Retro Brand Comeback Of The Year

Many of its young customers today do not know that Fila is a 108-year-old label. But the heritage may not matter as the Italian brand is trending through whichever social media you’re hooked to. Their flagship store opened in Jewel last month, and it looks like in here, one must stop

 

Fila shopping bag.jpgThe Fila shopping bag proudly displayed by a shopper in a bus

By Emma Ng

I don’t have the habit of looking at people’s chest or feet, but lately these body parts have been looking at me. Not just a casual glance, but a positive glare. I do not, of course, glare back, but I do notice one thing clearly: a four-letter word not found in the English dictionary: Fila.

Since the popularity of logos some years back (six, maybe?), I have seen a proliferation of Swooshes and Three Stripes worn all over, even in the most unlikely places, but it was only this past year that I started noticing the F, I, L, and A, in their thick lines, appearing not quite discreetly, often emblazoned across the chest or stretched across the dorsum of feet. It appears that this once relatively unknown Italian brand—now owned by Koreans and, in China, in a JV with the Chinese—is winning the pockets of shoppers the way bubble tea has robbed them.

The bubble tea analogy, you may have guessed, is deliberate. Both are comebacks with bigger, madder following the second time round. Fila was never as huge as Nike or Adidas, just as bubble teas of the first invasion was not quite the cha version of Starbucks, but some time in the mid-Nineties, when Clueless inspired many of my school friends and the Spice Girls were not yet dethroned, one shoe did find fans among those who had a weakness for white kicks, especially those with “saw-tooth” outsoles. I am not talking about what Sporty Spice wore; she was partial to Nike (oh, the Tailwind is making a comeback, but I prefer her Air Humara). I am recalling the Fila kick of 1996, the Disruptor.

Fila Disruptor 2 2018The sneaker that changed the fortunes of Fila, as seen in last year’s Sole Superior: the Disruptor 2

By now, most of you have heard of the Disruptor 2, or own a pair, maybe more. At the Fila store in ION Orchard last Saturday, I heard a girl of no more than twelve telling her friend of about the same age, “Don’t get the Disruptor—it’s too popular. I already have three!” This pubescent girl’s serious advice is ground level shout-out of the sneaker’s demand and acclaim, and how it can not only define a brand, but revive it. By the end of 2018, the Disruptor was the trainer to have, especially among young girls, many of whom looked unable to walk in what is essentially a hippo of a shoe. At last year’s Sole Superior, Fila’s star performer was expected to be in such high demand that a stall was almost entirely dedicated to it, drawing, unsurprisingly, manic attention.

The second version of the Disruptor’s rapid success took many observers and retailers by delightful surprise. In January, I remember seeing a Thai tourist on the MRT train going to the airport with six pairs in boxes that are neatly tied up in threes—these exclude the two huge suitcases that accompanied him. Sure, the sneaker arrived at the height of the chunky, “dad shoe” craze, but it was not a new silhouette compared with the competition and it had no celebrity endorsement (although Kendall Jenner did wear a pair). Its almost immediate popularity was attributed to its easy availability and a don’t-have-to-think-twice price. The Disruptor 2 was destined for success.

From that one shoe, Fila suddenly became the rage, and the logo, an emblem of sporty cool on everything from T-shirts to bum bags to slides. It is possible that Fila’s popularity received a boost from Gosha Rubchinskiy, who, in 2016, created Fila-branded merchandise that augmented over-branding’s extreme popularity after Demna Gvasalia similarly magnified the re-designed Balenciaga logo. I don’t remember when it was in the past that a logotype of an athletic brand became so well-loved and so applicable on merchandise that other brands soon followed (New Balance and the Japanese label Nanamica had a conceptually-similar offering to Mr Rubchinskiy’s).

The high with the low way of mixing clothes and accessories means Fila can be seen comfortably and proudly with Balenciaga

In fact, even luxury brands want in on the game, never mind that it’s the high-low pairing that’s on trend, not quite the high-high. Last year, Fendi, not just contented with partnering the Disruptor’s creator, even went as far as substituting the F of its logo with the latter’s, and repeat it all over whatever merchandise they can crank out to capture the attention of those fans that were past their love for the double Fs or Bag Bugs eyes, which, six years after their appearance, hasn’t shut, and now looking at you somewhat ominously from the face of watches.

Fila’s pull seems to be in how easily and suitably their merchandise go with products of status (even if that does not really mean much, now that brands such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel have broad, unstoppable appeal). I often see both men and women wearing or totting something that announces itself as Fila, accompanied by those that are not vague about their proprietary name and exorbitant pricing. It’s one conspicuous brand with another, even if they come from different ends of the price divide. The juxtaposition often examplar of today’s random, impulsive, and uncritical consumption, a predilection luxury brands have been fast to exploit.

Athletic brands, such as Fila, have become a status leveler now that even women still buying It bags wear track tops and pants with total nonchalance, with little regard for sense of occasion, just as you and I see on IG, Snapchat, and the like. Sure, this is probably the result of the influence of influencers—so far ineradicable—who set trends more rapidly and effectively than even the most buzzy brands. But Fila has one added advantage: apart from the heat generated by social-media, the brand has the advantage of a generation of consumers who has never savoured the then-emerging casualness of the ’90s, now on-trend with remarkable persistence. Fila is new.

Fila store P1Opened last month, the Fila flagship in Jewel Changi Airport offers both street styles and classic sportswear

The young discovering old brands and, as a consequence, giving them new life is nothing novel, and decidedly a part of the cycle we sometimes forget is fashion. It is very much like trying my first pair of bell-bottom jeans some time last year. My mother was shocked and, without hesitation, told me how hideous they were. “I wore them along time ago, and I had no idea why,” she said, regret thick in her voice. This year, I gave track pants a go—interestingly Fila, and, yes, with the tape down the sides!—but it has nothing to do with the eminent return of Missy Elliot, who, I was told, was the poster girl for tracksuit-as-playsuit back in the day.

It is not hard to see that Fila is presently merchandised to appeal to the young. Its footwear is aligned with fashion trends than sporting needs. Its clothing, too, is pitched at those who don them as a statement of being in the know than as unthinking post-game wear. If the Disruptor 2, brought sharp focus to Fila’s sneaker offerings (especially its flair for the chunky kicks), then its Eagle Logo T-shirt (with a ‘Miss’ version for women), featuring an indiscreet logo with the distinctive initial F, contrast-coloured on the top arm of the font, delivered interest to the increasingly street-leaning clothes, even, as cynics consider them “entry-level”. The fashion line received a major boost when, in September last year, they staged a catwalk presentation during Milan Fashion Week. Three months later, it was announced that Phillip Lim and the brand would collaborate on what the media described as “elevated, sport-inspired garments”.

Regardless, Fila seems to attract those who still depend on their parents for pocket money and, as I have noticed, the newly-in-love who like wearing identical clothes and footwear. While stores such as the Foot Locker and JD Sports carry the brand, it is their free-standing boutiques—now numbering three here—that are a major pull. And it is the flagship store in the sports-shops-too-many Jewel Changi Airport that is poised to take on the big boys, even if Fila is a small player, compared to rivals Nike and Adidas.

Fila store P2The right-half of the Fila flagship at Jewel Changi Airport, featuring the more ‘heritage’ lines

The flagship is a lineal, 2,730 square feet expanse that’s split into two halves, unlike Nike’s duplex eye-catcher. On the left, it houses the ‘Fusion’ collections and on the right, the ‘Heritage’ and more classic lines, such as White. On a Friday morning that I was there, I overheard a customer, standing on the more atmospheric ‘Fusion’ part, asking a sales staff, “What’s the difference between that side and this side?” She happily replied, pointing to where the enquirer stood, “This side is for more hip-hop, one.” Just as I was wondering if I was in the right half of the store, she added, “this side we also have Japan collection and Taiwan collection”. The regional offerings were instantly transmitting their pull.

As it turned out, the helpful staff was not wrong. I felt I was in EXO’s costume wardrobe. Not that that’s a bad thing: both men’s and women’s lines look somewhat the same—silhouettes too, which perhaps underscored the unisex appeal of sports-oriented clothes designed for the pavement, rather than courts or tracks. Some of them fall under what Fila calls the Urban Function Series, a name with an OG ring to it. What stood out was how roomy everything appeared, which, I guessed, explained the hip-hop link. The collection associated with Japan had the aesthetical strength of what you might find in Japanese stores such as Beams (the proportion of the T-shirts, for example, was alluringly less conventional: boxy, dropped shoulders), while the one from Taiwan appeared to be what might be worn by participants to local television game shows.

I caught sight of Phillip Lim’s “sports-inspired” fashion—two racks of them. The designs, currently the third drop, may be “elevated”, but the subtly retro vibe could still be discerned, including repeated patterns on garments and bags that are in keeping with graphics of a certain vintage. And just as attractive: you don’t need a bank loan to score something that neither canted towards the too sporty or the too retro. In this collaboration, they have, as a certain DM song goes, got the balance right.

Fila flagship store is on level 2, Jewel Changi Airport, Photos by Galerie Gombak and Zhao Xiangji

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