Sheree Gotuaco: Staying in business is about being relevant

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 10) -- You don't often use the words fashion retailer and problem solver in the same sentence, but when you refer to Sheree Gotuaco, these epithets are particularly apt.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing months-long lockdown hit many businesses hard, and the fashion industry was no exception.

Over the last few months, many fashion brands and retailers have folded and closed shop. Some, like Gotuaco’s online personal and corporate styling service,, have pivoted and grown in unexpected and surprising ways.

For Gotuaco, the way forward was reinvention and a resilient e-commerce business model that was an extension of the work she had already been doing, rather than starting from scratch. Her ability to think about outcomes, dig deep into the problems at hand to improve both her products and services, has helped her stay the course during these difficult times.

Starting in the fashion industry in the early 90s as a new graduate with a Business Degree from the University of Southern California and a fashion design degree from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Gotuaco set up popular mall brands Ensembles and Freeway. Ensembles was born out of her consumer insight.

“At the time, there were no stores selling suit pieces separately. And I knew women sometimes might wear a different size bottom than top,” she says.

Freeway won new converts as both an accessible and aspirational brand. In 2009, it launched a capsule collection that married high-art and functional wearability, using its clothes as a canvas for the paintings of National Artists. Referencing art, and educating those who might not have had an appreciation for painting or culture was, to Gotuaco, a sartorial statement worth making. That same sort of innovation and independent thinking would also mark her next steps. Wanting to broaden her footprint beyond her brands’ core audience of mall-goers, Gotuaco turned her sights online.

“With a brick-and-mortar store, you can learn a lot about your customer, what they like, and how they shop. But it’s precisely these insights that led me to explore digital selling platforms,” she says.

One insight Gotuaco gained from serving customers was that pain points have been increasing through the years such as the lack of time to shop due to traffic, the lack of available sizes especially for plus sizes and the lack of affordable professional advice on how to dress up for different occasions. She also learned that as formal business workplaces began relaxing their dress policies, women were having trouble dressing appropriately and navigating dress codes.

Gotuaco’s solution to address these insights and pain points? To put up a digital solution that would integrate her existing mall operations and, at the same time, solve the pain points as well as allow her to engage a new demographic with a new revenue stream.

In August of 2016, Gotuaco launched her passion project, Combining both her love for fashion and technology, the online platform brought a previously inaccessible experience to the mainstream in the Filipino market.

“When you think about having a personal stylist, the first thought that comes to mind is that it's going to be very expensive."

But is a free service that helps the customer build a new closet of curated pieces that suit her lifestyle."

Having gained even more insights on the shop floor—knowing what women were buying and why, she wanted to know the customer better, who they were, and how fashion fits their style and daily routines. She gleaned that these were problems also faced by corporations and not just individuals. This corporate need allowed her to break into a new client base, companies who appreciated the importance of a well-dressed workforce in corporate branding and asked Gotuaco to design uniforms for them.

SIP’s business model depends on how good the platform is at getting data and customer preferences right, “Our online questionnaire gathers information about an individual's preferences, size, style, lifestyle, and budget. If they love the clothes we've selected for them, we make a sale and hopefully gain a repeat customer.”

One set of loyal SIP customers is doctors. “We are hugely popular among doctors,” Gotuaco says, “Many of them struggle to find time to shop. We save them the hassle and help them put together a versatile collection of clothes that they will love to wear.”

Yet brands in this digital day and age have to continually change and adapt to the current market landscape; this is probably even more true given the pandemic. For Gotuaco, seeking relevance when fashion is perhaps the least of people's preoccupations has become a challenge.

Days into the lockdown, Gotuaco knew she had to move fast. With malls closed and online delivery services virtually nonexistent, she was looking at lost sales and lost revenue. Where others were willing to ride out the lockdown, thinking normalcy would return as soon as ECQ was lifted, Gotuaco had been following the news as early as February and had seen what was happening in Wuhan. The pandemic's long tail was almost certainly going to be an economic downturn that would be especially deep, with recovery limited by continued anxiety and a lack of confidence in the future.

“At the time, we didn’t know how to proceed, but we wanted to act and to help. We started off with designing and producing high quality washable face masks and donating them to hospitals. From there we got more interest on this and other items like PPE’s.”

A quick scan of the market revealed what people were looking for and were willing to buy: PPEs. But she knew that speed to market was critical. “However ahead of the curve you think you are, someone is thinking about doing exactly what you’re are doing.”

Within days Gotuaco was producing facemasks. After this, hospital-approved and tested hazmat bunny suits, and surgical gowns soon followed.

"We had to be stealthy," she remembers. “Divisoria was closed, and there were checkpoints everywhere. I spoke to my staff and asked them if they were willing to put in the work, away from the factory, and in their homes, and thankfully, they all said yes. In two weeks, from dresses and t-shirts, we were producing entirely new projects and changing our product line to support healthcare workers and customers who just wanted to protect themselves.“

Looking back, she feels incredibly lucky that she adapted the digital platform early on with a B to C and B to B penetration.

“If we hadn’t, I think it would have been much harder to pivot. It’s not so much that we had a ready-made site for online selling, it was that we had managed to imbibe that start-up mindset of many digital or tech companies.”

Gotuaco would be among the first to say that the pandemic and the many adjustments she and her employees have had to make have strengthened the entrepreneurial muscle that sometimes atrophies over time or as companies get bigger. "In a way, the coronavirus made us more entrepreneurial," she says. "It gave us a purpose and galvanized us as a team. I didn’t see problems, only challenges.”

Two months into the lockdown, SIP developed an entire microsite in just three weeks. The site sells PPEs—everything from face shields for toddlers to hand sanitizer. Gotuaco’s sideline is now one of her primary revenue earners.

“People were having difficulty getting out of their homes to buy the things they needed: masks or alcohol and other PPEs. Our site made it super easy for them. SIP transformed the way we reach our customers all over the country.”

Another timely product is Stylist in Pocket’s work with its proprietary Uniform Management Technology (Philippine patent granted and US patent pending), technology that makes it easy for HR Departments to collect measurement data from employees and recommend best-fit options. Given the pandemic, it’s become the perfect solution for a contactless way of measuring and dressing up employees.

“Staying in business is about being relevant. During our brick and mortar days, fashion was considered non-essential, a Nice to Have. With SIP, we have shifted from nice-to-have to a must-have. Staying relevant to our customers is now a norm and a must for us," Gotuaco said.

Her willingness to find new ways to survive, adapt, offer practical and purposeful, problem-solving help to her customers has kept the lights on for her brands and business.

More importantly, it has kept her staff employed throughout the pandemic—a fact that Gotuaco is rightly grateful for. It was good to have kept on moving when many competitors were waiting and watching.

"I would rather try and give an idea a chance rather than not try at all. The outcome of failure will haunt me less than regretting not taking action at all,” she says.

Gotuaco is a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization — a global, peer-to-peer network of more than 14,000+ influential business owners with 198 chapters in 61 countries. Founded in 1987, EO is the catalyst that enables leading entrepreneurs to learn and grow, leading to greater success in business and beyond.