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Why This Fashion Entrepreneur Moved From L.A. to a Navajo Reservation to Run Her Own Clothing Business

Editor’s note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

The store has no name. Just a neon sign in the window with a symbol: a Native American storm cloud. It represents rebirth.

“I don’t feel the need to do things the way you are supposed to,” says Amy Yeung, when asked why she has made her new shop, which sells fashions handcrafted from upcycled materials as well as art and accessories, virtually unsearchable. “The right people will find it. It is an experiment.”

The same could be said for all of Yeung’s new life. In June, the one-time fast-fashion executive gave away virtually all her possessions, except for two boxes of clothes, some sewing tools, and upward of 500 pounds of vintage fabric collected over 30 years of global travel. Loading that inventory–the physical assets of her online apparel business Orenda Tribe–into a U-Haul, she departed her longtime home in Los Angeles to live a nomadic existence on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, among the indigenous sewers, jewelry makers, and artisans who are her suppliers. Now Yeung has ambitious plans to help the tribe, while further connecting with its members.

The store, near the Old Town section of Albuquerque, has a small living space in back that serves Yeung as a base. Mostly, though, she intends to keep moving, scouting new artistic talent on the reservation and transacting with her existing vendors, most of whom lack smartphones, access to electronic payment, or even mailboxes. While traveling, she will sleep on the road in a series of traditional Navajo dwellings, called hogans, which she intends to start building in the spring. “We’re taught to think you have to have ‘a’ home, and that is very limiting,” says Yeung, 55. “My goal is to have a whole batch of those little homes everyplace I want to live. I know a lot of people in rodeo who do that.”

Amy Yeung at her store in Albuquerque.Ramsay de Give

Yeung’s birth mother is Navajo. Her family, including some of the artisans who supply her businesses, is spread across 70 square miles of the Bisti Badlands near Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico. Until seven years ago, Yeung, who was adopted, never knew them. But now she is intent on helping them and other members of the tribe by creating jobs that don’t involve extraction industries–which she detests–and by funding, through a separate foundation, food programs, activities, and supplies for students of schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

One way Yeung plans to create jobs is by launching a small-scale manufacturing facility to produce items like T-shirts and bandanas. She expects to fund it with grants. Government agencies, she says, are eager to support indigenous entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, she raises money for her charities through Instagram–$150,000 in eight months–and through business contacts from her corporate days. She also invests profits from Orenda Tribe and, now, from her unnamed store. “Sometimes all the revenue is going to those programs,” says Yeung, who views the accumulation of worldly goods as a social and spiritual scourge and, consequently, keeps little for herself.

Seizing on the entrepreneur’s prerogative to design her own life, Yeung is creating one that is at once stripped down and bountiful–solitary and rich in community. With her only child, Lily, heading off for a peripatetic gap year, Yeung has decided to embark–“like Georgia O’Keefe in the desert”–on a grand adventure of her own.

A mother and a mission found

Yeung always knew she was adopted. She was raised in rural Indiana “by two beautiful, loving humans”–a small-town pharmacist and his wife, who helped him in the store. Her limited understanding of indigenous life “was a very colonized view that came through U.S. history,” she says.

For 25 years, Yeung worked in companies like Reebok and Puma, designing activewear. Then in 2009, she suffered a serious bout of hypocrite parent syndrome. Yeung was teaching her then 7-year-old daughter to preserve the environment; at the same time she was creating fast fashions destined for landfills.

Amy Yeung.Ramsay de Give

Over the next four years she began to move away from corporate work, acting as an independent consultant for international apparel companies and startups eager to manufacture in the United States. During this period, she launched Orenda Tribe as a side gig, producing one-of-a-kind garments crafted from upcycled materials. Making things responsibly, she knew, was good for the earth. But remaking things that already existed was better. Yeung designed the clothes herself and hired small family businesses around Los Angeles to sew them.

In 2013, she ditched consulting to do Orenda Tribe full-time. The business grew thanks to popular items like military knit underwear and flight suits from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s that Yeung buys from vintage and surplus dealers, restores, and dyes in rich colors.

One repeat customer is Kinsale Hueston, a sophomore at Yale and one of Time magazine’s 2019 People Changing How We See the World. Like Yeung, Hueston is Navajo. She is also a performance poet striving to elevate indigenous voices. Onstage, she often wears pieces by Orenda Tribe. “As indigenous people, we have been taught by our grandmothers and mothers not to use brand new fabrics,” Hueston says. “So what she does is closely tied to what I am passionate about.” Even better, the clothes “allow me to be comfortable onstage but also look really put together.”

Ramsay de Give

While Yeung was morphing professionally, she was also exploring and deepening her family ties. She tracked down her biological mother on the internet and heard the story of her mother’s past. A teenager in the 1960s when the Indian Child Welfare Act was breaking apart indigenous families, she had been shipped to a boarding school in Ohio, where at times she was beaten or starved.

“Crazy stuff happened to her there,” says Yeung. “That is how I happened.”

Yeung’s mother stayed in Ohio. In 2007, Yeung and Lily visited her there; then the three generations traveled to the reservation. Over the next 10 years, Yeung often visited New Mexico, gradually meeting her extended family. She also started sourcing jewelry and custom apparel pieces from members of the tribe, her relatives among them, to sell through Orenda Tribe. And she learned about the social, environmental, and economic ills bedeviling her people. More than 500 abandoned uranium mines pock the land around her family’s home: one cousin is dying of uranium poisoning. Suicide and meth addiction are common.

“One third of my reservation is without electricity,” Yeung says. “One third is without running water. So there is a lot of work to be done out there.”

Yeung wanted to help, and not from a distance. As soon as Lily graduated high school, she resolved, she would move her studio, her business, and her life to New Mexico.

Stocking a store and a school

Yeung’s store, on Rio Grande Boulevard, is in a gentrifying neighborhood of a poor city. Albuquerque’s poverty rate is around 17 percent, compared with 12.3 percent nationally.

A former trading post, the space is packed with antique mercantile fixtures: glass displays and looming wooden cases with dozens of shallow drawers that are perfect for storing tools and fabrics. In the middle of the space sits a mahogany bed that Yeung says was formerly owned by Cary Grant (she has the documentation).

“A medicine man from the Jemez Pueblo cleansed and blessed the space and made an offering for all the new energy and the new intentions,” she says.

While a construction crew worked on the interior, Yeung spent the first two months in her new home creating inventory, both for the store and for festivals like the Spirit Weavers Gathering and the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love. (Thirty percent of Orenda Tribe’s revenue comes from shows, and 70 percent from e-commerce.)

In addition to Yeung’s creations, the store stocks work from around 50 indigenous artisans, a number Yeung hopes will rise to 200. A few have small dedicated spaces in the store, including a 9-year-old painter of hoop dancers and an 11-year-old silversmith who makes bracelets with visual stories engraved on them.

Ramsay de Give

Yeung’s intent is to spend three weeks a month on sales and production and one in service to the tribe, chiefly through her K’e Foundation (K’e is the Navajo word for “kinship”), for which she is seeking nonprofit status. She has already identified generous donors among her corporate connections and the stylist community in L.A. “My LinkedIn is pretty tasty,” she says.

The first focus of Yeung’s philanthropy is the Tohaali Community School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs K-8 boarding school with all Navajo students. Contributions she has raised include not just money but also goods: warm clothes from Patagonia; feminine hygiene products from the Monthly Gift Company; art supplies from Papaya Art; sports bras and leggings from Avocado Activewear; and hats and mittens from Dakine. A major athletic brand is in talks with Yeung about partnering on kids’ sports programs.

“We have a real problem here with hunger on the weekends when we have a lot of kids who go home to houses where there isn’t much food, says Delores Bitsilly, Tohaali’s principal. When Yeung heard that last December, on an early visit to the school, she went on Instagram and quickly raised enough money to fund take-home food for students through the summer term. She also brought them holiday gifts.

“Amy has been such a plus for us,” Bitsilly says. “And she’s a great role model for the kids to see what is possible.”

A birthday and a new life

The store with no name opened officially on August 29–Yeung’s 55th birthday. Surrounded by her rediscovered family and new friends, Yeung celebrated her surprising path.

“I could have been a vice president of some big company making tons of cash, but I would not have been happy,” she says. “What would I have told my daughter? That I produced fast fashion all my life? That I destroyed the environment?”

Amy Yeung.Ramsay de Give

But those years in corporate land were not wasted. They bestowed on Yeung a wealth of connections as well as fundraising, organizational, and communication skills that are largely missing from the reservation. In Los Angeles, she generated income for the tiny businesses and individuals who made Orenda Tribe’s products. She wants to do the same in New Mexico.

“Maybe the whole point of my not growing up here is now I can be the bridge to bring these things back,” Yeung says. “I want to crush it. I want to make things different. I think I can.”

By: Leigh Buchanan

Source: Why This Fashion Entrepreneur Moved From L.A. to a Navajo Reservation to Run Her Own Clothing Business

Sarah LaFleur, founder and CEO of MM.LaFleur, and Rebecca Minkoff, cofounder and creative director of Rebecca Minkoff, discuss what helps make each of their brands thrive. Fast Company is the world’s leading progressive business media brand, with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, leadership, and design. Follow us on: https://www.facebook.com/FastCompany/ https://twitter.com/FastCompany https://www.instagram.com/fastcompany/ https://www.linkedin.com/company/fast…

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Philippine Retail Billionaire Moves From Fashion to Pets

Robinson Retail Holdings Inc.’s head office in Manila.

Billionaire John Gokongwei’s Robinsons Retail Holdings Inc. is considering an exit from the fashion business as it struggles to compete with cheaper, faster chains like Fast Retailing Co.’s Uniqlo. Stock jumps to three-week high.

The Filipino retail giant, whose fashion portfolio includes the Topshop and Dorothy Perkins brands, instead sees better returns from pet, health and beauty products where demand is growing, said Chief Executive Officer Robina Gokongwei-Pe in an interview.

“We are shrinking fashion, for it has become very difficult,” Gokongwei-Pe said. “There are other brands that came in who are more progressive and cheaper. We are already reducing the number of stores and we have to think if we move out altogether.”

The Manila-based company is relooking its business as it faces shrinking operating margins and growing competition in the low-cost space. It’s pivoting into wooing higher-spending consumers by entering into the premium grocery market, as well as expanding foreign franchises in beauty products and pet care, hoping to achieve 15% revenue growth annually for the next five years.

“Pets have become very big,” said Gokongwei-Pe. “Dogs now are very spoiled. Just look at Instagram and Facebook, it’s all about dogs. You should put money where the money is, which is food, drugstores, hardware, and growing businesses like pets and beauty.”

Robinsons Retail’s fashion portfolio has contracted to six brands and 40 stores at end-2018 from nine brands with 60 stores in 2014. Fashion is among the company’s specialty shops, which were cut to 341 in March from 387 at end-2018.

The company in December bought the local franchise for South Korean personal care and beauty products retailer Arcova and Club Clio, adding to 15 stand-alone stores selling Elizabeth Arden, Shiseido and Benefit Cosmetics. It also procured the license for Singapore’s Pet Lovers Centre in October and plans to open a second outlet as early as this year.

“Robinsons Retail is deploying its capital in a way that promises more growth,” said Miguel Ong, analyst at AP Securities Inc. “Fashion isn’t attractive as before with the rise of online platforms and brands like Uniqlo dominating the market.”

Click RRHI PM <Equity> ANR to see how analysts rate the stock.

Targeting Affluent Shoppers

Under a five-year plan targeting mid-to-high teen revenue growth, Robinsons Retail will spend between three billion pesos ($59 million) and five billion pesos to add 100 to 150 stores a year, according to Gokongwei-Pe. The retailer has 1,911 stores in various formats, excluding 1,960 outlets of its The Generics Pharmacy.

Revenue contribution from supermarkets will rise to 55% this year from 47% in 2018 after its acquisition of former rival Rustan Supercenters, whose 36 supermarkets cater to affluent shoppers. Robinsons Retail’s own 160 supermarkets cater mainly to mainstream consumers.

Robinsons Retail loses value, trails Philippine stock index since Rustan purchase

The acquisition and other new stores will improve gross profit margin by 10 to 20 basis points this year, said Gokongwei-Pe.

Operating margin, which fell below 5% in 2018, will shrink further due to write-offs related to the Rustan purchase. It will “definitely” improve in 2020, when the integration is completed, she said.

Other highlights:

  • A foreign executive has been hired to manage Mini Stop, which has potential to double its 5% sales contribution in 2018, if the convenience stores are “scientifically” ran.
  • Robinsons Retail is considering creating its own e-commerce app for its supermarkets to fill the gap left by Honestbee’s closure in the Philippines. It may start from scratch or expand Growsari Inc., a grocery delivery service for mom-and-pop stores.
  • The closure of Honestbee caused a dip in supermarket sales and will impact this year’s performance as same-store sales growth could have been 4.2% to 4.5% instead of 3%.

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Source: Philippine Retail Billionaire Moves From Fashion to Pets – Bloomberg

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