Carolina Kumala on embracing change

Big changes are afoot for Carolina Kumala, and the intrepid Singapore-born Indonesian is welcoming them with open arms.

Carolina Kumala wanted to be in fashion. On a page of a journal dated October 28, 2004, the then 13-year-old student at the Singapore American School had drawn a skirt-suit in camel, complete with pink heels and a matching purse. Written above the detailed sketch are her aspirations to “study in Lasalle College of the Arts”, “enter competitions”, “work in a famous designer house” and “create my own unique brand”.

In the classroom, she was known among her peers to have a great sense of style, always looking impeccable and polished.

The young fashionista had an admiration for European fashion houses Versace and Chanel, as well as Lebanese legends Zuhair Murad and Rami Kadi.

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However, life had other plans for Carolina. Born and raised in Singapore, the daughter of Indonesian property developer Haryadi Kumala and prominent socialite Chiang Yu Lan moved to Boston for her bachelor’s degrees in business and communications after graduating from high school here. Then she went on to obtain her MBA in hospitality administration and management at global hospitality school Les Roches in Switzerland. As a scion of a real estate magnate and hotelier, it seemed fitting for her to head in this direction, even though her parents never expected her, or her sisters, to join the family business.

Says the 32-year-old, “They have always given us the freedom to do what we want to do. I think they believe in the decisions that we make, because they’ve raised us to be independent – that we don’t need to rely on anybody. I didn’t choose to pursue fashion because I thought that I would have more opportunities majoring in business. That it was a safer option for me, as you can go into any industry, or make something on your own with the skills gained from a business degree.”

Nonetheless, upon graduation, Carolina spent some time working at her father’s company, PT Jade Global Development, managing one of its hotels in Jakarta. “I was handling all the departments, from F&B to housekeeping to finance. We had weekly meetings on each department’s KPIs. If the KPIs are not met, we would offer and explore solutions. We did room inspections, food tastings and came up with new concepts to refresh the hotel. Three years on, I felt like I’ve learned all that I wanted to learn, and it was time to move on to something else,” she recounts.

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In 2019, after relinquishing her role at PT Jade Global Development, Carolina flew back to Singapore for a friend’s birthday. She hadn’t intended to linger, but the country went into lockdown. “I ended up staying here with the one tiny luggage I had brought with me, and have been here ever since.” With nowhere to go, Carolina started an F&B business with her twin sister Angelina and childhood friend Gigi Tsakiris.

Gully began as a delivery-only dining concept operating out of a cloud kitchen owned by the Tsakiris, founders of Greek restaurant Blu Kouzina. It served elevated street food, with offerings like Taiwanese chicken sliders, South African barbecue ribs and Nepalese momo dumplings. “Gigi and I cooked, and Angel did the deliveries. It was literally just the three of us when we first started. There was zero capital investment,” says Carolina.

Orders grew quickly, along with profit and headcount. The desire to open a full-fledged restaurant soon followed. The entrepreneurs settled on 31 Hong Kong Street, and in July 2020, moved Gully into the 40-seater space while the pandemic was still raging all over the world. “The money made from the deliveries went into building the restaurant,” Carolina adds. “Gully became a community-type space where people would come, hang out and meet one another. We had a lot of loyal customers.”

Two and a half years later, in January this year, Carolina, Angelina and Gigi decided to move on from Gully – and it wasn’t because business was bad. “We were there every single day, overseeing and helping with operations, from waiting tables to managing the bar. My mum would visit the restaurant with her friends to spend more time with us. Gully gave us great satisfaction, but we felt that our energies and skillsets were better placed in other endeavours,” Carolina explains.

Goodbyes, even the ones you choose, are never easy. “Gully’s closure was bittersweet,” she says. “I was sad to let it go, because we had put so much work into it. But there’s a time for everything. I think that chapter ran its course. I learnt the most that I could – how to open a business, how to manage people, how to get a business to function and operate, simultaneously. I’m proud that we managed to keep Gully open throughout Covid. I’m so grateful for the experience, and it was a very good first business opportunity to have. It’s just not the industry I want to be in anymore.”

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These days, Carolina has her head wrapped around diamonds. The jewellery lover had been taking courses at the Gemological Institute of America, working towards becoming a certified diamond grader. Unsurprisingly, her glamorous mother has a small part to play in this career pivot. “My mum loves jewellery and collects diamonds. She also taught herself how to grade them.

I think that rubbed off on me, and I’ve always wanted to learn about diamonds growing up. I’m nearing my final exams now, and once that’s done, I want to gain experience working at jewellery houses before ultimately doing it on my own,” she says with a hint of excitement in her voice.

Bulgari has long captivated the mother- and-daughter pair. “I grew up with the brand, having seen my mum wearing them all the time,” she elaborates. “Its pieces are timeless. I still wear my first watch, the Bulgari Bulgari Lady watch gifted by my parents, and it would still look stylish 20 years down the line. But I would have to say my favourite piece is the Save the Children necklace. That is special to me because for every piece of the collection sold, a portion of the proceeds are donated to support vulnerable, underprivileged children and youth, helping them have a better future.”

Beyond jewellery, Carolina also takes after her mother’s strong personality. “She’s assertive, and I think that’s where we, my siblings and I, got our go-getting trait from. My mum influenced my wardrobe choices as well. She always looks put together. Whenever she goes to events, she’ll be dressed to the nines. I’m like her. I’m casual during the day but at night, well, my friends would tell you that I’m usually overdressed. I just go above and beyond.”

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Needless to say, she got a surprise proposal of that calibre, too. In December last year, Apurv Suri, Carolina’s fiancé, popped the question on the steps of Singapore American School, where the couple first met, against a beautiful backdrop of flowers and large light-up letters that said “Marry Me”. The banker had been colluding for months with the school’s alumni organisation, which had sent a fake gala invitation to Carolina.

“The e-vite looked real,” she remarked, showing it to me on her phone. “Even the security guards were in on it! We arrived half an hour late, and there was no one. Beth, the associate director of alumni relations, told me everyone was already inside having cocktails. We were walking down memory lane through the school, then I saw the words. I was in my head thinking over and over: ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ I couldn’t focus on what he was saying,” she says with a laugh.

As we wrap up our tête-à-tête, the ancient Japanese proverb, ichigo ichie, which literally translates to one time, one meeting, comes to mind. The phrase describes a cultural concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment. It strikes me that the Carolina that I’m sitting with now won’t be in the same place the next time I see her. “I adapt really well to changes. I like to try a lot of new things. Whether or not it works out, I’ll still have the experiences and learnings to take away before embarking on the next chapter. For now, it’s settling down and prioritising my family.”

Fashion Direction JOHNNY KHOO

Photography JOEL LOW




Photography Assistance EDDIE TEO

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