All About Apparel: Karen Han Liao x HighbrowLab Interview

We sat down with Karen Han Liao of Happy Our, a “softwear” company. Karen chatted with us about how apparel, small business and family come together in her company. Read more to find out her journey!

Tell us about yourself! Your background, history & the nitty gritty of all things you!

I studied Product Design in college and married my college sweetheart. We’re the perfect example of “opposites attract” but as a whole, we are balanced. I have two kids, 5-year-old daughter Kade (who was named after the first two letters of our first names, Karen and Denny),  3-year-old son Dylan, and we’re expecting a baby boy in February 2020. I love all forms of art and creativity. I would like to learn to knit this winter.

What does the word beauty mean to you?

Beauty to me means originality. There’s nothing more beautiful than when your own color radiates. Discovering and embracing your character is a beautiful journey. 

What makes you feel the most beautiful?

I feel the most beautiful when I’m renewed emotionally and physically. Morning showers after getting plenty of sleep, when makeup gets applied smoothly, putting on clean clothes from the closet -- the feeling of freshness makes me feel the most beautiful.

How did you first get into apparel? 

Happy Our is a project I started with my sister-in-law who’s a fashion design veteran. In the beginning, our plan was to design and manufacture the most breathable nursing covers. Apparel wasn’t a field I wanted to get into because I was intimidated by the number of SKUs we would have to generate as a start-up in such a competitive market. 

We were looking for breathable material when we came across a fabric made by a local company. It’s two thin layers knitted as one sheet to create space and airflow. We modified the fabric using our own blend of bamboo and organic cotton. Our first collection consists of essential garments for newborns. We later expanded to baby, kids, and maternity/women’s. 

Tell us the story behind Happy Our (brand, story, differences, etc.)

I remember as a first-time mom, I would try to find the best essentials for my baby and collect keepsakes. We wanted our products to take on that experience. 

We hope our garments are what parents would want their newborn to wear as their first outfit, and our swaddle blankets become the baby’s favorite blanket that grows with them. Our maternity/women’s dress is meant to be worn throughout pregnancy and motherhood.

What was the journey like to start the line? 

We were fortunate to have a pretty smooth start in the beginning of our journey. My partner had relationships in the garment industry, so we had an advantage in finding vendors and suppliers. The most challenging part of the journey was finalizing the product and moving forward with it. We had to convince ourselves that we are moving forward with the right decision. 

What is the design process like? What is your least and most favorite part of the process?

It started with research to identify the problem. Once we identify the problem, we try to find the solution through ideation. This is my favorite part of the design process: exploring all the possibilities. My least favorite part of the process would be picking the final design. They all seem promising and the modifications are endless -- the slightest hue and shape difference changes the look and feel. Only the end sales record will prove whether your decision is valid. 

Where do you pull your inspiration from? What motivates you?

I get inspired by casual conversations and people’s experience. People will share their stories and mention things  like “I wish it was more like___.” “I love everything about this except this___” “Why can’t they have something like___?” These conversations trigger design ideations and at the end. As a product designer, my goal is to make a difference in people’s  daily life with clever solutions. 

How do you avoid burnout? How do you balance work and personal?

In the beginning I struggled with not being able to meet all my expectations due to the priorities of having 2 small children. I worked while kids are in preschool and after their bedtime. It was draining. I learned to not put too much pressure on myself because my circumstances are different from other full time business owners. 

Before, I felt obligated to spend every hour adding value to self growth or business. I sometimes binge on Netflix, go out to dinner with friends, or go to the spa. I’m much happier and more efficient when my personal needs are met. Happy Our is a sweet escape for me and I dedicate the hours I can without pressure which has helped out with burnout. 

What are your tips for people struggling with going after a dream?

Start with smaller realistic goals. Do dream big but if your goals are too big in the beginning, it’s easy to give up. Taking the first step is always the hardest. Have a plan written out with small achievable goals and those will accumulate into bigger achievements.

What are your top three tips for someone interested in getting started in an apparel line?

  1. Always ask for referrals. Vendors always have contacts that they work well with.
  2. Always have back up vendors and suppliers. Don’t rely on just one fabric supplier. 
  3. Always look for “the next new” material or something that can better your products. 

What is the best business advice you’ve received? 

Be prepared for the best and the worst case scenario at all times. Things will happen along the way and when you are prepared for all scenarios, it’s easier to control the situation.

What is the most surprising thing about owning a business?

Having to wear so many different hats and educating yourself on what’s unfamiliar.

How do you structure your days? What is your morning routine?

Before I start any task I have a few minutes of morning prayer time. I believe in starting the day with a positive mindset. We can’t control what the day will be like but at least in the morning when I wake up, I’m feeling hopeful and up-spirited. Regardless of religion, I think it’s important to meditate in the morning to organize your thoughts and know what you’re hoping for the day. 

What are the top three purse items you could never live without?

My iPhone, lip tint, hair ties. 

What next for Happy Our?

We want to expand more in maternity/women’s line to offer more styles for everyday wear. It’s so rewarding when our customers return and tell us how much they love their clothes and how it’s their everyday go-to garment. 

Want to learn more? Follow Happy Our on Instagram!

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