How did our island’s biggest supporter of local designs become national bad guy?
At the entrance of the now-closed Naiise Iconic store in Jewel Changi, a brown sign in white san-serif font welcomed visitors with the proclamation: “Here we celebrate local design, creativity and community. Happy shopping and have a #Naiise day!” It was such personableness than endeared many shoppers to the retail brand. The sign-off in that notice read, “Love, Team Naiise.” With the massive 9,500 sq ft (882.5 sq m), two-storey store now shut for good, many shoppers and those who had dealings with the retailer wondered what happened to that celebration. “No one is celebrating now,” many were saying, certainly not when defaulted payments to many of the store’s consignors may no longer be recovered as Naiise goes into liquidation and the high-profile company winds down. A puzzling turn of events, eight years in the making.
Despite long-standing issues with paying consignors that allegedly go back to even before the reported 2016 start making media rounds last year, Dennis Tay Chi Wai (郑志伟) was hailed as a flag bearer of Singaporean designs across many product categories and the operator of the largest online and physical store of its kind here. One editorial in Life of The Straits Times in 2016 described “Mr Tay proving his business chops and Naiise making S$30,000 in its first year”. In the same article, his wife Amanda Eng was quoted calling him a “visionary boss”. But on 9 April, six years later, a couple of videos was shared on-line of a group of debt chasers in pursuit of Mr Tay, the founder and CEO of Naiise.
The showdown took place in the carpark of Jewel Changi, above which the HSBC rain vortex was doing its equally attention-grabbing job. Below ground, the view of Mr Tay, often blocked or cut off, almost supplicating to the debt hounds, was one of unbelievable wretchedness. The debtor was being grilled by the much younger man, who had a commanding lead in the confrontation. That was quite a sight, considering that just three years ago, Mr Tay was in Tatler’s Gen T list of 2018 (that “recognises 400 leaders of tomorrow who are shaping Asia’s future”). He shared the accolade alongside regional retail notables such as Barom Bhicharnchitr (son of Central Department Store Group CEO Yuwadee Chirativat), MD of the Bangkok mall Central Embassy and the Naiise-ish Central: The Original Store, as well as Gary Chen Wenhao (陈文豪) of Gentspace, the Shanghai-based menswear lifestyle store, including Gentspace Casa, with branches throughout China.
Naiise at PLQ, two weeks before it abruptly closed. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
In the same year, The Peak reported that Naiise’s topline figure for 2017 was “between S$4 to 5 million”. According to Mr Tay, as the article continued, “70 percent of the sales came from brick-and-mortar stores.” If the off-line business was this lucrative, no one understood why Naiise was unable to pay their consignors. An article in The Straits Times quoted an employer saying that “it was constant fire fighting. If we paid supplier A, we could not pay supplier B. The outlook wasn’t great, which is why many of us left in 2016.” By now, the question that kept going unanswered was, “what happened to the money made from the sales?”. Allegations—fueled by anger—were rife that Mr Tay was not forthcoming with the company’s finances. Some frustrated brand owners were amazed with “the great success” Mr Tay had made himself out to be in the media despite financial troubles in the office. Some started warning others not to believe what they read.
While news of non- or delayed payments to consignors were making the rounds, damaging chatter of paying employees late, too, started appearing on social media. One person, posting on Glassdoor in September 2016, said that the “pay (was) late” and that there was “no CPF”. But five months earlier, Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, posted holiday shots that showed the couple basking in Bali, in the upscale Soori resort, which World Luxury Hotel Awards and France 24 described as “best luxury beach-front resort hotel in Asia” and Financial Times calling it “no.1 luxury hotel for design” (hence, the appeal to the Tays?). Bali became a favourite vacation spot (the Maldives next). Between 2016 and 2019, there were five known holiday trips to the Indonesian island. When they were in London in 2017 to open the UK pop-up in Shoreditch, they stayed in the hipster hotel The Hoxton, described by the British media as “upscale”. It is understandable why there were so many—in the company and outside—who were affected by the unabashed display.
At the end of 2018, when news emerged that Naiise was selected as operator of the soon-to-be-opened Design Orchard, many in retail received it with disbelief. At the press conference in the new year to announce the launch of Design Orchard, Mr Tay was confident of his ability to make his new retail charge a great success. He said, “we have experience in the retail industry; we are relatively close to the design community; we have created design showcases for the last six years.” When asked about his poor payment record, he said, “What happened was that there was some gaps in the company, so we had internal issues—there are a lot of process failures… we are essentially resolving it by basically looking at the foundation…” Resolving? Not resolved? “No, it has not been resolved.” Eleven months after Design Orchard opened, Naiise at Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ) was launched. When we visited the store just before Christmas and saw the bustling footfall, we wondered—like others earlier, how could he be in debt?
Design Orchard in 2019, under the watch of Naiise. File photo: SOTD
Dennis Tay was born in 1985 to a remisier father and a school teacher mother. By his own telling, he was “a playful kid” and, as recounted in a video interview with The Ice Cream & Cookie Co., posted in YouTube in 2018, it was “a memorable childhood, growing up in a condo with a large and really strong community—kampung spirit.” According to ST, the family was staying in a “HDB maisonette in Bukit Batok.” Mr Tay claimed that, since young, he “had an interest in entrepreneurship.” He told The Business Times in 2017, “in primary school, I was selling erasers.” Even with the ardent vending, he finished the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) with a respectable score of 213 (over 300) and was admitted to Tanglin Secondary School. In the ST feature, he reported that his “first mini business (began) at the age of 17—doing tutor matching services.” It was also at that age that he met his future wife Amanda Eng, when both were school mates at Anderson Junior College. Into adulthood, he “started an events company when (he) was about 22, and co-founded a creative agency a few years after.” Mr Tay went to SIM-RMIT University, where he graduated with a bachelor in business, majoring in entrepreneurship in 2013.
Six months before graduating, he began planning the birth of Naiise. The business started in January 2013 with the by-now-famous seed money of S$3,000, which he grew to the even more glorious and just-as-noted S$30,000 in the first year, all managed from his bedroom in his parents’ flat. In 2016, just three years after he launched Naiise, he reportedly “made”, as the press ambiguously described, an enviable S$5 million. But the rosy picture was just that: rosy. In one report in The New Paper in 2018, “Naiise had failed to pay at least four companies”. According to TNP, Mr Tay’s business “was transitioning from a startup to a full-fledged company.” Two years later, BT stated that, back then, money from sold consignment was already owed “despite its core operating revenues growing by more than 40 per cent year on year.”
At the start, Mr Tay ran a one-man operation. After that encouraging first year, his JC mate Amanda Eng joined him in various roles, not initially defined. Ms Eng went to Raffles Girls Secondary School and after JC, continued her studies at the National University of Singapore, where she graduated in business administration. According to her, it was during their undergraduate days that they started dating. Before teaming up with Mr Tay, she worked between Singapore and Hong Kong as an equity research analyst, with an eye on Chinese Internet stocks. She made one more stop before her tenure at Naiise: the e-commerce platform Zalora, as their marketing director. In 2015, the colleagues of two years and couple of ten got married in a wedding happily covered by the media. Two years later, Mrs Tay was appointed the retailer’s buying and marketing director. In no time, her artful management—just like the company’s payment defaults—began appearing on social media: “The boss’ (sic) wife,” in one Glassdoor entry in 2018, “began to meddle a little in everything… her methods winds (sic) up rubbing people the wrong way.” In 2020, Mrs Tay suddenly stepped down from her post. She joined Shopee as their regional marketing head. Her husband told BT that “she has proceeded to venture out to pursue other options for her career.”
Naiise Iconic, shortly after it opened in 2019. File photo: SOTD
Dennis Tay, according to those who have dealt with him, is personable and chatty, and is often all teeth and smiles. He is convincing and appears to be deeply passionate about design although, as one brand manager who had once presented merchandise to him told us, “he has a loose definition of what design is. At first look, you won’t guess he is a seller of nice things.” A former operations manager wrote on Glassdoor, “Dennis is a charismatic person who constantly manipulates his employees, many who are fresh-grads into working long unpaid hours. He’s been pocketing a lot more than he lets on but when pay (is to be) given always tells us that ‘it’s been a bad month’ and then tries to psychologically sway us that everyone is in it together.” An ex-journalist told us that the Naiise founder “is a charmer. He is eloquent, has an answer for everything, and will give you a good interview. He just knows what to say.” And, as reporters and consignors noted, he always had a probable answer for every question asked about the allegations of payment defaults.
But despite the many editorial profiles (the Tays love write-ups about them, such as the regular plugs by friend Jacky Yap, the founder of Vulcan Post), it can’t be said people really knew the entrepreneur, or how he truly viewed fiscal prudence. In a 2015 article posted on dbs.com, Mr Tay said, “I actually don’t have secrets. I’ve built Naiise to be an open and transparent company, so everyone, including my employees, know everything about me.” Yet, when brand owners wanted to reach him, they were met with an opaque wall. Many complained that he would not answer calls, text messages, and e-mails. In April 2015, Mr Tay wrote on Facebook, “One of my greatest joys of being at Naiise is that everyday, I get to see customers walk in, smile and discover the amazing things that we sell.” Can retail be so one-sided, some now wonder? Does Mr Tay not want to see his consignors walk in, smile, and see the amazing things sold and them, consequently, receive payment?
In the beginning, Dennis Tay had frequently and proudly called his company a “bootstrapped” one (business with little or no outside cash or built from the ground up with just personal money). To augment that description, his wife Amanda Eng told Yahoo News that Naiise was developed “slowly and by saving every cent we could.” By the time they pulled out of Design Orchard last July and closed the PLQ store in the same month, few gave credence to those assertions. A lover of motivational quotes, Mr Tay is fond of placing them prominently in his office and also to share them online. One stood out: “Dream. Believe. Do. Repeat.” Those who have been owed money were sure he chose the last. In a Facebook post that appeared after announcing that Naiise will totally cease operations, Mr Tay started by saying, “It has been an extremely difficult two years, and the last few weeks have been the darkest of my life.” Reaction to this: “sob story”. By now, no one believed him.
Illustration: Just So