Problem solving women: From bras for tweenies to treating eczema

  • For most women, there’s nothing more frustrating, or demoralising when they cannot find a solution to a personal problem or issues concerning their children.
  • Some women entrepreneurs recognise the massive opportunity to fix what’s right in front of them.
  • TheHomeGround Asia speaks to two women who created solutions you did not know you needed.
When life gave Vanessa Hooi (left) and Traslin Tan lemons, they not only made lemonade but also helped to "quench" others as well. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Hooi and Traslin Tan)
When life gave Vanessa Hooi (left) and Traslin Tan lemons, they not only made lemonade but also helped to "quench" others as well. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Hooi and Traslin Tan)

Necessity is the mother of invention. For these two mothers, it definitely is.

There is nothing more frustrating when you cannot find a solution to relieve an itch caused by eczema or when you simply cannot find the right support clothing for your tweenie.

So both Traslin Tan and Vanessa Hooi put their training and skills to work and came up with not only a solution for themselves but also for all who face the same challenges at one time or another.

The itch she needed to scratch badly

Ms Traslin Tan developed chronic eczema a few months after giving birth to her daughter and they would develop on her hands.

The chronic eczema brought on by post-natal complications resulted in red angry cracks on Traslin Tan’s hands. (Photo courtesy of Traslin Tan)

“They are the worst to treat because we use our hands constantly. The eczema was extremely itchy and painful at the same time. The wounds cracked and oozed and it affected me badly both physically and emotionally,” she says.

Ms Tan says she was prescribed antibiotics soon after giving birth and believed the course had “disrupted some sort of equilibrium in my body, affecting my immune system”. 

“It just happened out of the blue. I started reacting to certain foods and my lips would swell. Multiple painful splits would develop in the corners of my mouth a day after and the skin on fingers cracked too. It took me a few weeks to actually zoom in on my food triggers. They include MSG (monosodium glutamate), overly salted foods, prawns and crabs,” she tells TheHomeGround Asia, adding that her condition made eating out difficult and her hands were in constant pain.

Ms Tan’s lips would swell, with multiple painful splits developing in the corners of her mouth whenever she takes food containing MSG or too much salt. (Photo courtesy of Traslin Tan)

By then, the family had moved to the United States when the baby was only a few months old and for the two years she was there, she had to cope with looking after her daughter and managing her pain with no extra help. The cool, dry weather was not helping solve her eczema either. 

Cuts like a knife – constantly

Being in dusty places and using harsh hand soap also triggered a reaction.

“I couldn’t carry my baby and simple tasks like washing my hair was torturous as the strands would cut into the slits on my hands and the shampoo bite into the skin. This was an everyday affair and I kept asking myself, ‘When will this be over?’ Mind you, I am someone who has a high threshold for pain,” she says. 

Ms Tan says she was diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema by different physicians “all on the same pair of hands” and throughout that period, she had to deal not only with angry red hands and wet oozing skin, but also the stares and glares from strangers, “wondering if I have some contagious disease whenever they catch a glimpse of my hands.

“Eventually I wore gloves whenever I went out. This went on for a couple of months and that was the darkest period of my life. It affected my self esteem as well as my confidence. I was struggling and trying to manage my girl alone with my cracked hands. It was no small feat,” she recalls.

“The good thing in the US was that its organic foods are cheap and I was able to slowly change to eating a lot cleaner there,” Ms Tan adds.

Coming up with the right “scratch” for that itch

After three painful years away, Ms Tan and her family returned to Singapore and that was when she made up her mind to find an alternative solution to her eczema issues. 

“I did not want to take the usual or traditional medical route. That only treats the symptoms and I wanted to get to the root of my problem. I believe highly in alternative remedies and working from the inside out. So I delved into research and decided to change my entire range of products prescribed or otherwise to au naturale and simple ingredients. That includes skincare, laundry soap, dish soap, hand soap, floor cleaner and other toiletries,” she says, adding that she also adopted a clean diet of no processed foods.

The process took Ms Tan two years and it spurred her on to continue her research to develop her own line of products to help others who suffer from eczema.

After three years in development, Ms Tan launched TOS Skin in July 2020 with a specialised eczema treatment serum. (Photo courtesy of Traslin Tan)

“I have been in the skincare industry for more than 20 years and was looking at product development. I have a food science and nutrition background and I believe strongly in working from the inside out,” she says.

“Working closely in R&D was how I came across marine botanical stem cell technology and managed to use stem cell extracts with other scientifically proven ingredients to develop a formulation that will aid in the management of eczema-prone and sensitive skin. The proprietary formulation helps to boost the skin’s natural ability to regenerate new cells and helps open sores by providing antioxidants protection, calms and strengthens skin,” Ms Tan adds.

After three years in development, Ms Tan launched TOS Skin in July 2020 with a specialised eczema treatment serum. 

“Stem cell extracts have always been known for their regenerative properties and thus provide anti-aging benefits. Those available in the market are mainly derived from fruits. I was searching for something more and that was how I found the ones from marine botanics which are also vegan friendly. That was how the serum came about,” she says.

The serum has undergone pre-clinical trials on human skin models to determine its ability to reduce oxidative stress and provide protection against damage. “I want to make sure that every product TOS pushes out is tested. The core of the brand is eczema care and we want to educate and support people who suffer from the disorder,” she adds.

In search of proper support

For mother of four Vanessa Hooi, what started out as an exciting, fun shopping trip with her then 13-year-old daughter India for the girl’s first training bra became a nightmare. It did not take long for Ms Hooi to realise that not only was there a limited number of brands of bras for tweenies, the colours and patterns “were horrifying”.

“My older daughter India and I found the few training bras that were available were in boring colours; most were made from very, very thin cotton material single layered and did not provide coverage and to a certain extent, support; and some were mainly miniature versions of adult bras paddings or cups,” she says.

Vanessa Hooi developed Hippie Chicks by VAN so that tweenies like her girls India and Kate do not have to go through the horror of not finding the right training bra in the existing retail market. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Hooi)

“But what irked me most is there was no thought about the end-users the girls. Given my months of research where I spoke to many many girls and mums, the material causes itchiness too,” Ms Hooi adds.

Going back to the drawing board for the sake of little girls

Ms Hooi says she has always wanted to start a business and has been “manifesting a business idea”.

“I wanted to get into something which allowed me to create value, fix a problem, improve a current problem or shortcoming, both in product design as well as customer service. So, shortly after the shopping experience, I went home to do research and a couple of days later, I made up my mind to do something about it,” she tells TheHomeGround Asia.

One and a half years after that fateful shopping trip, Ms Hooi launched her online store Hippie Chicks by Van in December 2020, offering a range of beginner bras. Its name stemmed from her love for Woodstock, the hippie culture and music from the 1960s and 1970s.

But success did not come overnight. A lot of research, including focus groups research, went into the design, the material, the textile requirements of each and every bra created under the Hippie Chicks by VAN.

Calling it the “rite of passage for young girls”, Ms Hooi says she listened to the tweens when doing research on what kinds of designs, materials and colours they want.

“The girls love that it looks like a sports bra with various designs — so this removes the awkward effect, especially for the shy ones. Most importantly, it doesn’t itch. The feedback that I get from appreciative mums and girls is that the material is so smooth, soft and it gets softer but no less durable and the shape remains after many washes,” Ms Hooi says. 

“While I have the whites and nudes for wearing under white school blouses and T-shirts, the girls loved that our bras come in many colour options to cater to girls with different colour preferences. One even declared that it is like shopping in a candy store,” she adds, laughing.

Ms Hooi says the design process is fairly straightforward.

Hippie Chicks by VAN provides fun colours that appeal to the young girls – blue, hot pink, green, and pastel colours – and they are fashioned into sports bras. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Hooi)

“As a runner and someone who loves fashion, I combined the two to draw pretty designs which are practical to wear. The process was thorough and lengthy as my partner and I spent a lot of time going through the cut, the stitching, the length of the straps, the body, the band, and the material. This is important because it determines the ultimate comfort and quality of our products,” she says.

The partner she referred to is an old friend and former colleague Sophia Ong, whom she met while working at the same accounting firm. Ms Hooi learnt that Ms Ong was looking to get involved in a business and her instincts “told me that she was the one who could journey with me”.

Making her own daughters her guinea pigs 

Once the designs and all the necessary sizing are determined, the search was on for the right manufacturer to start working on the prototype. Ms Hooi travelled the world in search of the right manufacturers. Her quest took her to Hongkong, Shenzhen, Guangdong, Indonesia and even the United States.

“There were a few editions. We went back and forth in the fine-tuning process before we started bulk production of a design. Sometimes even intended colours and designs are completely overhauled if the overall look is not as envisioned. And there were many designs which were cancelled at this pre-production prototype stage,” she says.

Ms Hooi explains that there is really no fixed timeline from design to production and it takes between three and six months. “We would have been at the factories working with our cutter and manufacturing team throughout the day and night to get it right but Covid-19 and the travel restrictions have crippled our process,” she says.

Ms Hooi is working with an old friend and former colleague Sophia Ong, who was looking to get involved in a business and her instincts “told me that she was the one who could journey with me”. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Hooi)

Ms Hooi also admits that she uses her two daughters and their friends as “guinea pigs” to test the products and give “honest feedback because any bias or sugar-coating of feedback would not help me or the brand at all”.

“I wanted to focus on just five designs but offer a range of colours within these five designs. It is a research-backed fact that when there are too many options, the consumer gets overwhelmed and it doesn’t not help them with their decision-making. Ultimately, I wanted to make it an easy-to-do experience for my girls and my customers,” she says.

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