Trish Peng is in the business of making dreams come true for brides to be – and she’s living out her own entrepreneurial dreams in the process.

Since around age seven, Peng knew she wanted to be a dress designer; today the LA-based Kiwi is the creative director and owner of her eponymous firm Trish Peng, which creates bespoke and custom bridal and evening gowns for clients in New Zealand and the US.

“Being a bridal designer is so rewarding,” she says. “It’s a six- to eight-month journey I go on with each bride from start to finish, so we form this bond. It’s a very emotional process.”

Starting out

Creative talent has helped her stay true to her childhood vision, but it’s also taken years of hard work and the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that characterises many entrepreneurs.

Trish Peng smWhile still at high school she wanted to learn some of the practical skills she thought would provide a foundation for her design aspirations. However her high school didn’t offer sewing classes, so she enrolled in an external part-time diploma course to learn them instead. She went on to do a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts degree majoring in fashion design at Auckland’s Whitecliffe College, starting her business as a third-year student in 2012.

Peng says the owner and founder of Stonyridge Vineyard, Stephen White, kickstarted her career by giving her the opportunity to do her first solo fashion show – showcasing a 25-piece collection she’d put together in eight weeks – at the Waiheke Island vineyard.

Meeting like minds

The designer says surrounding herself with experienced and like-minded entrepreneurs has been crucial to developing her skills as a business owner.

“My strengths are definitely more on the creative side, but I’ve had to learn business skills as well – and I’m still learning every day. My parents have been a huge influence. They moved to New Zealand 35 years ago and started a hospitality business, so I learned a lot growing up around that.”

Her mentors have included the CEO and co-founder of Kiwi streetwear label iLabb, and more recently American Apparel founder Dov Charney and the founders of Shoes of Prey – a custom shoe design-and-manufacture brand that’s attracted more than $26 million of venture capital funding.

As well as loving to network, Peng believes confidence in her business vision has helped her attract mentors and investors.

“I never say ‘if I make it’, it’s always ‘when I make it’. Those kinds of affirmations make it easier for investors and mentors to back you because you know where you’re going rather than questioning your direction.”

Shifting Stateside

Moving into the US market was part of Peng’s plan from the start, but getting investment on board a couple of years ago helped speed the process.

She moved to LA in June last year – where she’s set up a showroom in an historic mansion that takes in 360-degree views of the city – and returns to Auckland around every six to eight weeks to look after her New Zealand clients.

As well as the emotional rewards that come from being in the bridal business, Peng says it’s a great industry to be in.

According to a 2016 IBISWorld report, the US wedding industry hit $72 billion in revenue in 2016, with the average cost of a wedding reaching an all time high of $32,329 – and Peng says the industry is largely recession-proof.

Breaking into the US market, however, has required research and strategy. Peng says she and her business partner cheekily posed as an engaged couple to check out competitors and to help them figure out her business’ point of difference.

Peng says US brides prefer larger gowns with more sparkle, and she now designs her collections with both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in mind – for example, creating dresses with fuller detachable skirts that a US bride may prefer to wear, but that a Kiwi bride could remove.

Peng has also created a “next-level” luxury experience for her US bridal consultations, which involves the bride-to-be and her entourage being transported to the showroom by a private driver, mini-high tea and champagne, and Peng sketching the client a bespoke creation.

To help scale her business, Peng has also started wholesaling her gowns, establishing bridalwear stockists in three main centres in New Zealand and now in the US.

Lifelong learning

If it all sounds like a charmed ride, Peng is quick to emphasise she’s made her share of missteps: she launched a ready-to-wear line in 2014, for example, and was in the process of producing her fourth collection when one of her investors pointed out it was detracting her focus and damaging the brand of her more profitable bespoke bridal business.

“You can talk to people about mistakes they’ve made, but there’s no substitute for making them yourself,” says Peng. “Pulling the pin on that line was one of the best business decisions I’ve made, but I had to go through that otherwise I’d always wonder about doing ready-to-wear. What I learnt is to do a few things well, rather than too many things at once.”

Other advice she has for startup entrepreneurs includes surrounding yourself with positive people and making the most of every opportunity.

“And persevere. You're going to have hard days, but surrounding yourself with positive people will get you through it.”

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