Beyond Baseball

The Korea-linked fashion brand Major League Baseball or MLB has opened their first store on our island. They intend to “be major”; they just might

Clothing and footwear associated with specific sports are not necessarily a consideration when consumers without sports in their minds shop for apparel and footwear. Even skate wear is now largely adopted by those who don them without skateboards. The brand Major League Baseball (known by the abbreviation MLB), despite its affiliation with the game and organisation, has similarly been embraced by those who have never pitched a baseball in a diamond field before. Despite its association with baseball, a sport that’s not quite the rage here or widely played, MLB is very much “a premium lifestyle brand”, as we were told. The crossover, if ever there was one, could easily place them in the same league as sports brands that play down sporting pursuits as USP, such as Fila. And the sports-lite positioning is very much evident in MLB’s newly-opened debut store on our island at the Mandarin Gallery.

Aesthetically, MLB is sportswear meets streetwear, with a heavy dose of hip-hop styling, K-pop style—an unsurprising proposition considering that MLB is licensed by the Korean garment manufacturer and retailer F&F Group, also the producer of the outdoor brand Discovery Expedition, created under a licensing deal with Discovery Channel. Their design studio is based in Seoul, and MLB has enjoyed the ambassadorial exposure of their homegrown stars such as the all-girl pop quartet aespa (spelled with a lowercase initial ‘a’). To enhance their Korean design sensibility, the brand, with more than 360 stores throughout Asia, is largely known on social media as MLB Korea (or KR), possibly to avoid the potential mix-up with MLB players’ on-field uniforms, now produced by Nike (who took over from Majestic Athletic in 2020) or teamwear merchandise and fan fashion sold in dedicated MLB shops, and online.

On our shores, the brand that benefits from the 150-year-heritage of Major League Baseball is distributed by the Kuala Lumpur-based retail conglomerate Valiram Group, who represents popular label such as Michael Kors, Victoria’s Secret, and Tumi here. On the first-level, street-fronting row of shops of the Mandarin Gallery, Valiram brands flank the 12-year-old building. With MLB in the middle (where Boss used to be); this—as we overhead someone say—could soon be “Valiram street”. MLB is expected to do well here, as it does in other cities in Asia that it operates in. Denise Yeo, assistant VP for marketing for Valiram brands, revealed that more MLB stores are down the pipeline. “We’re definitely opening more stores,” she revealed. “Our next is in Changi Airport T1. We are looking at other malls, but unless the ink is dry, we can’t say anything.”

The merchandising in the 120-sqm store, touted as a flagship, is trend-led, youth-oriented, and influencer-friendly. The media release for the store opening goes further: “The MLB brand fashion attitude is unique, non-conforming and independent, targeting a trend-forward customer base, who love music and dance”, alluding not to sports and definitely not to baseball, but to their alignment with the highly marketable and associable K-pop scene. Shoppers are expected to zoom in on their footwear (the brand was one of the earliest to espouse chunky, “dad shoes” even before they became trendy), T-shirts (especially those with adorable cartoon graphics), as well as merchandise with the popular ‘Diamond’ monogram and the other with repeated NY letters, as worn by the four lasses of aespa in their promotional photos for the brand.

Unsurprisingly, a large wall is dedicated to caps and other headwear, such as bucket hats. According to Korean news media, one MLB baseball cap is “sold every 10 seconds”. Expecting the caps to do spectacularly, the store is stocked with “over 300 classic and new styles all year round”, which readily affords the boast of “the widest range of caps in Asia”. Inside MLB earlier today, mask-on Tyler Ten (邓伟德 or Deng Weide), as OK Chan in the just-concluded When Duty Calls 2 (卫国先锋2) on Channel 8, who “happened to be nearby” when a friend asked him to visit the store, wore an MLB khaki cotton twill cap with the initials LA in the middle (it was, he said, “unplanned”) while looking at the wall of caps. When asked if he, a muay Thai enthusiast and former bodybuilder, likes the brand, he gave a simple “sure” and pointed to what he wore on his head. “Yah, I like sporty clothes,” he added.

Style sportif—not necessarily sports performance wear—have since the ’90s been part of the urban wardrobe and are crucial to streetwear. Ditto baseball caps. So important a merchandise category ‘sporty’ became that even luxury brands saw the need to include it, as seen, particularly, in those by Louis Vuitton and Dior. In the pre-pandemic years, it sailed into a whole new category, athleisure, those garments that allow wearers to easily transition between gym/court/track/field and leisure. In 2021, when WFH was (and, for many, still is) a real option, sportswear was the veritable winner. MLB’s arrival here could be seen as a little belated, especially given the emergence of massive flagships by leading sports labels in this part of Orchard Road months earlier that, too, offer a strong lifestyle component. But with persuasive K-pop association and a savvy design language, MLB may catch up with more speed than the next Blackpink catapulting up the charts.

MLB opens today at #01-06 Mandarin Gallery. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

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