A Needless Resurrection

Why bring a brand back from the dead if in rebirth it looks spiritless?


M)phosis P1

M)phosis is back. As in soap operas and sitcoms, the fashion dead can be undead, but that does not mean they can reappear full of life, with exactness of purpose. M)phosis was no more, but in its return is a lot less; it has lost its soul.

Two days ago, the new M)phosis opened at the just-refurbished mall Century Square, a 23-year-old shopping complex in Tampines operated by AsiaMalls. Its return-to-market in a suburban centre may indicate the brand’s present reluctance for a more Orchard Road-worthy positioning. This would possibly not raise eyebrows as the current owner, although relatively seasoned garment producer and distributor, is not known as a purveyor of trendy products.

Decks Pte Ltd, a self-proclaimed “apparel supplier to department stores”, bought the 21-year-old M)phosis trademark when it expired last year. The company is known in the trade for its production of Universal Studios Singapore merchandise, and has, as it appears, set M)phosis alongside other apparel, rather than fashion brands, such as the beach-centred Surfers Paradise and the little known men’s wear label Royal Knights of Scotland, aesthetically akin to Beverly Hills Polo Club, of which Decks is the distributor.

It is not exactly clear what Decks plans to do with M)phosis although its managing director Kelvyn Chee did tell The Straits Times last month that “with our resources and experience in handling brands, we think we can make it better than in the past.” Given the labels in the Decks stable, “handling” is unsurprising and is probably how M)phosis will be managed. This would run counter to the M)phosis legacy of sleek designs even when its founding designer Colin Koh had, possibly in a moment of humility, claimed he’s “not really a designer”.

M)phosis P2

When it closed in 2013, M)phosis had established an image that was far more ahead of what blogshop-born stores today project, and honed: such a striking—and sexy—look to the end that many fans and industry types remember it till today. It was likely this unchanging aesthetic in the sea-change overwhelming fashion of the past five years that had hasten the demise of the brand. M)phosis, with more than 30 stores in total at one time (including those in the region), could not weather the retail storm inevitably heading its way.

As widely reported, the closure of M)phosis shocked the industry. The official reason offered by the brand’s co-founder/director Hensley Teh was that of problem with cash flow. Mr Teh described it as “severe”, so much so that the closing of M)phosis was inevitable even when he was torn at losing it. One man’s loss, as it turns out, is another’s gain.

Cash flow may have eventually felled M)phosis, but in the reading of the tea leaves even years earlier, many observers thought the brand had not inoculated itself against changing consumer tastes, the influence of street style, and the impact of e-commerce. While M)phosis continued to retail well-made clothes, it remained faithful to aesthetic consistency at the expense of newness, offering the same clingy styles in polyester jersey that the brand was known for, but had, by the mid-2000s, not captured the imagination of its customers.

Mr Chee of Decks seemed unfazed by the failure of M)phosis when he told ST that “it used to be one of the most successful brands and they (still) have a following here as well as overseas”. Could there be a following when there is nothing to follow? The new M)phosis, however, seems to target a rather different customer, one who is weaned on fast fashion, or the likes of Love, Bonito, and one who is partial to the lower end of the price scale. It is also keen to capture the attention of online shoppers, launching the brand’s first e-shop that proudly announces, “The M is back”.

M)phosis P3

The M?! Even Madonna does not go by that. And back to what? On the ground, the physical outlet is a far cry from what M)phosis stood for: a certain modernity in the shop’s spatial use and a hint of ’70s sportif in the merchandise’s styling despite its sexy leaning. Today’s M)phosis, other than the recognisable logotype (including the unusual bracket after the M), is quite a different product and store. From its interior design, lighting, fixtures, stocks, and visual merchandising, it would appear that Decks desires to position the brand to be compatible with housing estate malls, where fashion retailing pales in comparison to the selling of food. This is rather a curious strategy when you consider that even bulk-produced labels such as Iora is going decidedly sharp and clearly contemporary (check out their Wisma Atria store).

What, perhaps, would be a disappointment for those who are hoping for hark-back to the past is the brand’s rather obvious disassociation with what has gone before. According to Mr Chee, “about 60 percent of” the old M)phosis styles would be retained. But at the quiet opening of the shop, the 60 percent was barely discernible. Did the 40 percent of the reborn M)phosis take over instead? What is M)phosis now emphasising? Or has it become voiceless?

The merchandise is, at best, mundane: the usual (but by-now tiresome) cold-shoulder tops and pussy-bow blouses. Or, what one fashion stylist called, not inaccurately, “office-ladies flair”. To be sure, there is some feeble attempt at edgy, but the result is unpersuasive, just perfunctory, with one prominently displayed, bi-coloured, pleated skirt looking like it could have come from the floor of the Sacai studio.

This is not the first brand that Decks tried to bring back, if not from the dead, certainly from the brink. In 2014, it acquired Island Shop, the ‘resort’ label that Tangs conceived in the ’90s as a line that could differentiate itself from the rest of the store’s labels that targeted careerists. But Island Shop’s relaxed style in shapes that did not necessarily flatter the body became a money-losing dud when younger-looking, hipper brands took over more prominent spots in the department store. New owner Decks, keeping to its predilection for beach-y styles, did not re-imagine Island Shop. They left it marooned.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji