Design Orchard: One Year After

Eighteen months after opening, Design Orchard does not appear to have budged beyond the lacklustre of its early months

 

Design Orchard June 2020

In an article in The Straits Times last month about the future of Singapore fashion in the wake of the pandemic, multi-hyphenate Dick Lee was quoted saying, “I went into Design Orchard and it’s shocking, the standard of clothing stocked there. Things are so basic and there’s no nice fabrication or nice finishing.” That remark was subsequently much discussed on social media. The words of Mr Lee—a trained designer, once with his own labels, and was an impresario of young fashion designers, and still an ardent supporter of Home talents—must mean something. That the founder of our island’s first multi-label store for homegrown labels, Hemispheres, could be shocked by what he saw must have been discouraging to the project’s owners, the triumvirate of Enterprise Singapore, Singapore Tourism Board, and Jurong Town Corporation.

Design Orchard opened at the end of January in 2019 in a building purpose-built to be home to Singaporean design talents—not necessarily just fashion. If you could whip up a nice curry paste, you could sell it there too. But clothing does take up a substantial real estate in the store. They comprise labels that, unless you are an ardent follower of local fashion, would draw a blank among even the most regular fashion shopper. It is not known how well the brands are doing or whether Design Orchard is indeed a showcase for designers to reach a larger audience, but according to another ST report at the end of January, “more than 40 of the 60 labels stocked at Design Orchard have chosen to sign new contracts and stay on for another year.” With such encouraging contract-renewal figures of 67 percent, could Mr Lee be mistaken?

It was all quiet during our visit on the second weekend of Phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker. Not a single shopper was in sight. The clothes, as in our previous encounters, did not speak to us. They looked ignored, unappreciated, and in need of a home or a body of a willing wearer. We were not deterred from physical contact with them. In the present climate, when even touching our own faces is understandably discouraged, the tactile connect was strangely assuring, even if we only gave a few of the pieces a light tap (we were conscious to act responsibly). And it was through touch that we could feel, not just see, for ourselves what Mr Lee meant by “no nice fabrics”.

Design Orchard June 2020 P2

The lack of good fabrication is just one part of Design Orchard’s feeble merchandising, regrettably evident from the first day of its operations. As a store purported to highlight “design”, it is design that have not been in stock. It, therefore, has not become a pull for those who want to uncover design, to support the creators and cheer them on. Design Orchard seems to lure mostly clothes that would not be out of place in an equatorial beach resort. It reminds us of the doomed Aseana, the Malaysian multi-label store conceived by Singapore-born, Kuala Lumpur-based Dato’ Farah Khan (aka Chan Keng Lin), that opened in Millenia Walk in 2002 and closed two years later. It is also evocative of—for those who can still remember—the 1997 Fashion Connection theme, Asiatropics. Despite a confident start, the concept never took off. One fashion marketer we spoke to conceded that Design Orchard “still needs to iron the creases”.

To some observers, Design Orchard’s prospects were hampered by Naiise, the retailer picked to run the operations of the store and, as we understood last year, the merchandising of the products too. This was a surprising choice, as many had thought, since Naiise—even with multiple stores of their own opened at that time—was not exactly operating a paragon of retail and merchandising panache. During the media walk-through, it was mentioned among the attendees that Naiise had even employed a buyer from Robinsons to oversee the merchandise mix. If that was the case, could it be possible that, as one designer said to us, “Naiise made a bad hire?”

When news broke even before Design Orchard opened that Naiise was appointed as the store’s operator, chatter was rife that the company had been tardy in their payments to brand owners. Founder Dennis Tay admitted to “some gaps in the company and internal issues”. He also said that “we’re looking at the foundation of the company. And what we’re trying to do is ask ourselves how we can be better with each passing day.” In January, when COVID-19 was a mere outbreak, The Business Times reported that “years of repeated late payments have led to several brands removing some or all of their products from… Naiise’s shelves.” Are the gaps still gaping and is the company still looking at its foundation?

Design Orchard June 2020 P3

It was also reported in ST that those “more than 40 of the 60 labels” that renewed their contract with Design Orchard gave the store “thumbs up despite management Naiise’s troubles”. Apparently, “they have not encountered payment delays”. The promptness of payment could be due to the fact that government agencies are behind Design Orchard’s existence. Brands supplying to the Naiise stores do not have that advantage. It is also suggested that the individual brand’s sales in Design Orchard are not significant enough to result in payment being held up.

Naiise is not known to release sales figures or the ranking of brands. Designers supplying to Design Orchard tend to be reticent when it comes to talking about sales performance (“okay” can’t be considered revealing). It is possible that attractive consignment deals have been struck between the retailer and brand owners to retain the latter. It isn’t clear how Naiise picks the brands for Design Orchard. It As reported in the press, STB conducted a round of selection last year. Naiise has not elucidated the tourism board’s involvement, but this may explain why some shoppers thought that Design Orchard looks like a tourist gift shop. We do not know what the selection criteria is, but it would push us to lying if we say we found what STB’s Director of Retail and Dining, Ranita Sundra, considered at the time of Design Orchard’s impending opening to be “the best of Singapore talent under one roof”. Or, according to their website “Singapore’s most beloved brands, lauded designers and talented newcomers”.

At Design Orchard last Christmas season, one tourist was heard asking her companion, believed to be local, “are these famous brands?” A curt “don’t know” was the reply. The obscurity of many of the brands might have been inconsequential if the designs indeed reflected talent, hitherto still elusive. But whether Naiise was able to suss out talent is also unknown. It is generally believed that anyone interested can have their products displayed for sale. We are sure some vetting would have been in place, but how stringent it is, can’t be said. The result is a jumble of names with assorted, yet same-same looks that ultimately appear to cater to those who really don’t care if they wear the output of talents.

Design Orchard June 2020 P4

Talent, like creativity, is used rather loosely these days. A person who dabbles in water colour and likes clothes and, subsequently makes them is considered talented. We concede that talent in the digital era cannot resist redefinition. A talented designer in the 1920s needed to be able to draft and cut, a talented designer in 2020 needs no such skills. Regardless, talent in designing is as much required as talent in handling fabrics and in finishing garments to yield a certain polish. One common regret for the past 40 years is that we do not have the manufacturing base with which to nurture designers with the understanding of off-studio garment production. Is it possible that the labels in Design Orchard are beset with “production woes” as those cited in the ST article in which Dick Lee and other designers—some practising, some not—were quoted?

Throughout much of the ’80s—often lauded as the “golden age of Singaporean fashion”—that gave conscious recognition to an emerging fashion design scene, a recurrent problem was manufacturing, though not from the lack of it. Textile companies and factories producing clothes were significantly large enough in numbers that there was a Textile and Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Singapore (TGMAS, 1981—1996), the precursor to TaFF. It was reported by ST that in 1982, a year after TGMAS was formed, “the clothing industry was the second largest industrial employer. Its 31,000 employees accounted for 11.14 percent of the country’s manufacturing workforce”. Just two years earlier, the Economic Development Board (EDB) was “pushing for the top-end market”, according to another ST report. But that mission soon trailed off, and not one spoke about the manufacture of clothing as a possible pillar of our economy.

In one article in ST in 1987, the then president of the now-defunct SODA (Society of Designing Arts) Alan Koh was quoted saying that something needed to be done for young designers to “take away the burden of their lack of a manufacturing base”. By then local garment manufacturing was becoming a dwindling possibility for designers. According to a 1983 report in The Business Times on garment manufacturers moving their operations to Indonesia, “the cost of production in Singapore has gone up by 20 percent. Some factories also have difficulty recruiting enough manpower, and the cost of production is relatively cheaper in Indonesia.”

Design Orchard June 2020 P5

In the ’90s, inadequate manufacturing support, again, was reported to be the bane of designers. There were still factories, but most of the larger ones had started moving their production facilities off-shore, namely to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. If in the decade before, when manufacturers still had factories on our island, and designers still had a hard time seeking resources to produce their clothes, it was just as tough now to find those who could be their production backbone. Dick Lee is well acquainted with the problem. As a young designer, production snags were as real as design issues. Mr Lee, whose retail quantities were not large enough, was often at the mercy of tailoring services, such as Stitch By Stitch at Orchard Towers, to get his collection, well, stitched up.

As dire as the lack of production sounded, many designers were able to soldier on. One independent name who practised through the ’90s remembers this decade to be “tiring (but fun)” as he had to use up to five factories at any one time—“I could not depend on one,” he said. “Some factories were better in wovens than knits, and vice versa. And other designers were using them too. So there was a queue system. Depending on just one factory was really not feasible.” He recalled too that it was mostly small-time designers who were doing the running around, “it makes you more resourceful and creative.” Back than, established names such as Bobby Chng, David Wang, Celia Loe, and Esther Tay (who launched a comeback label last year), and even Thomas Wee had their own factories (the sizes varied).

A name that was very much associated with garment production in the ’90s is CMT (cut, make, trim) pioneer Tan Boon Lan (known in the industry as Wen Lan), whose son Patrick Chia is the highly-regarded industrial designer behind the National University of Singapore’s Design Incubation Centre. Ms Tan started in the mid-’70s, operating out of her flat in Toa Payoh. The cottage operation soon upgraded to a HDB shop in Circuit Road, Macpherson, with a crew that mainly comprised of housewives. It was known as Monray Fashions, but few remember that. Designers went to her because she was amicable, flexible, and fast in equal measure. She was willing to take small orders, too, sometimes as little as 24 pieces. When she eventually set up a more professional outfit in Kallang Pudding Road in the ’90s, many young designers of the day went to her as she was one of the few who had machines to handle both wovens and knits. Ms Tan is now retired.

Design Orchard June 2020 P6

Throughout the ’90s, modest and informal production facilities like Ms Tan’s emerged to support fledgling, resource-starved designers who had no confidence to approach large garment factories, or a tech pack to go to them with. Quite a few were run by ex-staff of the backrooms of retailers such as Chomel (once a clothier) and Esprit (now closed); most were, interestingly, concentrated in the area of Paya Lebar, before it’s the commercial hub that it is today. The availability of these small-scale services meant that many designers were able to produce sufficient numbers to supply to department stores, such as the long-closed Tangs Studio, as well as indie retailers, such as those in the old Heeren, where the music store HMV was the anchor tenant.

When we arrived in the 2000s, nearly all fashion designers with their own factories have given them up to be freed of financial and operational burden. Most of the big manufacturers of the ’80s had moved their factories abroad or diversified. One of the largest, Wing Tai Garments, is no longer in manufacturing. Its parent company Wing Tai Holdings is now a property developer, and fashion retailer. Others such as Sing Lun (now Group), whose third-gen CEO Mark Lee is the former president of TaFF, has diversified into equity funds and real estate, even when they still own 13 factories across the region. Mido Textile, whose retail store China Silk House (now defunct) was named in 1987 Singapore Tourist Promotion Boards’ Store of the Year, has investments in China and diversified into real estate and travel. Foreign direct investments into China was, in fact, prevalent as business and labour costs and rising Singapore dollar were often said to be insurmountable. In the ’70s and ’80s, we were attracting FDIs (especially in electronics and technology), but by the ’90s, local garment firms were directing investments overseas.

These large FDIs outward may have led to the impression that Singaporean garment manufacturers were hungry for a larger market and more amenable to big brands such as the Gap, Nike, and Adidas than local labels. One merchandising executive who worked in a buying house here once said to us, “when these factories received an order from these brands, the numbers were huge. Each time the Gap ordered for one item, even just a white T-shirt, it was worth hundreds of thousands. USD!” Many young designers broke out in such a climate, and believed that there was no production back-up for them. If you can’t meet the minimum order, as it was often repeated, forget it.

Design Orchard June 2020 P7

“A lot of people depend on China to produce their designs, but China won’t touch you with a 10-foot pole unless you can hit their minimum order,” Thomas Wee was quoted in that ST article from two weeks ago. Is that still true? Is it possible that despite much industrial advances in production and huge changes in the supply chain, designers operating tiny businesses, with production quantities that are usually modest, are unable to find manufacturers willing to accept small orders? Or, is this a perception left over from the ’90s and one that ST journalists can’t shake off? It is rather curious that four decades after the era of the EDB overseas trade missions, and years of dramatically different supply chains, with many garment manufacturers now also serving as apparel solutions provider, ST is still harping on how our poor designers have no one to sew clothes.

One Singaporean merchandiser and textile specialist now based in Hong Kong told us that the problem, if it exists, is that many brand owners here do not “source deep enough”. Even FPP (full production package) may be available to the young designer if cost is no concern. In Hong Kong, buying houses that will take small orders “are all over the place,” he said. If even those are not able to meet a designer’s needs, he could go to Sham Shui Po, an industrial area in Kowloon, where one could source not just for fabrics and trims, but also manufacturers. “In some of these industrial buildings,” he explained, “there are small factories upstairs from the fabric suppliers. You buy your fabrics and trims downstairs and go one floor up, they will sew for you, and the output would be definitely garmental. In Hong Kong, the clothes are always garmental.” These almost self-contained cottage set-ups can similarly be found in Seoul’s famed Dongdaemun, where pick-your-fabrics-and-have-CMT-do-the-rest keeps many of the stalls in business in the area’s famed wholesale markets.

There are similar small-order-friendly set-ups in China, too—only larger. And they will touch you—no 10-foot poles required. In Jiangsu, for example, entire garment-production villages—comprising modern factories—welcome customers without the same production requirement as the likes of Uniqlo. These places offer a full eco-system, including garment wash, special techniques such as fagotting, or sourcing of hardware, and others, all within the village. One Singaporean designer told us that if orders are too small, the factories may suggest using their sampling facility, but the charge would not be astronomically higher, as it usually is. “There are often sewers who handle what is known as ‘shipping samples’ (required by brands to be sent to different retailers or buyers),” he said. “During low months, they would take on small quantities.”

Design Orchard June 2020 P8

In Thailand, many young designers, too, face the same problems as newbies everywhere, but they have been able to meet production challenges. In Samut Prakan, south of Bangkok, local brands without huge retail presence in the capital work with small factories to produce both wovens and knits. One womenswear designer in Bangkok told us that “many of us go to Samut Prakan for our production needs. They can do anything that you want. I am sure they will be happy to sew for foreign customers.” Such small-scale set-ups and the accessibility to them could explain why it has been relatively easy for any Thai interested in fashion design to set up shop in Bangkok, even in Chatuchak weekend market.

Moving into the third decade of the 2000s, there is, in fact, an explosion of local brands here, although many do not enjoy the visibility of, say, Fayth or Weekend Sundry. The fact that they have clothes to sell must be indication that they have found production facilities to accept their unlikely-to-be-large orders. Following the rise of blogshops in the Noughties, would-be label owners saw that these businesses had no problems with production, even when the production quality has been, till now, debatable (often attributed to the lack of a garment technician to control the production). Although many designers are not inclined to reveal their source, they are likely using one of these small-scale factories, rather than go to “the neighbourhood tailor”, as Mr Wee suggested in that ST story.

Design Orchard’s first anniversary on 25 January came and went without a whimper. Two days before that, Singapore registered its first case of COVID-19 infection. With the subsequent Circuit Breaker measures, it is understandable that sales at Design Orchard could hardly be described as brisk. Now that retail businesses have been allowed to open, its low footfall is expectedly disquieting. With the typhoon of recession now picking up speed, it is unclear how Design Orchard is going to rejig what is clearly stagnated merchandising, and garments that have scant design value and finishing finesse. The local labels they stock may have a place in the market, but not in a retail outfit conceived to spotlight Singaporean design. This could just be an emporium of Singaporean brands. As one noted fashion retailer said—somewhat diplomatically, the store “needs more work.” We think she meant a lot more.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay