through brand events that Gnossem is much more than clothes – it’s about empowerment: finding yourself and dressing yourself. We’ve built awareness of the brand through our online “Women We Love” campaigns, which have focused on some of Singapore’s most interesting women – entrepreneurs, bankers turned farmers, artist mums – to showcase different women who embody our brand perspective.
We’re currently expanding into the US market, and will be launching this campaign there too, as well as revolutionising the site design so the message of bringing your personal identity back to fashion is driven home even more.
What would be your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you want to start anything, know from the very beginning what your grand vision is for the next five years, and then make sure everything that you do from now till then falls under that umbrella. Thinking this way really helped me to align my priorities. A common mistake that many entrepreneurs make is to build the company they see in a year, rather than the one they see farther down the road.
In the beginning you’re going to have no investment and meagre budgets, and because you’re so restricted and building a company from the ground up, you need to have a clear idea of your goals so you know how to prioritise your budget spend and choose the right people to work on the project.
For Gnossem, I took a really long-term approach. My first aim when I began two years ago was to grow it within the Singapore market, and get the right communications strategy for future investors to see us as the brand that will eventually own independent fashion globally – which we are heading towards. I focused on quality, which has been our strength.
Do you have a daily mantra you live by? If so, why?
Emma Watson’s speech in September for the UN about gender inequality really touched me. The He For She campaign is basically about getting men to better understand the issue, and how it affects them, too. Her passion came through, and she expressed herself in a really powerful way. I loved her words: “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”, because they can be applied to all areas of life. That would be my mantra, too.
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