We see a future where people order custom clothing and it arrives in 2–3 days, fully made from scratch for their body. The waste problem is drastically reduced and the narrative on fashion goes from waste and consumption to one of the top industries in terms of providing jobs for people. Fashion is no longer about only a few body types, but all body types are embraced.
Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ray Li. Ray is the founder and CEO of Sene, a Los Angeles based brand offering bespoke essentials for men and women as an alternative to mass-produced clothing. Ray was selected as one of LA Business Journal’s 20 In Their 20s in 2017 as well as Goldman Sachs 10K Program. Prior to Sene, Ray led global rebrands for CPG and tech companies like Mars, AT&T, and Qualcomm, and received a Rebrand 100 award for his work.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Inever intended to start my own business. My first job out of college with managing global technology transformations with Deloitte Consulting. And immediately prior to founding Sene, I was leading global rebrands for consumer product and tech companies at Interbrand.
I was traveling internationally doing workshops and I spent a weekend in Shanghai where I had a few things custom-made. The issue was — I was limited to suits and dress shirts, though I don’t wear those items very often.
It suddenly occurred to me then — why isn’t the bespoke experience available across all categories of clothing? And why can’t a cool brand with a hip design aesthetic create a collection and the only thing that I worry about is fit? Too many fabric choices, lapel options, button/thread colors for most people is overwhelming.
That’s when we realized there was an opportunity to take the idea of traditional tailoring and use technology and design to make it accessible to all kinds of people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Last spring, my wife and I celebrated our five year anniversary. We went with my business partner to visit one of our factories in Asia and then stopped in Thailand on the way back to celebrate. As we ate delicious street food in Bangkok and enjoyed the beach in Pattaya, it made me grateful for this crazy journey that we’re on that took me half way around the world.
It is always worthwhile to pursue your dream, no matter the outcome.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
We’re very fortunate to be building our business with the help of the CMO of Alexander Wang, former COO at Kickstarter and the retail design lead at Google.
We believe Sene’s business model is the only way to solve the massive fashion waste problem. An estimated $5 billion worth of clothing is thrown away every year. More recently H&M was under scrutiny for burning billions of dollars of clothing in power plants for energy. The challenge is understandable — when companies manufacture clothing 9 months in advance of when people will buy them, it’s hard to predict how many sizes to carry across countless size ranges.
This inventory challenge also means that it’s difficult for companies to carry size variations to service all types of body shapes and sizes.
But what if you could only make clothing if there is someone there to love it? And what if you could actually tailor the fit to be exactly what would make that person feel amazing? That is what we’re doing with Sene — we created a unique digital fit, laser cut the fabric, hand-assemble it, and send it to the person. Everything is 100% fit guaranteed and all remakes and alterations are free.
How do you think this will change the world?
We see a future where people order custom clothing and it arrives in 2–3 days, fully made from scratch for their body. The waste problem is drastically reduced and the narrative on fashion goes from waste and consumption to one of the top industries in terms of providing jobs for people.
Fashion is no longer about only a few body types, but all body types are embraced.
We’re collecting a lot of body and preference data, so we have to keep privacy top of mind. This data belongs to customers and must be protected. You can imagine a world though where companies who sell indvidualized data as a separate revenue stream — this would enable a level of targeting that could lead to some Black Mirror scenarios.
Typically e-commerce companies only know your email, address, purchase history, etc. But now they might know your exact body shape, your fabric preferences, and how you like to customize products.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
The tipping point was when we decided to focus on relationships with cultural influencers — focusing on embracing our cultural heritage as asian owners and found that other asian leaders in entertainment and creative fields wanted to support us and spread the word. The other was partnering with wardrobe stylists that worked with silicon valley executives. This changed the game for us.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
It’s all about cultural infuence. The more that we can dress the right people, not in a transactional way, but in a long term relational context, the more what we do becomes the norm.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Relentlessly Question Your Assumptions
Disruptive innovation comes when you question foundational assumptions in your industry. Bespoke clothing has historically been about ultimate precision. One of our breakthroughs was realizing that not everyone wants a microscopically precise fit — they want a better fit than ordering online with just as easy of a process. That’s how we landed at Smart Fit Quiz, letting people generate a custom fit by answering ~10 questions.
2. Build A Foundation Of Loyalty
It’s important that in the beginning, you have people who have your back and you have theirs. It took me two years before I realized I needed my cousin Mark Zheng to join as a business partner. I owe the continued existence of the company to him, couldn’t have done it without his character, perspective and skills. We can totally trust each other because we’re family and have history.
3. Hustle Outperforms Cash
There’s been a few times where it looked like we were running low cash. Through ingenuity and sheer willpower, we were able to turn the ship around and create new paths. If we had raised a ton of money, not sure if it would have pushed us into the same solutions.
4. Take Time To Get Away From Work And Reflect
Working all the time is bad for leaders. My breakthrough moments come during times of rest and retreat. It might be hiking in Malibu with my wife, or enjoying ice cream in Larchmont — there’s perspective in taking a step away and seeing what’s missing.
5. Integrity Matters
We are in the age of Theranos and Fyre Festival. Raising money is easier than ever. There’s a verse that I continue to go back to, “be as wise as serpents but innocent as doves”. Yes, we need to be crafty and calculated, but this must be done with integrity and honor. Cutting corners slowly eats away at the soul and you don’t know you’re doing it until much later when it feels like you’re in too deep to get out.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
There’s nothing you can do to future proof your career. Life is unpredictable. The only thing you can do is to relentlessly adapt, to never get comfortable. Because once you do, some other hustler will overtake you.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
We would do more in-house manufacturing.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
I believe that while life is more than work, businesses have the redemptive potential to help people achieve the best that they can be. As a Christian, that means that all I have is a gift from God and I’m a steward of his gifts, and none of this is really mine. This means I have to honor those I work with and those that work for me.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Grit is the most important quality. Being intelligent, charming, etc are all useful, but grit is the mark of the truly successful. It is the ability to face the darkness and stand strong.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
It is still difficult to get the right fit with online shopping — you constantly hear stories of people buying multiple sizes to find what works for them. Sene is taking the classic idea of bespoke clothing and makes it practical for all of your modern essentials. Customers answer a few questions in our Smart Fit Quiz to generate their custom fit, and their clothes are made from scratch, 100% fit guaranteed.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My Instagram is @rayxli.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.