Touchdown, Kuching! Opening the doors to her new studio is Shen-Tel Lee, illuminated with such electrifying aura. With expressive facial gestures when she speaks, her enthusiasm is inspiring. Sharing a common spirit which led to this sharing of workspace is the mix of talented, most passionate people, at The Playground Borneo. Shen-Tel Lee, Sereni Linggi, Elizabeth Lee, Najah Mohammed, Olivia Ling, and Andy Phe, come to invent and have fun in this eye opening space, filled with positive energy and ambitions.
The open-plan office designed by Blanc Interiors is key to their business collaborations. Along with the huge common areas, there are also rooms for privacy. With a space like this, everywhere is a meeting spot. “There’s a community feel. Everyone comes in early to have their breakfast at this beautiful kitchen,” says Shen-Tel, sliding the partition doors open at the kitchen. Entering the workstations of Bowerhaus and Sereni & Shentel, I immediately gravitate towards the colourful beads strewn across the table in a room surrounded by precious gems. Elizabeth Lee, Shen-Tel’s equally ambitious, business-driven sister and partner at Bowerhaus, notices my excitement and displays more objects of desire for me to ogle over.
“Naturally as hoarders, we keep gem stones we come across over the years, going back to them to make sure every cut is used. We run one of the most sustainable businesses this way. We don’t hold stocks; our business is made to order so there is no access of unwanted products. Bowerhaus keeps it unique by personalising each design and gem,” says Elizabeth Lee. “Sereni & Shentel is similar in that way. Like Bowerhaus, we only make headbands that are wanted. We don’t mass produce, and that’s the key to sustainability. Fashion needs to be slowed down, and that’s exactly what we are doing,” Shen-Tel Lee says, leading me to the next room, surrounded by the colourful fabric and ribbons of Sereni & Shentel. A nostalgic feel envelops as if stepping back into childhood where huge, colourful headbands was the everyday norm. I couldn’t resist touching the big ears of the headband on the centre piece. “Go big or Go home!” Shen-Tel snaps me back to reality. “We started with niche statement pieces, all made in Borneo and handmade by women artisans. Of a hundred twenty-eight colours with three different textures, bespoke with a large variety and we’ve lasted ten years! We are known globally because Sereni & Shentel headbands were used on Gossip Girls. Now we ship to Singapore, the UK, the US, New Zealand, Australia, and our biggest children following; Brunei.”
“Does anyone want coffee?” I hear a voice echo through the hallway. The smell of a fresh cup of joe catches me off guard as I browse through the endless choices of coloured ribbons. The caffeine addict in me trails to the kitchen to find Najah Mohammed of Roa Skye looking through the communal fridge for some milk. This British fashion designer made a life changing move to Kuching resulting in her exciting business collaborations with the rest of the tenants of The Playground Borneo. “The designs at Roa Skye are all story based. If someone said to me that they want a dress with pockets, or they’ve got a tummy they’d like to hide, I’ll develop something from there. My fashion is inspired by life action people. My friends, some old school Hollywood actors and actresses, and the people around me are the most valuable inspiration,” she says. Scrolling though the Roa Skye Instagram account, I realise Shen-Tel plays model to many of the collections. This space lets these talents rub off on one another for insights.
“We are all on standby for each other especially for collaborations,” Olivia reveals, before mentioning how most of their decisions are made in the kitchen. “While looking for coffee pods!”
“Olivia has been in retail for years, and she told us what works and what wouldn’t when we first started,” adds Shen-Tel. ‘I learnt from my customers through the years, I even do collaborations with them like christenings and weddings where we customise items. Each of us at The Playground Borneo play our parts in these events. This informal office set up really help ideas flow better,’ Olivia continues.
With retail, F&B, and a gym, Olivia Ling is one entrepreneur with a variety of eclectic collections for consumers across the board. First came Poppies, a one stop mother and baby shop, then came Samba, Ipanema and Fit Flop. She had Cafe Cafe, an F&B business with a car wash before developing Food Chow, a food truck for events. Wonderboom, her latest endeavour is more brunch-focused with healthy, vegan options where customers can design dishes toward their dietary requirements. “My businesses use locally produced rice straws which are entirely bio degradable. Although more costly, it’s an investment for the planet,” Olivia explains. Her office is surrounded by colourful Penan tenun baskets and clutch handbags, a project she supports to promote sustainability in rejecting plastic.
“I’m intrigued by the human emotion and love capturing stories which can be flipped back to,” Andy says, as we head back to the pantry for some Sarawak laksa by Olivia’s Wonderboom. Najah fusses over Andy Phe of Bespoke Photographics, smiling as he puts a Good Morning towel as bib over his white shirt, following Najah’s advice. It really is a family room, the kitchen being everyone’s favourite place, and a home away from home. Andy captures events such as weddings, to studio portraits. Preferring more lifestyle, candid settings, he is now venturing into commercial products and fashion shoots. He definitely keeps himself busy, nestled among the brilliant designers of The Playground Borneo.
“Fifty percent of the office is lounging space. It has made us closer, boosted morale and increased productivity,” says Shen-Tel. Working eight to five, they are extremely flexible and trusting of their staffs, ninety percent of which are women. As a mother, Shen-Tel is no stranger to the demands of the familial role. “When staffs need to come in late, they’ll make up for it over lunch hour,” she says. To create and maintain a healthy environment at work, there are rules to follow. Though she reckons no one should attend work when they can’t be productive. “You can’t be efficient when you’re not mentally present”, Shen-Tel concludes. To keep creating and materialising the magic, mental health is crucial. Work and play balances equally at The Playground Borneo.