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

19-11-07-17-33-55-475_deco.jpg

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)

A Daring Gamble

Singapore’s pride Love, Bonito has opened in Hong Kong. As one of their mantras goes, they discovered the city, embraced it, and have been themselves. Can they seduce the Fragrant Harbour’s fashion folks?

 

LB HK 1

Love, Bonito is going brick-and-mortar in a big way.

Last month, they opened a 2,772-square-feet store with a two-storey-high frontage in Hong Kong, not in some sprawling suburban mall, which the city has many, but in a swanky tower, boasting a store-front that faces the main thoroughfare, Queen’s Road Central. It’s less than 500 metres from The Landmark, the city’s thirty-six-year-old home to the world’s biggest luxury brands, as well as the flagship of Joyce, Club 21’s closest competitor, and is almost at the foot of Lan Kwai Fong, Central’s shopping, entertainment and dining hub, and a mere hop away from the Soho-Mid-Levels Escalator.

Located in the newly-built H Queen’s, a somewhat predictable glass-and-steel skyscraper that is marketed as a “vertical art space” in a district with surprisingly few art galleries except those in the nearby Pedder Building, Love, Bonito contrasts with the address’s upmarket and art-leaning positioning. The fashion label has a somewhat equal neighbour to its right, though—the Korean-owned remake of the 114-year-old Major League Baseball (known simply as MLB) sportswear line. But just five floors up is anchor tenant David Zwirner, the New York-based contemporary art gallery that reps Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kasuma, and the Miffy-loving, Beijing artist Liu Ye (刘野). There are seven more large-scale galleries above, which perhaps explains why Financial Times happily called H Queen’s “the gallery space Hong Kong was waiting for”.

But was Hong Kong waiting for Love, Bonito? The once digital-native market player has been available globally for as long as they have been (curiously) popular on our island. It isn’t certain if Hong Kong women are the rabid fans of the label the way Singaporean girls are. Gushing influencers with their exuberant pre-opening posts are not an accurate barometer. On the morning its Queen’s Road Central store welcomed their first customers, there was a queue, but not the unceasing snaking line seen at the opening of its first free-standing shop in 313@Somerset. Shoppers may have simply come for the 100 free HKD388 (approximately S$68) gift cards handed out to early birds, who found the amount more than enough to have at least one item without charge, since prices start from HKD220.

When we passed the store a week after the opening, we heard a twentysomething shopper telling her friend, as both women came out—empty-handed, “依個新加坡牌子唔係好特別啊 (this Singaporean label isn’t very special)”. To which the reply was, “而家依啲款周街都係啦 (these day, such styles are everywhere on the streets)”. A little later, a Singaporean merchandiser working in Hong Kong told us, “It’s very audacious of them to think that Hongkongers, who, more than Singaporeans, are fashion-savvy, would buy into their aesthetics and quality”.

LB HK 2

Since establishing their first permanent store in 313@Orchard in 2017, Love, Bonito has been on an opening frenzy. They are now three-store strong in Singapore. With five doors in Malaysia, seven in Indonesia, and two in Cambodia, Love, Bonito is our most successful and well-expanded clothing label to date. This rapid overseas development has been possible as the brand managed to raise an impressive USD13 million last year, led by Tokyo Stock Exchange-listed Japanese comparison shopping website, Kakaku, as well as support from current investor NSI Ventures, the Singaporean venture capitalist firm with money in the Indonesian ride-sharing (and other businesses) conglomerate, Go-Jek.

While co-founder Rachel Lim has told the media that what they’re doing is “not a price game”, neither is Love, Bonito a design game. You’d think that, in venturing overseas, Love, Bonto could have done our city-state prouder by boosting the make of their garments and project an image that may allow “a little brand from Singapore” to be worthy of a place alongside Hong Kong labels such as Initial, all the house brands under the IT Group, or, if we’re really unconcerned with the “price game”, even many of the unheard of names in the narrow shopping mall, Island Beverly in Causeway Bay. But as one fashion editor told us, “Let’s be clear what is clothing business and what is fashion design”.

To be sure, the HK store has a fairly well-decorated and a definitely eye-catching window (maybe it’s the impressive height). Yet despite the influencer raves, once you past the front door, the familiar visual merchandising, crammed racks of the unexceptional and formulaic, and many unpressed clothes, all in a patina of pink, quickly tell you you’re on familiar girly ground. Perhaps they’re preserving visual and experiential consistency—even in Central, one of the most fashionable and upmarket commercial districts in Hong Kong, a Love, Bonito store should not look different from one in Jurong East.

Love, Bonito HK started its retail operations in the middle of the (on-going, mostly weekend) demonstrations (which saw the first on 16 June with a turnout of a reported “nearly 2 million” protesters) against what initially was the government’s (eventually-withdrawn) extradition bill. That Saturday morning was the sixth weekend of discontent for the city, but Love, Bonito opened its doors to a Central that was as busy—and peaceful—as it is on a typical Saturday before noon. No shopper nor Rachel Lim, who cheerfully posed on the street in front of the store for a photograph later, could have guessed that HK would eventually descend into a mess that culminated in the closure of the Hong Kong International Airport on 12 August. Was it an inauspicious start for the brand?

Perhaps not. To be noted is the fact that Love, Bonito on 80, Queen’s Road Central is, in fact, a four-month “pop-up”. The Hong Kong protests may be protracted, but Love, Bonito’s physical store will not be there that long.

Photos: 黃小銘

Fish, They’ve Done It!

The blog-shop-turned-full-fledged-fashion-label Love, Bonito has opened a flagship retail store. Despite the dreary retail mood and a general skepticism of blogshops, Love, Bonito is one of our island’s most successful and visible brands. Will they just continue to bring to the racks the successful formula that has up till now mainly appealed to the Internet denizen? Or, will they do better?

Love Bonito store front

By Mao Shan Wang

Last weekend, two Singapore brands unveiled their newest outlet: PS Café removed the hoarding to their spanking eatery in Raffles City, while Love, Bonito opened the doors of their flagship in 313@Somerset. Sure, both could not be any different—one is in the business of food and the other clothing, but they have one thing in common: neither offers a sense of being that hinges on the future. Their stores are each physical expression of the bygone and it is in them that I saw the stark difference.

When I stood in front of PS Café, I saw an old-fashioned establishment or homage to the past—retro-cool tempered by 2017’s sense of the sophisticated—aimed at a very specific customer. When I stood before Love, Bonito, I saw retro-cool too, but here, there was something else. While the visual merchandising, fixtures, and products seem to reinstate the aesthetics of a past era, the space is conceived to capture the desires of generation now. A photo wall that welcomes selfie-taking and a phone-charging cabinet heighten unapologetically how it caters to the masses, through and through.

Love Bonito queueThe queue outside Love, Bonito in 313@Somerset

And the masses turned up. At the opening of Love, Bonito’s 4,603 sq ft flagship store in 313@Somerset, the queue to have first grab of their merchandise was well anticipated. A poster was erected near the escalator of their second-floor store, designating where the “official queue” was to be. Queuing was allowed at half past ten, thirty minutes before the store was due to receive their first shoppers, but shortly after ten, when the mall opened, a messy, mixed line had already formed along black-rope-linked stanchions, placed to encourage orderliness in the crowd. It was hard to say what these young women (some so clearly only at puberty’s door that they had to be accompanied by their mother) had truly come here for: the irresistible clothes or the opening giveaway of a “goodie bag” worth S$120 with purchases of S$120.

I did not know what to expect. For sure, I did not anticipate a queue, let alone crowd control. What I saw was more impressive—if a brand’s popularity is judged by length of queue at launch day—than the line outside H&M, less than 1km away, formed two days earlier for the launch of the Erdem X H&M collaboration. Two girls, no more than twenty, were studying the posters erected at the start of the line. I heard one of them ask, “Huh, have to queue, ah?” I asked her how she came to know about this, and she happily said that it was through Facebook. And added, looking pleased, “We waited for this store to open a long time, liao.” I wondered if they too had queued for Erdem X H&M. “Er, who?” was the quick reply. I tried again, “Not erhu. Erdem.” “Don’t know.”

Love, Bonito interior 1Love, Bonito’s interior with mannequins amid floor, as well as suspended racks

For those outside the black ropes, without the affinity for Love, Bonito’s mass-market exuberance, this line may be as appealing as the one outside a public ladies’ toilet. The restroom is, however, a necessity; a clothing store is not. Among the fashion cognoscenti, Love, Bonito is a curiosity that you ask about, not buy into. Despite their admired track, rising from blogshop to e-shop to brick-and-mortar store, they have not been able to entice those whose idea of fashion—or what is fashionable—is not trapped in an unending online shopping belt.

Inside the convivial store, which really wasn’t crowded enough to require a queue outside (a line at the entrance always gives the impression that the shop is hugely popular—a tact possibly learnt from Louis Vuitton), I noticed—no, I spied—a young woman emerging from the fitting room with three pieces of clothing and smiling gleefully at her waiting male companion. “Can we go now?” he asked, shaken from the torpor. “No, I want to buy some more,” came the reply. This must have horrified the fellow because he pointed disapprovingly to another queue—outside the fitting rooms (including three make-shift ones among the rack of clothes). She was unperturbed and walked off, leaving the hapless guy standing under a neon sign that read, irony intact, “Discover. Embrace. Be You.”

Love, Bonito interior 3The blazing neon of Love, Bonito’s empowering mantra

Less than ten steps away—behind that pillar, in fact—two girls were vigorously swiping on a tablet PC held aloft on a steel stand just below what looked like a message board, but was in fact an artfully arranged mood board. They were looking intently at the Love, Bonito website. With all the clothes here to see and touch and buy, it was odd that these two preferred the cold and hard and flat surface of the touch screen. Bitten by curiosity, I asked them why they were scanning the online site when they could see everything on the selling floor, as well as feel, and try them on.

“We’re looking for something we wanted, but could not find here.” Do you like this brand a lot? “Among all the blogshops, they’re the best.” Why? “The others sell the same things. Their clothes look like they come from the same factory. Here, their things are more unique.”

It’s interesting that despite “moving up”, as announced in a plastered window of their previous incarnation—a pop-up store (also in 313@Sommerset), Love, Bonito is still referred to by customers as a “blogshop.” This illustrates that what there were in the past had been so successful that fans still regard them by their initial online form, hosted on blog site LiveJournal, even when they have upgraded to a proper dot-com URL. While the blogshop as an online retail set-up has come to denote women—individuals or a group—setting up an e-commerce venture characterised by the casualness of the business and the inexperience of their operators, the initial unsystematic approach has not dented Love, Bonito’s growth potential.

Love Bonito pop-up shop windowA Love, Bonito poster announcing their move, as well as urging shoppers to “hang” with them

Before most women know them by the sign-off Love, Bonito, the brand traded as BonitoChico, or Spanish for ‘pretty boy’. Since Spanish is one of the least familiar European languages here, many, like I, did not make the connection and, instead, thought it had something to do with bonito flakes (or kastsuobushi, the pinkish shavings of dried and fermented bonito fish typically served on top of the savoury Japanese pancake okonomiyaki). Still, the name did not latch on to its F&B association, and was catchy enough to draw the attention of young women attracted by BonitoChico’s inexpensive, homogeneous, and approachable fashion.

That was in 2006. Sisters Viola and Velda Tan, and fellow church-goer Rachel Lim started—at first—a disposal point of the contents of their personal wardrobes to “make pocket money”, as they would tell the media, by putting what they wanted to sell on the SGSellTrade page of LiveJournal, a born-in-America blogging application and online community that is owned by a Russian media company since 2007. Fans of Love, Bonito may have no desire to read this oft-told story, but to some, it’s so inspirational that perhaps it deserves a re-telling. In the year of its founding, BonitoChico was not the only blogshop enticing young women to spend their savings and pocket money on clothes. There was the intriguingly named Love and Bravery, formed a year earlier (and has, since 2011, operated their own brick-and-mortar stores). But the Bonito girls, as they were sometimes called, did more than build a fledgling brand; they created a following. This still amazes, considering that before 2010, social media was curiosity, not compulsion.

Pull quote 1

After a month of brisk business, BonitoChico debuted with their own page on LiveJournal. I have to admit that I have not seen BonitoChico’s LiveJournal page, but I understand it communicated a simple girlishness that many of its fans found relatable. It was a potent mix of “sugar, spice, and everything nice”, to quote Powerpuff Girls’ maker Professor Utonium, and it was a non-threatening and non-judgmental platform that lured young women for whom a physical store could be considerable effort and a tad intimidating.

The initial, unexpected success of BonitoChico soon embolden the three partners to start bringing in clothes from Bangkok and Hong Kong—cash and carry at wholesale centres and markets—to augment their merchandise. These were clothes that fit with the everyday nature of their customers’ lives, not anything that could cross to the realm of special occasions—“cheap and good”, as so many Netizens happily and willingly proclaimed. The sales looked upwards, and the trio decided to try their hand at producing their own merchandise.

The results were not the stuff to encourage the response, impressive. There were considerable online complaints of delivery issues, how the received clothes did not look the same as the versions hawked online, how they were poorly made, and how some came apart just after a few washes. But for reasons that were part Internet mystery and part social media savvy, BonitoChico continued to do well—so well, in fact, that just after three short years, it won ‘Best Blogshop’ in the Nuffnang (“World’s Leading Blog Advertising Community”, according to their website) Asia-Pacific Awards in 2009. By its fourth birthday in 2010, the brand’s celebratory bash/fashion show, hosted by DJ Daniel Ong, at the now defunct Clark Quay club, Zirca, drew a mind-boggling number of over 1000 attendees, with those stuck in the queue texting friends to vent their frustration. The clothes may not have been impressive, but the anniversary party clearly was.

Julien Fournié for Love Bonito 2013Love, Bonito by Julien Fournié at Fidé Fashion Week in 2013

The Zirca venue, as opposed to, say, Zouk, spoke of BonitoChico’s popular positioning and the brand’s understanding of what appealed to their customers. These twentysomethings were enraptured by the twentsomething creators of their favourite brand, and, consequently, a pro-business community spirit was forged—quite unheard of in the growth of a local fashion name. Between Bonitochico and its customers, it wasn’t just a transaction, it was a fellowship.

That year, perhaps encouraged by their palpable success, the Tan sisters and Ms Lim decided to re-brand BonitoChico with a name change and, in doing so, possibly unshackled themselves from what they had identified to the press as “blogshop stigma”. Love, Bonito and its very own e-commerce-enabled website were thus created. Although they were now selling their own clothing line, some industry folks were skeptical of what the girls could really do, since it was not known that any of them could design. This, for some skeptics, was borne out during the launch of Love, Bonito’s first collaboration—with the French couturier Julien Fournié.

Mr Fournié’s haute couture collection closed the now-no-longer-staged Fidé Fashion Week in 2013. On a video screen above the runway, a teaser short-film was shown, featuring the Love, Bonito founders in what could be presumed to be Mr Fournié’s Paris atelier. When the girls got down to work, it did not appear that they were there to collaborate on a collection. Rather, it looked like there were there to socialise. They were seen looking and pointing at the pictures (simultaneously showing off their wrist and finger jewellery) of Julien Fournié look book and occasionally touching the fabric swatches. They did not even appear to be part of the colour selection and pairing process. Someone in the audience pointed to the naming of the collection: Julien Fournié for Love, Bonito, and concluded that it was clear who had to do the work. The collection instantly established arguably Singapore’s most successful blogshop as a full-fledged clothing label.

Love Bonito in Sogo SurabayaLove, Bonito corner in Sogo Department Store, Surabaya, Indonesia

When the Bonito girls came out with Mr Fournié to take the customary bow at the end of the show, there were only two of them. Younger sibling Velda of the Tan sisters was conspicuously missing. It was said earlier than Velda Tan had decided to leave the still-growing brand that she co-founded to “do something different”, as she would later also say to the media. Her conspicuous no-show was confirmation of her departure. It was not certain what prompted her to leave (it has been repeatedly stated till now by the remaining two that the younger Velda Tan is still a shareholder) even when the inevitable talk in the industry attributed the parting to sibling rivalry and goals that, by then, were no longer aligned. A year after her departure from Love, Bonito, Ms Tan left for London and enrolled in Central Saint Martins for courses in business management, visual merchandising, and pattern making. In 2015, she started Collate the Label, and won herself a corner in Tangs, her first stockist.

If there was any fear that a co-founder’s new fashion line would be in direct competition with their then nine-year-old label, Viola Tan and Rachel Lim did not let on. After the collaboration with Julien Fournié, there was a second, intriguingly with Indonesian designer Tex Saverio, launched during Singapore Fashion Week in 2015. By then, Love, Bonito had opened stores in Malaysia, followed by those in Indonesia. Until their flagship in Singapore opened, Love, Bonito went offline here too, venturing into physical retail spaces for the past 6 years. These were pop-ups in temporarily empty units in malls such as Orchard Gateway. Although Love, Bonito markets itself as a brand that takes customer experience seriously, it did not impress some shoppers, who found their pop-ups with conventional displays to be “just another clothing shop”. This suggested that while a pop-up—by definition, a temporary arrangement and not usually lavishly appointed—may not be a foretaste of things to come, it could, as with a blogshop, follow them like a stigma.

Love, Bonito Pop-Up@313.jpg

Last year, at the comeback Singapore Fashion Award, Love, Bonito enjoyed the biggest win of the night. It was not surprising that they would. In the decade of their existence, few brands have enjoyed so much buzz. Viola Tan and Rachel Lim, flushed with thrill, went on stage to collect awards for ‘Top Most Popular Brand of the Year’ (the other two recipients were Beyond the Vine and jewellery label By Invitation Only), ‘The Best Collaboration of the Year’ (with Tex Saverio), and ‘Best Marketing’.

The last award, however, puzzled some fashion marketers. One marketing head was quick to say at the presentation that “quantity rather than quality wins”. On Love, Bonito’s visual communication alone, that charge was perhaps not overly harsh. The brand produces many images and while they may work on a non-static landing page of a website, mostly viewed on a smartphone, they tend to attract the wrong attention especially when even the most minuscule oversight was magnified in a huge ad, in an MRT station.

One of their earliest light boxes appeared at the Somerset MRT station. It had one of three models in a stripe-y dress, with a length of the spaghetti straps—configured as halterneck—accidentally twisted when worn. While it escaped the stylist’s, the CD’s, the photographer’s, and the digital retoucher’s eyes, it did not escape mine. At the opening of the flagship store last week, a poster erected as backdrop for a window display showed a side slit (of a dress) that was unpressed, with a thread let loose from the hem, like a not-neatened bikini line. That, too, did not escape my eyes.

MRT Lightbox ad.jpgOne of the more recent lightbox ad in Somerset MRT station

The Love, Bonito marketing images looked like they were picked from among the countless IG posts of adoring fans. But, perhaps it is true when a fashion buyer later remarked to me, knocking some shame into my disbelief, “but that’s how women wear their clothes. Anyway, who cares?” That, I suspect, could well be how Love, Bonito approaches their marketing, with a sense of detachment that rather speaks of the Whatever! attitude of their horde of followers.

Back at the new store, where it was still drawing shoppers with the same flow as ants returning to serve the queen, I took a close look at the clothes, most, surprisingly, not ironed. A sleeveless dress drew my attention. It, too, caught the attention of a vision in pink—more sugar than spice. She yanked it off the rack. On the hanger, it hung like a not-quite-dry towel. The woman changed her mind and returned the dress to its crowded home. I now noticed the warped armhole and at the spot where it met the side seam, I detected a tiny bump of fabric—a pile that, for a certain price point, was probably inconsequential. In the beginning, Bonitochico churned out clothes that did not disguise their insufficient time on the drafting table and their rushed manufacture. More than a decade later, as Love, Bonito, the making of their clothes does not seem to have enjoyed the benefit of less haste.

Love Bonito selfie wallThe selfie wall inside Love, Bonito’s flagship store

But, “Quality Matters”, goes a Love, Bonito ad copy. A catchy maxim, but tricky target. Love, Bonito’s clothes, like their advertising images, even when they give the impression of excellence, are not meticulously produced. Rachel Lim told The Straits Times in 2015 that they “want to give customers value for money, so we pay close attention to everything, right down to the finishing.” Her business partner Viola Tan added, “We don’t skimp on fabric or workmanship.” Perhaps, Ms Lim and Ms Tan have a different definition of quality, considering that “value for money” and “don’t skimp on fabric or workmanship” are generally on different ends of the quality scale. I do concede, however, that quality, as with elegance, do not have the same meaning, or ring, as it once did.

I sometimes wonder if I have, in my distrust and disbelief, misread Love, Bonito. The reality is that there is a whole new way of making clothes and selling them that has nothing to do with the rigours of good design. A whole generation of women has grown up on a diet of H&M, Forever 21, and the like, and to them, the hodgepodge—uneven hem et al—in these stores is fashion. They’re weaned on looks, rather than details—whether the devil is in them or not. And Love, Bonito knows they don’t have to do better than that to entice. But rather than join the purveyors of fast fashion, as the Bonito girls has declared that their brand is doing, why not beat them? That then, I would say, and wholeheartedly, is when true love will follow.

Photos: Cooper Koh and Galerie Gombak

Michelle Chong Spoofs Vogue’s 73 Qs

Michelle Chong for Dorothy Perkins

By Mao Shan Wang

You have the opening scene of 7+3 Q’s with Sonia: Michelle Chong, reprising the character from her cheesy little S$1.5 million film Lulu The Movie, walks in akimbo; her back to the camera. A guy with a Caucasian voice calls out to her and she turns around—deliberately, pretending to be surprised. I thought I heard the perfunctory applause. She then talks to the unseen male and proceeded to indulge him in what would be a Q&A involving a set of “7+3” questions. I thought I was going to sleep.

This is no doubt a spoof of the Vogue.com series 73 Questions—cheery interviews that make the interviewees shiny examples of my-life-is-perfect-that’s-why-I’m-so-contented celebrity, all set in domestic bliss or professional calm. Even the reputed ice queen Anna Wintour, in Season 1, appeared to be in high spirits although still playing up her to-be-expected coldness. An un-wintry Anna Wintour would be a letdown. Although the questions were posed to her in her Architectural Digest-worthy office, she offered no hint of editorial stress, let alone semblance of editorial work. Stilted and aided by minions, she revealed inconsequential and trite details about herself such as the fact that she’s not a discerning coffee drinker (breakfast = Starbucks).

Participants of 73 Questions are, in fact, often made to look so unshackled by the woes of life, but fettered by the insipidness of a positive video persona that they appear positively dull, even when flipping on a trampoline. It is, of course, all harmless fun, but not quite fun enough to beguile a long, lazy, humid afternoon. The questions themselves are to be blamed: “What’s the best piece of advice your mom has given you?” and, repeatedly, “What’s your spirit animal?” I have more engaging conversations with the Hubei fellow who sweeps the void deck of my block.

Why 73? According to Joe Sabia, the creator and director of the series, the figure came about after a process of elimination from the original 100 proposed questions. And “it sounded like a good number”. Why “7+3”? Because it sounds better than 10? But, perhaps more significantly, do you want to hear inane answers to inane questions for an insane 10 minutes? Not from Sonia!

Michelle Chong for Dorothy Perkins 2

Michelle Chong’s soporific turn as Sonia is a lame counterpoint to the Shanghainese lian Lulu, first fleshed to life in the TV series The Noose. Or her lian pang counterpart Apple Tham. Sonia gives me the impression that she might be the sister of Nida Goodwood, the newscaster, also from The Noose, who speaks with an accent that sounds like she had been schooled somewhere in the Philippines, but, as I later learned, is supposed to be slightly RP (received pronunciation or, simply put, what you hear on the BBC). In Lulu The Movie, she is scripted to be haughty and go-getting, and a fierce spelling police (“How many times have I said that fashion is spelled with an H?”) and, thus, unlikeable, but in 7+3 Q’s with Sonia, she’s shown to be sisterly, BFF-worthy, and—perhaps open to dispute—fashion-y.

In the YouTube post, Sonia wears an ill-fitting black, long-sleeved blouse with an unmissable pussycat bow that, by now, should have been relegated to a recess of the wardrobe where so little light comes in that it’s a fashion graveyard. The top is tucked into a slim gingham skirt with a peplum in the front. Whether irony is intended or not, it deserves notice: In the film, fashion personality Sonia berates a couple of assistants presenting the outfits they have picked for her on-screen appearance. “Do these clothes,” she thundered, “look like they belong to a fashion program? Or, is this the rack for the 9 o’clock news?” Maybe this is payback time. In 7+3 Q’s with Sonia, she looks like she is dressed for the 1 o’clock news! Some people will call it karma.

Ms Chong has made a name for herself out of spoofing, especially the many stereotypes that exist among us. I don’t find her jibes particularly humorous, but, apparently, many do. Therein lies her success: she has a common touch. Not that that’s a bad thing. Look at Jack Neo and his protégé Mark Lee. They’ve become moneyed by poking fun at our foibles and flaws, using mannerism and language that are part of our foibles and flaws. Ms Chong has chanelled her parody skills into money-churning advertising appearances, sometimes playing multiple roles in one screen, as Eddie Murphy did, or a more contemporary example, as Tyler Perry does. But unlike these guys, she vacillates between two domains: one called funny, the other not.

7+3 Q’s with Sonia is, unsurprisingly, an ad of sorts. It’s conceived for the brand Dorothy Perkins, which, by the way, is not a designer name. Now owned by the Arcadia Group (Topshop/Topman’s parent company), it is apparently named after the rambling rose of the same moniker. That the video was commissioned to score with social media-struck Millennials isn’t a marketing coup. There’s no ambiguity to where between the points of high and popular culture it attempts to pivot. That, I suppose, is where Sonia comes in. She’s suitably mild and middle-of-the-road. Let’s just say, don’t expect Saturday Night Life. Michelle Chong’s initials may be MC, but her other name is not (Melissa) McCarthy.

Screen grabs: YouTube/The Michelle Chong Channel