Obituary | Tan Beng Yan, the fashion retail doyenne behind Tyan Fashions was a private individual who had more of a doting mother’s instinct than a clothing retailer’s ambition
Tan Beng Yan at a Vivienne Tam in-store show in 2013. Photo: Tyan
Among the women fashion retailers of multi-labels that emerged in the mid-Eighties (or earlier), Tan Beng Yan was probably the quietest and least-known. Yet, she was less mysterious than Club 21’s Christina Ong. Those who knew her referred to her vivacious and sociable nature, yet she was not as press-savvy/ready as Man and his Woman’s (now defunct) Judith Chung, a former journalist with The Straits Times. She was known to have kept the company of some of her well-heeled customers, yet she did not share the glamourous standing of The Link’s (also defunct) Tina Tan (not related), now the founder of Privato. The owner of Tyan was, by most account, a down–to–earth entrepreneur—“one of the nicest people in fashion,” a former magazine editor told SOTD. “Motherly, too.”
Mrs Tan, 70, passed away this past Tuesday, shortly after a family trip to Japan. The news shocked many customers, as well as industry friends and former colleagues, with many saying they had not known she was so seriously ill. It was reported that she succumbed to leukemia, but few knew of or talked about her declining health. She had, according to those who knew her, remained her upbeat/jovial self. Family members told friends at the wake that she had been responding well to treatment. A magazine editor who had been friends with Mrs Tan since the ’80s, and who knew she was unwell said, “She didn’t want others to be overtly concerned… and she was a fighter.”
It is possible, too, that Mrs Tan valued her privacy; she was known to shield her personal life from needless attention. She hardly talked about her children (except, in recent years, that her second daughter Gayle is “helping” her) or made references to her connection to the Tan Chong Group (her husband Tan Eng Soon is chairman of listed motor firm Tan Chong International and their son Glenn Tan is the company MD). When once asked if she could be interviewed for a magazine article, she told the editor, “I’m not that interesting”. And gleefully changed the subject, “let’s go eat”. Mrs Tan was as known for her “zest for life”—her editor-friend was quick to point out—as her love for food.
A spacious and plush Tyan store. Photo: Tyan
Tyan opened in 1986, fourteen years after Club 21 (which was set up in 1971 as a man’s tailor shop before transforming into a multi-label store a year later) and Man and his Woman, and four years after The Link (which was a 2.0 of Link, originally conceived in 1973 by Chan Kheng Lin—now Farah Khan, founder of the Melium Group and the emporium Aseana, as well as her eponymous label). The ’80s was considered the heydays of the multi-designer-label store. Singaporeans were able to shop for their favourite European labels among other European labels during a time of burgeoning ready-to-wear. And a few enterprising women were quick to react to the opportunities such a retail concept provided in what was initially our island’s rather barren retail landscape.
While most stores competed with each other to score the most happening labels of the time, Tyan was working with those that had what one buyer called “practical appeal”. A former fashion editor told us that the store offered “stylish but not overtly trendy” clothes. “It’s a multi-label store that offers a variety of styles at affordable price range,” he added. “Tyan stood the test of time, as retail goes bonkers—up and down”. This is achieved through a balanced mix of accessible names such as Betty Barclay and Paula Ke and edgier ones such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood, and clearly commercial brands such as Japanese bag label Samantha Thavasa.
Mrs Tan’s background in fashion goes back to her time at Hagemeyer Trading, the once Dutch-owned, Singapore-based company founded in Surabaya in 1904 that distributed brands such as Christian Dior (yes, it was known by its full name!). She was, in fact, CD’s (and, yes, it went by that abbreviation too) boutique manager from 1979 to 1986. Prior to Tyan, she started her own fashion label Saturday’s Child (based on the “Carnaby Street look”, she once told a journalist), conceived with her Hagemeyer colleague, CD brand manager Alice Fu, who would later be Tang’s first head buyer for women’s wear between 1982 to 1996. Having run her own label, Mrs Tan understood the difficulties of creating and selling local, and was willing to support the fledgling, such as jewellery designer Marilyn Tan’s early collections in the ’90s.
Despite the vagaries of fashion and the retailing of it, one constant remained: Mrs Tan was committed to helping others. Although she hardly talked about her philanthropic work, she was known as a tireless fundraiser. From 2009 to 2015, she was a member of the board of directors of the Singapore Heart Foundation (SHF) and the chairperson of its fundraising committee. In a Facebook post, SHF wrote, “We remember Mrs Tan as a cheerful and driven woman, who was not only committed in raising funds for SHF, but also did it with great finesse.” It was the same finesse that Tan Beng Yan brought to fashion retail on our island, and secured Tyan’s admirable longevity.