Design Orchard is “re-launched” after it closed last month for renovation. Is the store “elevated”, as they promised. Is it rejuvenated? Is it, finally, sensational, almost two years after TaFF took over its operations?
The day after its re-opening on 20 May, Design Orchard was considerably quiet. Two or three courting couples were browsing, but no purchase was made, as it appeared to us during our reasonably long visit. Two Caucasian women were happily looking at what could be resort wear. One had wanted to try something, but it seemed the dress she picked was not available in her size. They, too, left—without buying anything. A day earlier, the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF)-operated Design Orchard opened to brand owners and friends of the store after a month of “transforming to a fresh new look”. It was a roaringly festive affair, with lion dancers in red and white 狮子 (shizi) costumes prancing their way through the re-configured space—most obvious, the runway display that directly faced the entrance was now removed. It was rather surprising that, for a retailer that had proudly touted its offering of top local fashion, the re-opening welcomes shoppers with a Wellness Festival, which, according to them, was staged in conjunction with the inaugural Wellness Festival Singapore, “an initiative by Singapore Tourism Board (STB)”, the statutory board that “owns” the Design Orchard project, which is jointly supported by two other government agencies, Enterprise Singapore (ESG) and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC).
Two and half weeks after that rousing re-opening, a by-invite-only “official relaunch” party was organised last night to introduce Design Orchard’s stable of brands, some new, some not, as well as “a lot of enhancements” given to the three-year-old, 9,000-square-foot store (touted as a “retail showcase”), according to TaFF CEO Semun Ho. Contrary to what the invitation tantalised, a runway-less fashion show—forty minutes late—took place on the central aisle of the made-over space. About thirty designers and labels participated in the presentation, all with varying degrees of calibre, originality, relevance, attention to finish, and design savvy. The show may have been in a refreshed space, but the clothes seemed the “same-old, same-old”, as a few attendees shared, disappointed by the staleness. One industry veteran said to us, “The renovation, at most, was superficial. More important—which wasn’t done enough—was that they should have used this opportunity to completely overhaul their labels”.
Designer Carol Chen (right) with two models in her “couture” gowns
The “highlight” of the show, someone was heard saying, was TaFF’s star designer Carol Chen, with her newly established “Couture” label. She sent out two of the ten looks that were presented in Paris three months ago, during—but not part of—Paris Fashion Week. The first was a green, long-sleeved, belted, polyester-mesh column. On the bodice was an embroidered encrustation that appeared to have been something molten, flowed from the right shoulder to cover the breasts, and then solidified. That was followed by her finale gown (also the last to appear in Paris), an atrocity of pleated polyester organza, bunched at the shoulder to create a towering protrusion on each side, with the left that refused to stay upright. The tented skirt was an amusing disarray of swirls that one attendee described as “an explosion”. Someone followed with, “Where did she get her fabrics from? Arab Street?” Before the show commenced, chatter emerged between the clinks of champagne flutes that, initially, only one of Ms Chen’s gown was picked for the show. Dismayed, she allegedly went straight to the top to know why a mere gown was selected and why she was not closing the show (the organiser had, apparently wanted her to open). She had her way.
It has been said that we were harsh on Carol Chen Couture’s Paris debut. It was the label’s first time showing in the city, we were duly reminded. A baby first step. Re-reading the post now, we realised we should have said more. We wanted Ms Chen’s show in the French capital to be good, to do our nation proud, to justify her lofty standing in TaFF. But, at the same time, we did not want to lie. When we listen to a vocal performance, for example, we want to be drawn into the singing, without being too concerned with the technical failings (there shouldn’t be any). Whether from fry to falsetto (assuming a he is behind the mike), the marvelous octave leaps, we want to be able to sail into the story telling. Similarly, when we read, say, Jane Austen (a name that just came to us), we want to be absorbed into her narrative. There is a discernible intelligence in her work that we, the readers, feel, and this can be attributed to, among many things, the unmistakable skill of her writing. Perusing her novels, we do not need to be disturbed and distracted by problems of syntax or construct. We cannot, regrettably, say the same of Ms Chen when we acquainted ourselves with her designs: the lack of technical finesse was as confounding as the crude white running stitch she used in one pink couture confection to hold part of a bodice to the inner garment. “An artist’s principal task,” wrote Truman Capote in A Voice from the Cloud, “(is to) tame and shape the raw creative vision.”
The in-store fashion show to mark the “re-launch” of Design Orchard
To be sure, Ms Chen, basking in her post-Paris pride (in the presence of her “mentor”, Vogue Singapore publisher Bettina von Schlippe and her ardent supporter, fellow American Paige Parker; both were dressed by Ms Chen), should not have to bear the brunt of essentially an inflated show to evince what Design Orchard lacks: Design. Carol Chen Couture was not the only label that set the conversation going about the paucity of imaginative, high-calibre, laudable, well-executed designs in this city-state. Much of what was presented in the show was saved by clever styling—it rescued the presentation from tanking into complete blah. As it’s usually said in the image-making business, “styling to hide”. What, indeed, was the styling concealing? If you broke down the looks, there was really nothing much to see—the proverbial all show but no substance. Even veteran designer Thomas Wee’s relaxed elegance was lost in the convivial busyness. No woman—or man—should need to go to such lengths to look fashionable because there was no fashion to begin with. Spirited can be meaningless, just as jovial can be mere façade. We have to admit that we expected too much, thinking, this time, we could see design, but if design manifested, it was thin and, mostly, unfelt.
And what was Design Orchard projecting? It was hard to tell from the show clothes. Was it streetwear? Resort wear? Or, sartorial rojak? What struck us was the odd plethora of ethnic styles. It seemed like we were watching a show that was part Night Bazaar of Chiangmai, part Love Anchor of Canggu, Bali. Two weeks earlier, we did notice in the store that there was an increase in clothes made of folk fabrics, such as batik, ikat, and the tie-dyed. These were in addition to the already-plentiful resort-wear-seeming clothes (including one “luxury resort fashion brand”) that have taken a firm grip in the merchandising of the store. When we asked around with the hope of finding the answer to why the prominence of these clothes, a repeated reply was, “ask Tina”. When TaFF took over the running of Design Orchard from the ill-fated Naiise in 2020, one of the first hires was Tina Tan, the fashion doyenne behind the Link Group, and the sole owner of the multi-label store Link Boutique, the fashion label Alldressedup (precursor to the independent In Good Company), and the home-furnishing/lifestyle shop Living the Link (all three are now defunct), as well as the ad-hoc, travelling showroom Privato. Ms Tan, as we understand it, is the consultant curator, and she has been instrumental in bringing the inchoate mass of brands into the store. According to staffers, there are presently “more than 100 fashion labels, with 30 that are new to Design Orchard”. As TaFF’s Semun Ho concurred, when she spoke to the guests last night: “What can we do without Tina?”
Design Thomas Wee (third from left) with his models
It is not clear if Ms Tan’s strategy is to turn her retail charge into the next Island Shop (once owned by Tangs before it was sold to Decks, the retailer/manufacturer that resurrected M)phosis—one of the eight brands the company now holds), or to bring in as many labels as she could to improve the reportedly weak gross profit of the selling floor. These days in retail, there is scant regard for the relationship between quantity and quality. Earlier, during Naiise’s stewardship and the TaFF years preceding the renovation, Design Orchard had a strong gift-shop vibe. Even their fashion accessories, such as scarves and handbags, would strike a chord with tourists needing obligatory souvenirs to bring home. For a rather lengthy period of time, they sold a staggering range of merchandise that included kitchenware, rempah pastes, teas and such that were connected to fashion only by their proximity to the clothes in the store. They were looking rather like the annual Boutique Fairs (only with better looking interiors and fixtures), with some items so cringe-worthy that we feared someone might start a page Terok SG Souvenirs on Facebook! After the renovation, Design Orchard seems to have scaled down the number of brands that target the mari-memasak market or those individuals decorating to WFH. Yet, for some reason we have not determined, the store is still unable to entirely shake off its souvenir-centric leaning.
In a VisitSingapore video shared online last February, Design Orchard’s general manager Julynn Tay said that the store was conceived to “allow both locals and tourists to come to discover a range of Singaporean talents”. That positioning has not changed, but the target still seems to be tourists. Clearly addressing the shopping needs of foreigners vacationing here is important to the merchandise mix of the store. It is hard not to see this as meeting the expectations laid out for Ms Tay and her bosses by STB, just as it’s reasonable to assume that the tourism board wishes to have a tourist-friendly retail product they could promote overseas—as ESG did, for example, in Shanghai in 2018, with 12 Singaporean brands (that included Love, Bonito and Yacht 21), before the pandemic struck. But, a city must, foremost, be adored by its own people before it could be one loved by tourists. If Design Orchard could first appeal to shoppers here, it is conceivable they’d score even better with overseas visitors. So few of us have adopted batik fashion as a wardrobe staple. Yet, the store stocks a strangely inordinate selection of baju batik. Does it not comport with the suspicion that Design Orchard is aiming for the tourist dollar and those still seeking the exotic far east? In her opening address last night, Ms Ho admitted that “it is difficult” working with government agencies. Is Design Orchard’s barely discernible makeover and unaffected merchandising hinting at a possible strain?
A new men’s corner is introduced at Design Orchard
Much of the refurbished interior of the store appeared unchanged to us. According to Ms Ho, the “redecoration” is meant to be “meaningful” to the brand owners and the customers. In achieving that, they have been “conscious of the sustainability” aspect, “reusing a lot of the fixtures and (the) furniture” If that’s sustainability, that’s naive. A guest was heard saying, “that means they have no budget to really renovate.” It appeared to us that it was largely an exercise in moving things around. To be certain that we were not mistaken, we asked a member of the staff to tell us what was changed. “The cashier is moved to the back,” she gladly told us. Pointing to the left side of the store (along Cairnhill Road), she added, “the fitting room is moved to the back of the cashier.” In addition, we noticed that there’s now a new men’s zone. Apparently, a common refrain among male shoppers was: “We like to support local, but there’s nothing for us here”. To be certain, Design Orchard did have men’s from the beginning (Depression and Q Menswear were early supporters), but their products did not, as we were informed, move. We have said before that the entire store is suitably configured for shopping. In the past, the mixed floor layout may have been a tad messy, but it is now neater and better zoned. Still, the merchandise placement seems rather curious. When you enter the store and turn to the right (as is the common navigational instinct), the first rack on the prime location that you’d encounter in this Orchard Road Singaporean fashion flagship were hung with plain tank tops!
In the end, it is not just the attractiveness of the store that would set Design Orchard forward in their quest to be “where local brands flourish” (note the avoidance of ‘design’ in the phrasing). For anything to thrive, it must advance in an environment conducive to collective and nurturing growth. As a “retail showcase”, Design Orchard has to offer showcase retail too. Even with a celebratory relaunch, there was a disconcerting lack of attention to detail in the visual merchandising, for example. From the opening in late May to yesterday’s bash, many garments have remained unpressed, including one shirt (the whole collection was messy) by Silvia Teh that has remained stubbornly creased from the day it first enjoyed an upfront position in the store. Design Orchard not only has to espouse quality of design, it has to cradle quality of vision—which is still not immediately clear. And, consistency of message. One of the suggestions offered in response to Carol Chen’s admirable standing among TaFFers was that she speaks with an (American) accent—one thought to be delectable, admirable, even superior. If so, the presence of a brand such as wetteeshirt (of the Prata Kosing and Don’t Say Bojio fame) would appear at odds with Ms Chen’s atas vibe. Or, is that considered, inclusive, and vice versa? TaFF has been indomitable, a trouper, but did they do better than their predecessor, Naiise? It did appear so. Were we then in commendable, first-rate design territory? Not quite the day yet.
Photos: Chin Boh Kay