Shein The Shoo-in

Despite their not-quite-stirling reputation, China’s largest fast fashion brand is a stirring global hit. We visited the site to see what’s the appeal

Shein’s TikTok-style photos on their website

If you don’t identify as Gen Z, you might want to give this post a miss. If you do not, but like wearing cheap clothes that appeal to the very younger, our uncovering of an online retail sensation might appeal to you. Just in case you aren’t aware yet (or too shy to ask your daughter), Shein from Nanjing (南京), China is a global phenomenon. According to a Forbes report in February this year, the brand is a “(USD)15 billion fast fashion retailer”. While you are too busy watching which of your fave brands will be conducting a closing-down sale, Shein launched, two months ago, a “hub” on our island, with our own stand-alone website, which means prices quoted are in SGD. In Southeast Asia, Shein is also operating e-shops in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam (Malaysia’s, it is reported, is in the works). Although its expansion into our part of the world looks massive, Shein really made their mark and their sales in the United States, quickly beating American fast fashion brands, such as Forever 21, at their own game, tempting young shoppers with USD5 cropped tops and USD15 dresses (before discounts). Shein truly champions cheap.

But, first, let’s look at the name. It is often heard pronounced as “shine” (it’s not a Yiddish moniker!) or “shayne”, even “sheen”, as spoken by two teenaged girls seated next to us in an MRT train one weekday morning. However, according to fans using TikTok to communicate their #OOTD, it is “she in” (yes, two syllables), presumed by some to be a conflation of the two words, which may have come from “she is in”, but as mainland Chinese speakers of English do drop helping verbs, Shein pronounced as “she in” is unsurprising. However, if we go back to an earlier period, when the company traded as SheInside, perhaps the shortened name, as we know today, is understandable. Unlike many Chinese brands, such as Huawei, Shein the name does not have a Chinese root. Despite grabbing the headlines of major news outlets around the world with its un-Oriental-sounding brand, Shein is relatively unknown in the land where it was born as they only sell to overseas customers. When we spoke to a contact in Shanghai to ask her if she knows of the brand everyone is talking about and buying, she replied, “诗恩吗?没听说过 (shi en? Never heard of it)”. Some Chinese media use the name 希音 (xiyin), although it is unclear if the company is registered in China with that moniker.

You can’t imagine a Chinese brand not connected to technology or smartphones to be this big, but Shein is. Going back to America, hitherto their biggest market, it is reported that in a monthly ranking, the Shein app is downloaded more often than the Amazon app. As TechCrunch reported in May, citing App Annie and SensorTower, in the US, Amazon was beaten by the Chinese company on the Apple App Store on the 11th of that month, and then on Goggle’s Play Store just six days later. Now, it is reported that the Shein app enjoys 230 million downloads globally. In addition, a Similarweb research showed that Shein’s website is the most visited clothing retailer/brand in the world. According to Euromonitor International, the clothier is “the world’s largest online-only fashion company (based on sales of products under their own brand)”. That, by any standard, is a stunning achievement for a 13-year-old Chinese fast fashion label (H&M, at 74, is 61 years older) that first sold their products under the less marketable—and now defunct—website sheinside.com.

Shein bus-stop ad seen in June 2021

After typing the new shein.com in the Google Search bar on our PC, (unsurprisingly) the site’s ad first appeared, looking exactly like a search result. The title read “SHEIN Official Site – Free Shipping – Countless Choices”, telling us immediately what their customers consider important. Surprisingly, “cheap” wasn’t in that order. The snippet followed with “Browse a wide range of Hot Sale Clothes. Big Savings, Limited Time Only. Shop Now! New Trends in Clothes. High Quality, Up to 85% Off. Free Shipping Available! Bonus Point. Quick & Secure Checkout. 100% Quality Guaranteed. Size Guide. Customer Service Focused.” Sure, it isn’t a proper paragraph that David Ogilvy would recommend, but this isn’t written to appeal to an English major. The site links came after, offering quick access to “New Styles For Women”, “Classic Sweatshirts” (they are still in demand?), “Shein’s Hot Deals” (they are always hot) and “Extended Sizes” (inclusive!). The ad, in fact, sat above the top search result for Shein (both with “Sg” in their URL), which, to us, appeared a little too kiasu.

A click on the ad and we were very quickly brought to their homepage. But we didn’t see any of their irresistible clothing immediately. Before the flash animation of the promotional banner could fully load, a trio of coupons popped up, offering three different levels of discounts, based on the total purchase made. When the coupons went away (we don’t remember closing the window), we could see the major temptation—“9.9 pre-sale: up to 80% off”. Surrounding this traditionally-placed value proposition—front and centre—are tabs on all sides except the left, offering more discounts. We scrolled further down, and we still did not see clothes. After the clickable ‘Category’ buttons (24 in all), more sales and promotions were announced and conveniently linked to bring you straight to the cheap stuff. We clicked on “All under S$9.90”. Before long, there was a “Croc Embossed Saddle Bag”, but not that Saddle Bag, for the unbelievable price of S$3.75 (seriously!). We scrolled 20 rows down (still no clothes): nothing came close to S$9.90.

We returned to the homepage and scrolled further down. Finally, some semblance of fashion. But first, they’d tempt you with more markdowns, from 17% off for a palette of eyeshadows to 61% off for a “Lettuce Trim Rib-knit Lounge Top”. Does any shopper buy at full price? We wanted to look at regular-priced merchandise, so we clicked on the links under “#SHEINstyles”. There were two of them: “Dazy” and “Honeyspot”. Since the former sounded like lazy, we skipped that. As it turned out, “Honeyspot” is for the honeypot, or she who thinks herself as one. The first item was a pair of black, sexed-up, wide-legged pants, with the waistband cut in a V-shape to bare the hips. The model picked to wear the trousers was impossibly thin, with a girth of the waist that looked unreal. Was she Photoshoped to look like a reed? We couldn’t tell. There were seven shots of her, looking like screen grabs of TikTok post, with varying degrees of come-hither engagingness. In fact, all the girls (and they are mere girls) looked like they were posing for their boyfriend’s secret photo stash. No picture was alike; each seemingly shot to connect with those who are weaned on Instagram and TikTok—but not Taobao (淘宝).

Shein homepage this week opens with a sale

Despite repeated visits, it is hard to discern the aesthetic strength of the Shein website. First impression is that it looks like an e-store by the people behind Shopee—but a tad more orderly. The impression stays. Shein’s makes Love, Bonito appear like a high-end site (but more conservative), and the Bangkok-based Pomelo’s a luxury platform. There seems to be an endless supply of merchandise; the scrolling almost never comes to an end. Gondolas in physical stores have a bottom, but Shein seems to offer none. On their “New Arrivals” banner, you’re told to “meet your new 1,000+ favourites”. They have such confidence in their offerings and the breadth, even when it is hard to imagine any visitor to have four-figure favourites, all in one stop. But 1,000 is an oft-cited figure. According to numerous news reports, Shein puts out “1,000 new products a day” (sometimes, as it is also often said, staggeringly close to 6,000)! Their releases in a week are believed to match already prolific Zara’s for an entire year. The minute the items go online, A.I. keeps a close watch on shopper behaviour via clicks and the picks in the shopping cart. Demands are quickly forecasted and inventory updated, all in real time. No human hands are required in the processes. In addition, their impressive algorithm is able to make recommendations to those who share similar profiles and purchases as those of earlier visitors. Like on social media, Shein is a community experience.

The massive merchandise output they are able to produce is the result of an advanced and sophisticated supply chain that is thought to rival even its closest competitors’. “Nothing can’t be done in China,” sourcing agents and product development managers are wont to say, even if garment production has shifted to an extent to Southeast Asia. Just for fabrics alone, Shein taps the astounding supplies and varieties from wholesale markets, such as those in Guangzhou (广州) and increasingly in Yiwu (义乌), a city in Zhejiang province (480km away from Shein’s home in Nanjing or five hours by car, and a lot less from their production base in Panyu District [番禺区], Guangzhou). Known as the “wholesale centre of the world”, what Yiwu offers, as one fabric sourcing agent based in Hong Kong told us recently, is “a whole level of crazy. They can customised based on order size. Mind you, the fabrics are of the moment, not from many years ago, not stock lot. They have ideas pumped up to them from everywhere. And they can do effects such as print embroidery as well.”

The core of Shein’s supply chain, in fact, is in fabric production, as well as the sibling businesses of printing and dyeing. According to the brand’s 2018 business plan quoted in the media, this allows Shein to attain “75% direct procurement rates” (values that track all relevant aspects of obtaining or buying goods and services to arrive at an end product), meaning they are able to maintain high standards in aspects such as quality consistency, cost optimisation, and trend correctness. Another Hong Kong production professional told us, “they could be on trend just by buying, for example, fleece or French terry to run throughout the year; they don’t need to think and rethink.” And, famously, shorter garment production cycles too. As industry watchers are always marveling at, Shein’s speed—from production to market—is the crux of their success. While most fast fashion brands take two to three weeks to go from design to finished garment (already considered speedy considering, traditionally, it takes about three months), Shein achieves the same in an impressive five to seven days, hence you, the shopper, during the pandemic or not, are able to constantly “meet your new 1,000+ favourites”. One procurement manager, based in Guangzhou, told us, “for cross-border commerce, in terms of supply chain and online ordering, for examples, China is way ahead of Singapore.”

If you need to see how the clothes look as social media posts, there is a “Style Gallery” for your enjoyment

But Shein did not begin as such a well-oiled clothing powerhouse. Founded in 2008 by a media-wary (“low-key” is often used by the press, and the company he helms “mysterious”) Shandong (山东) native Chris Xu Yangtian (许仰天), Shein’s early merchandise was reportedly sourced from Guangzhou’s famed Shisanhang Wholesale Market (十三行服装批发市场), a popular area in Liwan District (荔湾区), comprising primarily five markets that are known for their “mid- and low-grade products”, as one regular buyer told us. When sales grew dramatically (especially in the US, still their largest market to date), the initial procurement model of just buying to sell was no longer tenable. By 2014, they overhauled their supply chain, even forming their own design team (which is a curious asset when they are known to knock off the output of others), and the rest is laughing to the bank. Shein’s rapid rise and success are all the more fascinating for business watchers as Xu Yangtian was an unknown and did not come from a fashion background and was not thought to be interested in fashion. His company is so unheard in China that a newscaster on China Business Journal (中国经营报) described Shein as “中国最神秘的百亿公司,一家没有百度百科的百亿公司 (China’s most mysterious multi-billion company, a multi-billion company without a Baidu Baike [China’s Wiki] entry)”. Once an SEO specialist, Mr Xu started in clothing retail by selling wedding dresses (also overseas) through another defunct brand. It was reported, that despite his lack of fashion—and, indeed, supply chain—experience, Mr Xu went to Guangzhou in 2014 to set up Shein’s new procurement management and creative team in person.

From the start, price was key to Shein’s success. Ultra-fast fashion went hand-in-hand with ultra-cheap. As our Hong Kong source told us, “you can get fabrics in China for as low as 30 to 50 US cents a metre!” It is, therefore, unsurprising that Shein is able to sell tops for the unbelievable but inviting price of S$6, and dresses for S$10. The pants we mentioned earlier can be had for S$22, but if that’s too much for you, there’s a S$4 off voucher for you to redeem after you “register” with them. (And if that’s still too dear, you may opt to split the bill into three separate payments via the “buy now, pay later” service Atome, interest-free!) At every page, temptations in the form of further discounts seem to lurk, turning maybe-later to why-not-now. It is totally possible to purchase a complete look or even two, including accessories and makeup, for less than S$50. Shein hits the sweet spot that resides between Zara’s higher prices (for Shein’s customers) and H&M’s lower, but not those that necessarily come with product durability. Moreover, unlike the European rivals, the Chinese brand is increasingly operating like a department store. There’s a men’s line, a plus-size collection, lingerie, baby clothes, maternity wear, electronics, home décor, office and home wares, bedding (watch out, Robinsons) and, for good measure, pet supplies.

Although Shein engaged Mercury Marketing and Communications to launch their business here, the fast fashion brand also worked their magic by reaching out to influencers and KOLs. According to online reports, those with a sizeable following could receive free clothes or earn commissions of “between 10% and 20% when maintaining a steady stream of photo and video posts on Instagram, YouTube or TikTok”. Followers of their fave social media stars are also able to enjoy more discounts, with many SG influencers offering “codes” that come with “15% off”. On IG, there are more than 40 hashtags linked to Shein. Our own #sheinsg that started in July has quickly reached 183 posts. If after all these views, you are still not convinced of the clothes’ social media potential, you can visit the website’s IG-esque “Style Gallery”, organised by looks, such as “Summer Time”, “Beach Vibes”, and “Boho Gal”, and seven more. Back to the two lasses we encountered on the MRT train, who were, in fact, looking at the Shein website on one phone and the brand’s IG page on another. We noticed that they kept going back to a S$7 (not discounted) sleeveless, body-con “Draped Neck Butterfly Print Dress”. Unable to contain our curiosity, we asked them if they were in a dilemma. At that price, it seemed odd that they were hesitating. A MacDonald’s Big Mac Extra Value Meal is S$8.65. One of them, giggling, said, “We can’t decide who will buy; we both love it”.

Photo illustration (top): Just So. Product photo and screen grabs: Shein. Others: Chin Boh Kay

Forever 21 Not

Their last store—in 313@Orchard—closed two weeks ago

File photo of Forever 21 after last year’s Circuit Breaker

It isn’t easy to be known as “forever”. Eternal is extremely distant and never ending is wishful thinking. Forever 21 is proof that it is hard to live up to such a name. Their storefront at 313@Orchard was completely hoarded up this week. No sign was posted to announce their closure or who the next tenant might be. “They have closed down since two weeks ago,” staff of a nearby store told us. A search for Forever 21 on 313@Orchard’s website, yielded this message: “Whoops! We can’t find that store”. The name is also no longer listed in the shopping centre’s directory, online and in-mall. On Google Map, the store is marked “permanently closed” (the nearest store it offered was in Kuala Lumpur!). Two girls approaching the former 313@Orchard store on a Wednesday evening were heard saying, “Huh, really died?” For some, Forever 21’s obituary was already written in 2019, when the company was reported to have filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in September that year. One leasing manager told us, “It wasn’t if the SG store will close, it was when.” Next to the store’s entrance inside the mall, a very tall poster was erected, telling shoppers to “forget the rules: wear what you want.” Perhaps Forever 21 is hard to think no more of?

Founded in 1984 by South Korean immigrants in Los Angeles, Forever 21 was popular among teens who love the accessible trendiness and pocket-friendly prices. In addition, new products were stocked frequently—quick-turnaround designs were their key strategy. You could visit a store every other week, and there would seem to be new things. Success encouraged rapid expansion in the US and in no time, the retailer became known as “king of the malls”. According to Business Insider, global sales peaked at $4.4 billion by 2015. They operated 480 stores that occupied enormous prime spaces in malls across America. When the privately held company filed for bankruptcy protection four years later, news headline typically preceded with or followed by “fashion fail”. Business analysts quickly attributed Forever 21’s downfall to a glut of stores and an anemic response to e-commerce.

Storefront of the Forever 21 unit early this week

Forever 21 opened in 313@Orchard in 2009. At the height of its popularity, there were four stores across our island. The two-storey 313@Orchard store remained their most popular (they had menswear here too), even when their keenest competitor, H&M, operates a flagship less than 500m away on Grange Road. Shortly after the news of the filing for bankruptcy protection emerged, we visited the 313@Orchard outlet, which had by then looked a sad dump of its former self. Many shoppers had visited, thinking the store was to close. Reports in the press stated that the down-to-one SG store was “not affected”. When we spoke to the staff then, they told us they didn’t know what would happen. Sharaf Group, a conglomerate based in the United Arab Emirates that is involved in numerous industries, was licensed to run the Forever 21 store here. The company later issued a statement to the media: “Forever 21’s partners in Singapore, United Arab Emirates, India and the Philippines are not impacted by the US filing and it continues to be business as usual in those markets.” They didn’t say for how long.

Forever 21 was bought out of bankruptcy by Authentic Brands Group (ABG) last year. The New York City-based company also owns mass-market labels such as Aéropostale and Izod and fashion brands such as Geoffery Beene and Herve Leger, and the luxury department store Barney’s New York. Nick Woodhouse, president and chief marketing officer of ABG told Forbes in April, “there’s permission to make Forever 21 a lifestyle brand again” and that “there’s a lot of room to grow in Eastern and Western Europe and Southeast Asia…” Meanwhile, in this tiny part of SEA, despite increased competition, Forever 21 did not significantly set themselves apart. Or, made significant moves to establish themselves as what marketers like to call “top-of-the-mind brand”. They may have had an impressive level of inventory, but regulars were beginning to see “variations of the same things” and “just racks and racks of clothes”. Read: they had not changed. Another constant—their paper bags, under which were printed clearly “John 3:16”, referring to the biblical verse that ends with “…shall not perish but have eternal life”. It’s hard not to see the irony in that.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay/SOTD

Temt: Closing Too

Is the Pandemic weeding out brands that are too weak to exist?

Ongoing storewide sale at Temt

It is another impending closure. Today, the mass-market label Temt (Tempt spelled without the ‘p’) has announced on its website and on social media that they shall “be going out of the business in mid-June”, a month after Abercrombie & Fitch met with the same fate. When the news broke, some people said that Temt’s shutting down for good, after eight years here, is “tragic”. Is it really? That they will exit our market is unsurprising. For eight years, Temt has been tempting young women (the brand’s official target audience is between “mid 20’s—Mid 30’s”, but teens seem to be their biggest fans) with clothes of dubious quality that, in aware-of-what-we-wear times such as the present, would not be considered sustainable, relevant, or desirable. Temt did not issue any statement on its closure, not even citing difficult business conditions, given the on-going pandemic. But it would not be hard to hazard a guess: their clothes are no longer appealing.

While there is a market for every type of clothing store here, it is becoming more untenable for those that persist on the cheap-is-best, churn-out-what-others-are-making route. Temt, headquartered in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, was launched here in 2013, six years after compatriot budget fashion label Cotton On opened and established a foothold in the market for Aussie brands that won‘t stress the pocket. At its peak, they had a reported six stores throughout our island. At present, only two are left: in Jurong Point and in Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ). For all its time here, Temt’s offering has not wavered from the drab, the vapid, and the cruddy. We are not even crossing into ethical (and sustainability) territory that brands such as Temt and its American counterpart Forever 21 stay outside of. What has been Temt’s single lure is their low price. But inexpensive, as many are increasingly aware, need not look correspondingly cheap.

Temt is part of a trio of brands under the retail company, Fast Future Brands (FFB). Founded in 1996 in NSW as Valley Girl Fashions, their first label was—no surprises here—Valleygirl, presumably named after the fashionable and wealthy teenaged lasses from the San Fernando valley of southern California. For those old enough to know, the Hong Kong-born American songstress Coco Lee (李玟, now mostly a singing competition judge in China) is classic Valley Girl. Some of us might identify these girls as angmo Lians. As the name suggests, FFB’s Valleygirl targeted shoppers between “early 10’s—late 20’s”, according to the brand’s corporate profile. Valleygirl never came here, although they expanded to Korea in 2006 and, to the south, New Zealand in the same year. From the start, FFB’s low-price positioning for its brands were clear. When they launched Temt in 2002 in NSW (not exactly known for their smart urban style), nothing was very much changed, not even the price point and image. Only the targeted age group moved a little upwards. FFB would, in 2013, introduced the budget label for older women Mirrou in New Zealand.

Shoppers milling outside Temt at PLQ. The ‘closed’ sign on the glass door is a misnomer; the store is limiting the number of customers inside

Fast Future Brands (the name was changed from Valley Girl Fashion in 2007) was started by Korean immigrants to Australia, Jim Marr and his nephew Michael Ma (it is unclear why there is this discrepancy in the spelling of the family name). Although the two men largely stayed clear of the media, both were in the news in 2013 when they were in court cases involving the uncle claiming that his nephew infringed on the Valleygirl and Temt trademarks in New Zealand (the younger was apparently encouraged by the older to expand the business southwards). The case was, according to Australian media, “dismissed”. Some observers noted that the business for FFB brands was never the same since. Following the announcement of the closure of the Singaporean operations, we visited the Valleygirl and Temt Australian websites only to be greeted with the non-functional: one showed an error message (ditto for Mirrou) and the other indicated that the site was unavailable, respectively (Temt’s SG site ran a single notice: the closure announcement). In 2016, both Valleygirl and Temt in New Zealand entered into receivership. The fate of their Australian stores isn’t yet known. When we asked a salesgirl at the PLQ store if their e-shop would continue to trade, she said, “don’t know”.

When the Temt website was still accessible, it stated that the “Temt philosophy is about chic style, sophistication and this seasons (sic) ‘must have’ item (sic). Our passion is about capturing key on-trend pieces that are essential and affordable for creating signature looks for every occasion”. How “on-trend” they have been is, of course, debatable, but as one brand manager said to us, when asked what she thought of the label, “they are nowhere near H&M. How many mui (raggy) rayon dresses and shorts can you buy?” In Australia, as it is here, Temt is not known for any semblance of quality either. Charges of “rubbish material” and “poor sewing”, as well as “not sized for the petite” abound in Australian social media. Despite what is visibly lacking, Temt continued to crank up its quickly-becoming-unappealing disposable pitch.

The appeal of Aussie brands here, even when not constant, is understandable. Those who retail them—going back to Country Road in 1994 (they closed in 2007) and indie multi-label store Trixilini’s early years (entirely stocked with Aussie brands)—see similarity between what Australians like to wear and what Singaporeans are inclined to buy. Weather is often a consideration: the international autumn/winter season is Australia’s spring/summer, and just right for us. That we like our clothes “light and breezy” (read: casual) allow Aussie labels with just-as-relaxed image to find the ideal habitat here. Two women at the Temt PLQ store this afternoon were heard saying they “want to buy more shorts”. Australian fashion, contrary to what their fans (mostly those who studied in the country, and the first Western fashion retail culture there were exposed to) think, does not score big in the fashion factor. Sure, Australia has produced some big names, such as Akira Isogawa, Dion Lee, and Toni Matičevski, but their high-street labels are, at best, not catching up. Temt’s exit should be a cautionary tale. There are enough lacklustre brands here, whether from Down Under or elsewhere. We deserve better.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Abercrombie Will Soon Close

The last American casual brand to leave our shores. Will we miss it?

It was bound to happen. But we did not think it would be on their 10th year here. A decade is a long time to be in any market. But there has been declining interest in Abercrombie & Fitch since at least five years ago. This week, at its sole store on Orchard Road (in what was formerly known as Knightsbridge), the calm and uniformity of the stretch of merchandise-free window is interrupted by a sale sign that says “entire store 50%”. This afternoon, two women rushing towards the entrance were heard saying, “quick, quick.” Although the store front was quiet, it brought to mind the long queues seen in the first week of its opening back in December 2011. There are those, however, who remember that during that week, the MRT broke down on three consecutive days, leading to massive public anger. At least five hundred thousand commuters, it was said, were affected during those days. Yet, those who rushed to and queued at the new store in town seemed unaffected by the train disruption and unconcerned that deep dissatisfaction with our mass rapid transit system was seriously mounting.

At the closing down sale, we sense a similar indifference to what’s even more severe than not being able to get home soon enough—an ongoing pandemic. Purchases had to be made. A sale had to be taken advantage of. Bargain hunters left no garment and price tag unchecked. One Caucasian woman with a Saint Laurent tote had both her arms, locked at the fingers, served as a basket. A young chap was scooping up so many track pants, you’d wonder if he wears anything else. Folks of the Merdeka Generation were so numerous, you would not have guessed A&F was once considered a teen brand. We notice that there was hardly any staff. Two were spotted, both manning the only cashier counter opened, on the first floor. A chat with one of them confirmed that the store will “close for good on 2nd May” (last day of sale). There was no mention of the closure on table/counter stands, except the half-price sale. Or, on social media. Why are you closing, we wondered. “They’re not making money,” she offered helpfully. Why, no one shops? “It’s because of the pandemic.” That was not unexpected. Is 50 percent off enough to clear the stocks? “We hope so.” Will you be out of a job next month? “We’ll be retrenched, I guess.”

The merchandise seemed to have ended its seasonal life last year. It is not unreasonable to assume that the stock replenishment and renewal exercise did not continue after the autumn/winter buy, possibly including their supply of environmental perfume. The store was surprisingly and welcomely unscented! You could depart with purchases not artificially fragranced. Much of what they were clearing were standard and familiar separates, but in thicker fabrics than what might be comfortable for our weather. Some shoppers had noticed that the holiday offerings of last December were noticeably unremarkable. Back then, there was already talk that the store would be closing permanently. When Robinsons was clearing out last November, some leasing managers were already saying that the next available large retail space on Orchard Road would be the corner that is Abercrombie and Fitch—2,000 sq m, all three levels of it. Similarly, when Gap bowed out in 2018, as well as American Eagle Outfitters and, two years earlier, Aeropostale, the question was, “when will it be Abercrombie’s turn?”

US casual apparel brands have lost much of its appeal from the time Gap arrived on our island in 2006 (even before the iPhone!) with a 836 sq m “Southeast Asia flagship” in Wisma Atria. Throughout much of the ’90s, when Gap was popular, most Singaporeans were buying their clothes when travelling. And they needn’t go to the US, as Gap and its ilk were available in Tokyo and—even nearer—Hong Kong, where once a little street in Tsim Sha Tsui called Granville Road gave Gap fans—and certainly Abercrombie—their fill of merchandise by way of outlet shops. By the time Abercrombie arrived here, the brand was not as new as it seemed since many of those who love the label had brought their share during their holidays in the US, or, for the less-travelled, across the Causeway in also-outlet shops such as the Reject Shop. Abercrombie, as did its compatriot brands, scored by selling basic merchandise characterised by conspicuous placements of logotypes, but with far sexier branding (campaigns were famously shot by the now-disgraced Bruce Weber). But the formula never changed, not even when copies such as Bangkok’s CC Double O emerged, complete with similar store interiors, to tempt visitors, such as those from our island. If we really required basics, and fashionable ones too, we already had Uniqlo—they were earlier than Abercrombie by two years.

When Abercrombie opened, national pride could be sensed as the store was only the second to launch in Asia after Japan. The opening was not without fanfare, and was certainly more attention-grabbing than any witnessed till then. It was conceived to be remembered. Half-naked men—with only red track pants—paraded the store front daily, amenable to gawkers who must take selfies with them and to those who can’t resist appreciating their musculature by running their fingers down their abdomen. Many onlookers, including those that would be known now as the “Pioneer” generation, showed that we have arrived at a time when what was considered indecent was being redefine. As SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang recalled, “even my mother wanted to touch them!” These weren’t shirtless men at a construction site (already rarely seen); these were men showing off, aware of their good looks, and their magnetism attracted both men and women to the store, even long after their sojourn. They were not guys seen on paper bags; they were flesh and gut. “From now till the opening,” one enthusiastic report at the time went, “you can expect these sexy hot bods to be in attendance.” If you really didn’t know better, you’d be wondering what the store was selling.

Abercrombie opened on our shores just two years after the Obama presidency. The first African-American to be elected president had promised “hope and change”. The US of A was to experience seismic shifts: demographically, socially, and technologically (Twitter was only picking up pace, no one was imagining a TikTok). Casual American fashion was slowly losing its wholesome appeal to not only the Americans, but also those abroad who were being converted by the Swedes and the Spaniards (and to an extent, the British) into fast fashion fans. H&M was selling retro-print T-shirts (so too was Uniqlo), but Abercrombie was stuck to the aesthetic dullness of its previous, controversial CEO Michael Jeffries, still banking on its appliqued graphics, heavy on the A&F logo. And, not forgetting how tight the clothes were (especially for the men). Mr Jeffries, himself a mature—and a bottle blond—personification of his Abercrombie ideal, told Salon in 2006 that his brand was for “cool” people, which presumably did not include the “overweight or unattractive people” he did not want seen in his clothes. Even before wokeness was a word, this did not score well with many people. Although Mr Jeffries issued a public apology when the comments were made known in 2013, the impact of his tone-deaf comments on Abercrombie could not be blocked or reversed.

Those heaving, bare-chested chaps on the pavement of Orchard Road only served to augment the positioning of the brand. Shoppers who did not care about their sexualised image, the dark-as-Zouk interior of the store, the dance music even at eleven in the morning, and the bothersome all-over scent that makes even Lush smelled discreet, just avoid it, like a bad joke. One segment of consumers who seemed more lured by it than others were gay boys. They wore the athletic, bicep-enhancing tees and polos as date clothes as much as club wear. Abercrombie made casual sexy and youthful insouciance equally so. The trick is to appear in the threads not self-aware, as though you’re naturally as glowingly appealing as those blonde gods lensed by Mr Weber. Or the store’s if-you-are-not-good-looking-you-can’t-work-here staff. The Abercrombie moose logo, whether on a plain crew-neck tee or a polo shirt, was like a badge that indicated you belonged to a club, one that honours only physical perfection. This ideal, often without sartorial merit, was eventually also appreciated by the masses, who had yet seen the fading glory of American preppy for a largely white consumer. Abercrombie was not hard to understand just as Americana, decades earlier, was not hard to digest.

But times do change, as well as consumer tastes. President Obama’s place in the White House elevated America’s image outside the US. But, when Donald Trump took over—to the horror of the world, that no longer held true. Which non-American would want to don anything that blatantly aligned the wearer with the MAGA States? In fact, Abercrombie’s still-blatant “all-American” branding was, and still is, its undoing—USA is no longer a seductive sell. Although its brand image was rehabilitated after Michael Jeffries’s departure (“ousted”, as was reported) from the company in 2014, things would not be the same for the brand. The cool that it so naturally exuded weaken, the clothes looked dated, and the store still dark, as if it could not come out of a doomed gloom. They did not, to borrow from an old phrase, get their mojo back.

Update (18 April 2021, 6.30pm): Abercrombie announced on Instagram earlier today that “the store is closing on 2 May 2021”, adding, “we’ve enjoyed being your Abercrombie”

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Will This Be The First?

Crowd control measures are already in place outside the Uniqlo Global Flagship at Orchard Central for the launch of the Uniqlo +J collection tomorrow morning. It looks set to be Uniqlo’s most successful launch after their collaboration with Kaws last year

It seems that the madness is about to begin. At Uniqlo’s three-storey Orchard Central (OC) store early this evening, separate-from-the-usual-queue stanchions were set up to control what’s anticipated to be a large turn out for tomorrow’s launch of the much-hyped +J collection, conceived with Jil Sander, the designer, not the brand. At six this evening, no one was stationed in the designated area, split into two holding zones in the main concourse/walkway of the mall. Yet. Staff members, all in discreet black that Ms Sander would approve, were seen arranging the set up and putting up signs to better guide shoppers. It was still all calm, the usual OC Thursday evening.

This could be unprecedented in the history of Uniqlo collaborations. Despite pairings with heavy-weight designers such as Ms Sander, JW Anderson (ongoing), and Jun Takahashi of Undercover (2012), lines rarely form outside the stores as those seen outside H&M for their collabs with, say, Balmain (2015) or Giambattista Valli (2019). When asked what size crowd they’re expecting tomorrow, one staffer told us, “huge”. We wondered if there would be a line tonight, and she said, “possible”. Does the OC operations managers allow overnight queueing, given present pandemic restrictions? “As of now,” she continued, “yes.” Would those already in line be told to go home if they change their mind? “They can queue outside.”

Two mannequins in +J tease in the front of Uniqlo

The +J launch here, as well as in Malaysia, was postponed by a week due to shipping delays (both Malaysia and Singapore share the same warehouse facility in the Peninsular, hence both are affected) as a result of the pandemic situation in various ports where the merchandise were due to depart. The reaction to the comeback +J line is believed to be overwhelming, considering its success in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo last Friday, with one unverified video circulating online, purportedly showing a mad crush in an unidentified Japanese store. One Uniqlo fan we spoke to said she will be kiasu and head out to the store at six in the morning. “I’ll bring breakfast along,” she beamed.

We were curious to know if there would be enough clothes for these fans. The staffer we spoke to earlier quipped, “No, that’s why it’s limited edition!” As it turns out, the pieces are so limited that shoppers are allowed to buy only “five SKUs (stock-keeping unit, representing one style) each.” That effectively means five different styles per person. No more. And that also indicates that the one total covers both men’s and women’s line. A wife, therefore, won’t be able to pick five for herself and five for her husband. She would only have that precious five to allot. The mad rush, it seems, would be inevitable.

Update: (19 November 2020, 22.30) Uniqlo at Orchard Central has closed for thirty minutes. No queue was seen outside the store. Inside, it appears that staff are setting up for the big reveal tomorrow.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Return With A Bang

While we wait for the comeback Uniqlo +J collection to hit the brand’s Global Flagship store next Friday, Hongkongers made a manic rush at the launch in the city today

Friday the thirteenth may be deemed an unlucky day in Western superstition, but here in Asia, it is quite auspicious, especially for Uniglo launching their comeback collaboration with the German designer Jil Sander, who no longer designs her eponymous label. At its Causeway Bay outlet in Lee Theatre Plaza on Hong Kong island, dubbed the “1st worldwide flagship store”, long queues were seen leading to the cashier early this evening. One happy shopper told SOTD she would have come in the morning if she could get away from work. She said, in Cantonese, that she was waiting for the launch since hearing about it on social media last month because the clothes “又平又靚 (yao paeng yao laeng, or cheap and attractive” and “好有設計感” (ho yao chit gai gam, or with design sense).

It is not surprising that this would be the reception to the +J collection in Hong Kong. We won’t know how it will fare here until next Friday when it will be revealed. Uniqlo has created what is possibly one of its most popular and successful collaborations, spanning some five seasons, from 2009 to 2011. Then there was the “greatest hits” collection of 2014, which allowed those who missed the earlier releases the fashion equivalent of back issues. Many thought that was the last chance of owning something that Ms Sander actually had a hand in designing, until it was announced, more than two months ago, that the collaboration would be brought back with a brand new collection. Now that WFH is very much a part of our lives, +J’s intelligently conceived, elevated classics are expected to score big. The GQ columnist Justin Myers posted on Twitter, “Looking forward to seeing everyone in their Uniqlo +J turtlenecks on their Zoom call screenshots.”

It is doubtful Zoom users here would make such an effort. Still, good design and good value do appeal. And it is not unreasonable that Uniqlo would be expecting enthusiastic response at Orchard Central next week, although it may not generate the same crowd as buzzy collabs at, say, H&M. Although collaborators and designers such as JW Anderson and Christophe Lemaire, who oversees the Uniqlo U line, have made classic designs with subtly tweaked details the mainstay of their collections for the brand, precision and nuance have not really caught on here. One Singaporean designer said to us, when we asked him what’s the lure of +J, “Honestly, I think not many people would understand the appeal of Jil Sander. Most won’t even know of her, let alone her style. Her designs are so understated that even if she executed an unusual pocket, most consumers can’t see how unusual.”

Which, seems to support the oft-said belief that Hongkongers are more sophisticated than us. The +J sell-through here would, therefore, tell. Back in the still-packed Causeway Bay Uniqlo store, the +J merchandise looked to be running low. One product development specialist who was there to consider a puffer jacket said, “I do like the women’s duffle coat. The outerwear is very now in terms of the details and silhouette. The knits, however, felt, to me, like she was repeating her styles from the past.” Revivals are not necessarily a minus for +J. Ms Sander has, more than other collaborating designers before and after her, created pieces for Uniqlo that can test the passing of time. One content development manager told us, “The first bubble coat I ever bought was from +J. I wanted to know if I would like it. And the price was sharp. That was more than ten years ago. I still use it now when I travel. And happily. It doesn’t date.”

Photos: K S Yeung for SOTD. Illustration: Just So

After The Fact

Why does it take a close-down to get consumers lamenting that an era is no more? Or, realising that a brand will be missed?

Today’s edition of Life. Photo by Chin Boh Kay

By Emma Ng

Regret: As in if we knew then? Or, if we could turn back time? Or, we’re sorry? TopShop closed their last physical store for good yesterday after 20 years here. It is rather puzzling to me that in the two decades of the brand’s presence across the island, there was not enough fervour in them to negate the need to bemoan, as reported in the The Straits Times’s Life today, that an era is over (repeated thrice!). We’re now a seething mass of lamentation? (The online, “premium” version of the article even declared in its headline that “fans mourn”!) According to the cover story, devotees “say they will miss the brand for its statement pieces, on-trend celebrity collaborations, petite range and innovative consumer engagement.” That is quite a pile of reasons to keep the brand going, but TopShop was not able to latch on to our spaghetti straps to stay on.

For quite a while, no one really connected Topshop (at its peak, a 10-store chain) with FOMO. I mean, no one, it seemed, feared missing out on anything in TopShop, let alone its bowing out of the local market. But people did not want to be beaten to H&M’s last fall collaboration—with Giambattista Valli (but a Mercury-organised preview did allow tai-tais and their offsprings to beat most). Never mind that those gowns will make even the BFF who knows you well—really well—wonder if you’re getting married. Or, playing Cinderella going to a ball in the nearest istana with real royalty living in it—in Johor Bahru. Despite TopShop’s fading popularity, ST’s Amanda Chai, who wrote the generously-allotted, full-page piece, happily claimed that shoppers “had only fond memories” of the store.

Remembrances, however loving, do not, of course, equate to sales. A fast fashion store may bank on past accolades, but it can’t hope that customers will continue to buy because they can’t forget what the store had churned out in the past

Remembrances, however loving, do not, of course, equate to sales. A fast fashion store may bank on past accolades, but it can’t hope that customers will continue to buy because they can’t forget what the store had churned out in the past. Ms Chai herself could go no further than TopShop’s Knightsbridge store (2010—2015), recalling that it “boasted phone-charging stations and a bespoke personal shopping service”. As we have noted here on SOTD, TopShop’s debut at Wisma Atria in 2000 (they stayed till 2008, and it was here that the ‘Style Advisor’ service that Life noted was first introduced) offered more than just clothes, it had atmosphere, a rare quality in retail then. Inside, I recall, was evocative of the brand’s London flagship on Oxford Street. It was dotted with iMacs (yes, those antiquated triangular-sided PCs) that offered free access to the Internet. There was energy derived from the Brit-retro-cool vibe it projected. This was augmented by the music—nothing ambient about it—and the massive video wall in the rear that, for those of us with no access to MTV, was a definite highlight when shopping there. I will always remember choosing carrot jeans accompanied by Oasis or Arctic Monkeys. And, for sure, Coldplay.

I think many of the shoppers, who made a last-minute attempt to cop whatever it was they were hoping to at TopShop, did so just to partake in a closure that had been predicted to be the norm for fashion retail: let’s go to another closing-down sale. That, and the cheap prices. Weeks later, when Shopee conducts a 10.10 sale after the 9.9, TopShop would sound like a brand from long ago. But shrugging off their physical self does not mean they don’t exists any longer. Google the conflated name and the first result (really an ad) will show up as “We Are Now Online”. A store-less brand won’t be quite the same as one that exists in the off-line sphere. TopShop has as much cultural presence here as the “cami top” it sells. I doubt e-commerce will change that. It would need more than a re-branding strategy for a digital non-native to appeal to those born into a connected world, who are unlikely to miss the brand’s brick-and-mortar self.

Kate Moss X TopShop in 2014. File photo: SOTD

TopShop, in its last years, had not been the crowd-puller that H&M—opened 11 years later— has been. After their (final?) collaboration with Kate Moss in 2014, TopShop (and its brother brand TopMan) seemed unable to go further than young-hipster cool. The Kate Moss “wardrobe” appeared to me to appeal mostly to teens with the understandable desire to be dressed like glamour girls. While other brands with similar aesthetical starting point had moved on to embrace more trending looks, TopShop had not done so likewise; at least not as fervently, or convincingly. By the time of its impending closure, many of those who discovered TopShop via their debut store in Wisma Atria in 2000 have grown up, as I have. The kids today aren’t like the kids of twenty years ago.

Frankly, I remember what Topshop was; I do not register what it has become. In my last visit to TopShop at ION Orchard two CNYs ago, I left with disappointment rather than purchases. The store was not just a mere shadow of its former self, it was a dump of throwaway clothes and forgotten fashion. I wonder if things would have looked less dismal if it had more support as an on-trend brand (rather than purportedly a place for “statement pieces”). I don’t regret that TopShop is closed; I have nothing to lament. I believe in the saying that when one door shuts, another may open. Yet, it’s hard to say if, given the troubles of the brand’s parent company, the Arcadia Group, TopShop is able to re-buff and restore the shine it has lost, or dramatically reinvent itself. I doubt many are hoping.

Hang Tags: Necessary Truth?

Nine months after reports of alleged forced labour used in Xinjiang for cotton production, Muji still proudly announces that they’re using cotton from the troubled region, despite being called out for this damaging association

About nine months ago, Xinjiang—a region in China’s northwest—was thrust into the fashion spotlight. Last November, reports in mainstream media emerged, stating that Xinjiang cotton-supply sources were considered to have violated human rights. According to one BBC report, “rights groups say Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority are being persecuted and recruited for forced labour.” Reuters also wrote that these groups “named H&M, Ikea, Uniqlo and Muji among companies selling merchandise made with cotton from Xinjiang where the United Nations estimates at least a million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in massive camps.”

H&M and Ikea responded by saying that their suppliers no longer deal with Xinjiang cotton. Both Uniqlo and Muji apparently did not answer media queries. Perhaps remaining silent was a better way to ride out the controversy. But Muji did not seem to want to play down their links to Xinjiang. Up till now, those clothes made of “Xinjiang cotton”—both knits and wovens—are unambiguously identified. While China is recognised as the world’s largest producer of cotton, it isn’t clear if there are marketing advantages in identifying the source of Muji’s fabrics, in particular this cotton. Muji’s French linens, possibly made from French flax and likely made into textile in China, isn’t identified by region.

It is generally thought that the cotton grown in Xinjiang is the finest in China, some even think the world. According to one BBC report, Xinjiang cotton accounts for more than 85 percent of Chinese production, making this land-locked area China’s largest producer of cotton. It constitutes about 20 percent of global supply. Brands offering cotton garments prefer using Xinjiang cotton as this is of the long staple variety (even longer than renown Supima cotton), which means the cloth that is woven from this yarn is extremely soft. Unsurprising, therefore, that brands such as Muji want not only to be associated with Xinjiang cotton, but consider the region a vital part of its branding.

Apart from identifying the provenance of their cotton on their hang tags, Muji has similarly availed the information on their shelf-front signage. On their website, the said cotton is also labelled as “Xinjiang cotton”. No other description regarding the fabric’s origin is stated, but earlier media reports quoted Muji’s caption: “Made of organic cotton delicately and wholly handpicked in Xinjiang…” Handpicking is a selling point because the cotton staple remains long (as opposed to machine harvesting, such as Texas cotton, which is generally considered not as superior), an important factor in the softness of the end product. Hand picking, as imaginable, is extremely labour intensive. Given Xinjiang’s socio-political situation, it is possible that there are difficult, unfavourable labour conditions.

We are unable to find the above description on Muji’s current version of their SG website. Interestingly, Muji Hong Kong’s webpages do not state where the brand’s cotton comes from. It is not certain why some labels need to be transparent when it comes to cotton and not other fabrics. Many labels use silk, for example, from China, but consumers are none the wiser with regards to the exact origin of the fabric. Where fashion’s snob appeal is concerned, country of manufacture seems to carry more weight than provenance of fabric or yarn.

As far as we are aware, Muji is not inclined to name or identity their sources, although cottons from countries rather than regions have been named, such as Turkey and India. So, it arouses the curious mind to see the troubled region of Xinjiang feature so prominently on their tags and and shelf signs, and online. At Muji’s flagship store this afternoon, we asked one young chap, who selected for himself a white collarless shirt in a cotton from that part of China, if it bothered him that he buys cotton from Xinjiang. He asked, “Where is that?” Have you heard of the Uyghurs? “What is that?” Is it important to you where the fabric of your shirt comes from? “As long as it is comfortable, it does’t matter.” Apathy may win, but not Xinjiang.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

The H&M Rumour

Is it true that Hennes & Mauritz is closing?

 

20-07-07-02-22-55-264_deco

In the past week, we’ve been repeatedly receiving a screen snap in our social media accounts. The photo shows an article in Chinese, attributed to a piece published on the news aggregator site Okeyread (新鲜资讯 or Fresh Information). The headline read, “H&M Group Announces: Closure of all branches in Singapore (H&M集团宣布:关闭新加坡全部分店)”. The article does not say from where the information was obtained.

It has been reported in the mainstream media that H&M suffered huge losses due to the ongoing pandemic, with the Financial Times stating that the world’s second largest retailer’s “revenues from June 1 to 24 were down 25 per cent compared with a year earlier, following a decline of 50 per cent in the second quarter to SKr28.7 bil (USD3 bil or SGD4.2 bil)”. In circulation too were news that H&M may close some stores throughout the world to concentrate on e-commerce. According to Business Insider, 170 stores under the group (which may include other labels such as COS) will be closed this year. However, nothing definitive has been announced about shuttering for good all outlets here.

Calls to the H&M office in Grange Road two days in a row went unanswered. At H&M stores, the staff is not sure what the status is. When asked, one member of the sales crew shot back indignantly, “Where did you hear that from?” Others meekly said, “We don’t know yet.” No one attempted to dispel the rumour, even when we told them that’s what we’ve been hearing. Instead, they seem to be telling us that it will happen, but they have not been told the date.

Perhaps it was a weekday, several of the H&M stores we visited were not busy. One teenager with a dress draped over her arm said she had not heard anything. “Please, please, please. H&M cannot close. There is nowhere I can buy cheap fashion. This is where I get my party clothes. Please, please, please. Don’t close.”

Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Is Topshop Really Closed?

The store at ION Orchard is boarded up, including the windows

20-06-21-15-39-07-264_decoTopShop at ION Orchard

What is perhaps more telling is that Topshop is no longer in the store listing of ION Orchard’s website. On the doors of the shop—boarded up in black—a terse message reads, in full caps, “SORRY WE ARE CLOSED” (are they really apologetic if they have to shout at you?). Even the windows are similarly covered. Topshop is entirely sealed, except for one still-lit light box.

The shop-front message could indicate permanent closure. Most retail stores, not yet able to open due to COVID-19 and the Circuit Breaker period, mostly state so and communicate that opening dates would be advised later. Topshop does not.

Staff at the store opposite, Charles and Keith, when asked, said they know nothing of the operational state of their neighbour. Telephone calls placed to the branch at Vivo City went unanswered. A Google search for all existing branches showed that they are “permanently closed”. Further to that description, marked in red, Google wrote, “Topshop is recorded closed at this location”. No announcement is made on distributor of Topshop, Wing Tai Holding’s website. It still lists Topshop as a brand it carries. Back in February, The Business Times reported that Wing Tai’s retail arm retrenched 20 staff in a “restructuring”.

20-06-22-02-08-25-000_decoA very closed TopShop and TopMan at ION Orchard20-06-21-16-14-55-597_decoAn unambiguous notice

Topshop was at a time considered to be one of the best fast fashion labels here. Its shine started to fade in the past years and was considerably dulled since media reports emerged nine months ago that the UK’s Arcadia Group, which owns Topshop (and other high-street brands), had agreed to a “rescue deal” with creditors. The BBC reported, at the time, that the retail empire of Topshop’s main man Philip Green “plunges to huge loss”. Closure of some of the Arcadia Group’s more than a thousand stores in 36 countries, including concessions or franchises, was predicted.

Here, many customers started noticing how lacklustre Topshop had become. One fashion stylist told us that “it looked like they were closing down. The merchandise was very miserable”. For those who remembers Topshop as a “happening” place in 2000, where shoppers had access to free use of computers in the Wisma Atria store and enjoyed the British indie music played non-stop, its closure, if confirmed, truly marks the passing of an era.

Note: Topshop’s SG online store is still operating, but, as the ‘add to bag’ button is unresponsive, appears not to be accepting purchases.

Update (11 Sep 2020, 14:00): Two months after our post, Wing Tai Retail confirmed to the media that all Topshop stores (including TopMan) will be closed. It is understood that the UK brand will be available online to local shoppers thereafter. The last standing store is at VivoCity, but it will shut down permanently on 17 Sep 2020.

Photo: Zhao Xiangji

There Will Be Fewer Zara Stores

Is the announcement of Zara’s impending world-wide closure of 1,200 stores a sign of more to come for fast fashion?

 

Zara Liat TowersZara at Liat Towers during the Circuit Breaker period 

Zara is downsizing. Ranked 46th last year by Forbes on their World’s Most Valuable Brands listing (highest among fast fashion/high street names), the Spanish label will not be keeping its current number of stores, believed to be 7,400 of them throughout the world. According to news reports, 1,000 to 1,200 of their stores will be shuttered between now and 2022. It is not yet known how many of the ten in Singapore will be affected. Could Zara’s plan be a stark warning of the actions to follow among other fast fashion labels?

Zara opened its first store here in 2002. It was a “cooperation agreement” between parent company Inditex and local retail and distribution firm Royal Clicks, now mostly known as RSH (which began as the more familiar Royal Sporting House), presently owned by the Dubai-based Al Futtaim Group. It is one of the earliest fast fashion brands (only compatriot label Mango was earlier, debuting here in 1995) to tempt consumers with affordable, quick-to-market, trend-driven fashion.

According to a Reuters report, Inditex—also owner of Massimo Dutti and Pull and Bear (and others)—has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Between February and April, the company recorded a net loss of 409 million euros for the same period, compared to last year. In the same time frame a year ago, sales was 5.9 billion euros. It has now dropped to 3.3 billion euros. The losses, Reuters wrote, include those of other fashion labels under the company, not just Zara, the largest of Inditex brands.

Even before the current pandemic, some fast fashion brands have shown to be untenable. A combination of fluctuating economic conditions, global trade tensions, stretched lifespan of fashion items, inevitable rise of wokeness to sustainability and environmental issues, and displacement of apparel by food and travel (now persuasively known as “experiences”) has diminish the once-immediate appeal of fast fashion. As one magazine writer, speaking of the fast fashion customer, told us, “fast to adopt, fast to forget”.

Forever 21Forever 21 at 313@Somerset before the Circuit Breaker kicked in 

It is understandable why retail pundits are now painting a bleak picture of fast fashion. One of the earliest brands to lose consumer favour is Forever 21. In Singapore, they once operated four stores under the retail arm of UAE’s Sharaf Group. It filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in September last year. Analysts cited lost of relevance as one of the reasons behind the brand’s declining popularity. According to local reports, quoting shop staff, Forever 21 won’t close its sole surviving store at 313@Somerset.

British clothier Topshop has not fared too well either. It announced last year that it’ll close all its US stores, a decade after its foray into the States. In Japan, they opened in 2006 and closed all stores in 2015. Its businesses in Australia were shuttered last year. According to The Guardian, the Arcadia Group—owner of Topshop—“could permanently close some of its shops (that also includes Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge).” Here, Topshop, which opened in 2006 and is run by Wing Tai Holdings (usually linked to the Hong Kong brand G2000), made no announcement of closure, but shoppers have noticed how “sad” the stores was beginning to look, even before the start of the Circuit Breaker lockdown.

The world’s second largest clothing firm by sales after Inditex, Hennes & Mauritz, isn’t looking especially rosy either. Back in 2018, Bloomberg reported that H&M was “embarking on one of its biggest store-closure programmes”, with plans to shut 170 stores that year. It added that the company had “struggled to cut inventory”. Reacting to the pandemic, H&M temporarily closed all its stores in Germany—their biggest market for sales—and all 590 in the US, their second largest market. It is not known if there would be permanent closures.

H&M

Conversely, Uniqlo, it appears, isn’t scaling down. In Japan, they have, in fact, opened stores—two in Tokyo alone, one in Harajuku and one “global flagship” in Ginza, both this month. All this happening while the launch of their first face mask made of their proprietary Airism fabric is scheduled for this Friday in Japan. It is expected to sell out. Uniqlo, opened here in 2009 and whose parent company Fast Retailing is the third largest fashion company in global sales after H&M, has been especially active on social media and, through their PR agency, regularly sending members of the media updates on new merchandise, such as the recent Billie Eilish by Takashi Murakami UT collection.

It’s hard to say if our appetite for Zara and the rest will return when the Circuit Breaker is eventually lifted, or when what is known as Phase 2 kicks in. Even before COVID-19, some of the fast fashion brands did not appear to maintain especially commendable shop keeping and visual merchandising. At H&M’s flagship on Grange Road, just before the Lunar New Year, the store looked deplorably in need of revitalising, with racks of tired merchandise in a setting that was far from what was becoming increasingly vital to brick-and-mortar retail: excitement.

Similarly, at Topshop in ION Orchard, the store has more in common, visually, with a clearance outlet than one that, in its heyday, had a street-facing flagship in the now-defunct Knightsbridge shopping centre (the Apple store today), where the Kate Moss X Topshop collection was launched in 2010. Since the closure in 2015 of what was touted as “Asia’s largest Topshop”, an impressive three-storey space spread out over 11,500 square feet (1,068 square metres), the brand has whittled in physical presence and barely registers among shoppers who are responding to the swankier Zara and the more-fun Uniqlo.

Going forward, it is hard to know which direction fast fashion will take or if it would continue to appeal when consumers are taking note of the staggering surfeit of clothing they own and, at the same time, discard. Lockdown has allowed us to ponder: Do we need clothes to express ourselves when there’s social media? Sure, influencers still use clothes as content on the likes of Instagram, but how many actually buy their own threads? Is fast fashion still an appealing retail concept and would it shine if retailers operate primarily online? Is ‘fast’ speeding inexorably towards a certain end? As with most quagmires, it is complicated.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

The Queue Begins

Will it be a long line? We’re not joining one to find out

 

At the Hennes & Mauritz store in ION Orchard, the line to cop the retailer’s collaboration with Giambattista Valli started to form up only after 9.30pm. Two girls, seated on the floor and appeared to be doing school work, were all to what was expected to be an astonishing row of determined acquisitors. When we passed the H&M outlet earlier, on our way to dinner, the stanchions and the red tape between them constrained no one into an orderly formation of patient waiting. Was it that early for shoppers to reserve a nice spot?

Years ago, with other collaborations, the queue—especially at the Grange Road flagship—would have been visible from space as early as 1pm on the day before the launch. But in recent years, collaboration fans started to prepare to camp out after sundown. According to one staff member at the Erdem collab launch in 2017, more bargain hunters were clicking “add to cart” at the strike of midnight, rather than starting to queue before that—after lunch—to beat everyone else, but not the heat. It might be the same again.

eb8c009873e0e2a19f30a17fc8537c0fH&M communication material possibly depicting a queue. Photo: H&M

But the slow-to-snake-around-the-block line may perhaps be due to collaboration fatigue, a real lassitude that is felt across many high/low partnerships. Sure, it’s still desirable to own something from a name such as Giambattista Valli, whose clothes (and ruffles) are mostly beyond the reach of those willing to look homeless outside an H&M store, but does the ownership of these unnaturally limited clothes mean anything anymore? Would you need a one-occasion-use party dress when you spend most of your life in T-shirts and tattered shorts?

There are also the prices, which are no longer as temptingly attractive as it once was once. From the latest collab, the long red dress of multi-layered tulle from ‘Valli Girls’ (a play on Valley Girls?), thought to be most desirable, is S$549, half of the average McDonald’s Service Crew’s monthly salary. If you have ‘Valli Girls’, you have ‘Valli Boys’—here, an embroidered denim shirt is S$159, which is three times the price of a regular H&M denim top. Not exactly a tiny sum to spend on clothes that, after Christmas, may be relegated to an overstuffed card box in a corner of the musky storeroom.

Update: 7 November 2019, 4.30pm

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By Mao Shan Wang

I kept hearing women asking the door security/usher/watchman if what’s on the racks were all of the H&M X Giambasttista Valli collection left. It was four in the afternoon and surprising it was that shoppers were still hoping to find whatever it was they were seeking. A woman, already with the pink shopping bag issued for this launch event, told a friend that “even this morning, most of the dresses were sold out”. Another, visibly irritated, asked aloud, “Huh? Not one dress left? H&M don’t have enough stock? Who will believe?”

A friend of mind had earlier—before 9am—reported that all the dresses that were the objects of those in line’s desire (and the store’s exceptionally early opening hour—eight, I believe) were gone. “There are stuff, but not those fantastical pieces,” I was told. “Only left with loads of T-shirts and those animal-prints coats, and small leather bags, socks, and scarves.”

Felicia ChinScreen grab of Felicia Chin in a ‘Valli Boys’ sweater, as seen on Channel 8’s Hello Singapore

According to talk among members of the media, some (or many?) socialites, as well as Mediacorp actresses were invited to the media preview organised by Mercury PR, and attendees were allowed to buy ahead of the launch. Dismay among the excluded was understandably rife. One influencer told me, “Why should they be given the privilege when they can buy GBV at full price? And deprive others?” Valid questions to which, regrettably, I have no answers.

That socialites and stars have access to on-trend clothing before they hit the shelves is hardly surprising or unusual. To be the first is of the essence among those for whom being ahead is seen as either very fashionable or a hit with brands. In fact, one of those who had advance pick of the H&M X Giambattista Valli pieces is Felicia Chin (陈凤玲). For the past week, in the trailer of the Channel 8 current affairs program Hello Singapore (狮城有约), to be broadcast tonight, Ms Chin was seen wearing a floral sweater that was very similar to one from ‘Valli Boys’ during a rehearsal of the Chinese musical Infinite Island: A Theatre in Concert (华乐戏剧: 通天大埠). She could not have bought the top this morning.

19-11-07-19-05-37-547_decoScreen grab of H&M e-store

Online, it wasn’t better—the store’s shopping bag was apparently not accepting merchandise. This could be due to the time difference, if, assuming, they availed the collab for purchase during European daylight hours. One magazine editor was trying repeatedly since midnight. When she clicked again around 5pm, many items were marked “out of stock”. Some pieces showed the message “this product could not be added right now”. Elsewhere, specifically E-Bay, many of the coveted dresses are up for grabs!

On my part, I had no intention of going to H&M, but since I was on the way to Takashimaya SC, I thought, why not check it out. The store was surprisingly quiet at that hour. The women—about six—were taking their time with the merchandise, which by then was reduced to five or so rows on sad-looking racks in the front part of the store that was not specially marked out for the well-hyped release. No guy was spotted, perhaps uninterested in the many (leftover) coats, tees, sweaters, and pullovers in leopard spots. Pretty, once again, sold; not wild.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji (except indicated)