Culture On!

Our island’s annual street-style, multi-activity fair Culture Cartel is back with their fourth edition. This time, in Orchard Road. Could this be the best retail event of the year?

The main concourse of Culture Cartel in Scape

In an op-ed last Monday for The Straits Times, ‘How to make Orchard Road great again for shoppers’, the former writer of the paper’s now-defunct Urban Karen Tee opined that “the shopping experience [on said street] does not always live up to expectations”. She isn’t wrong. The first reason Ms Tee cited is that “popular sizes and product models are often sold out”. Most retailers will say that it is nearly impossible to stock all the sizes and styles at once so that they are available to all customers whenever they walk into a store. Had it been just bad luck for the shopper? Additionally, Ms Tee is of the belief that brands are resistant to bringing in “too many statement pieces”. She did not explain why that many are needed if they are indeed those items that make a statement. A former buyer at Comme des Garçons once told us that “statement pieces are very expensive and it is not easy to sell them. Often, we have to mark down.”

What was interestingly missing in Ms Tee’s observation of shopping in Orchard Road was the no-mention of fashion—and culture—that correlates with youths, surely an important and influential market segment, and one that leads in terms of the experiential. She did write of the need to make shopping fun, and described the recently-concluded Boutique Fairs as “a nice break from the usual Orchard Road shopping experience”. What was fun or out of the ordinary to her at the Fairs? Apparently the chance “to meet designers in person and learn about their creative process (we, too, were there, but no designer spoke to us about that), making shopping a lived experience rather than just a mere transaction”. She then mentioned Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighbourhood and Seoul’s Hongdae, and how much she “enjoyed” both. Ms Tee did not indicate that Shimokitazawa and Hongdae, which is close to Hongik University, are essentially enclaves of a generally youthful consumer population. Retailers in these places do cater to the young; their businesses and the lively mix of tenants impart a distinct vibe to the place, as well as dynamism. Perhaps, more importantly, it’s easy to describe them as cool. In the end, we are curious to know if Ms Tee ever “met any designer in person” in those places. And, at the Boutique Fairs, were “popular sizes and product models” always in stock? And did she find her elusive statement pieces?

When we mentioned this ST story to a PR consultant, she was quick to say: “no fresh perspectives”. And we agree. Were these not the same gripes we have been hearing for the last 20 or so years? Orchard Road can never be Tokyo’s Omotesando—another street Ms Tee mentioned, nor should it try to be. In fact, “A Great Street”, as Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) likes to call it, cannot come close to any of the main shopping areas in the Japanese capital. Omotesando is unlike any other major shopping belt in the world, not even Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, or New Bond Street in London, is comparable. What makes Omotesando exceptional is that it is flanked and well served by the arterial streets of Ura-Harajuku and Aoyama/Jingumae on each side of the thoroughfare. And in these parts, you do find stores and brands that are not part of the usual European luxury conglomerates. Therein lies the opportunity for discovery, and gratification, and entertainment. Orchard Road is just one mall-lined street. Ms Tee mentioned the need to make shopping fun without saying what indeed makes for fun. Perhaps she might find it if she pops into Culture Cartel this weekend.

Massive installations dot Culture Cartel. Here, Singaporean toy and art studio Mighty Jazz’s CHXMP fronting Culture Cartel

Cuteness is often part of street culture. At Culture Cartel, a “Petting Zoo”

This year’s Culture Cartel is held at the (now significantly disused) *Scape. It is the fair’s first appearance in Orchard Road, and a rousing return to a physical space after 2020’s digital version and last year’s understandable hiatus. Culture Cartel is described as “the best and the only street culture event in Asia”, which may have been the selling point that snagged the Singapore Tourism Board as a firm supporter, hoping to “position Singapore as a street culture hub”. In his opening speech during the media preview this morning, convention director Jeremy Tan of Axis Group Asia revealed that the confirmation of the use of *Scape came only in July this year, which effectively gave him and his partners four months to prepare. Despite the short lead time, things came neatly to place because of the “creative passion, the bonds, and community spirit”. Culture Cartel is different from other street style-style-driven events in that it is a collective expression of what the culture is about: an amalgamation of obsessions, not just sneakers or T-shirts, but also figurines and toys, customised-ornamenting of motorcycles, even garments, and, for the first time, NFTs, and the very real art of tattooing. In fact, there are “six pillars” in all.

The event occupies the first three levels of *Scape, covering an area of 63,420 sq ft (or about 5,892 sqm), which is smaller than the F1 Pit Building, location of the first and second Culture Cartel. Housing the event here (possibly the last on such a scale as the 15-year-old building will, according to The Straits Times, “undergo a revamp” and reopen in 2024) is a boon to those participants who like proper, demarcated spaces, within which to tell their brand stories, and to do so with visual flair. Going from one brand space to another here is also a more agreeable experience. At the F1 Pit Building in the past, it took considerable time to go from one end to the other of the length of each floor. Conversely, *Scape, a building that’s triangular in shape, is a lot more compact. Mr Tan exclaimed to a member of the press: “It’s like a shopping mall experience.” Culture Cartel is not the first such event to be held here. In 2019, before the COVID 19 pandemic, the now-single-day-event-at-Drip-last-month Sole Superior (that once also went by the moniker Street Superior) staged their ‘con’ here, but with considerably less orderliness and, for some, pull.

One of the most popular areas of the event is the Archive Room, with Mark Ong’s SBTG on the left

One of the best local newcomers is the menswear brand N3AVIGATE

Regular attendees to Culture Cartel will be able to spot the regular exhibitors and the obligatory shops of the sponsors. The event is not discernibly zoned, except for the areas shared by tattoo artists. The most appealing set-up is by Pharaoh’s Horses, a Singaporean tattoo-parlour-cum-clothier, who offers fashion inspired by tattoo art. Many visitors appear to head straight for level three (the main atrium is on level two, and what appears to be the basement is, in fact, level 1). And the space that seems to draw them in is the Archive Room, curated by Chooee Hwang of the street-culture-centric media company Streething, with input from possibly the most beloved OG of the scene Mark Ong of SBTG. Mr Ong has his own space (thronged by fans) that offers, among the usual T-shirts and such, “neo-vintage” sneaks—new shoes made to look old. Mr Hwang explained that the idea of the Archive Room is to offer something that counters e-commerce platforms. “Everything is online, but I want a physical room, I want to create an on-site experience by putting out what I have, or sort of archive.”

One of the joys of an event such as Culture Cartel is to discover labels unheard of before (or unfamiliar), not necessarily just to meet the designers. One of the brands we were delighted to encounter in the Archive Room is the four-year-old N3avigate. As the numeral in the name suggests, there is a trio behind the brand—Aaron Yip, Alvin Tan, and Justin Low. N3avigate, founded in 2019, is a menswear label with a military/work wear aesthetic, reminiscent of WTAPS, and GR-Uniforma. Mr Tan says the clothes are “designed at home” since they do not operate out of a studio, as the guys have their “day jobs”. He happily reveals that he is working for Casio and has, in fact, “just finished setting up before coming over”. The clothes are produced in three countries: China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. We like the visual merchandising of the line, as well as the design consistency and the hand feel of the products, although the production would benefit from technical expertise. When we asked Mr Tan if he was invited by Mark Ong to participate in Culture Cartel, he replied, “Oh, we are friends!”

The unsurprising queue outside the Limited Edt unit, dubbed the Ice Cream Parlour

One of the few sneaker resellers, RAuthentic X District_Co, with their piled-up merchandise

Some names are the mainstays of Culture Cartel. Limited Edt certainly is, as the proprietor Mandeep Chopra is on the four-man organising team that includes Jeremy Tan, and Douglas Khee and Dave Chiam, co-founders of the event management outfit Division Communications. The almost twenty-year-old Limited Edt, with a gelato-coloured store front, sits in one corner of the third floor, next to an entryway, and it soon becomes clear why that is a vantage site. As soon as the event opened to the public, the first spot to draw a visibly long queue is Limited Edt (the line stretches past the glass sliding door of the building and into the corridor outside). Reportedly, there are “hourly drops” of limited-edition kicks for grabs. One teenaged guy in the line told us, with confident smugness, when we asked him what he was queuing for, “anything Limited Edt offers” and then qualified, ”they have the good stuff.” Apart from the sneakers, this time displayed in refrigerator units (likely not turned on) to mimic an ice cream parlour (the Limited EDT space is, ironically, the warmest on this floor), there is also a small collection from Patta, the much-watched streetwear-store-turned-brand from Amsterdam.

Sneakers are, surprisingly, not the biggest draw at Culture Cartel. Sure, there is that line at Limited Edt, but not quite elsewhere. With less than ten sneaker exhibitors, the offerings may not be the catch that such ‘cons’ are usually associated with. Mr Tan explains that as the venue was confirmed relatively late, many brands and retailers have already committed their budgets to other activities, but he did say that by representation, only Vans is not a participant this year. For those who like ‘con’-style kicks-stops, there is a lively corner jointly operated by Ruben Chan of RAuthentic and Edgar Goh of District_Co. Mr Chan, who primarily sells “sneaker accessories” such as crease guards (placed in the shoe to protect the toe box from furrowing), shoe trees, sneaker pills (deodorants), told us that he is “the top seller of (such) accessories on Shopee”. When we spotted several pairs of Yeezy in the tempting (but size-limited) pile of collectibles and wondered if there is still a demand for them, he said, “yes, there is, especially now that the partnership is over.” Has the price increased? “Not much, by the 10 to 20”, he replied while busy serving customers. Percent, we assume.

One of the best-looking set-ups at Culture Cartel is by the Hong Kong label Subcrew

Malaysian brand Nerdunit has the best sales drive in the whole event

From Culture Cartel’s overseas guest-exhibitors, two brands standout: Hong Kong’s Subcrew (appearing with Plants of Gods) and Malaysia’s Nerdunit. Subcrew—also known as 潜队 back in the Fragrant Harbour—is one of the smallest exhibitors, but they have created one of the simplest and sleekest space in the whole event, featuring ceramic incense burners in the shape of squat succulents by Plants of Gods (POG), an online plant store that “aims to promote a gardening culture”, as well as T-shirts with creepy-cute characters of plants, personified. Co-owner of POG Benny Fung informed us that presently Subcrew has a pop-up in Hong Kong’s Mongkok Sneaker Street (or 布鞋街). When we asked what the situation in Mongkok—and indeed Hong Kong—is like, he said, “everything is back to normal.” Subcrew is considered to be the SAR’s OG streetwear brand. POG’s collaboration with Subcrew is a tale of intertwining within the burgeoning street culture of the city. One name keeps popping up: Prodip Leung (梁伟庭), a bassist with Hong Kong’s influential hip-hop group LMF (Lazy Mutha Fucka). Mr Leung is also an artist and his work, such as the alien-looking POG Fever, appears on on ofthe T-shirts (limited quantities are available at Culture Cartel). When asked how he came to collaborate with members of Subcrew, Mr Fung said, “Oh, we used to skateboard together!”

Just as fascinating is Malaysia’s Nerdunit. And how they sell: Shoppers pay only S$120 and would be passed a small plastic basket, with which to stuff as many pieces of the mostly T-shirts as possible in 120 seconds. The stack must not go above the rim of the basket. Fun is indeed part of the experience here (was this what Karen Tee meant by fun?). Nerdunit takes up a considerable space in one of the units on level three, with a giant inflatable ‘sunflower’ sporting a smiley face welcoming shoppers. Founded and designed by Malaysian Ronald Chew in 2013, Nerdunit has a sub-brand Water the Plants (in collaboration with UK brand Smiley), also available at Culture Cartel, so is the label’s paring with Japanese imprint FR2 (or Fxxking Rabbits, the provocative other line by Ryo Ishikawa of Vanquish). The clothing of Nerdunit, designed out of a studio in Kuala Lumpur, has been retailing in Japan for four years and is available at Tokyo’s Laforet in Harajuku. General manager Raja Iskandar Shah gleefully tells us that they’re “on the first floor”, and is even more delighted when we noted that Undercover’s pop-up Madstore was on the same level too.

“Photo wall” inside the Mighty Jaxx space

The small but well-curated offering of Luca & Vic

Increasingly, toys are very much a part of the street culture, with many creatives/brand owners who are artists themselves, such as Plants of Gods’s Prodip Leung. Toys/figurines/art collectibles are reportedly a sizeable business on our island. One of the most noted names is Mighty Jaxx, the design studio that produces some of the most fetching little creatures you’ll ever dream of owning. Appearing at Culture Cartel is CHXMP, the company’s “first employee” in the Metaverse (smaller physical versions are on sale). While Mighty Jaxx is moving further into the digital world, their physical store is no less engaging. There is even a set-up where visitors can take selfies in possibly an office of the future. Small players are not left out. Luca And Vic, founded in 2019, is the brain child of Calvin Chua, who named his business and store after his two children. Mr Chua considers himself a toy collector first, then seller. In his motley stash is Lao Wang, the asymmetrical-eyes-above-mouth character, designed by Shanghai-based Malaysian artist Ken Wong. Also known by the Chinese moniker huabi laowang (花臂老王), the charming figures come in various guises, including one as Bruce Lee and another as Santa Wang! We wonder if Mr Chua’s buying is based on his own taste or what the market thirsts for. “I’m still learning,” he says. “There are major players here, and there’s the community.”

That keeps coming back throughout our exploration of Culture Cartel: the social heart of those who embrace the culture. Jeremy Tan is heard telling a journalist “that is why we as curators are apt for the job. We have earned the trust of the community.” Culture Cartel can indeed be the gravitational centre of a group/tribe that is no longer catered for in tangible ways. Physical spaces in the past include The Heeren and Far East Plaza, but they are no longer even a shadow of their former selves. Cathay Cineleisure, *Scape’s immediate neighbour, was headed in that direction, but lost its way; it’s now a ghost town. A four-day event, however, is not quite sufficient for sustained visibility of the community and the individuals who believe in it. Although the entry charge into Culture Cartel is somewhat steep, it opens one to this admirable group of individuals who are deeply knowledgeable of and passionate in what they do. And the camaraderie is infectious, which is rather absent in the larger fashion world. We left Culture Cartel shortly after 1pm. At the traffic junction of Grange and Somerset Roads, Mark Ong was waiting to cross the former to head for 313@Somerset. A trio of possibly fans spoke to him. He said cheerily, “I’m meeting Chooee for lunch. Some friends brought nasi lemak from JB for me. Want to share with the Japanese (exhibitors).” Community in action.

Culture Cartel 2022 opens today at *Scape and will run until 4 December 2022. Entry passes can be purchase on site: SGD30 for a single day or SGD69 for all four days. Photos: Chin Boh Kay