While most businesses were left with little recourse or were slow to adjust to the announcement of the lockdown in March, Sheree Roxas-Chua Gotuaco was quick on her feet. In just two weeks, the veteran fashion retailer and garment manufacturer had pivoted her businesses to respond to the needs of the health crisis.
The founder of fashion brands Freeway and Ensembles started producing washable face masks, which were then donated to Makati Medical Center. Soon after, the hospital ordered 3,000 units more, after the masks passed the autoflammability test.
Gotuaco’s company, Omnimoda International, has supplied over 100,000 hazmat suits and personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals nationwide, says the chief executive.
Three weeks after the lockdown, under her other brand, Stylist in Pocket (SiP), her team had also built an online site for PPE and other health safety needs such as face masks and shields, disinfectants and dispensers, air purifiers, thermal scanners, UV sterilizers, acrylic dividers. The company works with various partner manufacturers and suppliers.
“We spent the first couple of weeks of the lockdown studying what we could do, what people needed,” Gotuaco tells Lifestyle in a phone interview. “The demand quickly shifted to face masks and PPE suits. We repurposed our team and put SiP’s styling business on hold. Thus, we were among the first to supply a wide variety of PPE suits to hospitals and other places that needed them.”
SiP is Gotuaco’s pioneering concept that brings fashion styling services directly to customers in the comfort of their homes. It has developed a loyal clientele. Following SiP’s client-centric approach, even the PPE suits and other safety gear are carefully curated. SIP’s stylists are trained to recommend the most appropriate PPE for clients.
From a B2B venture at the start of the lockdown, the protective gear business is now also B2C, with items sold retail on their e-store (https://ppe.stylistinpocket.com).
Gotuaco has reopened only a couple of The Row boutiques, which carries Freeway and Ensembles, and only on weekends, owing to the low demand for fashion clothes and overall low foot traffic in the malls. Rent is based on sales at this time, she says, so tenants like her are being prudent.
Besides, added the tech-savvy businesswoman, Freeway and Ensembles are now a “smaller part of our growth, even before the pandemic. We have been moving to fashion technology,” referring to SiP, and the Philippine patent-approved (with pending United States patent) Uniform Management Technology, a contactless way to gather measurements and recommending best-fit size uniforms for clients.
Gotuaco’s family has a long history in garment manufacturing. Her mother, Betty Roxas-Chua, started the fashion brand 22BC, where the likes of Cesar Gaupo, Christian Espiritu and Marden Iglesias used to design. Roxas-Chua was a pioneer in bringing designers into ready-to-wear.
Gotuaco dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. But being creative, she craved for artistic outlets. She would go on to study business at the University of Southern California (magna cum laude) and fashion design at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles (summa cum laude).
In the early 1990s, she started the brand Ensembles, and a few years later, Freeway, just as homegrown fashion brands were enjoying popularity, since only a handful of foreign labels had entered the market. Freeway would become most known for its National Artist collectors’ series, where fashion pieces feature famous works of Filipino masters.
In 2017, she launched SiP, to address the fashion needs of non-fashion-savvy Filipinos, an overwhelming majority of the population. She found that only a tiny percentage of shoppers find what they need from retail merchandise, so she sought to offer a solution to these so-called “deeper pain points.” “Not just vanity ideas, but legitimate issues of a regular person,” she says. (SiP also offers the service to business firms.)
A customer fills out a questionnaire, and from this, SIP’s stylists select garments they bring to the client’s home for fitting. SiP caters to men and women of all sizes, with a long list of partner brands. There’s no service fee, nor obligation to buy. Client pays only for clothes she or he picks.
Gotuaco is pushing for the widespread use of their Uniform Management Technology, which is timely since it’s a contactless solution to gathering data for companies’ human resources. “It has many iterations and, just like Spotify, we need more data to recommend it. It’s a system to avoid many probable areas of human error. So this is what we do: We inject technology where we can.”
The PPE business, she adds, is like what they do in SiP, “but only more relevant to the times.” So far, no other company seems to offer the same service as SiP.
“When I started Freeway’s National Artist series in 2011, people said others would copy. But it’s hard to copy if you do it at a high level. I think we haven’t been copied because we’re always running and moving.”