The Birkin Is Not In

Triple its original size, the new Hermès flagship store has everything a rabid fan would want, except the Birkin

Hermes Liat Towers 19 May 16

Yes, the cash cow of Hermès was conspicuously absent. This, it should be said, isn’t totally accurate since we have not included those on the arms of the many who attended the grand opening of the new Hermès flagship. Last Thursday evening was clearly for the go-go social set, and the Birkin, like its owners, can’t really be absent. Inside the vertically expanded store, you’d think it’s the best time to ensnare those not yet satiated, but somewhere in France, artisans are meeting orders not necessarily destined for this store. Since many women already have a Birkin, not seeing one this evening isn’t a tragedy. There’s always the saddlery.

It is amazing that Hermès has stayed put in this part of Orchard Road—specifically Liat Towers—for 30 years. There are no competitor brands in the vicinity. The store is flanked by Zara on its left, and, across the street, a jewellery store, House of Hung, that encloses the right end of the 42-year-old Far East Shopping Centre like a photo corner. Sure, Hermès has a new neighbour Audemars Piguet on Angullia Park, but both are separated by a passageway that leads to the lift foyer of Liat Towers.

Try as we did, it was hard for us to remember any notable former tenants of Liat Towers except Chico’s and Charlie’s, Singapore’s first Mexican restaurant that operated on the 5th floor from 1979 to 2001. Oh, there was Galeries Lafayette, then back to our republic for a second time before exiting for good in 1996. Its space is now occupied by Starbucks and the café/bar Overeasy, and Zara. Luxury was not really part of Liat Tower’s DNA.

Hermes Level 1

And there’s this area’s susceptibility to the deluge of the monsoon season. A heavy and protracted downpour on the morning of 16 June 2010 saw the lower-than-ground-level first floor of Liat Towers inundated. Hermès was not spared. When photos of the store partially submerged in brown rain water appeared on social media, a joke went viral: rush to Liat Towers and stand in the torrent to seize any Hermès bag that floats out!

It was on this flood-prone floor that we began our exploration of the new Hermès. The men’s department is on this first level, as well as the watch, jewellery and perfume. Here is clearly merchandise that will survive Mother Nature’s no-warning inundation. We asked one of the sales staff if she and her colleagues worry about another flooding, and she said happily and confidently, “We’ve had people improve the drainage around the store.” Lucky she; too bad for the potential monsoon opportunists.

Although it is spread over four floors, the store has only three for the retailing of merchandise. The no-sale zone on the top-most level, called Aloft at Hermès, is set aside as gallery space, one of five around the world run by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès. That a floor with rent obligations can be allowed to generate no profit must reflect its very healthy bottom line even when the corporate line is to support the visual arts. For the opening, Singaporean multi-disciplinary artiste Dawn Ng—whose work, the odd bunny-popping photograph series Walter, was acquired by the Singapore Art Museum—set up a sort of pastel-smoke-and-mirror installation titled How to Disappear into a Rainbow. Silly us: when we stumbled into it, we thought it was the VM prop room.

Hermes Level 3

One floor down, the space is dedicated to home ware and furniture and everything you may need for horse riding. Velvet Brown could really live here. Impressed by a tall tripod shelving unit, we stroked its very caressable legs only to be told by a security staffer, “don’t touch.” “Oh?” “Today is the opening, you cannot touch; tomorrow open you can touch.” “Oh!”

On level two, women’s wear and accessories take pride of place. Here, discerned by the smell of leather rather than perfume, is where, we assume, Hermès exceeds its monthly sales per square foot. The leather accessories naturally drew the guests’ attention more, we thought (and saw), than the ready-to-wear. It’s a space designed for shopping as well as relaxing—those inviting one-arm arm chairs, positioned to afford a street view, so ideal for a tête-à- tête, if you don’t mind conducting such discourse in public and amid such tasteful clothes.

A passerby stopped outside the window along Angullia Park to look at the interior action. She appeared interested in the party atmosphere and lifted her arms, palms upwards, as if to ask what’s going on. We pointed to the clothes and tried—charade-style—to communicate to her that the women were shopping. Could she, perhaps, see that, in fact, no one seemed really interested in the garments hung on the racks? Hermès makes beautiful clothes, and superbly crafted too, yet they are a smidgen too safe, too predictable, too for-the-social-pages-of-Icon. France’s most luxurious brand has perfected refinement to the point where its own good taste seems to be the dictate of a set of analytics or sales reports rather than the impulse of Gaelic joie de vivre or spontaneous creation.

Hermes Level 2

In order to appreciate the Hermès store with actual retail buzz, we came back the next day, when touching was henceforth permitted. Unsurprisingly, it was crowded. Despite the harsh daylight streaming in through the glass windows, the store was aglow with light that bulb sellers would call warm, a tone-setter that lent the fragrant surroundings a peculiarly autumn smoulder. A woman with an admirable bouffant was heard saying it was “homey”. CEO Axel Dumas, a sixth generation member of the Hermès family, would be delighted to overhear the remark. In his message to the media, he said, “It is with great enthusiasm that we open our doors to you, our Singaporean friends and treasured customers, to share our newly extended home.”

“Home” may, however, be a little underwhelming for a flagship that has more in common with a department store than a boutique. While it may be intimidating to some, Singapore’s largest Hermès is a browse-able retail space that is hospitable even if only because it’s too crowded for the staff to notice that you’re only looking around. If you can un-crown its halo of exclusivity, Hermès is possibly a Robinsons (minus a bed and bedding department) with better fixtures and lighting. As Hermès visibly augments its presence, has the surfeit of luxury inevitably dulled us to what in the past was quite special? If Hermès hopes to enchant for another 30 years, let’s hope not.

The new Hermès flagship store is at Liat Towers, corner of Orchard Road and Angullia Park. Photos: Galerie Gombak