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Small business spotlight: Lan Chung, Fighting Eel

Designer Lan Chung received her BS in Fashion Design & Merchandising in 1996 from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources. Along with co-founder Rona Bennett, Lan created Fighting Eel, a versatile and comfortable fashion line and arguably one of Hawai‘i’s most recognizable local brands. In 2012, Lan and Rona started a sister-line, Ava Sky, while managing their four retail stores on O‘ahu. Lan and Rona were awarded the Governor's Fashion Award for Established Designers of the Year in 2013.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, Hawai‘i’s small businesses have seen some big changes and obstacles. We asked Lan about her story, Fighting Eel, and her small business challenges and successes.

What inspired you to start your own business?

The store I used to manage suddenly announced that it was closing, gave me a month’s notice, and offered me a severance package that I could survive on for at least a year. So with that, my partner and I decided to start our own business. We both worked together at the same store, and we were roommates. After working at the mall for over seven years, it was just a sign to do something for ourselves. You can say that the store closing was a blessing in disguise. I have a background and graduated with a BS in Fashion Promotion. I have and will always be in love with fashion!

What do you love most about your work?

I love being creative, conceptualizing from beginning to end, and seeing the whole garment come to life…and then seeing it on my customers! I also enjoy having the flexibility to create my own schedule, since I have children, and I don’t have to follow a 9-5 schedule. That’s a bonus for sure!

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own business? The most challenging?

The most rewarding aspect has been to create jobs for people, and to give them an opportunity to be creative in the fashion industry. The most challenging part, on the other hand, is worrying about not being able to pay these employees because of something like the pandemic happening right now. Luckily for us, we were able to get a PPP loan to help pay for our employees. When you grow bigger, there are way more expenses to worry about, and way more headaches for sure.

How has your UH education helped you in your career?

I think one thing my education helped with is giving me a foundation in which I can accomplish greatness. Having the education and knowledge really helped me build on my skills and confidence, and with that, working hard means that anything is possible.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your day-to-day operations?

We’ve gone from a brick and mortar business to an online-only business. The store’s inventory is split between my home and my general manager’s home. When I receive an order request, I pull the stock from my house, and at the end of the day I drop off all the orders at her house so she can pack and ship. Also, a lot of [Fighting Eel’s] social media posts are now featuring me or my family! I’m also doing cooking demonstrations, just trying to keep our customers engaged, and sharing with the community. I’m doing what I can at the moment, and the best that I can. One day at a time.

Fighting Eel recently released brand new scrub tops for healthcare workers. 20% of net proceeds from scrub purchases will be donated to the Hawai‘i Food Bank. To shop scrubs and other Fighting Eel products, visit www.fightingeel.com. For more on Fighting Eel, follow them on Instagram and Facebook.

To browse other alumni small businesses, visit our Alumni Business Directory.

University of Hawai‘i Alumni