As the founder, stylist and face of The WYLD Shop, it’s hard not to feel as if you know Kara Bensley. After all, you’ve probably bumped into her in-shop bringing her unmistakable energy, caught her dancing on IG, seen her serving looks on the WYLD online store and if you spend a decent amount of time in Joo Chiat, you’ve probably bumped into her all over the neighbourhood too.
And if you haven’t gotten to know her personally yet, what you see is what you get: a woman who has time for everyone, feels deeply for others and tries to bring a bit of fun to everything – while working hard.
Over coffee in one of her favourite Joo Chiat spots, Kara gave us the inside story on 10 years of championing the WYLD life, what her boutique stands for well beyond beautiful clothes, what she wants for other women – and how zebras are related to all of this…
You’ve been in business here for over a decade, which is a big deal – how did this all start?
I came to Singapore from Sydney as a ‘trailing fiance’ and I never intended to start a business – at the time I was working for the sunglasses brand Le Specs, which didn't have a presence in Singapore and I was asked if I wanted to explore an opportunity as a rep. I went to every mall in Singapore and knocked on doors to sell products – and it was Actually, The Editor’s Market and Nana & Bird who gave me my first break.
To be honest, it took a while to set up a company – as it still does today – and my business has pivoted and evolved a lot over the years. It went from a business-to-business agency to selling direct to the public through trunk shows and pop-ups until we made our home with the boutique and online store.
Tell us the story behind the name WYLD… is it a reflection of your personality?
I wanted a business name that was short and punchy, but people who know me put two and two together. We’ve had the slogan “Live WYLD, live free” for many years. We’re about not conforming, being unique and feeling free in your life.
I genuinely want people to feel free. I meet a lot of women through work and the truth is many don’t live freely. We can feel trapped in marriages, by our work – or our inability to work – by motherhood and so many different situations. We cannot take our sense of freedom for granted.
Can you wrap up everything you do in one sentence?
I struggle with this! I’m a stylist and I love dressing people. I like to play dress up, help people experiment with fashion and help them feel like themselves.
After more than a decade of WYLD, has your mission changed?
I’ve worked in retail and with the public for decades, and my belief that there’s beauty in everything – and everyone – has never been stronger. Everyone is unique, whether they see it in themselves or not, and that’s what I try to share through this boutique.
Through every customer’s experience with us, we want to encourage people to live with confidence, compassion and a little bit of crazy. But my mission, ultimately, is to help people less fortunate than myself and build something bigger than me.
How do you want your customers to feel?
I don’t want my customers to overthink or dress for others; I want them to dress for themselves. I see a lot of women come through the doors, and all the changeroom antics and self-criticism that happens there. Whenever I hear comments from women who think they need to lose some weight so that they can wear a dress, I always say: “We buy the dress to fit the body; we don’t mould our body to fit the dress.”
I want women to appreciate their own uniqueness: not everyone is a high-waist or a maxi dress woman and nobody should feel as if they need to conform to what’s ‘in fashion’. I’m all for experimentation and exploring beyond your own comfort zone, but you need to feel confident in what you wear. In any facet in your life whether it’s your work or personal life, if you aren’t feeling that confidence and feel like yourself, you can’t rock up as your best.
What makes a brand WYLD-worthy?
We’re a bit selfish with what we choose for the store: we love what we love. Whether it smells nice, looks nice, has a great brand story or is a female-founded or local brand, we genuinely choose what resonates and what we’d like for ourselves. I’m all about self care and taking care of yourself top to toe, and this is reflected in our product offering today.
And over the decade of working at this, what was the tipping point for you?
Opening the physical store really changed things. When we started, WYLD was known for bringing in Australian brands such as MINKPINK that were unique to Singapore. But with the boutique we were able to expand into unique brands from around Asia – we became the exclusive Singapore stockist for Nala, and started bringing in more independent, small labels.
You support a lot of local and small brands…
We love local brands and there’s so much creativity in Singapore. Also, I was always taught by my dad to ‘have a go’ – which is a very Australian attitude. Cold-calling, knocking on doors and putting yourself out there is hard: I’ve been there.
So whenever a local maker comes in with hers or his little bag of goodies and asks to see the owner, I have respect for that. That takes guts and we all have to start somewhere. It means so much to me to give others ‘a go’ because somebody did the same for me once.
People around you with an eagle eye will notice a recurring zebra theme – what’s the story?
I use the zebra as my symbol – this wild animal really resonates with me. When you see a pack they all look the same, but in fact no zebra on earth is identical to another. Their patterns are unique, like a thumbprint. To me, that’s similar to what it means to be human: we all like to be accepted by our herd, and we’re social creatures, but we want to stand out from the pack. I want to highlight to women that we all have uniquely beautiful qualities, just by being ourselves.
You’ve been using customers as your models – why this move?
People just love seeing real stuff on real people, I think – and these women look extraordinary. We still use professional models, of course, but when the body type you’re looking at is more relatable to you, it makes all the difference. If I could, I’d shoot each dress on five different women with different body types. (One day soon!)
Friends who have supported me and my business along the way have been WYLD models too, and sharing the experience of a fun shoot where they get dolled up and captured looking amazing is my way of celebrating some of the great women in my life.
Tell us the truth: do you have a crazy wardrobe?
I’m WYLD’s best customer, is all I’m going to say. And I have always been an avid shopper and have worked in the Fashion wholesale and Retail Industry for over 25 years! Lol”
What was your very first job? Was there a life lesson that stuck with you?
At age 14 and nine months I got a job at Pizza Hut Express. And one thing I learned – and still share with my staff every single day – is that you never judge a book by its cover.
You get asked about life as an entrepreneur often. What’s your golden piece of advice?
Just start. What are you waiting for? You’ll only regret not trying. In this day and age, if you don’t like it or it isn’t turning out how you envisioned, you can pivot and try something else. But have at least a ROUGH PLAN! It was one of the BIG mistakes I made!
What is the one piece of fashion advice that you constantly give women?
From a styling perspective, experiment with your style. It’s okay to try the whole shop – use us as your place to try new things! But whatever your lifestyle, dress for comfort so you can live confidently.
What keeps you going?
I do forget sometimes how much I love my job because I get bogged down in the nitty gritty of running a business. So there isn’t a specific moment but the intermittent moments of joy I get from hearing good feedback and seeing joyful customers is what matters.
I love the experience of going into a great store and I love shopping. When people tell me that the boutique is their “happy place” and that they love shopping with us, I genuinely appreciate that.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
If I could pursue another passion, I’d train as a therapist. I’d love to help men and women surviving trauma, addiction or difficult marriages to find their way.
What else would people be surprised to know about you?
I would love to design. I wanted to be a fashion designer and begged my father to let me change my high school so that I could do the subjects that would help me get into fashion school. I worked incredibly hard for it and ended up getting a scholarship.
My first jobs were in retail, and my career followed that path. But if I didn’t go through this journey I wouldn’t be at this stage today where I know that I want to pursue my own designs. We’ve started releasing pieces under the WYLD label – our kimonos for a start – but I’d love to do more.
You’re known as a podcast lover. What are your top three?
Gary Vee, Mindset Mentor and Diary of a CEO. And I am also loving Blinkist! You can learn anything you want there!!!
What energises you?
My team and my customers. I want to empower the young women who work with me to kick ass and turn their lives into something amazing. I want people to be proud to work for my company and my customers to feel happy to buy from us. I’m serious about my business, but WYLD is a fun business. Can I call myself the ‘boss of fun?’ And my son, Jack - his future and well-being is at the very core of why I persevere and want to make a difference.
What is your WYLDest moment or memory over the years?
I just came across a photo of me and Loo from 2018 having a drink to celebrate getting the keys to our store. That was a huge moment for us. I look back at photos of our store opening, our first window display… l remember how we had to cope with the reality of Covid lockdowns and it’s been a ride for sure.
You’re being sent to an island retreat for a month and can only take three pieces from the shop: what would you grab?
Am I going by myself? Can I have four? A pair of black cats’ eye sunnies by Le Specs – that’s the brand that started this whole journey. Sunscreen and swimmers. If I can have four, then I’d grab one of our WYLD kimonos! (animal print of course!)
What advice would you give young Kara who worked at Pizza Hut and dreamed of going to fashion school?
Fight for what you believe in and what you want in life. Be aware of your incredible parents who work extremely hard – their work ethic will have a profound impact on you later in life. Pivoting is not the end of the world. And never lose sight of your dreams, because nothing worth having comes easy.
WORDS: Selina Altomonte