The effort behind Design Orchard is laudable. Launched on the last Friday of last month, it’s a dedicated space for local labels—something Orchard Road and our city sorely need. But will you be rushing down to shop?
The impact-lite welcome as you enter Design Orchard
The phoenix rises. From the exact space where Keepers vacated. On Orchard Green, as it was once called, Design Orchard now stands. The former “pop-up” that Keepers occupied for more than a year is swapped for a permanent, eye-catching, visible-from-the-street, roof-garden-ed, cafe-crowned, concrete centre committed to local designs, the umbrella term loved and loathed, merited and maligned in equal measure.
Initially thought to open in December to cash in on the year-end shopping craze, Design Orchard was finally unveiled eleven days before the Lunar New Year holidays. How that proximity to the most important retail season of the year after Christmas will jack up the opening sales is not yet clear, but the rush to open was sadly evident in how the store presented itself to both the curious and buying public.
On opening day (going by the excuses-permissible term “soft opening”), a lack of buying frenzy meant that the generous space and the stuff that occupy it could be zoomed in for analysis. This risks sounding potentially unkind, unnecessarily harsh, prematurely pessimistic, but when you are ready to open, you should be able to stand to scrutiny. When we stepped into Design Orchard on that first day, we didn’t approach it with some perverse delight that this would prelude a pan review. What we saw was there for all to see.
Despite a fitting interior, Design Orchard is let down with weak visual merchandising
Design Orchard is a handsome space. Not since Hemispheres, conceived by Dick Lee in 1985, has there been a well-considered store dedicated to Singaporean labels that allows the merchandise—wonderful or weak and those between—a chance for co-mingling and one-stop exposure. Conceived by WOHA Architects, the local firm founded by former Kerry Hill Architects alumni Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, whose collaborative 1 Moulmein Rise design won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) in 2007, Design Orchard is the kind of store that the Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF)-initiated Zhuang should have been, but is not.
Looking somewhat squat against its neighbours, the “2.5-storey” building itself is hard to define. It isn’t one uniform block, more like something put together to look like it’s carved out of a hillock. We resist using the word ‘modern’ since, in architecture—unlike in fashion—‘modern’ often refers to something that can be chronologically placed and linked to the period between 1900 to 1950. It is contemporary, for sure, but not in the same way as, say, the nearby 268 Orchard Road, where the popular Off-White store is situated. It bears no visible semblance to what might be considered Singaporean—no reference to what the Housing Development Board has done to shape much of our island, including playgrounds, or Peranakan motifs that have become the go-to reference for anyone wanting output with cultural clarity. This is something quite different, evocative of what might be considered equatorial, with a touch of post-Tadao Ando, capped with green terraces that perhaps capture the Garden City that we are.
While the exterior is sort of neo-brutalism-meets-deconstructionism-meets-naturalism, inside, it’s somewhat Scandi. Function trumps decoration in a configuration of considerable grace and flow, crowned by what appeared, at first, to be a central rotunda (there are three other such circular openings), but is, in fact, an aperture to part of the (yet-to-operate) second floor. Alongside, parallel, curvy wooden panels suspended from the ceiling not only reveal the concrete overhead, but the inner half of the next level, presumably interesting enough to warrant a peak from below. The design interest for the ceiling contrasts with the plain floor in the way our fashion designers here tend to love details in front of, say, a top. but pay no attention to the back. In all, a visual amalgamation that might encourage influencers to be fulsome in their appreciation.
Even on custom-made racks, the clothes can’t stand out in a sea of sameness
It does, however, appear that compelling interior design alone isn’t quite enough. Shells and settings may recast the humdrum as charming, but shells and settings can’t elevate what is vapid to start with. A showcase of design must showcase design, not merely gather merchandise so that there are things to sell. It is understandable that, given the 9,000-square-feet expanse, filling it with what is worthy is a tough call. But Design Orchard is, foremost, a project conceived to cast a firm eye on ‘design’, rather than ‘orchard’, moniker of a road or reminder of what the area once was. Unfortunately, this is one plantation not quite ripe with pickings.
While no one expects anything akin to a museum shop, the choice of fashion brands shows scant—or dubious—curation. (Regular readers of SOTD know we have little regard for that well bandied term in the practices of retailers and mall owners here.) Design Orchard is “operated” by Naiise, the incubator/mentor/retailer that caught the attention of local shoppers with their pasar malam-style pop-ups, and one of the earliest names to go that route. (TAFF, we’re told, is somewhere there, but their part won’t be revealed till March. No one, as yet, knows for certain what that might really be except that, for now, it’s called The Cocoon Space.) Naiise have, from their founding in 2013, supported local, a selling point that probably helped them win the open tender to run Design Orchard.
In July last year, a report in The New Paper drew readers’ attention to Naiise’s operational peculiarity: “defaulting on payment” to vendors. Prior to the story, there were already whispers in the market that the company had been “inconsistent” with disbursement. TNP reported that, according to founder of Naiise, Dennis Tay, one of the reasons for late payments was due to “slow transition from a start-up to a full-fledged company.” Some brand owners’ retort to that was, “after five years in business (and forays into Kuala Lumpur and a venture in London), they’re still transitioning?”
With hanger appeal less of a requisite in retail these days, Design Orchard, too, paid little attention to how the clothes look on the racks
At a press conference for Design Orchard in the first week of January this year, Mr Tay was overheard telling a persistent enquirer that, “there were some gaps in the company and internal issues.” And that they “started to realise” they can’t still be in transition. “We’re looking at the foundation of the company,” he pressed on. “And what we’re trying to do is ask ourselves how we can be better with each passing day.”
Better, if not the best, is crucial as Naiise is now watched by the project’s owners Enterprise Singapore (once International Enterprise Singapore and SPRING Singapore), Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). It isn’t clear what the business arrangements are with Naiise since Mr Tay would only emphatically say that they’re “just operators”. But it seems that Mr Tay is keen to make Design Orchard a veritable Naiise 2.0. He readily admitted, “Naiise has never been predominantly fashion-focused.” But “we have hired people who have a lot of experience managing fashion retail.”
Yet, even a cursory, first-visit look would single out those brands that challenge the hiring mission, that contradict the ethos and aspirations of Design Orchard: “offering a compelling retail experience”, as stated in a media release, or, according to STB’s Director of Retail and Dining, Ranita Sundra, “to profile the best of Singapore talent under one roof”. Best is, of course, subjective, but there must be a barometer with which best can be truly so.
Some zones of the store look very much like a gift shop, which could be tourist draw
The fashion merchandising approach Naiise adopted is akin to that of The Editor’s Market (a store, like Love, Bonito, much the envy of retailers here). It is understandable. Fashion retail in Singapore is today mainly product over design, speed-to-market over mulling-in-the-studio, follow over lead. For Naiise’s Design Orchard, it is probably strategic too, since this is what every other fashion retail outfit is doing. Designer fashion as we know it—in the golden age of the ’80s or the grown-up years of the ’90s—no longer exists. Clothing stores today, unable to be the omni-channel business required to survive, ape what they see around them that are successful. This could explain why malls are happily welcoming look-alike labels such as Her Velvet Vase and the quickly expanding Fayth, both easily mistaken for anemic brands such as Weekend Sundries, now in Design Orchard.
Despite the more elevated position that Naiise has found itself in with Design Orchard, the opportunity for something close to even “better-designed” was not seized. There is a sense that brands were gathered so that the allotted square footage can be filled rather than to bring together those of design value and with a distinctive voice. One label stood out: Knits, a bland, even confusing, collection by Cammy Wong, that offered not a single article in knit, not even a sliver of a trim. (Hitherto, knits are still clearly absent.) That no one thought to ask Ms Wong why a line called Knits can be so free of knits is beyond the ken of even an average clothier.
It’s been said many times that we have a very small and shallow pool to draw from, particularly in fashion. This is compounded by the lack of a strong and kinetic fashion design community. Sure, fashion these days is no longer as it was, even if looking back seems, ironically, what labels of today do. But, as arbiter of design, Design Orchard needs to set the bar high so that not any label, mediocre or worse, can be considered as exemplars of Singaporean fashion. If Design Orchard was a woman, you would not call her a potent creature.
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After Keepers closed in January 2016, it was announced at the Singapore Fashion Awards of 2017 in November that year by guest-of-honour, Senior Minister of State, Sim Ann, that a purpose-built store, dedicated to Singaporean designs, will be erected in the space Keepers had previously held court. Although by then the revelation was not entirely new, the confirmation delighted many brand owners as this could be the platform fledgling brands need. As one former journalist said, “Why can’t we have a Club 21 (admittedly not the best example) for born-in-SG labels?”
Why can’t we? Of course we can, but the consensus has been that there is a sheer lack of well-merchandised brands and credible designers. The scrapping (again) of Singapore Fashion Award last year bears this out. While budgetary constraints were cited, many knew, too, that the annual award was not sustainable as good, deserving designers are a very rare breed. A Hong Kong-based Singaporean textile specialist commented to SOTD after a visit to Design Orchard, “year after year, we are showing the same things. You can get a known retailer to help you sell, but sadly, it’s the blind leading the blind.”
We don’t know for certain if Keepers, now relocated to the National Design Centre, was ever deemed a roaring success as the project head, Carolyn Kan of the jewellery label Carrie K, has generally kept mum about it. But, they must have made a mark. According to STB’s Chief Executive Lionel Yeo, “Design Orchard builds on the experience gleaned from Keepers”, also an STB-supported project to showcase local designs. A Today report stated that Keepers “was so well-received that the pop-up, which was supposed to be there for five months, ended up staying for 16”. The question on many lips was, why then was Keepers not asked to run Design Orchard?