Q&A with BETTY TRAN

Betty Tran

I am empowering a new generation of fashion entrepreneurs and leaders.

Betty Tran is a fashion designer, entrepreneur and consultant. Betty’s love of fashion was born from helping her mother to manufacture garments for numerous international and Australian fashion labels. Betty’s couture and pret-a-porter fashion label, Betty Tran, expanded rapidly from Australia to the catwalks of Paris, Los Angeles and New York over the past decade. Betty was the brand ambassador for Redken in 2015 and was the winner of Telstra WA Business Women’s Awards — Young Business Woman of the Year in 2016. She was then appointed to be the Fashion Ambassador in Vietnam by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs in 2017. In 2018, Betty launched Betty Tran Consultants, a corporate strategy and creative agency specializing in fashion & lifestyle, real estate and technology. Betty is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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AP: Tell us about your family background.

BT: I was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. My mom was a tailor. I was involved in the fashion business from the age of five. I grew up in the fashion industry and observed a lot of things from my mom. When I was 14, we decided to migrate to Australia. I went to high school in Sydney, where I studied and lived for five years. At that time, my mom moved back to Vietnam. I had to learn to be independent on my own at a very early age. After five years in Sydney, I decided to move to Western Australia (WA) to join my family. At that time, my mom moved to WA, where my dad was working. 

AP: Do you have any memories growing up in Vietnam?

BT: I grew up in the fashion industry. I remember we lived in a very tiny house in the middle of nowhere. It was bushland. There wasn’t any property development back then. My mom would work until 2 am in the morning. I remember my mom worked  hard during my childhood. I also had to work  hard at the age of eight to help mom so I was quite disciplined from a young age.  

My mom had a team of many seamstresses, pattern makers, cutters, embroiderers and people working for her and she was their teacher. She taught them pattern making techniques, sewing and manufacturing. She mentored a lot of young women in her days. Our house was always busy and crowded with a lot of people coming in and out. That was my childhood memory from Vietnam. I learned the importance of having a great work ethic at a young age. If you want to get somewhere in your life, you have to work hard for it and be willing to do all the hard yards.

AP: What were your dreams as a child? How did you get into fashion and decided it was going to be your career?

BT: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a singer because I love music. In the later stage of my life, it changed and evolved but I have always been a creative person. I never thought that one day I would become a fashion designer and pursue what my mom used to do, and even go beyond her.  There are times I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I have always had a sense of who I wanted to become — to be someone who is willing to work hard, respect others, add value and make a real difference. I’m now doing exactly what I said I would not do. I took the fashion career seriously and went further with it so I think it’s my destiny. 

Although I studied PR, Marketing and Fashion Design in university for 5 years, the majority of my learning came from my family’s business of garment manufacturing.  A strong motivation also came from having to support my family. I was brought up in an environment where my father passed away when I was only 4 years old. My single mother had to raise me as being both a mother as well as a father. I had to learn to adjust, adapt and grow up very quickly. From a young age, I have been taught about processes like manufacturing and production. When you grow up and watch something for a long time, it becomes a part of you.

There are times I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I have always had a sense of who I wanted to become — to be someone who is willing to work hard, respect others, add value and make a real difference.

AP: Fashion is a tough business, what were the early days of your career like?

BT: When we moved to Perth, it was a difficult time for our family. I remember that we had to start from scratch because my mom did not speak English. Although I had spent almost five years in Sydney, it felt like I had to start from the beginning once again. I feel that going through that journey taught me how to be strong and independent. It stretched and moulded me to become who I am today. As a Vietnamese Australian, I am a natural fighter and survivor because of our history and cultureAlthough I felt the fear, I quickly realised that I had to overcome it, adapt and work hard. 

I remember when I got to Perth, I started working at the domestic airport as a cleaner in McDonald’s. That was my first outside job. The early days in my life taught me a lot about the value of hard work, discipline and how to be the hardest worker one can be and remain humble — while willing to do absolutely anything and everything. With that work ethic, my mom and I had to start over again. 

I knew that mom had to continue doing what she had been doing for 30 years and I did not want her skills to be wasted. So, we decided to knock on doors of many businesses to ask them if they needed manufacturing for their clothing or labels. That was how we started our first venture together as mom and daughter. 

Most businesses did not want to change their suppliers, so it was a challenge for us to get in as a new supplier. I would not take no for an answer. I remember going to an Italian fashion  brand in Perth to ask for manufacturing opportunities. The Italian brand’s production manager told us that they did not need any more new suppliers. After many attempts, I convinced them to give us a go since I was willing to do anything they wanted us to do, even doing the first job for free to show them our ability and capacity.

Many businesses were very sceptical to give the work to us, thinking that we would not deliver. But we went beyond, we made sure to deliver our work early. For example, a job that normally took other suppliers to complete in five weeks, we completed and delivered in four weeks instead. That was when these businesses realized that we could compete with other suppliers. We started with a single sewing machine in the backyard. My mom initially started sewing 10 units, then 50 units and shortly after 100-300 units, all the way to 1000 units on a single machine. Slowly we acquired more sewing machines.

I fell into this industry by accident because I did not know what else I could do. I was studying public relations and marketing at that time but it didn’t feel right for me and I just thought, what else could I do to support my family? And I realized that making and designing clothes was what I was great at and that was how the first venture began.

When we were still manufacturing, I always wanted to think outside the box. I worked for a well-established company in the fashion industry, Giorgio Armani. While I was working for Armani, I learned a lot about the specific structures and protocols that made a major corporation successful. Since everything already existed in established companies, you couldn’t change or have significant input into the company. I felt that there was a gap in the market for accessible women’s luxury fashion, and something needed to be changed but I couldn’t contribute while I was working under such restrictions and fixed structure.

It was then that I realized that I need to start my own venture. I had all these ideas and knew a fair bit from operating the family business. So at the age of 19, I started my first label, ‘Betty Sugar’, which was a fashion forward brand targeted at a young demographic. I didn’t think much about the business aspects of it, I just wanted to start something of my own. That first entrepreneurial experience taught me so many lessons.

I remember a couple of incidents such as the floods in Queensland, which severely affected my business and set me backwards. I didn’t have a lot of capital at the time, lost stock and clients. Four or five stores went out of business due to the floods and couldn’t afford to pay for their orders. It was all about survival at that point. I realized then that timing is very important in business. Success is not just about having good business skills, it also depends on being lucky as well. At the age of 19, I was in $60,000 debt. I was devastated. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to carry on with that label so I decided it was time to go back to study and also get a part-time job to pay back the debt as soon as I can. I pretty much buried the idea of having another label for a while.

Around that time, I decided to escape for at least two years. I travelled back to Vietnam to get away from what was going on in my life at the time. Mom and I did not talk for a while because I failed and felt like a failure. My mom was upset because she thought that I didn’t fulfil our family’s expectations.

AP: What were the circumstances that led to the creation of the Betty Tran brand and what was the breakthrough moment?

BT: When I was travelling around Vietnam, I had so many inspirations, even the little things would ignite the fire in me and inspire some of my future ideas. I decided to create and put together a new fashion collection inspired by the Vietnamese Ao Dai, utilizing traditional Vietnamese silk. Initially, it was terrifying. I thought to myself: “What am I doing? I already failed my first venture. How do I know this time it will work?”. All these questions ran through my mind over and over. Despite the doubt, I still went ahead. In the end, it was worth it and I felt happy. I did it because I felt that I needed to create something; otherwise, I would go crazy. Around that time, I spoke to a friend of mine who was a businessman. He asked me all the right questions: 

“Who are you designing for? What is the brand about? What is the identity of the brand? Describe the woman who wears your collection.”

It was a turning point for me. It was about time to come back because I learned so much about myself and my future client. With $1,000 left to buy enough fabric to put together a collection, without knowing what I was going to do with it. I re-emerged in fashion design once again, with a new label. That is how the Betty Tran brand was born. Some of our core values include being a champion of diversity, women empowerment, embracing the skin that people are born with or in.  All our collections come with a story, a clear message, and a deep understanding of the client.

As my label evolved and grew, I realized that if it was not because of the first failed venture, I wouldn’t go into the deep understanding of my label. Coming back into the industry was scary with a lot of emotions and million of questions running in my mind. The fear to start all over again held me back. When I overcame that fear and went for a new challenge, that was when all miracles started to happen. My first collection of the Betty Tran label took me to New York. 

I remember a friend of mine from the fashion industry in New York City loved the clothes from my collection. She loved the fabric and how natural it felt to the skin and the beautiful tailoring. She also wanted to showcase my collection at New York Fashion Week. I asked her what it would cost for me to be over there, and she said about $60,000. I stopped breathing for a few minutes and did not react to that question. I asked how long do I have before I need to confirm and then put in a small deposit.

I soon started fundraising, that was when I put my PR and marketing hat on. I fundraised the money from friends, family and anyone I knew. Miraculously, I raised enough money to get to New York. I thought to myself, I would have so much debt by the time I was 21, however, I didn’t want to regret this opportunity so I went for it. Usually, people do not take such a huge leap and prefer to go slowly, but our debut fashion collection literally went for the Big Apple.

Although it was very scary, the timing was right. We had a lot of requests from celebrities and received a lot of press coverage once the fashion week was over. We got Victoria’s Secret models requesting to wear our clothes, their PR agency reached out and wanted us to dress Jessica Hart. She was the first woman who wore our beautiful emerald gown dress to the opening of New York Fashion Week. The Wall Street Journal wrote about her wearing our dress. After that, we had more interest and requests from models and agencies. 

It was essential for me to make sure people wearing the Betty Tran Collection understand the philosophy of the brand behind the dress. We were doing all our PR in-house so we had to make sure the message was coming out correctly, or what kind of women we endorse or choose to be part of our story. Later on, we did a campaign with a showcase of our collection called Metamorphosis. This campaign focused on coming out of fear and embracing the skin you are in. What was special about the second showcase in New York was that we brought eight indigenous women who participated in a women empowerment mentoring program from Australia with us to participate on the runway. 

After the Metamorphosis Collection, I returned to Australia and opened our first store in the center of the city. Within a year we opened the second store, presented our collections at Los Angeles Fashion Week two times in a row, and won several awards. We collaborated with the Australian Open, The Voice, X-Factor, the Bachelor and all other big television shows in Australia. 

For me, all these achievements are the fruits of what we stand for, our message and how we are connected to women. It was more than just designing clothing but it was truly about understanding women and empowering them to become the best version of who they are both inside and outside. That was the brand’s philosophy. The difference that we made  became more than just clothing and our messages were translated in everything that we do.  It has become part of our DNA and a successful ingredient for my label for the past 10 years.

The biggest breakthrough was in 2016. That was when I decided to go international. We closed the store in WA and focused on the transition from retailing to wholesaling, licensing and expanding globally. Within three years, we expanded to over 20 countries around the world. We also participated in fashion weeks around the world. These took the brand globally.

Our primary market is the Middle East and Europe. Our brand is stocked among well known international brands in a short timeframe. I’ve achieved my wildest dreams.

It was more than just designing clothing but it was truly about understanding women and empowering them to become the best version of who they are both inside and out.”

AP: What was the fork moment in your life?

BT: In 2018, I was on the top of my game. I thought I would be very happy by the time I got there but I wasn’t. I was pregnant when I started the fundraising process and spent a lot of time working on the company. In addition to working very hard, I did over 30 trips around the world every year. As a new mother, I was exhausted physically and mentally.

I was having a mental breakdown. I was achieving my dreams, yet I felt miserable. While my company was going from strength to strength and going global, my personal life was falling apart. That was the cost for my company expanding globally. After traveling so much, even the thought of getting on and off an airplane terrified me. After all the fashion weeks, I would hide and not talk to anybody for days because of exhaustion.

I went through dark times. I struggled with anxiety and nervous breakdowns. I did not pay attention to my body, I completely disregarded all things around being a new mom, because I had so many responsibilities on my shoulders. I realized that there is a cost to everything.

AP: There has been a lot of talk recently about mental health in the fashion industry. How do you motivate yourself during times of hardship and reduce anxiety?

BT: I couldn’t motivate myself because I was suffering from anxiety. I felt I had this one dream and I needed to achieve it no matter what. Instead, I disregarded many important things ranging from motherhood to work-life balance. My priority at that time was to get the company and label to where they needed to be.

I thought I would be happy when I got there but instead, I felt like I had nothing. It was strange, and I had to ask myself this question: “Why did I get there yet still feel nothing?”. My health deteriorated, and I had too much going on in my personal life. I had to stop everything that I was doing, put everything into perspective and meditate on how I would do things differently. 

One thing that I realized is that the fashion industry is not sustainable on many levels. There is a huge amount of pressure, you’re in the spotlight all the time, there is no room for mistakes, you must always put your best foot forward. You rarely have time to channel into your inner self. I thought to myself that I contradicted everything that I stand for. I felt miserable and my family was falling apart.

Our company was profitable, but I personally reached the lowest point in my life. I asked myself why I am doing all of these, and I am still not happy. Especially being on top of the game and having all the celebrities around the world, including Hollywood stars wearing our clothes. I took a year off, cancelled all my flights and paused everything I did with fashion while the company was going strong. This happened in 2018.

I just needed to pause for a short time, gain my strength back, and spend time thinking and searching on how to make things more sustainable. Otherwise, I would not be able to do this again and in the long term. I had to take a break and get away from everything. At the same time, dedicating the necessary time on rebuilding my family and spending more time with my daughter.

I also needed to find a more sustainable approach for the brand because the fashion industry itself is not sustainable – for example, the environmental impact of waste and air travel are significant. Besides the environmental impact, the issue of mental health is alarming. The industry was putting way too much pressure on the creative side of the business. We used to design two collections a year but with the global expansion, we had to create six collections a year, then increasing to eight collections a year. This is the type of pressure I was under on top of the pressure of being a new mother. 

In fashion or design school, we were mainly taught that in order to be successful, you need to make a lot of money. They don’t educate that being successful also means being happy. This should be part of the curriculum. Unfortunately, no one teaches you how to deal with anxiety or stress. That is something we were never taught in school. It all comes down to sustainability and how long you can uphold it.

These issues meant a lot to me so I took a year off to gain a better understanding. I started to reflect on everything that was happening to me and what I was contributing at that time.  Now looking back again, I am so glad that I took time off. Although it was hard to be withdrawn from the world, it helped me to connect with myself and my story and be able to contribute to the younger generation and teach them about well-being, harmony and living a balanced life.

Today, success for me is not how much money I have or how many countries I have expanded my business. But how sustainable I can be, how I can share my experience with others, or add a different perspective to the way they do their business. How I can teach young female entrepreneurs about what I went through, so that they can factor all of my experience before they begin their business, and the cost I had to pay to get there. Also how to expand a business without travelling so much, flying 30 to 40 trips a year do a lot of damage to the environment.  This industry has impacted me a lot. It has given me my highs, and it also provided me with my lowest points in life. I think I have a lot of insights to offer.

My number one objective in life is to impact, transform and empower many creative individuals and organizations through education, knowledge and global industry networks provided via our platforms. Every organization needs mentors, experts and influential figures that they can trust at any stage.”

AP: What are you working on now?

BT: In 2019, I started my consultancy – Betty Tran Consultants. I decided that I was going to go back to the fashion industry to share my story. I felt like if I want to make this change in the industry, I need to educate the next generation. I need to tell them about what I went through. I also need to work with them to find a sustainable way to approach the industry because it can be taxing on people on many different levels — physically, mentally and financially.  

Within a short amount of time, I started to mentor young businesswomen to help them launch their businesses. This is where I can have an impact and make a real difference. I placed the subject of sustainability in the curriculum of the program that I had designed, alongside wellbeing and mental health issues as essential pillars of my coaching. I emphasized the importance of asking themselves why they want to launch a business in fashion.  

I feel that I can truly make a difference if I can empower leaders and entrepreneurs to go on and ultimately empower others. By sharing my story of adversity and how I managed to breakthrough, it resonates strongly with them. We are all human at the end of the day. 

In terms of the Betty Tran brand, I am definitely planning to resume it, but it has to be the right time. Given what we are facing during COVID-19, I have been prioritizing my new consulting business and its impact. I am not escaping from fashion design — I’m just currently focusing on sharing all my knowledge and experience with other organizations. I am a true believer in education. I think the future is education. It is about awareness and about sharing stories. 

It is also about a community of people coming together to tackle big issues. Sustainability, mental illness, well-being and happiness are among main issues we want to address, especially with the young generation. I also feel you can find the purpose of what you do when people come together. And that is where I am at right now at this moment in time. I am a lot happier and pleased because I love what I do. 

My number one objective in life is to impact, transform and empower many creative individuals and organizations through education, knowledge and a global industry network provided via our platforms. Every organization needs mentors, experts and influential figures that they can trust at any stage. It is crucial to their business growth. I have had many obstacles and hardship to overcome with many costly lessons that I wish I could have avoided had I been guided by experienced, trustworthy mentors. This is the reason why I created Betty Tran Consultants.

AP: What are some changes in the fashion industry that you have seen over the last decade?

BT: There are serious changes that need to happen in this industry. I have already started seeing some changes ranging from technology, women rights, manufacturing and consumerism. For example, technology will have an important role because it can address things like labour cost and sustainable production. Organizations will be focusing more on how they can incorporate women to be part of the company’s leadership team. The whole manufacturing system needs to be changed too. 

Consumers will be playing a more crucial role. It is happening already. You can notice people have started to ask where the material was sourced from, or who made their clothes, which forces companies to be more transparent. This change will come from us – the consumers. The consumers will be the most significant change for the whole industry. As consumers, we have so much to say when we buy products. As long as we can be conscious and mindful of the way we consume the products. In return, this will change the industry.

AP: What advice would you give to a young Betty Tran or a young Asian Pioneers reader?

BT: I would say to my younger self these things: 

  1. Put God first in everything that you do. My faith is the reason why I am still here and thriving despite my long battle with anxiety.  
  2. Work for a cause, not for applause. Whatever that you do, try to make a real difference in other’s lives and be a service to humanity. 
  3. Allow yourself to fail big and be kind to yourself. 
  4. Before you help others, you must first learn to help yourself.

AP: Thanks for your time and support, Betty.

*All images courtesy of Betty Tran

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