If you are an ethnic fashion addict or an outdoor lover in Taipei, you are very likely to have heard of the brand, Saibaba Ethnique. Featuring ethnic style apparel and accessories, as well as outdoor gear and clothing, Saibaba has four retail stores in Taipei, which attract customers’ eyes with their colorful ethnic-style decoration. “We always try our best to provide unique products to our customers and avoid price competition,” said Kenji Doi, who founded Saibaba with his Taiwanese friend (now his wife) Hsin Fan eighteen years ago.
Started by sourcing exclusive products from India: “Doing easy things doesn’t make money.”
Back in the late 1990’s, Doi was a college student studying Chinese at Kyodo Sangyo University, Japan. He came to Taiwan to polish his Chinese in his junior year, and met Hsin Fan. As a Chinese major, he was able to complete his academic studies in Taiwan and gain the credits he needed to graduate from college. However, he didn’t expect that he would spend almost all his adulthood in Taiwan afterward, and become an entrepreneur, undergoing all the highs and lows.
In 1999, he joined Hsin Fan to open Saibaba in Ximending, the famous shopping district for youngsters in Taipei. It was when Madonna was leading the trend of ethnic wear and Hsin Fan saw its market potential. To differentiate themselves from other competitors, she and Doi flew to India on their own to source exclusive products. “Doing easy things doesn’t make money,” said Doi firmly.
It was the time when the Internet was barely available, and there were few ATMs in India. They traveled from North to South to find suppliers, and did not give up despite being cheated over and over again. “It was really hard to build reliable business relationships in India.” For example, the products they received were often totally different from the samples they had confirmed, and they couldn’t even return those defective items because the delivery cost would have been higher. Even the long-term suppliers would overcharge them, if they trusted them too much and did not always review the pricing and fees in details.
Without sufficient funding, the young couple also made use of their free time to sell in the Shilin Night Market, or make hemp rope necklaces on their own. Hsin Fan pointed at Doi and said, “He even learned to make and sell Japanese crepes!” Hand-in-hand they went through the hard time of starting a business. As they successfully secured the uniqueness of their products, their advocates gradually increased. After gaining wide media coverage, their business soon skyrocketed with three more retail stores opened.
Slump. And bounce to the new peak by successful brand transformation.
However, as the trend of fashion kept changing, the popularity of ethnic wear slumped and so did Saibaba’s sales. They even had days without a piece of cloth sold. Two stores were closed and the low period continued for almost eight years. “During the worst period of time, we had to sell all the stock this week to gain the money for purchasing products for the next week. We were totally stuck with cash flow.” In his late twenties, Doi confronted the reality of the business world. To support his family and his business, he had to take a part-time job as a Japanese language teacher and further invest into Saibaba.
In 2008, Doi and Hsin Fan decided to move to Japan to look for other opportunities, while having Hsin Fan’s relatives manage Saibaba. During the half year in Japan, however, Doi found it very challenging for him to adapt himself to the Japanese workplace after working in Taiwan for so many years. Also, Saibaba’s business worsened and was on the verge of being closed. Hence, the two founders made up their mind to come back to Taiwan and give it a try again.
They did not make the decision only for sentimental reasons. They actually noticed the growing trend of “Yama-girl” in Japan. The term refers to “mountain girls” who enjoy outdoor activities with stylish outfits, and one of the key items in the outdoor fashion trend was colorful totem socks. Saibaba started to sell the stylish socks, which were so popular that they brought the brand to the peak of the business again. “These colorful socks saved us!” said Doi in a relieved tone. Nonetheless, their business transformation was not merely about selling socks.
Connect outdoor lovers from Taiwan and Japan via music festivals.
Observing the trend of outdoor fashion was about to emerge in Taiwan, Doi and Hsin Fan included camping and hiking outfits into their product line. The combination of ethnic style and outdoor wear successfully rode on the trend of “camping with style”. Now Saibaba is the exclusive distributor of the Japanese brand MANASTASH and Amina Collection, and also brings in ALDIES, go slow caravan, GOHEMP, BELLWOOD MADE, etc to Taiwan’s consumers. This business transformation also encouraged Doi and Hsin Fan to experience camping, and they attended camping-music festivals in Japan, which eventually inspired them to initiate their own music festival “Hola Amigo!” in Taiwan.
“In the beginning, we just wanted to hold an event where our customers could dress-up with cool ethnic style dresses. The VIP event was only a small barbecue party in the first year. In the following years, there were participants who started to play the music as DJs, and then there were independent music performers who released their works at our event. Organically the event turned into a music festival,” recalled Doi.
Hsin Fan further explained, “Via ‘Hola Amigo!’ we aim to share the latest Japanese lifestyle trend with Taiwanese people.” Besides performances by indie bands from Japan and Taiwan, there will be stylish goods brands, and vendors providing makeup, meditation massage, and haircut services at the festival. This year, the renowned “outdoor handicraft and cuisine artisan” Shuhei Nagano will be invited to attend “Hola Amigo!” again, following his first visit last year, to share his outdoor cuisine and handmade tableware with the participants.
“We are not just holding a ‘fun’ event,” said Doi. In the recent interview by the famous Japanese outdoor media Akimama, which defined “Hola Amigo!” as a festival that connects Taiwan and Japan, he emphasized, “we hope ‘Hola Amigo!’ will become an event that gathers outdoor lovers from Taiwan and Japan, and even from all around Asia.”
All through the past eighteen years, Doi and Hsin Fan continued to do and learn, observing the market trends and adjusting their business strategy. “You have to be the trend leader, instead of chasing after your customers,” said Hsin Fan. Doi continued, “a change of trend could be a crisis, but you can also take it as a new opportunity.” What kind of fashion will their entrepreneurial spirit bring us in the near future? Let’s wait and see.
About Kenji Doi & Hsin Fan
Majored in Chinese at Kyoto Sangyo University, Kenji Doi first came to Taiwan to learn Chinese in his junior year. He met Hsin Fan in Taiwan and joined her to create the ethnic wear brand, Saibaba Ethnique. Now they have been promoting ethnic fashion in Taiwan for more than eighteen years. With the emerging trend of “camping with style” in Taiwan, they started to bring in stylish outdoor brands, and also encourage outdoor lovers to find their unique ethnic outfit that presents their own style.
They have become the exclusive distributor of the Japanese brands MANASTASH and Amina Collection, and also brought ALDIES, go slow caravan, GOHEMP, BELLWOOD MADE, etc. to Taiwan.