Altar images from Rena
WHEN Rena Koh started selling her wedding gowns on consignment to local retail outlets, she knew it was all or nothing.
''My gowns were well received, but I could see what a struggle it would be if I tried to present myself to major companies.
''Who would take notice of me when I didn't have a single qualification? The only way was to start my own business.'' Two years on and the founder and sole proprietor of Adrena's Elegance is one of the territory's hottest names in bridal and evening wear, commanding prices which mostly range from $8,000 to $15,000, though elaborate custom-made creations can top $40,000.
Within months of launching her label, clients were lining up. If further proof of her success was needed, the meteorically risen Ms Koh got it in January at Hongkong Fashion Week 93: joint winner, along with long-established firm Topstyle, of the Best Collection Award, judged by a panel of local and overseas fashion journalists.
Last Friday saw a fresh landmark for Rena Koh (''Adrena is my proper name, but it's always been Rena'') when she held her first full-length show at the Kowloon Shangri-La.
It was a tough test which revealed an occasional tendency to overkill, though the main impression was one of sophistication, sound workmanship and versatility - everything here from Traditional Virginal to a pantsuit for the daring bride.
It's all the more impressive considering that until she switched to fashion, the Malaysian-born, Singapore-educated Ms Koh worked as a stewardess for Cathay Pacific. ''I was with the airline for almost six years and during the last two, started freelancing as a designer.
''It began when my friends asked me to bring back clothes for them from places like Paris and Los Angeles. 'You always know exactly what to choose,' they said. Then I started buying fabrics and making up my own designs.
''I've never had any formal training, but all the women in my family know how to sew and embroider. For my first collection, I did all the beading myself.'' Today she employs eight seamstresses at her Kowloon headquarters and younger sister Stephanie - ''she's one of those people who can sense fashion'' - is her right-hand help.
Pure silk, mostly from Thailand, China and India, is her main fabric and the key Adrena look is easily recognisable: madly romantic with an emphasis on coy cleavage and tiny waists.
''Sexy, but never cheap,'' says the designer who upset a lot of women and even a few men when she appeared in a commercial for Remy Martin Club cognac.
''At the time, I felt it was the right image for me and I insisted on choosing my own clothes for that ad. There was nothing about them that said 'mistress'. I care about the status of women. We should know where we stand and never degrade ourselves.'' Rena Koh can say all that as fluently in Malay, Cantonese, Hokien and Mandarin as in English. She also communicates a refreshing mixture of candour and warmth, and knows exactly where she stands.
''I don't plan to open a retail outlet in Hongkong because I don't want to be too commercial. Also, I'd need a very good shop and that's too risky and costly.
''There's still a lot I need to learn and travel helps a lot.'' She now has her fingers crossed for a deal with a major manufacturer which would see Adrena's Elegance marketed across Europe.