For a long time, the retailer Naiise was not fine and certainly not dandy. Now, they have reportedly defaulted on paying vendors—again, some up to ten grand. Citing woes as a result of the ongoing pandemic, its flagship in Jewel Changi ceases operation today. Is that just a neat way to bow out?
The two-storey behemoth, Naiise at Jewel, not long after it opened in May 2019. File photo: SOTD
Naiise today. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
It doesn’t pay to be Naiise. That might be a pun in poor taste, but for many vendors who did business with the former operator of Design Orchard, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Naiise has not enjoyed a sterling reputation as a retailer who paid their consignors on time and consistently enough. According to recent media reports, the company owed “hundreds of vendors” payment for sold merchandise, with some “up to S$10,000”. Things are dire enough for their last retail operation in Jewel Changi that its doors opened for the last time yesterday (the same fate befell on their Paya Lebar Quarter store last year). The Business Times attributed the closure to “ongoing struggle to pay its vendors”. But some, reacting to the statement, noted that “the struggle has been going on for years.” In one 2018 The New Paper report, Naiise has been “defaulting on payment since 2016”. In a Facebook post shortly after the TNP story, jewellery brand Tessellate Co asked, “Is it fair for Naiise to owe us nine months of sales payment since October 2017?” Many retailers are curious to know how Naiise have been able to “keep this up for so long” when finance professionals generally consider three months of no (or late) payment a default.
Observers had noted that the shuttering of the Naiise flagship store in Jewel, announced two days ago, “is a matter of time”. The chatter among them as early as January, when news again emerged in the media, was that Naiise’s physical store is not “sustainable”, given the extant of payment issues with their consignors that now go back to the time Naiise was operating Design Orchard until last August. A little earlier, in 2018, five years after Naiise was born, and the company’s problems came to light, main man Dennis Tay told the media that his business was transitioning from a start-up to a full-grown enterprise. Retail folks and brand owners are wondering: Naiise is eight years old, are they still in transition?
It goes without saying that brands, especially the small ones, need to be paid to continue to do what they do. One designer told SOTD, “many of us need fast cash to make ends meet.” The frustrations with tardy (or no) payment led to more than a hundred of those with settlement issues to participate in a Facebook page (private) Naiise Vendors so that their grievances could be heard. Some brand owners claimed that repeated calls and emails to the Naiise office went unanswered. Capital Gains Studio, a games publisher, for example, shared on Facebook that they are “owed money since 2018… and our monthly email chaser are (sic) generally ignored”. One brand owner (believed to be Bespoke Parfums Artisanaux, said to be owed the 10 grand) was so frustrated with the retailer that they sent debt collectors to get back what’s owed to them, with the proceedings recorded and posted on Facebook to gain public attention and corporate humiliation for Naiise.
Naiise Iconic back then, with merchandise from brands who believed in them. File photos: SOTD
Fashion was a large category at Naiise Iconic, but the merchandise moved slowly. File photo: SOTD
The debt recovery is—if we go by Singapore Debt Collection SDCS’s Facebook posts—a social and socially accessible exercise. Debt chasers dispatched to Naiise at Jewel videoed their hunt and posted it on FB two days ago. “Please stay tuned, like, and share,” they urged. The quartet of twentysomething guys (plus a videographer), whose demeanour seemed no different from those associated with loan sharks, and were styled in a manner that even Mediacorp’s costume unit can’t do better (fake LV mask improperly worn, gold jewellery and fancy watches, monogram messenger bag and Kenzo jogger of indeterminate provenance, and even a tall, sparse, rigid mohawk do!), had wanted to make their demands in the store, but was told to meet the debtor in the car park. The guys tracked their target while giving a running commentary in Singlish, Singdrin, and Hokkien. Those who represented Naiise appeared to be the boss Dennis Tay, as well as a “financial adviser”, and a woman, speculated to be Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, who, too, videoed the confrontation.
It is hilarious to see the two men who clearly look like senior members of the management of Naiise near-beseeching the youngsters to be sympathetic to the former’s predicament, even to the point of addressing the clearly younger sole inquirer 大哥 (dage or big brother). Mr Tay, in a cream-coloured Uniqlo U tee, said, “I had actually in the past few months; I have also been putting money back into the company, to help the company. But now I am also empty. I don’t have deep pocket (sic).” If not for the clothes and the underground carpark in which the scene unfolded, the samsengness (even when of the chief money collector assured his target, “We are not gangsters, ah”) of the proceedings could lead one to believe this was action straight out of a movie from the 1970s. Unscripted and unfiltered, it was better than any reality TV, past and present.
For tourists, Naiise Iconic was an interesting gift shop. File photo: SOTD
Purchases were made, but payment to vendors reportedly not. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
Dennis Tay, describing himself on LinkedIn as he who “founded Naiise and continue(s) to play a critical role in driving Naiise’s growth to become one of the region’s largest and fastest growing omni-channel marketplaces, generating SGD10mn annual revenue”, has previously said that the payment problems to consignors were due to “some gaps in the company and internal issues”. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll, his business, as he told Today, “never recovered”. But those who have been following Naiise’s rise from humble online business to multi-location pop-ups (their first, in 2014, was on the roof top of People’s Park Complex, as part of an “urban farm”) to permanent stores (including Design Orchard), were surprised that the company’s weak financial management could have gone uncorrected for this long. Or that there are brands, now also as affected by the pandemic, who knew not of Naiise’s tendency to issue late, very late, or no payments. It is an ironic turn of events, considering that Ms Eng told Yahoo News in 2019, “we realise that we are also responsible for our employees, our designers, our community.” Similarly, Mr Tay told Malaysian media a year earlier that “what we are doing is empowering creative entrepreneurs, enabling them to do what they love to do and making it sustainable…” Many of the affected brands now wonder, how can “it”—presumably their businesses—be sustained when they have received no payment due?
Despite the debts, Naiise continued to expand locally and also, in 2017, into Kuala Lumpur, in the retro-trendy ‘village’ of Kampung Attap, west of the capital city. In the same year, they even opened a 1,000-sq ft pop-up in The Old Truman Brewery, located in the hipster area of Shoreditch, East London. You can understand why landlords, leasing managers, and government agencies were easily and readily impressed with them. On LinkedIn, Mr Tay stated that he was “awarded government contracts for Design Orchard and Naiise Iconic at Jewel”. If so, these have been two failed government-linked deals. We understand that Naiise Iconic was “supported by Enterprise Singapore”. It is surprising that the awardee was able to secure these projects with strong national branding despite the company’s unfavourable track record.
An ex-staffer shared on Reddit that the store “cannot hit the daily quota of sales.” Through Glassdoor, a former retail associate wrote that “sometimes it feels as though the entire company is run by a bunch of secondary school kids”. One source familiar with the Naiise merchandising team had said to SOTD that, for some, it was a “nightmare” working there, as the “missus interfered with the daily operations”. Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, stepped down as chief marketing and buying officer last May; she later joined Shopee as regional marketing lead. Ms Eng’s departure was presumed to be planned so as not to have her implicated in the company’s financial woes. And, as some have noted, “better to have one spouse with a salary”. When asked by the head debt collector, as seen in the Facebook post, if Naiise was doing a Robinsons, Mr Tay’s suit-wearing companion said, “It is exactly like Robinsons.”
Lights out on Naiise Iconic. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
Left for the liquidators? Photo: Zhao Xiangji
In 2016, way before their Robinsons strategy, Dennis Tay and Amanda Eng was placed 15th on ST’s Life Power List (that year, Nathan Hartono, fresh from Sing! China, scored 1st). By then, husband and wife had become media darlings, and appeared to enjoy the flowing publicity. Ms Eng was Mr Tay’s first employee two years earlier. The couple met in Anderson Junior College (now merged with Serangoon JC as Anderson Serangoon JC) when they were 17, dated on and off, and tied the knot in 2015 (their “$50K in total [excluding our honeymoon]” wedding was reported in Singapore Brides). Both were known to be very hands-on in the Naiise pop-ups. The two, who admitted to being not design savvy in the beginning, mostly—according to some of those who had supplied to them—“have an eye for the kitschy”. A few who had interfaced with Mr Tay thinks he’s “a Beng at heart”. Naiise took in anything any local brand or designer had to sell. The stores did not really have a distinct point of view nor did the couple have curatorial flair. Their biggest showcase—9,500 sq ft, spread over two floors—at Jewel went by the grandiose name Naiise Iconic Singapore. At launch, Naiise claimed that they were offering a “new retail concept”, but, as one buyer told SOTD, “just because they had never operated on this scale or attempted some semblance of merchandising before did not make anything in the Jewel outlet new.” When we first visited the store back in June 2019, we thought it was the Orchard Central pop-up, circa 2014, all over again, except in a swankier space, with an eye on tourists.
On Facebook, Naiise announced two days ago that there was a storewide 20% discount (and an additional 10% with purchase above S$150 in a single receipt). Their last post on Friday was a plug for modest fashion brand AJ Flora that was participating in a curiously scheduled, in-store event Pasar Iconic this weekend. Why hold it when they knew Saturday was their last day? AJ Flora’s proprietor Atiqah Jasman was caught off-guard, saying on Facebook that “due to some unforeseen circumstances /hiccups. The last day of operation of the booth will be today. We hope to clear at least 1/2 of our stocks there so do come down and support us! There will be no booth going on tomorrow at the outlet as it is closing down.” Naiise made no mention on Facebook of the 23-month-old Jewel store’s permanent closure. They are, as of today, no longer listed in Jewel’s directory. The airport mall told the media that “a tenant has been found to take over the space”. Surely not in the past three days?
According to news reports, Naiise will continue to operate their e-stores. A check on their website showed that business is as usual. Their UK website seems to be in service too. In KL, the store closed last September, after three years of operation. This morning, in busy Jewel, a sign on Naiise Iconic’s front door read, “SORRY WE ARE CLOSED. HAVE A NAIISE WEEK! :)”. Seated at neighbour Starbucks Reserve, we chatted with a fellow coffee drinker, who had quite a few shopping bags with her. Have you ever been to Naiise? We were gripped with curiosity. “Got lah, but nothing to buy,” she said. They have closed down. “Aiya, sooner or later,” sounding as if to say, “why are you surprised?” She added, “I don’t see people going inside, mah.” You don’t think they have nice things? “Okay, lah, but not very useful, leh.” Where do you go to when you wish to buy useful things? “Daiso, lor.”
Update (15 April 2021, 2pm): according to the latest media reports, Naiise will wind up all businesses. A liquidator has been appointed. Dennis Tay will also file for personal bankruptcy
Update (16 April 2021, 5pm): Naiise UK website now says “website under maintenance”. The Malaysian webpage, which still had a landing page until 11 April now announces “opening soon”. Ditto for the Singaporean site