Clare Sheng was determined to stay out of her family’s clothing alteration business.
She can still recall every detail about the chores she endured inside the busy Rose Arcade workshop throughout her school years.
On a good day she would get to help her mum deliver mended clothes to some of Brisbane’s finest retailers.
On other days she’d find herself elbow deep in dirty dish water, scrubbing tea, coffee and noodles off mugs and bowls piled high in the shop’s only sink.
Almost 20 years later — and after vowing to never find work there — the young pharmacist is taking her mother’s alteration business to new heights.
Ms Sheng is the director of The Fitting Room, Queensland’s largest independent clothing alteration business.
Since joining her mother’s business in 2011, she has doubled its revenue, changed its name, relocated the workshop, and attracted an impressive list of high-end clients.
This year she also took home awards recognising her business acumen, multiculturalism and contribution to the fashion industry.
“Every garment that you’re fixing is like a problem you’re solving for someone, and every solution is different,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane.
“When people leave in their perfectly fitting garments they feel really good about themselves and they’re very grateful to you.”
Ms Cheng looks at ease inside the latest incarnation of the shop, darting between the front-of-house styling rooms and a white-walled workshop in the back; a cordless phone is glued to one ear.
But this isn’t where she envisioned she would be after finishing her studies at the University of Queensland.
“As a Chinese girl everyone says, ‘Go do pharmacy. It’s a good job, it’s stable, you can go have a baby and come back, you’ll always have a job’.
“But when I started working I found I didn’t actually enjoy it.
“You were either a pharmacist or a pharmacy owner and that’s it — there’s nowhere else to go.”
Despite promising to never return, she found herself back at the family business after putting her pharmacy career on hold to start a family.
“As soon as I left pharmacy I knew I was never going back,” Ms Sheng said.
“There was a eureka moment when I thought, ‘Actually, I really like this and I can turn this business into something quite big’, and that’s when I started to take on the business role fully.”
‘They would close the door in my mum’s face’
Ms Sheng said the clothing alteration industry had a better reputation now than it did when her mother arrived in Australia in 1999.
Wei Ping Yu grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and migrated to Australia with her 11-year-old daughter in search of a better life.
Despite having limited English and struggling to make ends meet as a single mother, Ms Yu made a name for herself in the clothing alteration industry and started Brisbane City Clothing Alterations in 2008.
“Back then not everyone was used to having non-English speakers around,” Ms Sheng said.
“There were a lot of difficult situations at school, in public and especially for my mum at work … especially being in the clothing alterations trade which is quite low on the social ladder.”
While Ms Sheng said she struggled with bullying at school, her mother faced it in the workplace.
“I have seen with my own eyes people treating her really badly,” she said.
“We worked with a lot of high-end retailers and they would close the door in my mum’s face while opening the door for a rich customer.”
When Ms Sheng took a more active role in the business she realised her mother’s attention to detail and relationships with clients were the qualities destined to turn its image around.
“She was the best at what she does but she devalued herself because clients have always treated her badly.
“She would only tell people, ‘I can do this cheaper, I can do this faster’, which is putting herself down when she can provide the best service and the best quality work.”
Now she is committed to giving other marginalised workers an opportunity to join the industry.
“A lot of the staff we hire are from overseas; we have refugees and women who are coming back after staying at home for a number of years.
“There is no class system and there is no need to think someone is better than someone else.”
New business model caters to fashion-savvy men
Ms Sheng will release a book in 2018 advising men how to wear, style and care for suits.
She also launched a men’s styling service this month to show clients how to improve their clothing and business etiquette.
Creating these new ventures was a matter of necessity.
Ms Sheng said she was forced to look for other income streams when fashion retail sales started to suffer three years ago.
“A lot of our clients were closing down, they were selling a lot less clothing, and that directly affected our business,” she said.
“That’s when I started to take more proactive action to try and get more clients by teaching them the value of dressing well.”
The business’s founder, Ms Yu, has stepped back from day-to-day alteration work and is now a part-time consultant who, conveniently, lives around the corner from her daughter.
And, bucking the trend of second-generation succession etiquette, Ms Sheng said her advice was always welcome.
“If I’m ever scared of trying something new she would say, ‘Well I started the business with no money, no English and no education. If I can do it, you can do it’.”