Big is beautiful, it is said, but in the world’s largest continent, what’s beautiful is not massively homogenous. Asia is not only vast in terms of land mass, it is also immensely populated: consider the over 4 billion people versus North America’s roughly 522 million. In this expanse of humanity, do we love beautiful clothes equally? Do women of, say, Bangkok appreciate the same silhouette as her sisters of Seoul? Can the successes of one city’s fashion labels be repeated in another? Could one person’s design be another woman’s not-so-divine?
Mporium, a new multi-label store that opened last month, is dedicated to Asian designers, and appears to represent the confidence that Asia, having risen, will adore Asia. The self-love could be evidenced, it suggests, regardless of where it is expressed. The clothes conceived for the Asian designers’ respective markets, it supposes, can be as alluring off-shore. Just as many trade barriers are removed with the rapid spread of FTAs in Asia, fashion retail obstacles, too, can be taken down as women increasingly share the love of styles that unite them in their femininity, in their sexuality, and in their prosperity. Mporium fancies itself to be the arbiter of what’s fashionable in Asia and a gateway to modern Asian fashion, an access through which women will find other expressions of style to fill their wardrobe.
Whether the 35 or so labels the store carries are a reflection of the burgeoning love of Asian designer fashion, it won’t be known, at least not in these early days. Despite the many names, what Mporium offers, in terms of variety, are narrowed by a distinct lack of a voice. At a glance, you’d see incredible breadth and would think they have a huge inventory. Inside, among the racks, however, it is hard to discern what the store is attempting to articulate. Trying to be too many things to too many people seems to be the emergent picture. It is hard to figure out what a rack of Yesah’s for-the-club clothes is doing amid rows of ultra-feminine dresses such as those by Aijek and Individual Expression. Sure, Asia is diverse, but is it this fragmented?
Initially curated by David Wang, the fashion designer-turned-fashion impresario, Mporium’s sundry labels together do not clue the visitor to their dissimilar and disconnected origins. They do seem to emerge from one aesthetic core, and a commercial one at that. You, too, sense that many of the clothes come from one factory. Mr Wang, as a designer, was not always known for originality, and as patron-saint of Singapore fashion, has mostly veered towards those with a keen sense of commerciality. His last large-scale project was as incubator head of the Parco Next NEXT project (now closed), conceived to give budding designers a fighting chance. Launched in 2010 at Millenia Walk, it was a venture supported by the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) and Spring Singapore. Despite the heavyweights behind it, Parco Next NEXT shuttered in February last year after four years languishing in a mall that wasn’t attracting the serious fashion consumer.
Mporium, in fact, recalls Parco Next NEXT. Only now, Mr Wang gets to work with relatively established designers, spread across the region. Overall, Mporium might be interesting if you’re not already jaded by clothes of indeterminate personality and inconsistent quality. Similar to Parco Next NEXT, Mporium is situated in a frightfully quiet and lacklustre part of a mall: Suntec City’s newly unveiled Phase 3 of its S$410-million overhaul, a zone smack in the middle of the sprawling complex that presently stands out for its lack of buzz and hustle. Despite its high-profile “remaking”, Suntec City isn’t the go-to destination when it comes to on-trend fashion. Even Uniqlo launched its Carine Roitfeld collaboration at its Ion Orchard store (only the media preview was held at the Suntec City outlet). It is not hard to imagine the uphill task Mporium faces in drawing those customers whose wardrobes are filled with the latest and trendiest garb.
There’s also the peculiar name. Mporium is a 5,000-square-foot store that is not quite large enough to be the space the moniker suggests, yet not small enough to be a boutique. Why the more conventional spelling—with the ‘e’—was not adopted could only succumb to the speculation that it was an excess of cleverness. Although of Greek origin—from the word emporion, which comes from emporos (meaning merchant), the word ‘emporium’ in Singapore is, regrettably, evocative of a particular department store of the past: Oriental emporium (东方百货公司), mostly known as Emporium (英保良), that was founded in 1961. Attributed to two Lim brothers, the company Emporium Holdings, at its peak in 1985, had 133 businesses spread across the region, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Hong Kong. Although it was the largest department store chain on our island, and is no longer around, Emporium has never shaken off its image as a seller of less-sophisticated, Chinese-made products amid an increasingly English-educated and Westernised populace.
A Failed Experiment
Mporium declared itself to be Singapore’s first: it is not. Back in June 1992, there was SA.GA, the 4,180-square-foot store at Park Mall (interestingly now a part of Suntec REIT, owner of Suntec City) that, like Mporium, housed a motley selection of Asian designers—more than 50 of them. SA.GA, according to its proponent and the store’s executive director Alan Koh, was “the world’s first”. This was Mr Koh’s second act after SODA (Society of Designing Arts, which he co-founded with Dick Lee) and, for many in the local design scene, his Hemispheres 2.0. Hemispheres, a project initiated by Mr Lee in 1985, was Singapore’s first local multi-label store that boasted an assemblage of those considered at that time to be the city-state’s best designers. Its potential longevity was overestimated when Hemispheres closed in 1987, just two years after it opened.
Once the chairman of Singapore’s premier event—Fashion Connections, Mr Koh was certain that Singapore alone wasn’t enough to draw global attention to the fashions of this part of the world: it needed its neighbours. The opportunity was ripe as Mr Koh was instrumental in staging the ASEAN Designer Show of the annual Fashion Connections that debuted in 1988. SA.GA was the culmination of his tireless zeal. Named after the seed, bijik saga of the saga tree—commonly found in Malaysia and Singapore, the store was to be a hotbed of Asian designs, even when the ’90s saw no real emerging Asian fashion capital, Tokyo excluded. This was pre-K-pop, pre-hallyu wave, pre-fast fashion. It was, no doubt, an ambitious project.
The store was one-and-a-half times larger than Style Singapore, Park Mall’s other anchor tenant that was habitat to home-grown labels, and the brainchild of Chia Shi Teck, the MD of Heshe Holdings, also manufacturer and retailer of local label Lea Fashion. The vast interior of SA.GA was segmented along the perimeter into smaller shops in which designers could express their own individuality. The mix was unlike anything Singapore had seen. From Hong Kong, there was Walter Ma and Lawrence Tang. From Bangkok, there was veteran designer Kai (Somchai Kaewthong). From Manila, there was Inno Soto and Digna Rosales. From Kuala Lumpur, there was Sonny San, Edmund Ser, and Douglas Chew. From Jarkata, there was Biyan (Wanaatmadja), Ghea (Panggabean), and Prajudi (Admodirdjo). And from home ground, there was Peter Teo, Frederick Lee, Amy Wang, LAM (Lam Wan Lai), and others. Singaporeans accounted for about half the designers selected for the store.
The S$8-million project was backed by Metro, then seeking to up its fashion leadership by attempting something that went beyond its traditional department store business. The director of projects at that time, Ong Jin Seng, told The Straits Times, “Unlike the present concessionaires in our department stores, we do not control the merchandise or the prices at SA.GA.” It was believed that designers had full control over what they wanted to sell. Who they were really selling to, no one quite knew. As it turned out, the merchandise wasn’t what shoppers wanted to buy. And the store wasn’t one they really wanted to go to.
Three months after their debut, it was reported in the press that SA.GA was not doing too well because of the “thin crowd”. Despite its “mid-price” positioning, the store was not able to draw shoppers, and many observers had squarely placed the blame on its off-the-heart-of-Orchard-Road location. Park Mall (formerly Supreme House)—despite efforts by past owners (including Wing Tai Holdings) and the present—has never truly had a real retail identity. Many equated the building with one of Singapore’s first coffee houses, the Silver Spoon, and little else. By November 1993, just one-and-half years after they opened, SA.GA announced that they would close. Metro was to remake and re-brand the space as a factory outlet. The saga of SA.GA was its over-ambition and the pressure-cooker effect of containing too many designers with egos too inflated to manage.
In their press ads, SA.GA touted itself as a purveyor of the “fashions of Asia”. Mporium takes the more reverential—even confident—route: it pays “tribute to Asian Designers”. The subtle difference in the marketing approaches between the two speaks volumes of the times in which both stores operate. In the early 1990s, there were hardly any recognisable Asian labels, so the more general, all-purpose “fashions of Asia” was sufficient though vague. In the era of pre-budget airlines and the hordes that take weekend getaways on a whim, there was no major, cross-border retail hit of regional designer names. SA.GA’s selling of the idea of the possibility of a vibrant and superior fashion market outside Singapore was enough to entice the would-be seeker of Asian fashion, whether he or she even existed.
The specificity of Mporium’s clarion call—Asian designers—not only reflects consumer awareness of today’s regional eponymous labels, but underscore their possible appeal and saleability. With the rise of Asian-American designers such as current hot-shots Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, and more established names such as Thakoon Panichgul, Phillip Lim, and Jason Wu, Asian consumers are more than ever willing to give Asian designers a shot. Jennifer Yii, CEO of the store’s parent company Qi Shop, said, “Asian designers have come into their own over these past years. The quality and the design have tremendously improved, and the works of the designers are more creative than what we’ve seen ten years ago.” The high visibility of Asian designers, however, is no indication that the acceptance rate is elevated. Mporium’s self-belief that Asian-born labels have real appeal is refreshing given our retail environment’s partiality to Caucasian names.
At the opening of SA.GA in 1992, Steven Goh, managing director of Metro was quoted in ST to have said, “SA.GA would suit the needs of the increasing sophisticated taste of Asian women, and provide a vehicle for Asian designers to market their fashions abroad.” This sounds rather similar to what Mporium attempts to do. In a press release issued at its opening, it is stated that “Mporium is built as a platform to give some of these (Asian) designers—not only the established ones, but aspiring ones as well—the space to showcase their best products.” Can different designers from a region characterized by immense diversity come together in one space to offer shoppers the range and variety that characterise fashion consumption?
A Tough Sell
For more than a decade, fashion, as with luxury goods, has thrived exceedingly well in Asia. The growth is fuelled by—not necessarily in equal measure—rising economies, lively retail activities (including the luxury goods investment spree of the Nineties quite unseen before), and a middle class that seems to be growing, and visibly too. However, the success of largely imported European labels has not paved the way for their Asian counterparts (excluding, perhaps, the Japanese and Koreans) to flourish. Local consumers have been so pre-conditioned to respond favourably to European and American brands that Asian-born names cannot, no matter how hard they try, gain the cachet to prevail.
Unlike Asian food, Asian fashion does not always travel well—at least, not, in our view, within Asia. Take Thai food out of Thailand and put it here, and if it’s good, it’ll sell. But fashion, sometimes dependent on emotions influenced by region-specific peculiarities, is a little harder to cross borders. The Thais, for example, love fashion to be over-the-top as a sign of fashion credibility, but that’s not the case in Singapore. Oftentimes, Asian brands, taken away from their local context and their local culture, lose their allure, their identity, and their relevance. In Singapore alone, there have been too many failed try-outs.
Our island-state may look greener from the other side, but over here, seedlings don’t always take root and grow. From Malaysia, there was East India Company of the Nineties that doomed after years of fruitless expansion. From Indonesia, Biyan (possibly the first Indonesian label to be sold on Net-a-Porter) lost its place in a plot of European names favoured by its sole stockist, the now-defunct Link. From Thailand, Fly Now met a similar fate when it closed last year, two years after it planted itself in Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade. From Korea, Headline Seoul (HLS), opened with fanfare in 2013, seems to be heading towards an uncertain, branchless future now that its owner Ann Kositchotitana (who brought in Fly Now) has shuttered her main store Front Row.
While it is true that well-travelled Singaporeans are exposed to many of the region’s most visible brands, is it also spot-on to say that they desire to buy those same brands when not on vacation, when not enjoying the exotic spoils of a vacation spot, when rooted to the humdrum of everyday life? Mporium seems to think so. According to Ms Yii, “Mporium aims to bring together these Asian designers so that your appreciation of good Asian designs need not stop when your holiday ends.” That may be a positive move to help those returning from a trip to alleviate the withdrawal syndrome that could result from over-indulgence, but is Mporium experiential enough for repeat visits or is it a second best when you can’t enjoy the offerings at their source?
For a store that purports to favour designers, there’s a decidedly un-designer feel about Mporium’s interior. True, it is not always necessary to equate designer fashion with luxuriously appointed spaces. Many multi-label boutiques, such as Colette in Paris, do without lushness and gilded fittings, but a store that tags itself with the ‘designer’ label needs to assure its customers that it’s able to put them in exclusive company. It is not likely shoppers are expecting art deco chandeliers, marble flooring, or antique carpets since one does not need to yield to interior extravagance to part with money. Yet, a well designed store can augment the value of ‘designed’ products. Mporium is not unattractive, but with its concrete floor and black metal racks behind a pseudo-Euro store front, it looks decidedly like a pop-up store occupying a vacated shop; it’s not a space that heightens the senses.
When it comes to the products, it is, as one merchandiser noted, “a mish-mash”. Mporium is like a retail version of a ‘listicle’: 35 Asian Labels You May Like. It’s a compendium, no doubt, and one that’s likely to appeal to the lunch-time crowd with that extra 20 minutes for trend-snacking. The styles selected are easily digestible, whether for the shoppers’ consumption, or their smartphone cameras’. Psychologically, the offerings are seductive because it proposes upfront a condensed and manageable assortment of what it deems to be good regional fashion.
The miscellany, however, makes it difficult to discern which Asian city—among those that represent what the store considers to have a thriving and stimulating design scene—is the star attraction. Which designer, one is tempted to ask, comes to Singapore with a story of their home city to tell? Do these designers represent what typifies their respective cities? What’s different about them that warrant a visit to the store? These questions were asked before—back in the early ’90s, back in the day when it was believed that there were immense opportunities for Asian designers in Singapore. Perhaps now, the difference will be Mporium finding the answers, if it does not already have them.
Mporium is at #01-477—480 of Suntec City’s North Wing. Photos: Galerie Gombak