Chew was a rebellious teenager who consistently failed at school. She studied at Fairfield Methodist School before moving to London to learn hairdressing. She subsequently opened a six-seater hair salon with S$1,000. Determined to be the most popular hairstylist in Singapore, Chew worked as long as 21 hours a day to gain experience. Soon, the salon expanded to 16 seats. She then strived to make her first million dollars.
Described as a rebel with a cause, Chew says that her Christian values have kept her grounded over the years. No stranger to wilder days, Chew is driven by her past, and believes that when youths have no outlet to release their energy, society loses them to vices like drugs and delinquency. Therefore, beyond her retail business, Chew spends much of her day as a volunteer for youth and philanthropic projects.
Chew identified a gap in the market for affordable and trendy streetwear. With her personal experience in punk culture in London and her knack for entrepreneurship, she capitalised on this and opened the first 77th Street outlet in Far East Plaza in 1988. Chew's sister sourced the merchandise from the United Kingdom. The 17-square-metre outlet marked Chew's first foray into the retail industry. She opened her second shop three years later in the same mall but on a different level.
77th Street has established itself as a brand name in cutting-edge street fashion. It offers a wide selection of affordable apparel and fashion accessories to a loyal following of youths and adults, with trendy brands like Timbuk 2, Crumpler, New Era and Slacker. Available at the boutiques are singlets, backpacks, sterling silver hoops of every size, metal dog tags and dazzling costume jewellery termed as "bling" in rap culture.
More than 20 years on, 77th Street now has more than 12 outlets islandwide, with a new store-within-a-store concept christened "Gothic Princess" at Bugis Junction. In 2004, 77th Street also set up a underground shopping complex called 77th Street Plaza at Beijing's Xidan Cultural Square. This made 77th Street Singapore's first retailer to open a shopping complex.
A notable aspect of Chew's volunteer efforts is youth projects. She is noted for co-founding Singapore Street Festival in 2001 as a platform for local talents in the visual and performing arts, entertainment, sports, fashion and lifestyle trends.
In 2001, she also established GetaLife, a membership programme that caters to individuals aged between 11 and 35 years. With a membership base that exceeds 100,000, the programme offers privileges at fashion and lifestyle retail outlets, such as rebates at 77th Street and over 40 other merchant partners.
Chew also co-founded The Young Entrepreneur Mastery (TYEM) in 2002, a non-profit academy that supports and nurtures youth entrepreneurship, particularly aimed at out-of-school youths.
At the Institute of Technical Education College East, Chew runs a retail training center where students operate an actual fashion retail outlet in order to obtain first-hand experiences in business processes such as cash and inventory management, merchandising and customer service.
In 2004, Chew launched the book, My Voice. It features 77 real-life experiences written by youths, and was supported by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), South East Community Development Centre, radio station UFM 100.3FM and theatre company Drama Box. The second edition, My Voice: Breaking Free, was launched in 2006. Sale proceeds go to a TYEM fund that runs workshops to equip youths with skills, such as creativity and entrepreneurship, to meet life's challenges.
Chew sits on more than 20 committees in the public service as well as youth and community groups. She co-chairs the programming committee of *SCAPE (under MCYS and the National Youth Council) and the Culture Action Crucible Committee for the Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE; under the Ministry of Trade and Industry). At the National University of Singapore, she is a member of the board of trustees, the entrepreneurship committee and the investment committee.
She is also a founding member and director of the Social Innovation Park (SIP), a non-profit organisation that supports business solutions of social entrepreneurs who champion social change. Through the SIP, Chew helped set up the PaTH (Pop and Talent Hub) Arts market, the first local social enterprise arts market that advocates social entrepreneurship.
Chew is also credited for taking eight budding entrepreneurs (who now run three shops between them at China Square Central shopping mall) under her tutelage.
Chew's philosophy is that money can be used to help society. She is an avid advocate of the Christian humanitarian relief organisation, World Vision (WV). Besides sponsoring 25 children from the communities supported by WV, Chew has personally visited relief and development projects in Malawi, inspiring many to be involved in providing aid to the needy. 77th Street has been one of WV Singapore's largest event sponsors since 2001.
2001: Fashion Award (Street Style Awards)
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Kon, D., Maryam Abdullah, & Yeo, C. M. (Eds.). (2004). I'm a volunteer too!: 40 heartwarming Singaporean stories (pp. 103–108). Singapore: National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, and Beaumont Publishing.
(Call no.: RSING English 361.37095957)
My voice: Breaking free. (2006). Singapore: The Young Entrepreneur Mastery.
(Call no.: RSING English 305.23095957)
Ng, G. (2004, September 17). They're in business, thanks to Elim Chew. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved January 11, 2009, from NewspaperSG.
North East Community Development Council (2002). Of god, goals and good people. Spring. Retrieved January 11, 2009, from http://northeast.org.sg/spring_janfeb2003/SPRINGFEVER/springfever1.html
Speak Mandarin Campaign. (2008). List of partners. Retrieved January 10, 2009, from http://www.mandarin.org.sg/2008/our-partners-2007-08-/list-of-partners-2007-08.html
World Vision. (2009). Corporate partners. Retrieved January 10, 2009, from http://www.worldvision.org.sg/st_corporatepartners.php
Wu, D. (2004). Rebel with a cause. Salt. National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, September–October 2004. Retrieved January 11, 2009, from NVPC, http://www.nvpc.org.sg/Library/Documents/SALT/May-Jun04_Online.pdf
The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Chew, Elim Soo Gim, 1965-
People and communities>>Fashion and grooming
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Services>>Retail and wholesale
Business, finance and industry>>Business start up>>Initialization of business enterprises