It’s all about balance for this family-run design house and retailer in British Columbia, which values work-life balance as much as the bottom line. For Serena Kwei, selling designer work and formal attire for women is more a calling than a career. She and her husband founded Serena Fashions in 1973 with limited experience in the Canadian retail scene, but they have built a respected boutique fashion brand by relying on a philosophy of balance and empowerment.
“We offer fashion-forward items at an incredible value for the working women of Western Canada. Everyone here works hard, but we value our lives outside of the store,” explained Kwei, owner and general buyer of the company. “And we design and sell clothing with the mission of empowering women to be confident and in love with their whole person. Because of our focus on these principles, we’ve been successful.”
The pair opened their first Serena location in 1975 in Vancouver and slowly expanded into the suburbs, usually in local shopping malls. In 1981, Kwei’s sister, Viviana, expanded the chain in Alberta, and the three still own and operate the company. In the last 15 years or so, Serena Fashions began opening stores under the name Bellissima. These stores offer more formal, upscale fashions than the Serena stores, which cater to a younger crowd.
But any item from a Serena Fashions store is ahead of the curve. Kwei said she travels to Europe twice a year for inspiration to the company’s proprietary line of clothing, which is manufactured both in Canada and Asia. She said her buyers attend all the major shows and are constantly bringing trendy and fresh pieces to the stores.
Most importantly, however, the company provides its customers with value: fashion-forward pieces that are wearable season after season and unique formal pieces that can’t be found anywhere else. “Especially in today’s market, but also since we founded the company, we’ve carefully controlled our costs and developed creative ways to provide additional value to our customers,” Kwei said.
For example, although Serena Fashions has worked with many of its suppliers for a number of years, Kwei said the company is constantly communicating with them to develop mutually beneficial agreements that work with the current market. She said they’ve dropped suppliers in the past when they are unresponsive, irresponsible, or don’t stand behind their merchandise.
“It’s important to be discerning about who you partner with when you’re running a small business, and we are proud to have the support of our vendors and suppliers in a market like this,” she said.
Kwei said the emphasis on value is one reason a significant portion of Serena Fashions’ business comes from repeat customers; some even find styles at other stores or shows and go to their local Serena or Bellissima store to purchase them. But she also attributes that loyalty to Serena Fashions’ mission to empower women and its philosophy toward work-life balance for its employees.
In the first place, she explained that the company has been talking for years about how to dress a woman so she feels confident. But the company stresses that confidence isn’t based on appearance alone.
“We print our motto, ‘Love yourself, love your beauty,’ on all our shopping bags and advertisements, and we feature it in the design of our stores because we want to empower women to love and appreciate their whole selves,” Kwei explained. “Today, this philosophy is ingrained in our culture and dictates our process from design through a final sale.”
Second, Kwei refuses to engage in the pushy, sales-driven model of other retailers, especially those in on the East Coast of Canada and the US. By valuing the work-life balance of every employee, Serena Fashions enjoys one of the lowest turnover rates in the city, with many working for the company for 10 years or more. Furthermore, Serena Fashions’ managers enjoy a great deal of autonomy in their stores, overseeing all hiring decisions and managing their own budgets.
As a result of these strategies, Kwei said Serena Fashions’ employees are loyal and dedicated to the success of the business.
“I don’t want to be responsible for someone working to death so I can make a profit, nor can I push someone to the brink and expect the best from them,” she explained. “Money is important, but it is far from the most important thing for me; life is about what you create, not consume.”
Ideally, Kwei said she hopes all retailers will see the value in adopting the hard-working but flexible philosophy of Serena Fashions, adding that the trend in North America is moving in that direction. But, for now, she’ll settle for continued success in her corner of Canada.
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