AW Lab Is Closed

Another victim of the pandemic?

AW Lab in Suntec City, September 2018

The sneaker retailer is now closed, permanently. According to a former staff, all four stores ceased trading at the end of last month, which would have been AW Lab’s third anniversary of operations on our island. They were one of the three foreign-owned companies to open on our shores. The Italy-headquartered AW Lab, one of the largest multi-brand sportswear sellers in Europe, with “more than 200 stores world-wide” (according to their Facebook ‘About’), exited their business here rather quietly. Their last Facebook entry for their SG business was on 30th November, of a pair of Adidas Continental 80. On Instagram, they had an identical post on the same day. There was no official announcement, no media reports (they are, after all, not Robinsons), nor closing down sales, with long queues to draw other closing down sales hunters. It was a discreet exit.

AW Lab debuted in November 2017 in Suntec City Mall, with a 2,630-square-foot AW Lab store that was described by the media as “whopping” and touted by the retailer as this continent’s first. Head of Asia, AW LAB, Giuseppe Nisi, told members of the press at the store’s launch, through a media statement that “We are thrilled to bring AW Lab to Asia for the very first time. Singapore’s close proximity to high growth markets in Asia is a choice location for many global companies, including us—especially with today’s youths well acquainted with Western trends and the latest street wear movements.” That thrill was not intense enough and their “play with style” positioning not compelling enough to allow their stores here to go beyond three years.

AW Lab on the last day of their operation, 29 November

In fact, by mid-November this year, sneakerheads noticed something amiss. All AW Lab stores were looking rather lean, in terms of stock levels. Their usually rather impressive selection of Nikes, for example, was reduced to only those few they were getting rid of. The stores clearly appeared as if they had arrived at their end of days. But even a week before they permanently shuttered, a large poster was spotted hung on their windows, announcing a “Clearance Sale”. It also urged shoppers “to keep following (them)”, assuring that “there will be surprises”. When we asked a staffer at the Suntec City store if they were closing, seeing the way the store was, he replied with a terse, “I don’t know”. By 30 November, posts in Facebook began to appear, showing the stores shuttered. FB users began confirming that all four stores—in Suntec City Mall, Tampines 1, Westgate, and Wisma Atria—were closed for good. On Suntec City’s web directory, AW Lab is still listed, but with the word ‘closed’ in parenthesis, next to the store’s name.

The retailer that quickly replaced AW Lab in (at least) Tampines 1 and Wisma Atria is In:famous, also a sneaker shop (in operation since at least 2012), but one that seems to cater to the back-to-school crowd, with an unusually large number of plain white kicks. When we asked one of the the salespersons if this is a new iteration of AW Lab, she quickly said, “no, we are not the same company.” Over at Foot Locker in Suntec City Mall, we noticed that the store was busier than usual, and wondered aloud to one of the staff if the closure of AW Lab was good for them. He laughed and said, “Yah.” And then he added, “Former staff over there told us business had been bad.” It would not be unreasonable to assume that the pandemic has claimed yet another victim.

File photos: Galerie Gombak

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Visited: Uniqlo ION Orchard

The third large-format store in Orchard Road, Uniqlo Ion Orchard sees it offering

By Truss Tan

With the opening of its third large-format store in ION Orchard on Black Friday, last month, Uniqlo has shown that it’s probably the only clothing brand here to be expanding so enthusiastically during these times of painful uncertainty, and not only to secure one store along Orchard Road, but three. Sure, there has always been three Unqlo stores on Singapore’s most famous shopping street, but they are now stronger, image-wise, and larger, collectively. The trio of multi-level stores is collectively called Uniqlotown (that nomenclature, to me, brings to mind a certain Nike Town!), which the brand describes as “one shopping destination, three different retail experiences”. Separated between them an average distance of just 900 metres, the three stores are within walking distance, enough to warrant a group naming that hints at a congenial—to me, on the contrary, homogeneous—urban area: a lively expanse in a commercial hub for its LifeWear.

All three stores stay in the same malls they are originally sited, but the Plaza Singapura outlet is relocated from the new wing to the older block, into two units formerly occupied by Marks and Spencer. The Global Flagship Store in Orchard Central remains unchanged. At ION Orchard, Uniqlo is expanded on the upper floor of its two-level space into the area vacated by Topshop in July. The original two-storey ION Orchard store it would seem wasn’t large enough to house more of largely-the-same-as-other-stores merchandise. Amazingly, apart from the area that was once Topshop, there’s a sort of passageway—previously unknown—in the rear that now links the existing womenswear zone to this new space, dedicated to its T-shirt collection, UT.

The UT space looks to me rather small. Nothing like its brethrens in Hong Kong (Lee Theatre Plaza) or Tokyo (Ginza). This isn’t the first here dedicated to the T-shirt line (full name: Uniqlo T-Shirt Project), but while it is similar to those in the regions to our north, the space is rather too small and too packed to be really the same as the other UTs overseas. I remember visiting the first standalone UT store in the world, on Tokyo’s Meiji-dori Avenue (明治道り), in the other half nearer to Shibuya, back in early 2000. The UT interior design has not changed much, but back then, what Uniqlo did at that two-storey store was to give the humble T-shirt not only its own showcase, but also its pioneering place in the history of the casualisation of fashion. One thing I’ll not forget: the plastic tube-cases (now so environmentally unfriendly) that housed those tees deemed special or of limited quantities. I don’t remember any fast fashion label paying such attention to the packaging of a mere T-shirt.

On the day Uniqlo ION Orchard (re)opened, there were long queues at the entrances to the men’s and women’s floors, but not over at this new entrance. A Japanese staff was manning the spot; he happily introduced me to the new areas of the store, and even gave me directions to navigate the space, and told me how to get to the other areas. The identifiable UT zone is a welcome addition to this Uniqlo, but, even after subsequent visits, is hard to make out how different this section is, or could be. As it is packed with shelves and racks of merchandise in the centre, it is does not stand out, or put the spotlight on its T-shirts, even with the rows of windows flanking the space, each housing a cotton jersey top, like framed art. While, during a time when travel is not an option, this really brought me back to my yearly visits to Japan, it did not induce me to pick something up to stress my wallet.

Although Uniqlo tries to give each store a unique identity, regular visitors would be hard pressed to find the dissimilar here. Sure, there is a whole new extended area of the women’s zone, which includes the kids collection, to explore, but very quickly you’d wish it didn’t look this familiar. The ION Orchard store is dubbed “The New Stage for Expression” (Plaza Singapura is “The New Family Hangout” and Orchard Central is “Where You Wear Life”), I sensed that perhaps it is an expanse for underscoring one’s individuality. But, while the mannequins are admittedly well styled (and brimming with ideas for, regrettably, winter), there is a sense that I was ensnared to buy even more of those oversized Uniqlo U tees that practically everyone I know now owns. As the total space is still considerably smaller that the Orchard Central store, and the aisles are blocked by shoppers totally disregarding the neat arrangements of merchandise or the efficient visual merchandising, it takes considerable effort to suss out what might encourage expression.

In Tokyo, Uniqlo’s recently-opened stores come with elements or areas not previously seen in their other outlets in the capital. In Harajuku (where the old Harajuku station stood), the store comes with an interactive wall, while in Ginza (Marronnier Gate Ginza 2), there is a LifeWear Square. It may be too soon for them to introduce these novel retail ideas here, but Uniqlo has been on our shores for 11 years. Their first store opened in Tampines One in 2009, a humble affair that could pass off as one from some quiet neighbourhood in Fukuoka. There are now 26 stores island-wide, and another in Tampines to open (Tampines Mall, where the two-level H&M used to be, to replace the relatively small space of the debut, which, according to staff, is “old”, and will close at the end of this month). But more than a decade later, would Uniqlo be better off with something more compelling? Or is the sameness a reflection of how unadventurous local shoppers are?

The two floors of Uniqlo ION Orchard is, as before, linked by a staircase. It is here that I saw what could possibly be something different: a massive mural by Singaporean artist Michael Ng, aka Mindflyer. Described as “a whimsical visionary depiction of a couple discovering the future garden city of Orchard Road”, this piece takes up the entire wall of the stairway. Mr Ng’s work, to me, has the wonderment of a child, the charm of Crayola colours, the exuberance of Ricardo Cavolo’s characters, and the sense of the cute of the Japanese. The artwork, which invites examination (it’s composed of four parts, representing the past to the future), contrasts with the seriousness of the store and all-the-garments-they-can-sell product overload. And it serves to remind us of the fun we can have with clothes, even if Uniqlo touts wearing for life with considerable seriousness.

I decided to buy an Airism T-shirt as it was on sale. I picked one up from about a dozen hung on the rack. I went to the cashier’s, but was immediately confronted with one truly new thing: self checkout. I experienced this in Tokyo last year, and was delighted with the convenience, ease, and speed of their system, and was happy that they’ve introduced it here. As I was going to pay by using NETS, I was told to go to the regular cashier instead, now reduced to just one till. As I was waiting my turn, one other Japanese staffer came up to me and said, offering to take my still-with-the-hanger-on tee, “So sorry, let me get you another one.” I told him that the piece I had was fine. “This one,” he said, pointing to the crew neck, “is stained.” True enough, there was a faint, blurred mark, like a smear someone with foundation trying the top earlier had left behind. And I, usually watchful for these spots, didn’t notice. I thanked him and he disappeared, and returned as soon as he left, with a new, packaged tee. I thanked him again. He said—with palpable sincerity—“my pleasure.” For a quick moment, I thought I was in Japan.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay