The End Of Robinsons

Long lines outside Robinsons over the weekend, once again, showed that we ardently queue up when retail businesses announce they’re going bust. This was literally The Sale Worth Waiting For

Not long after media announcements in May that Robinsons at Jem would be closed in August, after National Day, rumours abound that their remaining two stores will suffer the same fate. In the industry, that prediction was further strengthened when talk emerged that the owner of The Heeren, Chee Swee Cheng and Co, had invited Parco (Singapore) to see if the latter might be interested in the space, then still occupied by Robinsons. Parco, initially behind Bugis Junction (they sold their stake in 2005) and later the retail manager of The Central at Clarke Quay and PARCO Marina Bay in Millenia Walk (where they introduced the now defunct Parco Next Next), did not, at that time, appear to have expressed interest.

Although it was reported that no one knew of the impending shuttering of Robinsons until the very day of the “official” announcement last Friday, it was already a fate many anticipated will strike. Some retailers in Orchard Road also revealed a day before that they had heard that the store was placed under creditors’ voluntary winding-up. From Saturday, A4 signs on windows and (closed) entrances of the Raffles City store read: “FOR ALL CUSTOMER AND SUPPLIER PLEASE CONTACT…” an email linked to the Australian liquidator’s website was quoted (yes, in full caps). For Singapore’s oldest department store, there was really no hope.

The long queues at both Robinsons stores: at Raffles City (top) and The Heeren (below)

“Shoppers flock to Robinsons outlets after it announced store closures” went The Straits Times headline a day after the shock announcement that Singapore’s oldest department store will close. For good. Social media was buzzing with photos and videos showing the unbelievably long line outside The Heeren that, at some points, stretched all the way to the Apple store. We received these news with some concern. Have we become a nation of closing-down fans? Will potential brands—especially from overseas—see an island-city of willing shoppers only when an outlet announces liquidation procedures? Will we suspend shopping to wait for the next store closure? The thing is, we can get used to this. Reserving retail therapy for the last days of a business is addictive, since today’s economic climate means more closures are anticipated. Are we really becoming like this?

The sight of a long queue sure does intensifies FOMO, as a line—however long—is the visual equivalent of online stores telling you “X people are currently looking at this” so as to quicken the commitment to purchase. You don’t know who these people are, but the thought that any one of them could beat you to it—whatever ‘it’ is, could heighten the anxiety that there are those who are simply ahead of you. According to news reports, The Heeren store limited the number of shoppers to 1,500. Over at Raffles City, the security personnel controlling the sole entry point told those in line that “1,000 people are allowed inside at any one time”. This may explain the long queue outside each store, which only intensified the desperation of onlookers and those receiving updates from friends via WhatsApp and the like.

At The Heeren, a monitor indicating the number of visitors already in the store

Many who rushed down to Robinsons were hoping to buy at deeply discounted prices, but were disappointed that most merchandise they thought were there had vanished. Much of whatever products left were not marked down. Signs above many racks stated clearly that “All shoppers enjoy $20 off with minimum nett spend of $150” or “$30 off with minimum nett spend of $200.” This is consistent with what Robinsons had on the cover image of its Facebook page, which bore the message: “Time for a shopping spree” (what happened to the standard “Everything Must Go”?). Many in the two stores looked at those signs in disbelief. In addition, word went round that those holding Robinsons gift vouchers and cards could only use them if they were to spend twice the value of the voucher or card. Who was really enjoying anything?

That there was considerably reduced merchandise and empty shelves were hardly surprising. The reality is, the minute liquidation was announced, many brands had their merchandise removed from the stores for fear that they may not be able to do so later, or that they would never be paid for whatever would be sold during this sale. At the time The Heeren store opened in 2013, there was talk that Robinsons had boasted an unusually high 60% outright purchase (products bought directly by the store). Through the years, with declining sales and merchandising approach that didn’t work, the consignment-centric model was adopted. Consignees generally place stocks on the selling floor and are paid when the products are sold. One brand manager of a popular accessory label told us that he was down at The Heeren store the day after the liquidation announcement, even before the store opened, “to quickly get everything out.”

Severely empty shelves at both stores: (top) Raffles City and (below) The Heeren

Others were not so lucky. Murmur among suppliers described how some brand owners were told by Robinsons that there would be no moving of merchandising out of the stores. All such clearance had to be approved by the liquidator. Some consignors had not been paid for sales made during the months prior to the closing down announcement, and they fear that, if their goods were not taken away, they might have to incur all unforeseen losses. This could explain the many empty shelves that confronted hopeful shoppers over the weekend. Sunglass Hut, for example, wasn’t going to let their designer eyewear be associated with a store that was in the midst of a somewhat chaotic closing down. As for the rest of the merchandise that belong to Robinsons, no one is sure if they would eventually be marked down. One shopper was heard complaining to his friend on the phone, as he was leaving The Heeren store, empty-handed, that “one bloody denim sacoche was still priced at $519.”

By now, news was spreading that those who had paid in full for mattresses were told that it is not certain they would receive what they had purchased. Complains to the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) was swift. Robinsons took to Facebook to announce that these complaints were a “priority issue to be addressed with the mattress suppliers.” This did not assuage any complainant’s anxiety. Many had reached out to the mattress suppliers and the common response they received seemed to be, as one FB user posted on Robinsons’ page, “Supplier called and informed that they will not honour the delivery due to no payment from Robinsons.”

A familiar entrance with the curved glass sliding door shall be no more

How did Robinsons, with 162 years of business behind them, come to this? Did they have to exit their home here in such a disgraceful manner? The way many see it, Robinsons has seized to be a Singaporean brand the way we remember it when Dubai-based Al Futtaim Group bought 88% of the shares of Robinsons & Co in 2008. Although the company did grow the Robinsons brand in the Middle East—in Dubai and Riyadh, there is no emotional connection to the brand or the appreciation of Robinsons’ place in the social, economic, and retail history of our city. To them, losing Robinsons is no love lost. In 2013, Jim McCallum, then CEO of Robinsons Group, told the media leading to the opening of The Heeren store, that in deciding to bid for the department store, “We don’t buy companies to sell them, we buy to keep.” He didn’t say anything about killing them.

Some press reports call Robinsons the “victim of COVID-19”. Others consider it the casualty of the huge consumer shift to online shopping. Why not also take into account that the retail and pricing model that is Robinsons is not tenable in a consumption culture that elevates consistent discounting? Since the Great Singapore Sale (GSS) that, this year, coincided with the 9.9 sales, there was the 10.10 sale and the upcoming 11.11 sale (also known as Singles’ Day sale), all linked to online shopping destinations such as Lazada and Shopee, which are model platforms that national broadcaster Mediacorp enthusiastically supports, and retailers were told to emulate. Or, perish. Continually fed on a steady diet of considerable, if not deep, discounting, shoppers would not be motivated to go to a store such as Robinsons to confront regular offline prices. In time, people would remember Robinsons as a place of no discounts even in their last days. Who, indeed, will miss Robinsons when the store had not been receiving ardent support for years. On the possibility that The Heeren might be a white elephant on Orchard Road, one commentator on the forum page of hardwarezone.com wrote, “Let those dirty massage palor (sic) take over the Heeren lor. I don’t care.” Perhaps, no one does. Unless there is a closing down sale.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

All Of This And Nothing

Singaporean fashion, as the pandemic prolongs, culminated in one design award this month. This came after a major digital event and a re-imagined store in August. What high point did we see or experience? What inspiring creativity? Or, was it all hokum?

The winning collection of Singapore Stories 2020 by Carol Chen. Photo: Carol Chen/Instagram

Events of the past months have led us to believe that Singaporean fashion is on an inexorable journey to meet its demise. Yes, die out. As we write this post, news is out that the 162-year-old Robinsons will be shuttered. Orchard Road—A Great Street (still?)—is going to be deprived of a department store, a historic one at that. Other retailers, big and small, too, are struggling, or have put an end to the struggle. Fashion retail is in such a dismal state and Singaporean fashion so woeful now, anything can take its place in a “retail showcase” or be viewed from “the front row”. We are putting things on a pedestal when they should be on a back burner, at best.

Textile and Fashion Federation’s (TaFF) self-feted Singapore Stories capped three months of spotlighting the design offerings and climate of this red dot after the Circuit Breaker lockdown was eased in June. Singapore Stories is the single citation from the annual Singapore Fashion Award, now with dwindled budgets—and ambition. The result out last Thursday, it crowns a Singaporean name or Singapore-based label for the yarn he/she is able to spin, based on a theme decided by TaFF. It is odd that despite years of failed attempts at pivoting Singaporean designs to our island or the region, from The Singapore Dress first mooted by then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong in 1989 to the Asiatropics of ’90s Singapore Fashion Week, we are still hoping that great design can emerged from a collective national identity.

A mock catwalk at Design Orchard to promote the designs of the finalists of Singapore Stories

There is something factitious about such a design requirement. We live in difficult times and we each have our own stories to tell, but we should not have to be circumscribed by geographical or cultural boundaries to express ourselves in the most creative way. Sure, creativity can emerge from limitations, from parameters, but as a nurturer and promoter of talent, TaFF should encourage award nominees to be more global-minded, not think within shorelines. Indeed, the design exercise should be spontaneous, especially when executed specifically for an award, rather than restrictive. Even connecting the winner to Paris Fashion Week (PFW) as part of the prize (TaFF was careful to state that that does not include the air ticket and accommodation!) is not, as the results of the final proved, inducement for the participants to offer designs in the context of a changing world or, at its most elemental, those that could show alongside others who have been part of PFW for years.

This, to us, reflects the organiser’s lack of imagination. Or, understanding of the motivation behind and potential of a design competition. TaFF said they took more than six months to put Singapore Stories together. The result does not commensurate with over half a year’s work. To be sure, we were not expecting the LVMH Prize or the ANDAM Prize, or China’s recently announced Yu Prize. TaFF does not offer a prize money, but, this year, it did dream big, boldly announcing that they were “inspired by the 2020 Met Gala theme About Time”. It led them to “invite designers to examine the timeline of Singapore fashion—celebrating the past and interpreting the future.” Hats off to Andrew Bolton.

We noted that celebration was key, rather than design. Perhaps we have totally misunderstood the intention of Singapore Stories. Maybe the award isn’t about design, which, apart from skill, requires imagination and a certain mindset. Or about creativity, which is not necessarily innate. Possibly, it is, as the name suggests, about the tales, the fables, or the anecdotal. TaFF CEO Ho Semun seemed to have affirmed that when she told the Business Times in April, “As for the fashion itself, I think having a strong narrative and being able to tell a unique story are very important.”

Four windows at Design Orchard featuring four of the finalists: (clockwise from top left) CYC by Claire Chiang, Martha Who by Mette Hartman, Nida Shay by Nida Tahir Shaheryar, and Nude Femme by Adelyn Putri

Participants of Singapore Stories would likely dispute our observation that there’s a lack of design in the competition. The finalists have put in considerable effort, drawing from so many influences: there are Peranakan motifs, Mandarin collars, the “strength and values of samsui women”, our garden landscape, Chinese paper cutting, zardozi embroidery (Singaporean?); there’s even the “beauty” of our sky, and, between all that, “strong and powerful women”. These make up a compelling narrative, surely? But could there be more than these obvious images of our stories, images that, even when hackneyed, we still turn to, and so easy and accessible that some of the finalists share similar inspirations with those who dressed Mickey Mouse when the rodent was invited to Go Local?

We tried to find design flair and creative ferment in the five finalists, but we came to a dead end. It is disconcerting to think that digital printing on a plain shirt (possibly cut from an existing block), a reversible baju panjang, Mandarin collar atop a halter-neck dudou (肚兜, or underwear, and offered by two designers, no less!), surfeit of metallic embroidery, and profusion of netting are thought to be the height of good design. For sure, we weren’t looking for a Thebe Magugu (winner of LVMH Prize 2019) or Christelle Kocher (winner of ANDAM Prize 2019; we did not even try, but it was a massive let down that the sole design prize for fashion excellence on our island seeks not to honour imaginative abstraction of cut, technical finesse and inventiveness, or strategies of concealment, which clothing is ultimately about. Instead, it is impressed by the clichéd, the conventional, and the colourless. For a design competition, lacking was what Carmel Snow called “a dash of daring.”

It is not difficult to understand why Carol Chen won the top honour. She is a former beauty queen and, as named by E!, an “International Style Icon”. She has a following on social media. She is, by default, (re)presentable. She owns her own evening/special-occasion wear business, Covetella. Hers are not challenging clothes; her winning designs are familiar: Save one netting nightmare (or maybe not), you’ve already seen such outfits on Instagram, on the wealthy subjects who appear on CNA Luxury, at parties where the girl squad gathers to quaff champagnes and show off clothes; you may even have seen them in Ms Chen’s showroom. Perhaps with more bling than you’re used to. It is not easy to resist the temptation of calling the collection pageant fashion.

Up close with great designs? From left: shirt by CYC’s Claire Chiang, face mask by Carol Cheng, coat by Nude Femme’s Adelyn Putri, embroidered top by Nida Shay’s Nida Tahir Shaheryar, strapless top by martha Who’s Mette Hartman, and dress by Carol Chen. Product photos: One Orchard Store

The brief to the designers, according to the Singapore Stories micro-site, is for them to “examine the timeline of Singapore fashion”. We imagine that the design process would involve some element of backwards/forwards tension, but these clothes are as straightforward as the T-shirt you’re now wearing to read this. Which is, of course, entirely in tandem with what is happening, design-wise, at The Editor’s Market or The Closet Lover: it’s general currency; the aim is not sartorial high. But, this contest, based on our understanding, is to suss out the best fashion designer, not just a clothing label. The finalists—every five of them—should be good enough to show in Paris (part of what the prize facilitates), but sadly, none are, not even the winner. How does all this enrich Singapore’s fashion capital? Or, does it contradict what minister Sim Ann had said in support of the competition: “Singapore Stories came as efforts of people who all care about the advancement of Singapore fashion”? Are we too stagnated to advance?

What is totally curious too is the duration of access of the digital event itself; so difficult to view, in fact, that you’d think you’re gaining access into a secret cult. Registration was required (not even PFW has that restriction!) and, although the initial announcement was that the presentation/show was for viewing between 29 Oct at 8pm to 31 Oct to 9pm, access was halted on the second day, and on the final day, on which a notice stated that the video will be available till 10 pm, nothing was for us to watch before we were told to “tune in next year!”. Adieu. It is inexplicable why access to viewing the clothes should be this limited. If TaFF thought that the finalists are excellent, would the Federation not want more consumers to be better acquainted with them? Would extended publicity not be useful to the designers? Or, is the event only for the exclusive “TaFF community”? Just as hard to make out: TaFF’s last IG entry for Singapore Stories was posted on 28 October with the message, “The winner will finally be announced tomorrow night”. Ditto Facebook. That announcement never came.

Finalists get their own Orchard Road-facing window at Design Orchard

Since August, local fashion has enjoyed considerable exposure. Traditionally, the month of National Day was a time to pay homage to Singaporean fashion and labels. But this had not been the usual August and nothing can be conducted the traditional way. Still, we were treated to, in addition to Singapore Stories, the born-again Design Orchard and the protracted digital fashion week, The Front Row. A productive month! Yet, little could be discerned of what has become—or is becoming—of fashion dreamed up on our island.

There is a persistent belief that just because you have clothes to sell you are selling fashion. Or that when you have a label to your name, you are a designer. Increasingly, the profession ‘designer’ is bandied about with a loose definition, with ‘good’ even harder to qualify. Liking clothes does not make you a good designer. A love to shop does not make you a good designer. An influencer with a clothing line is not a designer. A cheongsum maker is not a designer. To make clothes because there’s nothing out there you like does not make you a designer. To want to promote culture and lost clothing styles does not make you a designer. To enjoy brush painting and hoping to see the output on a dress does not make you a designer. Conversely, having talent does, so do technical know-how. And a clear distinctive voice certainly communicates a design and aesthetical standing.

If we do not call them designers, what do we call them? Creators, the trending choice? Interestingly, social media platform TikTok and Byte call their participants “creators” too, never mind if what has been posted are mostly as creative as an egg being boiled, or a husband breaking wind in the face of his wife, or a mother squashing her baby’s cheeks to make a funny face. Sure, creativity, like fashion, is changing and being re-defined (increasingly by social media), but creativity must never be euphemism for the inane or the vapid. Fashion needs to be framed in better light. It is admirable that there are individuals who, and organisations that, believe Singaporean designers worthy of an award or a catwalk—even virtual—exist, that they can see what we, regrettably, are not able to discern. Singapore is still the proverbial melting pot and from within we may be able to offer a rojak of looks, but, let it not be the same, sticky rojak.

Photos, except indicated: Zhao Xiangji