She is wearing a breezy black maxi dress that allows her to sit cross-legged. Her hair is neatly parted in the middle and pulled into a neat ponytail. He has on a plain white crew-neck Dri-Fit shirt. Raena Lim and Chris Halim looked more like tech billionaires with one-size-fits-all wardrobes than fashion entrepreneurs in trendy designer clothes for our morning Zoom interview.
Yet between them, they manage a five-year-old fashion start-up with over 200,000 registered users across Singapore and Indonesia, who have made over 2.3 million rentals from their inventory of 50,000 clothes and over 2,000 bags. Since its inception in 2016, Style Theory has also attracted investments of around US$30 million (S$40.3 million) from the likes of SoftBank and South-east Asian venture capital firm Alpha JWC Ventures.
In his former professional life, Halim was a level-headed Bain & Company senior associate consultant who would research the best tailors and shoemakers before putting his money on bespoke Italian suits with subtle detailing, made-to-measure shirts, handmade ties and hand-crafted footwear.
Lim was a Goldman Sachs associate with a weakness for independent designers and luxury handbags. She used to comb the streets of Paris and the malls of Bangkok with equal enthusiasm, making sure that not a single boutique missed her scrutiny. Before she realised it, her collection was creeping into her husband’s wardrobe space, even spilling out of it. Yet she constantly had nothing to wear.
When they struck out on their own, solving Lim’s predicament (and a pain point for Halim) became a starting point. At the time, the circular fashion industry had already caught on in the American and European markets, and the husband-and-wife team took a stab at introducing the concept in South-east Asia, starting with Singapore.
An avid shopper might think getting pieces for their business is a dream come true, but it’s one thing to buy for one and another to purchase for a fragmented market. In choosing the brands to carry, Lim had to be objective despite her love of deep emerald greens and midnight blues, along with smart, fitted construction with subtle detailing. “It was difficult. I don’t wear girly styles, but our research showed that there is a market for them. Naturally, we have to appeal to the market.”
While she started with the South-east Asian boutique labels she had been buying, and those her friends had been asking about, Halim researched a bigger list from other regions, including Australia, the US and the UK, paying attention as to whether they produced the smaller sizes suited for our market.
They categorised the brands by general aesthetics and the outfits by event, such as weddings. Today, each outfit in the Style Theory arsenal has 60 data points. The company analyses the statistics to understand the constantly changing needs of customers. For example, since the pandemic spawned a new Zoom culture, tops have gained popularity over dresses and jumpsuits.
The couple realised as they dug deeper into the industry that their business addressed a much broader issue. “I was shocked to discover how linear things were. A brand would drop its price if its products didn’t sell to a level that corresponds to its positioning. And I was contributing to the problem by not practising conscious buying,” says Lim.
Within Style Theory’s first year, they made the environment a key pillar of the company, working only with designers who share their focus on sustainability. “Start-ups are all about making an impact. There are easier ways to get rich. We wanted to create a better way for women to dress with an infinite selection and a better price point. We added more depth to our mission by understanding the environmental impact our business can have. As a result, we are creating something that will affect the world for generations to come, not just for us,” says Halim.
Style Theory also expanded into the resale sector last year. “Even though renting frees you completely, there are still a lot of people who are more comfortable buying,” Halim says. “Our pre-owned pieces are in fantastic condition and offer value for money and an opportunity to own pieces that might no longer be available. Additionally, they represent the first step towards a more sustainable lifestyle.”
Lim is walking the talk and has stopped binge-shopping. “I have only bought a few items from local designers over the last five years, aside from some key investment pieces, such as luxury bags. Travelling doesn’t involve shopping anymore because I don’t feel the need to buy things.”
They were supposed to style each other for our shoot but ended up collaborating. While Lim wanted Halim – a “simple dresser” with a taste for neutral hues – to try some bold colours, they compromised on a monochromatic outfit topped by a cardigan with a graphic pattern. Lim, who was six months pregnant at the time, wore a structured dress. The mustard yellow is a perfect example of the rich autumnal colours she favours.