Looking for a boutique handbag, a fun clutch or an evening purse? Distinctive and full of personality, designer DESTI SAINT’s signature leather bags have become something of a Singapore sensation. Susannah Jaffer chats with the vivacious lady behind the label about her ties to Asia, building her brand despite the critics, and what keeps her motivated.
Tell us about your background – you’ve had quite a nomadic upbringing!
My dad was born in New Zealand, and my mum is English, but was born in Africa. After they got married they moved to London, where they had my two brothers. They ended up in Hong Kong for my father’s work, and that’s when I came along. Once my brothers were old enough for boarding school, my family moved back to New Zealand, when I was around 12 or 13. It was a pretty interesting time for a teenager!
Do you call Hong Kong home?
To be honest, I just love Asia. I feel so comfortable in this part of the world, and in that sense it’s home. I grew up here, so I suppose you could say I’m a global citizen!
So, how did you end up in Singapore?
I met my husband-to-be in New Zealand (he happens to have a similar, mixed-up background to mine!), and after a few years he got the opportunity to move back to Hong Kong. Of course, I jumped at the chance; I couldn’t wait. We spent around 15 years there, and that’s where our three kids were born. Our move to Singapore came about when he was offered a role here.
And where did Desti Saint the brand start?
Well, I had quite a big job in Hong Kong; I was working in the finance sector, supplying systems to banks. After having two children, however, it became clear that something had to give – either my job or my husband’s – so I resigned from work to focus more on the family. I found that I wasn’t the best stay-at-home mum, but I couldn’t do anything full-time.
One thing led to another, and I took up an opportunity to become the New Zealand distributor for an existing handbag brand. Unfortunately, that brand didn’t take off. With hindsight, I think the colours were a bit too bold for the market.
After that experience, I felt inspired to make my own handbags. At Sham Shui Po market, I found a really nice gold leather, and it was there and then that I decided to create my own designs. It took me six months to find a manufacturer who would accept a smaller order – that’s a common issue for an independent brand – but I eventually found someone, and produced a clutch and a gold bag; my mum still has one of those first pieces! To put myself out there, I took up a booth at the Conrad hotel’s Christmas fair, and, incredibly, my bags were sold out by lunchtime. It was at that moment that I thought my hobby could really become something.
At the time, the brand was called “Dee.” Desti Saint is my real name (well, it’s Desti Russell, I married a Saint!), and it was a retailer in Singapore who suggested the change. According to her, my full name was catchy and sounded like a chat show host! And that’s how the “Desti Saint” brand was officially born.
To be honest, my work was more of a hobby in Hong Kong. But soon after I landed in Singapore, I was contacted by Expat Living who were interested in my designs, and this sparked a newfound motivation to work on my brand. My bags were still in storage at the time, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue with them, but the attention gave me an encouraging push in the right direction.
Tell us about your design process.
I start from the details – a stone, a type of leather, or even an image – and work outwards. I don’t begin with a silhouette or the shape of a bag, because I’d rather see where the materials take me. I’ve been attracted to certain detail elements over the years. I love tassels in particular; they feel so playful, which is why they often feature in my designs. I’m also into bold colours and metallic fabrics.
Another essential part of my process is that I always try out my bags as samples first to make sure that they are functional. I don’t want to produce rubbish that doesn’t wear well. This can mean a slightly longer production time, but it’s worth it to ensure the quality.
How about the the carved symbols you’re known for, and the names of your collections – what do they signify?
Most of my collections have some sort of emotional connection. I’ve named quite a few of them after my kids, actually! Last year I lost my dad, so for one of my recent collections I chose the symbol of the dragon – which is, of course, considered very strong and powerful in Asian culture – and the love knot, which symbolises never-ending love. Both symbols remind me of my father, his personality and values. I called it the Poppy collection, because his nickname was “Pops”. I find it very hard to design without a purpose; everything has a meaning.
Who is your inspiration?
I’d definitely say my parents. I’m thankful that they both taught me from a young age that I could do whatever I put my mind to. When I first started my business, people would tell me that I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have any design experience. I always questioned that, and didn’t let it get to me.
My mum, who dresses insanely glamorously, has always advised me to save up and buy from quality, niche brands rather than mass-market products. After losing my dad last year, she’s been extraordinarily resilient. I learnt from her that there’s a funny side to everything, even when life gets tough. I think this is why my brand has always had a touch of humour to it, too.
As a small business owner, what has kept you motivated?
I remember being told, years ago, that 98 percent of small businesses fail and believe me, there have been a thousand times that I’ve felt like throwing in the towel. Each time, my husband has told me to shut up and keep on going, which I’m grateful for.
Without meaning to sound naff or cheesy, my customers and their passion for my bags have really kept me motivated too. I’ve also had invaluable help from other business owners, like Sylvia Lim from The Emporium Group; we recently collaborated on a limited-edition Peranakan bag collection. We’ve all supported and helped each other while building our brands.
Finally, representatives from the government, TAFF (the Textile and Fashion Federation) and SPRING Singapore have facilitated opportunities for us to expand our customer base, and have advised on the right way to go about building the brand locally and overseas.
Last question: what’s in your bag right now?
Anything you can’t leave the house without? Gosh, literally everything is in my bag right now! I’ve got makeup, money, invoice receipts – you name it. I have to have a big bag. One thing I definitely can’t leave the house without is my lipstick. Growing up, my mum used to tell me that if I didn’t wear it, my face would disappear, and because of that I started to wear it all the time, even while playing netball! You’ll never see me without it.
Ever wondered what it takes to build an award-winning company in Singapore?