By Shu Xie
If there’s one item of accoutrement that has lent itself to much ado in contemporary life, it is our shoes. Yet, a shoe obsessive does not often talk about the places where she gets her fix. I don’t need to cite the much-quoted Carrie Bradshaw’s affinity for designer heels to underscore shoes’ importance in the steps taken to navigate the hazards of urban spaces (and the maze that is modern love), but it is interesting to note that it has been Charlotte York who gets to experience shoes in a retail setting and lives to tell it. I am referring to the Sex and the City episode ‘La Douleur Exquise!’ in which Charlotte gives in to the product offers of Buster, a luxury shoe salesman, only to find out, with shock and distaste, the man has a foot fetish! It is the only episode of the quirky HBO series to have major scenes set in a shoe shop.
The new footwear behemoth Pedder on Scotts, opened two days ago in Scotts Square, is not likely to be a backdrop for such libertine antics, but it is a setting that has dramatic potential. Until Pedder on Scotts came along, many retailers in Singapore have, for reason of cost or lack of creativity, or both, largely forgotten that a unique customer experience can be had when stores incorporate a sense of theatre into their selling space. Pedder on Scotts is a seriously up-sized offshoot of On Pedder, Hong Kong’s most prominent shoe emporium with two stores in Singapore that has, since their local debut, offered merchandise in what the company touts as “visually progressive, innovative environments”. Simply put, it’s theatrical.
My visit to Pedder on Scotts was on a Friday afternoon, three days after it opened— the PSI-132 haze was perfect pretext to be ensconced in a shoe store. Once inside the atrium of Scotts Square, Pedder on Scotts is unmissable. The somewhat ’70s-looking metalwork screen bearing the three-word name—installed on both of the longer sides of the second floor—beckons like a beacon. One escalator ride up and you’re right in the thick of things. Pedder on Scotts is the proverbial candy store; it is designed and stocked to charm and captivate. Every heel, every pump, every sneaker is the equivalent of pastille, butterscotch, and nougat! And at every turn, you’re bordered by confections for feet.
It’s no exaggeration to say Pedder on Scotts is big. As the previous incarnation On Pedder, it occupied, on the same floor, 4,880-square-foot of space. The maxi-me version now enjoys anchor tenant status with 20,000 square feet to fill (that’s the size of the ballroom in Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago mansion in Florida, just in case you’re wondering). And fill it does, with more than 100 labels, across six main categories (if you try, you could probably find a glass slipper!). It is laid out like a department store, with each category housed in what can be best described as store-within-a-store, electrified by their distinct personalities. No two are alike, yet there’s a synergy that speak of the globalism of modern design. The sum is not only multi-media and multi-sensory, it’s multi-cultural. All in all, it could be what Betsy Johnson had in mind when asked to describe her personal style: “Punk, sexy, sparkly, pretty, pure.”
This is no place to galumph. I certainly did not. Stepping off the escalator, I turned right. There’s no reason to, but I did. Perhaps I was led by some invisible guide. As I went from section to section, taking in the vast array of shoes—many so sculptural they deserve their art gallery display—and noting the welcome elegance of some pieces (such as those by Nicholas Kirkwood), I was struck by how many mannequins there were for a store that does not sell clothes. Some of them were dressed, such as those with “tacked” blazers (as seen in the first fit of a bespoke suit) in On Pedder Men, but most of them were unclothed. All held something, from shoes to bags, augmenting the relationship between footwear (and accessories) and the wearer. As I continued along the outer corridor, it dawned on me that Peddar on Scotts could be the place for shoe lovers to take their evening constitutional.
My first encounter with On Pedder was in Hong Kong in their breakthrough store on Pedder Street, a major thoroughfare in the city’s Central District that was named after the island’s first harbour master, Lieutenant William Pedder. This part of Hong Kong no longer hints at its British maritime past. Pedder Street was, for a rather long time, associated with the Pedder Building, a 1923 Beaux-Arts style edifice that was, in the late ’80s, noted for its numerous outlet shops. It later housed the first Shanghai Tang that, to the shock of industry watchers, gave way to Abercrombie & Fitch in 2011. On Pedder’s opening on the street in the mid-Nineties brought luxury retail to a side of Central District’s high-end shopping that curiously stopped at The Landmark, which sits just opposite the shoe store. It was here, about a decade ago, that I came face to face, for the first time, Azzedine Alaia’s shoes—those caressable pairs composed of incredible shapes of leather fashioned atop vertiginous heels—that elevated my appreciation of fine footwear. Blame my unflagging enthusiasm on first impressions: some encounters you just don’t forget.
Hong Kong’s On Peddar, as with kindred store Lane Crawford, offers merchandise that are never availed on their own, even when, by themselves, they merit the accolades they attract. It is the setting, the context, or the tableau in which they’re retailed that accentuates their desirability. A vase, however beautiful, is more appealing when it has an attractive surrounding to complement it. The retail theatre in Pedder on Scotts follows a European tradition that goes back to as early as the mid-19th Century. Back then, especially in Paris, stores such as Galeries Lafayette and Printemp (both regrettably no longer in Singapore) welcomed shoppers with an Art Nouveau-inspired wonderland of visual excess that seemed to be conceived to upstage the Paris Opera! They were designed to wow, an approach, no doubt, today’s Instagrammers could appreciate.
While we have not seen stores such as Pedder on Scotts anywhere in Orchard Road for a long time, few people seem excited by it—to the extent that there seem to be a collective sigh: as asked by Life of The Straits Times, “How risky is such a bold move at a time when retail is suffering?” With competition from e-commerce and suburban malls, retail in Orchard Road is looking dismal. However bleak, there’s no negating the glimmer Pedder on Scotts has sparked. Shopping online may be convenient, but a visit to a store is more experiential than sitting in front of a computer or mobile screen. A brick and mortar boutique is, therefore, still unassailable for luxury and exclusivity. Pedder on Scotts is compelling because it clearly offers a more kinetic experience than shopping online. I am sure you can put on a pair of running shoes to test by sprinting on the wide passageway that forms the inner perimeter of the store. And if you do, you’ll be quietly absorbed by the amalgamation of the elegant and the cutting-edge that looks effortlessly pulled together. It may seem visually busy, but the store’s inventory layout generates a feeling of spaciousness—a graphically appointed openness that arouses curiosity.
Perhaps Orchard Road is so saturated with brands that we are no longer interested with what’s there, and not proud of those few businesses that have made an impact on what Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) calls “a great street”. Greatness was how we once viewed this shopping stretch, but pride no longer takes its place in our hearts, now influenced by everything online, including seeking a spouse. We were once proud of the firsts that sprang up here: the first upmarket shopping centre (Lucky Plaza, 1981), the first Orchard Road Light-Up (1984), the first cineplex (Lido, 1993), just to name a few. However, who is still enamoured with Orchard Road these days? Increasingly it is filled with stores that retail experts call “transactional”, and increasingly, our relationship with Orchard Road is just that: to seek deals—defined unimaginatively by the annual Great Singapore Sale.
When luxury brands opened up to the masses about a decade ago and conspicuous consumption—ratified via social media—became fashionable, perhaps even those who care about the beauty of shoes, or is partial to stratospherically priced heels, are no longer concerned about the surroundings in which shoes are sold. The retail environment of Pedder on Scotts, like some of their shoes, is artistic, but even if shoppers are indifferent to it, the impressive scale produced an authentic sense of theatrical retailing that should be noted for its rarity. In Pedder on Scotts, I saw a shot of optimism, even when some members of the media perceived a store amid “suffering”. Through his writings, French novelist Alphonse Daudet wanted to set himself up as “a merchant of happiness”. I think Pedder on Scotts is on the same path.
Pedder on Scotts is on level 2, Scotts Square, Scotts Road. Photos: Jim Sim