“Helping our customers try on shoes reminds us we are all servants”: Founder of online wearables store Kléo
by Christine Leow // November 25, 2021, 3:30 pm
Michelle Ng at a Kléo pop-up store. From an online shop to the occasional stall, her business will soon have a permanent store in Katong. All photos courtesy of Michelle Ng.
While other teens were going online to play games or watch YouTube videos, Michelle Ng at 13 was running her first online business selling vintage Polaroid cameras.
“It was trending then. I found a reliable source (of vintage Polaroid cameras) and resold it online.
“BlogSpot and LiveJournal were very popular then so it was really easy to set up an online presence. I did it for extra allowance.”
The business lasted three years.
In polytechnic, she tried her hand at selling boat shoes online.
“I sold a few but it wasn’t good enough to be sustainable. I still have some left in the cupboard to remind me of my failure,” says Michelle with a laugh.
Now at 27, Michelle is the owner of Kléo, an online and pop-up wearables store.
Specialising in footwear and accessories, Kléo’s pieces are “slow-made”, “which means they are hand-made by artisans in a very slow, careful process”. They are also functional and curated from all over the world.
The business will soon be expanding to a brick-and-mortar store in Katong called The Kin Thread. Apparel and lifestyle products such as books and homeware will be added to the mix and Kléo will represent one line of products.
“I wanted to highlight the theme that all our items are handmade, done by thread. The choice of ‘kin’ was for the human warmth element we want to introduce into our brand, especially the relationships behind the scene.”
Despite having three businesses under her belt, Michelle does not like to be called an entrepreneur. “It’s such an over-glorified buzzword.”
She reluctantly goes by “Founder” or “Managing Director” but says these titles “don’t resonate” with her either.
“I’m just putting food on the table.”
“We exist to acknowledge God in all that we do.”
In reality, Kléo is much more than a business. Named after the Greek word for “glory”, Michelle calls the business a “faith-based project”.
“We exist to acknowledge God in all that we do.”
Ephesians 2:10 underpins the way Michelle manages her staff which includes two full-timers and part-timers who help man the pop-up stalls.
“God created us for His own purpose. A lot of people have their unique strengths and talents, and it gets hidden in the corporate world because you have to fit into what corporate wants.
“Here, we see what God has built into them instead. The business provides space for them to explore and try their hand at certain things where they can bring their own unique talents and strengths into the team.”
So, her staff get a chance to design the espadrilles, Spanish rope-soled flats.
When she runs pop-up stores, Michelle reminds her staff to serve with humility.
“We emphasise that we want to help our customers try on their shoes, stoop down to put on the footwear for them. It’s a humbling thing but it helps us to remember that we are all servants (Matthew 20:26-28).”
The soles of the shoes that Kléo carries have Bible verses on them. “We put little hints and notes in our content, nothing in your face.”
That gentle wooing was exactly how Michelle encountered Christianity when she was still in school.
Culture of genuineness
“I used to be very averse to the idea of God and the idea of God loving us. I used to think I was a self-made woman,” says Michelle.
“I became more curious about them and their faith.”
“Maybe it’s my personality but I found the idea of such love new and cringey. It was something that made my hair stand.”
She was also known to be “very opinionated” and thinks people may have been too afraid to share the Gospel with her.
“I would say my piece if it’s not something I believe in. Either that, or it shows on my face.”
Things changed when Michelle went to polytechnic and joined the school’s track-and-field team.
“Generally, sportspeople can be very showy and self-centred. It’s all about I, me and myself. But this team was different.
“The seniors leading the team created a culture where they invested in people. They were very genuine.
“I was attracted to the culture they brought into the sport, especially when track-and-field is mostly an individual sport.”
The leap from secondary school to polytechnic was a big one and Michelle was “not a fan of the kind of environment in school”. The Banking and Finance student says she would have quit school if not for the people on the track-and-field team.
“I became more curious about them and their faith, and started thinking about questions (about Christianity).”
When her seniors invited her to an evangelistic sports camp they were organising, Michelle accepted. “I was there for the people and the sports, definitely not for God.”
At the camp, her friends shared the Gospel with her and prayed for her, but she was unmoved.
“God spent a lot of time softening my heart during my three years in poly.”
“It was the community’s genuineness that drew me.”
One day in her final year, Michelle was struggling to complete a particularly brutal workout during training. In desperation, she prayed.
“I said, ‘I’ll go to church if You help me complete this workout.’ I said it casually but He did help me finish the workout.”
To “fulfil my end of the promise”, she asked to follow her teammates to church. After the service, her friend prayed for her.
“I remember crying like crazy. I was touched. Why would someone invest their time to pray for me? I don’t even remember what she prayed about.”
Though she did not consider herself a Christian then, she joined a Bible study class and had one-on-one Bible study sessions with a senior from her team. She even went to church every week.
“It was the community’s genuineness that drew me,” says Michelle.
After graduation, she set about “seeking the truth”, and eventually got baptised.
A painful “yes”
Then began the slow process of being moulded by God.
Michelle had planned on becoming a teacher.
“I thought I had heard God say that I would be staying at NTU (Nanyang Technological University) for a while. I thought it meant that I would be staying in the hall.”
She assumed that meant that she would get accepted into National Institute of Education (NIE), an autonomous institute of NTU and the only education institute for teachers in Singapore.
But she got rejected by NIE. Years later, Michelle did end up living at NTU because of work but, at that time, she blamed God for the failure – the first major failure she had ever faced in her life.
“God told me to flip to this particular page of the book that reminded me of His character. Peace filled my heart.”
“I took it out on God. I didn’t want to talk to Him. I continued going to church to avoid being questioned by my friends but inwardly I was angry with God.”
Nearly three years and two jobs later, Michelle tried for NIE again and failed. “This time I was more regulated. I wasn’t frustrated.”
Instead, she sought God, asking Him if she should return to school. Desperate for an answer, she went to the altar after service to pray.
When the answer came back “yes” – three different people even came up to her and confirmed what she had heard God – Michelle cried because she did not want to go back to school.
The course she chose at the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) – Economics and Finance – turned out to be the most difficult course.
“It was super hard. A lot of people switched out or dropped out. I was crying almost every other day and had many sleepless nights dealing with anxieties.
“My little brother looked at me and said, ‘Maybe I don’t want to go to university because of how things turned out for you.’”
But in her first year, Michelle ended up getting an ‘A’ for a Math exam she had originally failed.
“That really showed that God’s hand was in this. It made me lean more closely on God.”
“The bridging Math exam I failed meant that what I expected to be only a two-year course became a three-year one.
“Right before leaving for my second attempt at the exam, God prompted me to bring along a Christian book I had shelved away for some time. I found it ridiculous but I obeyed anyway.”
As Michelle waited to enter the exam hall, reminders of her first failure made her increasingly anxious.
“Then, God told me to flip to this particular page of the book that reminded me of His character. I didn’t know what to expect but peace filled my heart and that was sufficient for me.”
She also topped one of her exams internationally.
“I think that really showed that God’s hand was in this. It gave me a lot more confidence.
“But it also broke me and humbled me a lot, and made me lean more closely on God.”
Faith-driven business plan
At the end of her second year at SIM, during the holidays, Michelle decided to start an online business because she “needed the income” since she was supporting herself through school.
Kléo was the result.
But the going was tough. At one point, she was studying, doing an internship, training as an athlete, giving tuition and running Kléo at the same time.
“Once, a friend asked me out for dinner. I had to go to the ATM to withdraw money but I didn’t even have the minimum balance in my account to make a withdrawal.
“I realised that God was always using this platform to provide jobs for stay-home mums.”
“All my money had gone into the business. So I had to go home instead.”
But Michelle says that despite the difficulties, “God always provided just enough”.
“Running a business is a very lonely journey. You make all the decisions yourself and take ownership of everything.”
But Michelle maintains that God has given her a joy that is “inexplicable and independent of the situation”. Even when she accidentally tossed her office keys into the rubbish dump and had to climb in to search for it, there was “a lot of joy in my heart still”.
God has also been the One guiding her business plans.
When a department store approached her to put her accessories in the store, she did not have enough products. A friend happened to have a jewellery business that she no longer wanted to run and sold her the accessories. That gave her a large enough product line to partner the department store.
Even her plan to open a store in Katong was God-driven. In 2020, Michelle’s mother lost her job. Michelle intends for the store to be an avenue for her mother to work.
“I realise that God was always using this platform to provide jobs for stay-home mums,” says Michelle.
She often employs stay-home mums to run her pop-up stores and had one who did administrative work. Even her suppliers abroad hire mostly stay-home mums and grandmothers.
Making the present count
A recent turn of events has also made Michelle think about how she wants her business to have a deeper impact on lives.
This year, Michelle was diagnosed with Stage 1 ovarian cancer.
“It’s a very rare type and doctors don’t have a lot of experience with this type of cancer. It’s so rare, there are not enough statistics to have a prognosis.”
Though the diagnosis came as a surprise, Michelle believes that God had been “preparing me for this”.
“We believe that God can use our faith as small as a mustard seed to edify women in our midst.”
“I’m aware I’m living on extended playtime and it seems like I’m running low on tokens.”
Even before this brush with death, Michelle had always joked with her friends that “we are all dying”.
“It’s a truth that is not mentioned enough, an important reminder that helps put things into perspective.
“Nothing much has changed except that the period (full stop) in my life is now in bold, waiting to find its place. It’s just more apparent and what becomes prominent is that the only time I have is now.”
So, for now, Michelle intends for her business to uplift people, especially women, and create jobs. On Kléo’s website, she writes: “We believe that God can use our faith as small as a mustard seed to edify women in our midst.”
She tells Salt&Light of a time when she had the opportunity to share life with one of her customers. The woman had come across Michelle’s pop-up store after a hard day at work.
“She saw something encouraging in the store and started to pour out her stuff to me. I ended up praying with her.”
This is what Michelle hopes to see more of at her new store.
“If I were given a choice, I would still do business over and over again because I get to envision my own values and create my own utopia that extends my visions and ideas.”