By Ray Zhang
Everyone keeps saying retail is dead. Let them say it often enough and you start to believe it. I sure did, until I stumbled upon this surprise of a store. Monument Lifestyle is a first-storey shop-house boutique/café in Duxton Road. It handsomely negates the belief that the business of selling is over. Not only is Monument Lifestyle, opened just two weeks ago, in the tricky trade of fashion retail, it’s in what is considered one of the slowest in sales: men’s wear.
With its minimalist, glass-fronted exterior and a stylishly placed store name—full-caps, sans-serif, sitting above the descriptor “Goods and Café”, I thought I had past a shop transplanted from Tokyo’s Daikanyama. Duxton Road despite its potential as a shopping street in the same vein as, say, London’s Mount Street in Mayfair has mostly become a stretch where eateries—some good, some not so—come to roost. Monument Lifestyle is likely good news for the neighbourhood if the full capacity of the café on a weekday afternoon is any indication.
And that, perhaps, is the crowd puller: the coffee. Amazingly, I did not detect the aroma of Arabica when I wafted in. But the clink of the joe being made was definitely heard. My curious palate was keen to savour the coffee, touted at the store front to be sourced from the San Francisco roaster Four Barrel (trendy-name affectation: no plural noun!). I gravitated towards the source of that familiar sound and found myself at the white-tiled service counter that said, not unambiguously to me, hipster cool. I was delighted to spot in the menu a cold brew, but when I asked for it, was told that they did not have that, denting my initial enthusiasm. I ordered an iced latte instead. I was then asked if I would like something to eat. A trio of limp pastries under a clear cake cover did not beckon, but before I could say no, I was told that “the toast is very good”.
And it was. As befits what many would call an atas coffee joint, the toast here isn’t made from plain white bread—nothing so prosaic. Rather, it is a thick slice (yes, just one, cut diagonally into two) of brioche (in loaf form) that has a brief affair with the toaster. Thankfully, it didn’t stay there too long and the characteristically richer-than-bread texture did not dry out, which would otherwise have been very Ya Kun. Although I like brioche toasted, I am not sure the French would do that to Viennoiserie. I was later told by a member of the staff that the brioche is sourced from an “artisanal baker”.
What I particularly like is the topping: cinnamon (from a selection of other flavours I now cannot remember). But rather than the vapid stuff in a pepper shaker you find sitting on the service units of coffee chains, this is cinnamon-flavoured Masarang sugar, a sweetener made from the Arenga palm (grown mostly in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines) that is mellow in taste, not cloying, and, for those mindful of the glycemic indices of food, is blessed with a moderately low G1 of 35.
A café within a space designated for the sale of clothes is not, of course, a new business pairing. Before PS Café became a free-standing operation, it was part of a store known as ProjectShopBloodBros. And there was Front Row at Ann Siang Road—in 2005, the store sat above Singapore’s first Dean and Deluca café on the first floor. There’s also the always busy Tanuki Raw (that took over Café Kapok) at Kapok in the National Design Centre. Some have miraculously survived, such as the frightfully kitschy Latulle in Wisma Atria, while others did not, such as Parlour, that doomed campy in-store café by Ashley Isham in Orchard Central.
The problem—admittedly, for a lack of a better word—with two-in-ones is that one may be overlooked for the other. Even with not-unattractive visual merchandising of Monument Lifestyle, there’s a very real chance people will past the sartorial offerings—the “goods” parts that flank the store—and head for the food and beverage. So enjoyable was toast and coffee that I nearly missed what at first glance were very ordinary, Shenton-Way-types-on-a-weekend-jaunt clothes.
The merchandise mix is unmistakably American surf country. I quickly saw spring break. If that was not immediately discernible, there was the broadcast of Katrina and the Waves singing Walking on Sushine! In fact, the store seems to reflect the backstory of proprietors Dustin and Iris Ramos, both Filipino-Americans who have spent a great deal of time in the West Coast of the States. Dustin Ramos, one of the staffers told me, was an avid surfer.
So this is not Surrender or Colony Clothing. With its pale wood panels above painted walls that, in some parts, were stripped to reveal the original masonry of the building and the use of erected surfboards (here, a quartet served as a partial divider between dining area and retail space), the store reminded me of the Tokyo and Sydney outposts of the New York brand Saturdays, only busier. And the clothes too have the same laid-back vibe, which is akin to that of such typically American brands as Rag and Bone. In fact, I rather saw it as Brooks Brothers minus the business wear, put together by a design team who spent an inordinate amount of time by the beach watching surfers backsiding and bikini babes watching them watching.
I suspect the casualness of the selection is deliberate. Since many guys don’t wear business shirts to work if they don’t have to, a store such as this will appeal to their dress-for-start-up-networking sensibility. In other words, this is not the place for anything edgy or can be mistaken as Off-White. But if you can’t get enough of basics—those that will help you score with the general female population, you will find something to buy in the mix of (over?) washed-for-comfort shirts of Alex Mill, created by CDG Homme Deux-wearing Alex Drexler (son of J Crew’s Mickey Drexler); ready-for-the-mall T-shirts and shorts of Faherty, dreamed up by the surf-loving dude-brothers Mike and Alex Faherty; standard surf wear by Katin, conceived by the boat-cover-sellers-turn-beach-wear-retailers, husband and wife duo of Nancy and Walter Katin; and the flip-flops of Dallas-based Hari Mari.
And I also suspect that average Joe won’t be able to tell the brands apart. The aesthetic is so uniform that despite a content of different labels, all the clothes in Monument Lifestyle look (and feel) like they came from the same factory floor. On the other hand, for many guys, this could be a plus as there’s comfort in uniformity—an assurance that can be had when things are not too different from another, or from their existing wardrobe. Perhaps with such a homogeny, retail won’t die. This little store in sleepy Duxton Road could be successful, if not monumental.
Monument Lifestyle is at 75 Duxton Road. Photos: Galerie Gambak