The Textile and Fashion Federation took over Design Orchard from Naiise this month. We paid the store a visit
It was a Wednesday afternoon of sailing clouds. Inside Design Orchard, where we had arrived to see how TaFF (Textile and Fashion Federation) has re-made the store, it was unexpectedly still and disconcertingly cheerless. Except for the members of the sales staff (chatting among themselves), there was not one single customer. We came with sanguine expectations, but once we stepped in, it was all rather sombre. Even the market-like display of the merchandise could not lift our spirits. Many would consider this passiveness indigenous to the digital marketplace, but here, where everything is three-dimensionally more engaging, it was, ironically, just as devoid of life.
In January last year, when we acquainted ourselves with the newly opened Design Orchard, we did sense that, while the merchandise mix was initially varied and there were stocks to take up most of the space, there was no narrative. It was practically voiceless. One year and six months later, Design Orchard is still not talking to us. Or, could it be that we were not able to hear the mournful undertones? With the announcement of “The New Chapter” last month, TaFF’s taking over from the doomed Naiise as the store’s new operator filled us with hope. We thought change was afoot. But, TaFF did not create Design Orchard anew. The store looked as it did before, the products largely unchanged, the visual merchandising dreary than stirring, the layout banausic than inspired, the energy subdued than vibrant. It is unclear which was turning the new chapter: TaFF or Design Orchard.
At a time when reinvention is the buzzword for fashion retail, Design Orchard soldiers with a sameness as if its unfortunate fate could not be altered. If the tone set by its predecessor was uninspiring, the present chapter hasn’t budged beyond the first. This could have been a good opportunity to be rid of the blah that Naiise brought along with them. It is clear that Naiise’s output for the store did not match the confidence bestowed on the retailer. They did not meet the greatness that was first thought of the match. Yet, TaFF’s taking over from Naiise isn’t gleaming with the desire to shake free from the uninspiring positioning of its founding. Could some retail ideas be ill-placed to succeed from the start?
To be sure, a store that showcases Singaporean design is a good idea. There are similar emporiums in the region, such as Bangkok’s The Absolute Siam Store and Thai Designers The First Floor (at the Emporium, part of the EmQuartier complex), and Tokyo’s Studious (citywide) and the legendary Laforet in Harajuku, all of them emanating an energy that makes spending feels unburdened by guilt. And the physical act of shopping totally pleasurable. As important is how these stores have become destinations in which to discover the best the respective cities have to offer. They are habitats of good design, and also homes in which design can encourage creativity, curiosity, and culture.
Design Orchard tries to be such an establishment, but it has not been able to live up to the design part of its name. In terms of fashion, the 9,000-square-foot “retail showcase”, as it describes itself, is limited by the number of brands it can stock to reflect its purpose—the pool of labels here that can be unequivocally considered design-strong is small. To be sure, there is a staggeringly large number of clothing labels launched on our island in the past ten years. Between 2018 and the present, we counted 20-plus new names (that we are aware of). At present, more than 60 local labels are active. Yet, those with discernible design value can be counted with one hand. In fact, it is odd that Design Orchard has resisted (or have they not been able to entice) those brands that are considered under the radar, but with a discernible design voice, such as the womenswear label Baelf by the duo Jamela Law and Lionel Wong, and menswear label Nuboaix by husband-and-wife team Yong Siyuan and Jessica Lee.
There are many clothing labels in Design Orchard, of course (last count, 21, excluding lingerie, swim wear, and gym wear), and TaFF is still conducting an “open call” for more to be stocked in the store. Although there is—at least for the infrequent visitor—considerable clothes to see, quantity and quality do not necessary commensurate. Discernible is a certain sameness among the labels, as if all the clothes were put together by a not quite clued-in ‘curator’; working with one factory that is unschooled by the necessity of good finishing. With products that are dismal and an atmosphere mournful, the space feels like a graveyard for designs that can’t shine.
There seems to be an aesthetical oneness, too, at Design Orchard: relaxed shapes, with a resort vibe and ethnic detailing. It is hard to make out what the merchandising point of the store is, or who the target customers are. As the project is linked to Singapore Tourism Board, (STB), it is possible that the aim is to entice tourists (just as it is at Raffles Hotel’s as-uninspired Raffles Boutique). But since it is now run by TaFF, it is possible that emphasis is in availing a ‘showcase’ to Singaporean brands to sell their wares. Does the confluence of objectives make this a bastion of fashion or design? Or, neither?
Or course, what fashion is today requires to be redefined, in the same way elegance as a fashionable expression needs to be understood as a different visual language. The (Singaporean) designer prestige of the ’80s and for the first half of the ’90s (both decades thought to be local fashion’s “golden age”) is now mostly a distant memory. ‘Designer clothes’ are no longer as meaningful today since they are not even referred to as such. As we often see, consumers are buying looks, not design. In fact, the Singaporean designer is a quickly dying breed.
Emerging brands of the past ten years—following the blogshop popularity of the mid-2000s—mostly model themselves after the wildly successful Love, Bonito. ‘Designer’ as descriptor is outmoded. More popular is the identifier ‘the Label’ (latest example: Ilo the Label). Which makes it also ironic that Design Orchard’s equally weak website without an e-shop component is emphasizing the designers behind the brands, even when design is barely discernible in their work. Assuming that this is the way onward for the retailing of Singaporean labels, the store might be better served if a small zone is indeed dedicated to designers deserving the acclaim.
Likewise, it is necessary to acknowledge that retail today, especially in times of a pandemic, needs to be redefined, if not reimagined. Design Orchard is possibly operating on survival mode—sell what is saleable, which, in commercial sense, is to reprise what is sold and pitched elsewhere, such as the nearby 313@Orchard. This many-labels-based-on-one-city-or-country approach, however, had not proved to be viable. The most recent failure was Mporium at Suntec City in 2016. Unable to stock sufficient local labels, they positioned themselves as a store “dedicated to Asian designers”. The lacklustre merchandising and a feeble narrative quickly saw the Suntec-backed Mporium close in less than a year.
TaFF has their work cut out for them. It is not easy to be hopeful of even one Singaporean label that can fly the flag for the nation; it is even less so for a store that can, for example, be selected for B magazine, or to appear in the The Monocle Book Of series. Even with the guiding hands of TaFF, Design Orchard has set it sights too far ahead for the industry to keep abreast. Perhaps we were expecting too much. TaFF inherited a store that made no mark; they’re now starting from the proverbial square one with nary a change. To be sure, we were not expecting Design Orchard to shake up retail, but neither did we think it would not make even the slightest dent. We’d wish TaFF good luck, but they need far more than that.
Photos: Galerie Gombak