Prerna Chainani-Monsen, CEO, Maison Monsen
Prerna Chainani-Monsen is well-known in Hong Kong’s hedge fund community. Having earlier gone from investment banking to jewellery to hedge funds, she has recently launched her own fashion clothing business, Maison Monsen. Hedge Funds Club’s Stefan Nilsson decided to have a conversation with the fashionable Prerna about the passions in her life.
You went from investment banking to jewellery to hedge funds and now you’ve launched your own fashion clothing business. Tell us about your journey.
I grew up in Hong Kong and went to university in London – both financial capitals where the careers environment in the 90s was largely geared towards banking, as were my interests at the time. It was only some years later living in New York, with so much creative and entrepreneurial energy at my doorstep, that I stepped out to launch my own jewellery business. When in 2008 the price of gold made inventory too dear to produce and too valuable to sell, I returned to finance. It was also a time when the relative energy in Asia felt compelling. So I came back home and found hedge fund marketing was a great marriage between finance and entrepreneurship. Fashion has now drawn me back to creative industry, but I still enjoy keeping in touch with and learning from friends in fund management.
You and your husband, a hedge fund investor, are based in Hong Kong but you have chosen workshops in New York to produce your products. What’s the thinking behind this?
Three things: quality, scalability and demand. The lower quality/price-point, China-made space is too competitive these days to be viable or fun. On the other end of the spectrum, high-end luxury, “Made in Italy,” etc, has prohibitively high barriers to entry. In the middle ground, New York-made speaks to the everyday luxury market, which is one of the fastest growing segments. Moreover, producing closer to home in China may appear to be cheaper on a per unit basis, but high minimum quantity requirements can be crippling for a small business. Coupled with that, frequent delays and errors, factory closures and rising labour costs are squeezing the China savings margin to the point where the US is increasingly becoming a better value proposition, not just for small brands but for larger, more established companies too. It is also a demand-driven decision. Made in New York/USA is experiencing a global revival. Asian shopper tastes are evolving to favour more artisanal, independent brands that have a story to tell, over fast-fashion and the more conspicuous luxury names.
You are an Indian-born Hongkonger who has also lived in New York and London and your husband is Norwegian. How does your international background show in your designs?
Legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland once quipped “Pink is the navy blue of India” (she was referring to a particularly hot shade). My aesthetic is a mix of that sub-continental heat and a Scandinavian cool. Clean lines, filled with bursts of colour.
Do you see any big differences in fashion marketing compared to when you worked in business development in the hedge fund industry?
They are actually very similar. Discerning buyers, high-value products and the expectation of a high-return experience. It’s about selling quality.
Who are your designer heroes and influencers?
Designers that excel both technically and aesthetically – who have made beautiful things (not just clothes) that are also beautifully functional and thereby timeless. In the fashion business in particular, I am inspired by the longevity and continuing relevance of Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren. I suppose a fashion hero to me is someone who has succeeded in conveying their own artistic point-of-view while building a long term commercially sound business.
Was working in investment banking and the hedge fund industry just a way to make money and design and fashion are your real passions?
I think you have to have some passion for finance to spend a decade behind a desk, through financial crises and with smaller shops where the pay is not quite what the “Wolf of Wall Street” would have you believe. I think the real passion is not for finance or fashion as much as it is for being an entrepreneur.
What are your plans for the future? Are we likely to see another reincarnation of you in a new role?
Current plans are to organically grow Maison Monsen. Beyond that and if and when opportunity presents, who knows? Apparently, we are entering a good vintage for fashion venture capital. If it lasts for a few years, it would be interesting to see how growth funding could take us to the next level.