Singapore’s purveyor of fine fashion has opened a new store. It’s not somewhere on Orchard Road, as you might aspect; it is not even near there. In fact, it’s not at all on our island state. The new Club 21 is in Bangkok: a fashion god in the City of Angels.
This isn’t the Club 21 we know. This is big. Massive is no over statement. Housed in the newly refurbished Siam Discovery, two units away from Siam Paragon, diagonally across from Mahboonkrong Shopping Centre, the boutique-no-more Club 21 is so expansive you don’t know where it starts and where it ends. We’re not sure how big the space is, but it does appear to be at least twice the size of Club 21 men’s and the women’s store (at The Four Seasons hotel) combined. It’s discreet too—there is no marquee-style signage to tell you that you’ve walked into the Thai outpost of Singapore’s biggest upmarket multi-brand retailer.
And it’s somewhat confusing too. At first sight, you’d think that Siam Discovery, closed a year ago for the refurbishment, has turned the mall into a department store. And you won’t be wrong. As you enter from the Siam Center-facing access, the first thing that hits you is the duplex Issey Miyake store (here, it’s known by the somewhat grandiose “World of Issey Miyake”). Pass that and it gets a little disorientating, but that’s not a bad thing. There are only few shops—certainly not in the form of shop lots that made up the former Siam Discovery.
You will recognise the atrium as the old mall’s but that’s all you will make out. The space on the two sides of the first floor is now mostly opened up, un-demarcated by boundaries to contain brands. Yes, like a department store, but something tells you it is not quite. There are the labels: if you’re familiar with who carries what in Southeast Asia, you will immediately identify the curation (bad word choice, maybe, but fashion these days are picked and displayed with almost the same élan as the curatorial approach of an art gallery) as those typical of Club 21. The leaning to Japanese names—Sacai, Kolor, Y’s, Miharayasuhiro, etc—is clue enough.
This, however familiar, is, at the same time, not entirely recognisable. This is too varied, and the variety is too interesting. When you move further inwards, it dawns on you that the scale and range may not be within the business plan of a foreign company known to be cautious in its expansion plans. If you look hard enough, you’ll see this it is not entirely Club 21. Price tags are a tell-tale sign—they use different ones. And some sections welcome the Club 21 loyalty card, some don’t. The guessing game becomes uninteresting as the merchandise seduces.
It is possible that the newness of the mall, so overwhelmingly fresh, overtakes one’s curiosity about proprietorship. Opened just last Saturday, the new Siam Discovery is the latest retail sensation that is transforming the area just beneath and around the Siam BTS station into a shopping hub Orchard Road should seriously study. When describing it as a sensation, we aren’t being glib. The mall is sensational and it arouses the senses. If shopping centres think taking on e-commerce is not possible, Siam Discovery is proof that reinventing the physical shopping experience is achievable. You start by providing stimuli from the environment.
Siam Piwat Co, owner and operator of the mall, calls the USD112-million born-again Siam Discovery the “biggest arena of lifestyle experiments”. Thai marketing lingo defies deciphering (and is often mostly grand-sounding), but, as pretentious as that is to the ear, this is quite a showground, and some of the brands in stock could be test merchandise. So many labels—more than 5,000 brands are said to be available—clearly fall under the radar that it is hard to see their overwhelming take-up rate.
Club 21’s stable of labels and some more dominate the first two floors. Until now a conservative retailer in terms of store planning, its gamble on Siam Discovery sees it in a space unlike any other, including its last swanky emporium, sited in a hard-to-locate corner of Kuala Lumpur’s Pavillion. Here, it’s rather like a grand magasin, but more in the vein of Lane Crawford than heritage stores such as Galeries Lafayette. The mix of brands and the juxtapositions in a playful setting are calculated to excite and, more importantly, surprise.
Has Club 21 finally understood “experiential”, the much talked about requisite of social media-age brick-and-mortar retailing that’s rarely seen or felt on Orchard Road? Peddar on Scotts, opened in October last year, would be considered a pioneer in this area, but so far, none has taken their lead. Club 21 is on the right footing, but unfortunately, its well-shod feet are on another city’s welcome mat.
For too long, our favourite multi-label designer store has been languishing in its safe haven of quiet—far too quiet—elegance in the rear of Orchard Road. Despite talk that it is faring dismally and that young shoppers would not step into what they perceive as old and cold, they have persevered. Indeed, Club 21 has outlasted them all: Glamourette and Men and His Women, two of Singapore’s most distinguished but ultimately short-lived luxury retailers. In Bangkok, it has remained strong while even Hong Kong’s Club 21 equivalent, Joyce, had to make a hasty retreat in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and, according, to reports, lost USD7 million as a result. But longevity sometimes encourages complacency and lack of innovation. Since its move into the Four Seasons Hotel in the mid-Nineties, Club 21 has looked mostly the same. Age, as many women know and will say, tends to make you look tired.
To be sure, it tried to do something different with the offspring Club 21B, started in 2011 as a remake of Blackjack, a store conceived in 1996 that targeted the young with a mix of street styles and edgy looks. However like its parent, Club21B’s store planning stands on conservative ground even when the merchandising does not. For some, its position at the back row of Forum The Shopping Mall, near the toilets, makes it a tad downbeat.
While Singapore has to contend with the Club 21 that we’ve always known, Bangkok has been seeing new stores and concept zones popping up. Its numerous corners and islands on the first floor of Paragon Department Store started three years ago were a foretaste of its stunning entrance in Siam Discovery today. Perhaps we can then be hopeful that the Club 21 that Bangkokians now find sanook, we, too, will be enjoying in the coming future.
Club 21 is at Siam Discovery, 989 Rama I Road. Additional reporting: Tae Dee. Photos: Jagkrit Suwanmethanon