A lifestyle brand inspired by Shanghai's unique charm and culture
Originally from Scotland, Sarah Armstrong moved to Shanghai for a design opportunity with an emerging Chinese brand. Inspired by Shanghai's unique charm and culture, she founded Pinyin Press, a lifestyle brand celebrating local culture through hand drawn illustrations and quality craftsmanship.
Before we talk about your brand Pinyin Press – would you please introduce yourself?
I grew up in Scotland and was brought up in a family-run business which was a lifestyle rather than a 9 to 5. My parents encouraged me to follow a path which I was passionate about, which was initially design.
However, pursuing entrepreneurship was a natural progression thereafter. I graduated in Textile Design from Central Saint Martins and moved to Shanghai for an opportunity with an emerging Chinese brand. I've since had experience designing for childrenswear, womenswear, fashion accessories, footwear, and interiors for both domestic and international brands.
Why, after living in Shanghai for a few years, did you decide to strike out on your own to build your own company?
Having gained prior experience of design and production while working for other companies, I felt at the time that I had some of the necessary skills to start my own business.
I was keen to explore the design concept that I had in mind for Pinyin Press and start my own independent business.
What makes Shanghai's business environment so remarkable?
I find people in Shanghai to be collaborative, supportive, and open to great opportunities for business. I'm especially appreciative of my early loyal customers in Shanghai and the support of the local community.
What were you trying to bring to the local community?
When I was looking for gifts to send to friends and family, I realized there was an opportunity in the marketplace for designs which people would connect with and which would tell a story of everyday life in China. I also wanted to create products and gifts which were at an accessible price point and available to all.
Part of this story is also told through the brand name, "Pinyin Press." Zhou Youguang invented Pinyin in the late 1950s and described it as "a bridge between China and the rest of the world."
For foreigners living in China, Zhou offered a simple piece of wisdom, "Do something to help bridge understanding between China's ancient civilization and the modern world." A large part of the inspiration behind Pinyin Press designs is to tell my story of life in China and to help to connect others to the culture.
What are the biggest challenges setting up a business here? How do you stay motivated?
There have been different challenges at different stages of growing my business and I also feel that many challenges are not unique to China. When I initially set up my company, I took every opportunity possible and worked relentlessly to try to reach the targets I was aiming for.
Through Covid, the business model adapted and as life post-covid continues to evolve, this is something that I think will continue to adapt and develop. Within the day to day, sourcing high-quality and reliable suppliers for products takes time and patience and is something I continually strive for.
I've always been a motivated and driven person. However, I make more time for myself now which I didn't previously do. I've found that investing in other aspects of my life has greatly benefited my work.
What was the moment that made you most proud?
In 2021, Pinyin Press collaborated on a co-branded capsule collection with Chinese fashion brand SEMIR. It was a huge honor to design an exclusive collection in partnership with their company and to share our design aesthetic with a wider audience.
What are you working on?
I'm usually working on four or five different products at a time. Some of these involve new illustrative print designs whereas others may be a new product line featuring an existing popular print pattern design.
Who is a female role model who inspires you?
I like following the business journeys of various female entrepreneurs, especially those with similar businesses and who explain the often challenging trajectories which led to where they are today.
Reading what I feel are "realistic" journeys is often inspiring and encouraging.
Do you have any advice for women entrepreneurs?
Prepare a business plan and dream big. Be practical and be able to adapt quickly to change. Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends and businesspeople. Consider finding a mentor. Work hard and ask for support and advice. Continue personal development, education, and learning.