So These Are Singaporean Designs

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?

 

DO P1The 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.

DO P2Despite 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.

DO P3Even 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?”

DO P4With 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.

DO P5Some 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.

DO P6Going beyond fashion, operator Naisse still proves they’re stronger with non-garment products

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? 

DO P7The relatively large categories include children’s wear

Promoting and selling the designs of Singaporeans by bringing together brands and creators under one roof is, of course, not new. Ex-editor of Elle Singapore and former The Straits Times journalist Sharon Lim—returning to the daily as a columnist—noted in Life that there had been other attempts: the aforementioned Hemispheres (1985—1987) and Parco Next Next (2010—2014), the first incubator project in Singapore, interestingly managed by a Japanese company. 

To the two, we would like to add Style Singapore (1991—1994), set up by garment producer and retailer Heshe; Keepers (2011—present), as mentioned; Workshop Element (2012—present) in various locations, conceived by Mu (now bsym) and AWOL designer Alfie Leong; Superspace (2014—present) in Orchard Gateway, started by clubbing impresarios Ritz Lim and Bobby Luo, and dedicated to street style and club wear; and Zhuang (2016—present), a TAFF project that began life in Tangs and then tried to grow up in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, but was somehow stunted. There were also incompletely-local projects such as SA.GA (1992—1993) in the now-demolished Park Mall and Mporium in Suntec City (2015—2016), the latter with tall ambitions that, sadly, came up short.

These past and on-going enterprises have largely been private-sector initiatives. Design Orchard is not quite, since it is supported by three government agencies. If it is seen as a big G-linked project, Naiise running it may risk being thought of as status-quo-pandering. Design Orchard, as it stands, seem to indicate that newness and innovation may not be priorities. Notably, it may not look like Naiise, but it feels like Naiise. Sure, they have added interactive elements, such as mirrors that double as communication panels and touch-screen-topped stations for exploring the offerings of the store, but both are feeble and un-alluring attempts at engaging the smartphone-totting shopper. Experiential, as STB’s Ms Sundra was hoping for, it isn’t. Nor is there a sense of discovery, today even more crucial in a physical store. As a retail format, Design Orchard won’t be disruptive, not to Orchard Road businesses and certainly not to the retail industry.

DO P8Top: masking tape for prices

It is often said that retail is in the details. Surprising and disconcerting it, therefore, was for us when we saw what was really a slip-shod approach to the minutiae of the craft of selling. On the day it opened, Naiise allowed hang tags with prices crudely written by hand on masking tape that clearly wasn’t cut with scissors to dangle with appalling explicitness. Were we in an Ang Mo Kio Central expo? Someone remarked that in rushing to open, it was possible that the staff of Naiise did not have time to properly price-tag the merchandise (brand owners could be roped in to do that). There’s also the other saying in the business, if you are not ready to open, don’t.

Perhaps the ticket on the item is not important since you won’t be wearing it or using it when the purchase is made. What about the merchandise themselves? Naiise perhaps showed that their operational finesse could be commensurate with the founder’s admission: “Naiise has never been predominantly fashion-focused” when there is no regard to how the clothes—in particular—look on both hangers and mannequins. Facing the main entrance, and catching the eyes of first-time visitors on that opening day (and weeks later) were dummies in ill-fitted clothes and those that begged to be pressed. While it is possible that an iron or a steamer was yet acquired for the store, it is also possible no one on staff really cared. The two windows along Orchard Road, too, showed off clothes that could have benefitted from the pressure of a hot iron, but was left untouched for weeks.

First impression counts. But it seems that Design Orchard wasn’t counting on first impressions. Although they have yet to enjoy the giddy buzz usually associated with openings, soft or not (look at Love, Bonito’s), they did not seem to take the lull as an opportunity to fine-tune. The visibility of operational failings is not only shocking but disturbing. It is difficult to understand that given the store’s proximity to other fashion (as well as furniture, and general merchandise) retailers in the vicinity, it did not occur to them to see how it is done elsewhere. One designer who, too, visited Design Orchard that Friday said to SOTD, “It’s okay if you don’t know. You can always look at what others are doing. If Uniqlo is better than you, a design showcase, then something is not quite right.” He added, “Likewise for the young designers here: if you don’t know how it is done—finishing especially—go and see how other brands do it.”

DO P9Top: if it looks this way on the mannequin, how will it look on a real body? Bottom: could the unpressed impress?

We were reminded—when we spoke to industry veterans about their thoughts on Design Orchard—that, with the possible exception of Gin Lee, there are no real “designer labels” there. Yet, Naiise is keen to promote the names behind the brands, identifying them in the puffery that appears above each rack. From National Day-fave Phuay Li Ying of Ying the Label to publicity-eager newbie Elvynd Soh of Qlothè, all of them, it seems, want to be taken seriously as designers, and are eager to front labels that are not better than the unheard-ofs in Nex Serangoon. Repeated visits to Design Orchard affirm the grassroots vibe of the selections. This is more apparent when at least two—Martha Who and David’s Daughter—saw it fit to describe their brands as “luxury resort fashion/wear”. One shopper was heard asking her friend, “What are they doing here then?”

It is highly likely that Design Orchard is positioned to appeal to a generation weaned on the superficial, one partial to lolspeak, a group into looks and is unconcerned—we are repeatedly reminded—with flat seams and straight hems, details that once stood for fine dressmaking. Or, “not the serious fashion consumer”, as one merchandiser told SOTD. And, to tourists who are gift-seeking rather than fashion-acquiring, who know there are better buys and designs in, say, Bangkok, a city on the brink of taking over us in the shoppers’ paradise stakes.

If so, perhaps there should be less of a lofty ideal in making the store what it can’t yet be. Design Orchard could perhaps play down the ‘design’ aspect of the set-up. Or, review the brand offerings so that they better reflect the mission the company hopes to pursue. In an ST article in 2017, the plea for Orchard Road was, “change the shops, not the street”. In the case of Design Orchard, we say, change the brands, not the shop.

Design Orchard, 250 Orchard Road. www.designorchard.sg. Photos: Galerie Gombak

 

6 thoughts on “So These Are Singaporean Designs

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