Not The Finest Cut

Yet, as of now, Jewel is dazzling the masses—massively


Control towere in the rear OPOnce synonymous with Changi Airport, the control tower (in the rear) is now upstaged by Jewel and its rain vortex

Two weeks after the media introduction, eight days after the opening to the public, and three visits amid the crazy crowd after, we are still unsure if Jewel is a passenger terminal mall spilled out of the airport; a suburban shopping centre adjoined to T1, T2, and T3 like a sparkling pendant to a dulled chain; a giant, multi-storey fancy food court feeding the perpetually hungry; Gardens by the Bay II with lower-cost foliage; a rain-vortex geek’s wet dream, or a striking set for the next Jurassic Park film. Even the Oracle Garden Pavilion at the Stark Expo!

Don’t get us wrong. Jewel is a fine example of extraordinary building design, probably up there in the top-ten works of its expensive, headlining architect Moshe Safdie, alongside his equally curvilinear Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City in the US. Jewel is stunning outside in, inside out, top bottom, bottom top. Approaching the engineering marvel via Airport Boulevard, you can see how it lives up to its name, making the surrounding terminals looking like they were built by the HDB. As you come near it, even a quarter of a dozen times later, you sense you are venturing into the deeply spectacular.

HSBC Rain Vortex OPThe rain vortex that most visitors to Jewel come to see

That feeling, however, rather quickly dissipates when you walk in. Our first encounter with Changi Airport’s new engorged protuberance was, in fact, at the beginning of April when we had returned from a trip and had landed at T1. As we left the baggage carousel, we could see just ahead, beyond the palm trees in the foreground, that the gleaming gem of a mall with horticultural exuberance was ready to open. The must-see and, by now, probably the most-Instagrammed indoor waterfall was audible, beguiling and emphatic enough, but something else made us think we would not be here for the shopping: Kate Spade and Coach.

Even clearly not opened, they stared at us like a couple of menshen (door gods) deterring intruders. There is, of course, nothing wrong with having American ‘masstige’ brands in a mall, but it did make us suspect that Jewel isn’t going to be the sparkler of a retail destination the way the five-months-old Iconsiam in Bangkok is, for example. Singaporean shopping centres are not known for their leasing flair, specifically their desire for the unexpected or the truly new, and Jewel is no exception. It’s predictable, it’s cautious and unenterprising—it smacks of a suburban mall with The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (interestingly, another Safdie building, also with a water feature) pretension.

Kate Spade & Coach OPA pair of American brands passively welcome those arriving at Terminal 1 to Jewel

Fashion retail in Singapore, we have repeatedly been told, is difficult. It’s not just the selling of clothes, but more specifically the selling of fashion—a category that covers what most Singaporeans do not really buythat seems to be met with hurdles. A ‘cool’ T-shirt and a couple more do not fashion make. Yet, that is what most retailers prefer to sell. Jewel, despite its fashion-y and ‘cool’ (not hipster) projection, houses mostly brands that are associated with clothing easily deemed casual. That it is unable to be a magnet to attract real fashion names is understandable. Even Design Orchard, the conceived-as-bastion of Singaporean designs, has an inventory that cannot appeal to cultivated tastes.

On the afternoon of the first Saturday after it opened (admittedly a bad day to visit), we overheard no less than five visitors expressing disappointment at Jewel’s retail offering, with one woman—clearly annoyed—loudly asking her companion, “We came all the way here for Uniqlo?” To be sure that these people, among heartlanders looking through heartlander eyes, were not exaggerating, we surveyed every shop that is not selling food, on all seven leasable floors of the ten of this 135,700-square-metre behemoth.

Muji duplex OPMuji’s duplex store that is less impressive than the Plaza Singapura flagshipTokyu Hands duplex OPOne of the cheeriest at Jewel: the Tokyu Hands duplex store 

Unsurprisingly, the retail jumble is classic Capitaland, specifically CapitalMallAsia, Jewel’s co-developer. This could have been Tampines Mall transplanted into a puffed-up, precipitation-in-the-middle doughnut of glass and steel-plus-aluminum. We’re not, except perhaps tourists, asking for LVMH brands to be here (actually, not even Sephora has taken up space), but there is little that can seduce the fashion consumer, only, perhaps, the undemanding. Some of the brands, such as Muji and The Footlocker take up duplex units, but that does not necessarily equate to twice the fun or double the desirable merchandise.

This is regrettably Jewel’s one setback: retail plays second fiddle to the “Insta-worthy” (as the mall’s own marketing material describes it)—literally—central attraction. Everyone we spoke to, across three mornings we were there, came for the 40-metre tall (or long? The ceiling of the recently burnt Notre Dame de Paris is, in comparison, only 30-metres high) never-dry funnel flow, funded by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, hence the HSBC Rain Vortex (even the encircling terraced garden is sponsored—by Japanese cosmetic giant Shiseido, which resulted in the Shiseido Forest Valley that, frankly, sounds like a makeup collection for fall). That’s where visitors first make the beeline for, the watery pull so strong that it drags you to its downward rush like the water sucked to the unseen bottom. One tourist from Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, who had asked us to take a photo of her against “the most beautiful namtok (waterfall) in the world”, told us that the shops “in Bangkok are now better” and that shopping isn’t a priority for her here unless she sees something she “can’t find back home”.

It is arguable then that, without the rain vortex, Jewel is, as one airport staff said to us, “just another mall”. Or, Sentosa without the casino, Mandai without the zoo. When the rush of seeing the main attraction fades, one needs the rest of the complex for a modicum of anticipation in order that interest in its content can be generated and, consequently, prolonged. For us, this is not so. To be sure, there are those who need only a cup of coffee to be contented—and there are enough coffee places to even satisfy those who know their kona from their luwak—but there are those who do come, expecting to shop, to put Apple Pay to good use. The rain vortex, opaque as it is, blinkers many visitors from so much that really borders on the blah.

Foot Locker duplex OPAlthough Foot Locker has a store in Tampines Mall, just 5 km away, they are still keen on a duplex in Jewel

Out of 280 shops or stalls (excluding the cineplex, the hotel Yotelair, and “general services” such as banking) already opened or soon to, only 85 (minus children’s and maternity wear) deal with apparel, footwear, and accessories. That is just 30 percent of the total number of tenants. Food outlets comprise 140 units, making it the largest category at 50 percent. If you look at just clothing (excluding undergarments), which would have to include sports labels since brands such as hot-again Fila and cool-yet-not-quite Kappa consider themselves fashion apparel brands and take up large and highly visible stores, only 37 are apparel-strong. Of these close-to-three dozens, it is debatable which is truly a marquee name.

In the booklet guide to the mall, visitors are told that, among the “10 Things to Do in Jewel”, you can “Shop at the ‘World’s Marketplace’. From international marques to local labels, you’ll find the unusual, the novel, and the popular in this one-of-a-kind urban marketplace”. In that one paragraph of their contrived listicle, we could see what Jewel is or isn’t. They may have hit the “marque”, but we sure did not see a single automobile for sale. To us, “world” is Capitaland speak that in marketing parlance is mere puffery, but perhaps in keeping with Changi Airport’s world-class standing, Jewel has to be a “world’s marketplace” and an “urban” one too, in case there are tourists who think we are still an island of kampongs. “Unusual” could be the two-and-half-hour queue (“at least”, according to those who have braved it) at A&W, but then again, in Singapore, getting in line for food is not that unusual. “Novel” could mean dining next to the rain vortex even if this is not that novel since a similar idea is seen at Suntec City around its Fountain of Wealth. “Popular” appears to be the only apt description: the place is conceived to please the throng.

Oysho OPOne of the two new ‘fashion’ labels at Jewel: Oysho from SpainMotherhouse OPJapanese bag and accessory label Motherhouse debuts in Singapore at Jewel

Jewel also touts the “many firsts-in-Singapore”—24 of them new-to-market names, of which only two are ‘fashion’ brands, the Inditex-owned Spanish label Oysho, a seller of mainly lingerie and lounge wear (which debuted in Southeast Asia in Jakarta in 2016), and the motherly Motherhouse, 13-year-old, Japanese-owned vendor of Bangladeshi-made bags. Mall operators of considerable experience would know that there are good firsts and why-bother firsts, and, between them, better-to-have-them-than-leave-the-space-empty firsts. We met an “experience concierge”, one of a large detail that Jewel avails throughout the space who “helps visitors find their way around” and also to tell them to have “a sparkling time”. We asked her if there is one store among the firsts that we must not leave without visiting and she said somewhat apologetically, “I have not seen all the shops here.”

That only two new fashion brands are willing to open in a potentially successful retail destination with global exposure could be indication that market penetration is—or perceived to be—low. With major labels already in the three terminal buildings in Jewel’s immediate vicinity, such as Louis Vuitton, with their unmissable duplex store in T3, there is perhaps less incentive to venture beyond the departure and transit zone of the airport. Or, could it be because fashion retailers are not able to decide if Jewel caters to departing/transit passengers or the Singaporeans who come to see something new, but would soon tire of it the way they have with, for instance, another mall whose name is also inspired by precious stones: Jem? So dismally lean is the list of fashion names that even Changi Airport’s own blog-like website Now Boarding recommends only three labels under the fashion crosshead of the “shopping highlights” of Jewel.

Jewel mall OPThe bland interior of Jewel

Another anticlimax: after the eye-opening sight that is the rain vortex, the design details of the mall is on the side of humdrum. Many parts not close to the column of rain could really be anywhere in, say, ION Orchard—just shop after shop after shop, between which no distinctive feature that can be considered decorative or senses-arousing. Walls are just walls, ceilings are just ceilings, pillars are just pillars: they are as dressed up as the average Singaporean visiting, well, a mall. Some perimeter areas are decorated with plants to go with the indoor garden theme, but beyond that, you’d be hard pressed to find anything visually engaging.

This is compounded by the lack of effort on the part of brands when it comes to how they design their shopfronts to grab the visitors’ propensity to spend. In fact, many don’t—not compellingly, not in a way that encourages shoppers to stop in their tracks to ponder what is before them. The way we see it, brands in Jewel have taken the concept of “marketplace” quite faithfully. Many have not only dispensed with an entrancing facade, they have done away with window displays. It is probable that the thinking is, when dealing with the hordes, brand recognition is enough to draw the people in.

Nike store @ Jewel OPThe best storefront in the whole Jewel?

There are a couple of exceptions. The SUTL Group-operated Nike store here has the simplest facade, but one so strikingly spare, you are inclined to go beyond its entrance—identified only by a Swoosh and the subtly designed catchphrase Just Do It—to uncover the store’s merchandise, reportedly “the most extensive in Singapore”, as well as a custom service that Life, in a cover story two weeks earlier, mistakenly reported to include “personalised shoes”. It offers only limited customisation for T-shirts and dubraes (decorative lace locks). This is not Nike’s most exciting outlet, even if it’s touted as Southeast Asia’s largest, not quite like the Harajuku flagship in Tokyo, nor is it the most unique, such as the Kicks Lab concept store, which debuted in SEA in Bangkok last November. But on our island, this is their best yet.

One Singaporean store that has remained true to its aesthetic strength, and is unconcerned with what others are doing to lure shoppers is In Good Company (IGC). Their third free-standing store now, IGC here is—not incorrectly described by parent company Produce—“a moment of calm within Jewel”. What a welcome calm too. Those who have experienced the crowd and the massiveness of the complex will appreciate the space that IGC has created—so restful that it echoes the seductively quiet designs of the clothes. IGC continues to prove that not only do they not need to go the blogshop-turn-physical-store route typical of local fashion retail, they are able to hold their own with a distinctive, ‘open’ store that can hushedly tug at our heartstrings and, consequently, our purses.

In Good Company OPLocal fashion label In Good Company’s inviting ‘open’ front

At Jewel, the Rain Vortex is going to be the first stop for most visitors, even the would-be regulars. Once that obligation is fulfilled, sightseers-turn-shoppers may find, as we did, the shopping experience that the complex had indicated lacking. Jewel has, in the lead up to its opening (and the preceding three days of by-ticket-only previews) projected itself to be a destination of immense distinction, unique by every standard so far accorded to airports of the world, and breathtaking, but it is not quite the mall for the fashion cognoscenti, except for those, including the deciders in leasing, who think fashion is Calvin Klein Jeans—now as exciting as Gap.

Without counting, it is obvious that Jewel is overwhelmingly more food stops than fashion shops. No matter where you turn, eateries won’t let up. And the lines at some of the makan places are so amazing (or ridiculous, depending on who’s asked: the eager-to-queue or the can’t-be-bothered) that it is clear curiosity rather than hunger waiting to be satisfied. At Shake Shack, a twenty-something chap told us he started queuing at 7.30am (two and half hours before the shop opens), not for sustenance, but to be first in line. Does he think it would be worth the wait? “If it’s good, then it would be,” he said smugly, adding, “Anyway, it’s fun.”

The only line seen outside a non-food shop is at the Pokémon Centre (the first outside Japan), where a twelve-year-old, who had queued for 40 minutes with his equally-a-fan father, said he did so because he was told “it’s fun inside.” That word again. Fun, it would seem, is what most had come for. The fun element was further affirmed by a mainland Chinese tourist from Guizhou, who delightfully volunteered to us, “在这里, 迷路也好玩!” In here, even losing your way is fun.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji and Chin Boh Kay

One thought on “Not The Finest Cut

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