In Another Pond

Singaporean brand Raoul is now only available at Robinsons. In America, it has popped up in one of New York’s most popular outlet stores


imageRaoul is now available online via American discounter Century 21

For Singaporeans, theirs is an unfortunate story. Once hailed as local fashion’s great big hope—a label that even ministers talk about and praise, Raoul is now quickly becoming but a memory. In future reminiscences, it shall be Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge’s wearing of that sole Raoul dress on her maiden visit to Singapore that’s a milestone in the brand’s 14-year history than design or retail breakthrough.

In February, Raoul closed its Paragon store—the last on our island—and announced simultaneously that it was going to concentrate on the wholesale side of the business. Douglas Benjamin, chief operating officer of FJ Benjamin, owner of the brand, told The Straits Times back in April, “We didn’t want to keep the Paragon store open and pay the rents that were being asked.” Weak sell-through, retail observers reasoned, did not justify keeping the lease. In March, Raoul resurfaced in Robinsons at The Heeren as a concessionaire, according to the ST report. Market talk, however, contradict that. It was said that Robinsons made an outright purchase of the line. In any case, the own-store environment in which the brand could communicate some swank is gone.

imageRaoul’s only outlet here,  a concession corner in Robinsons at The Heeren. Photo: Galerie Gombak

For consumers elsewhere (and even here), Raoul is now available through one of New York City’s favourite outlet stores Century 21. Its latest marketing e-mail sent out just yesterday pointed to a selection of Raoul clothes marked down by as much as 72%. A site search revealed 24 items for the picking—not a lot, but the dresses, shell tops, shirts, pants, and shorts appeared to be discounted to clear. While Raoul’s entry into Century 21 may be a plus for some, others consider this a sign of downward crawl for the brand.

Century 21 is what calls a “hot spot for cheap shopping.” It’s a go-to destination for bargain hunters as well as fashionistas who consider it the cemetery for couture collectibles awaiting rebirth. Traditionally, stockists of designer brands offload past season’s collections at Century 21 so that the former need not go into deep discounting when the end-of-season sale concludes. For many high-end retailers, this is one way of getting rid of old stocks without seriously sullying the brands’ name.

Despite Century 21’s ability to speedily move past-their-prime designer duds at what the Americans call “off-price”, the store is not considered the place that presents high-end shopping experiences. Retail experts are divided as to the value or de-value Century 21 can offer brands. For some, the store is a great off-site to quietly purge unmovable merchandise, while for some the drastic markdowns could affect the perceived value of designer goods. For customers, the fun is in finding anything as pseudo-designer as Vince Camuto and those as advanced as Rick Owens. The clashing aesthetics does not matter.

Raoul SS 2016Raoul’s surprisingly weak spring/summer 2016 advertising images. Photo: Raoul

It’s hard to say where Raoul’s fate truly lies now that it is available in Century 21. Some think it is an honour to be in the company of European designer labels and with a store that has been expanding across the US when many competitors have shuttered. Others, however, consider it a prelude to even more dump-down clearance. Raoul in Century 21 unfortunately appeared around the same time as the disclosure of FJ Benjamin’s quarterly earnings. As reported in the Business Times two weeks ago, the company posted “fifth red quarter with S$5.1 million loss”. Fashion buyers familiar with the brand speculated that a chunk of that figure may be attributed to Raoul’s performance. The slide of Raoul—visible by its rather rapid store closures, not only locally but regionally—is surprising if only because the organisation behind it is no start-up. In fact, parent company, the SGX-listed FJ Benjamin Holdings, dates back to 1959.

It was not this way for Raoul in the beginning. Born in 2002, about five years after FJ Benjamin’s failed multi-label store Rachel B, Raoul began as a men’s shirt line. Three years later, women’s wear was added. At the start, shirts designed for women were available, but that reportedly wasn’t enough to meet customers’ demand for a wider merchandise mix. When the full ready-to-wear line appeared, many were, however, rather disappointed with the vintage-y looks as well as the styles and silhouettes that appeared to be in keeping with design director Odile Benjamin’s personal taste.

Odile and Douglas AFF 2011Odile Benjamin and her husband Douglas took the catwalk at the 2011 Audi Fashion Week. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images Asia Pacific

COO Douglas Benjamin’s wife Odile, who admits that she finds the ’70s “the most iconic fashion decade”, has such a firm grip over the design direction of Raoul that despite hiring a consultant, Haidee Findlay-Levin, in around 2010, the brand has not been able to shake off its neo-psychedelic posturing. In fact, it was reported that Mrs Benjamin has amassed 1,000 vintage pieces in an archive from which select clothes are usually present in meetings with the creative team. Raoul would continue to be defined by looks rather than be led by design.

As we look back, Raoul’s plight brings to mind the failure of another Singaporean brand with sight set on the world: alldressedup. Both share a promising start, but unsustainable momentum. In the end, there’s one reality: you can be vaunted as the future of Singapore’s fashion industry, but the future may not be yours to have . Media attention does not indicate that there’s a demand for your products. Rave does not mean love, and consumers go on to the next big thing as soon as your aesthetic looks stale. This is fashion today. It changes faster than you can pick a needle and make the first stitch.