What Happened, Dennis Tay?

How did our island’s biggest supporter of local designs become national bad guy?

At the entrance of the now-closed Naiise Iconic store in Jewel Changi, a brown sign in white san-serif font welcomed visitors with the proclamation: “Here we celebrate local design, creativity and community. Happy shopping and have a #Naiise day!” It was such personableness than endeared many shoppers to the retail brand. The sign-off in that notice read, “Love, Team Naiise.” With the massive 9,500 sq ft (882.5 sq m), two-storey store now shut for good, many shoppers and those who had dealings with the retailer wondered what happened to that celebration. “No one is celebrating now,” many were saying, certainly not when defaulted payments to many of the store’s consignors may no longer be recovered as Naiise goes into liquidation and the high-profile company winds down. A puzzling turn of events, eight years in the making.

Despite long-standing issues with paying consignors that allegedly go back to even before the reported 2016 start making media rounds last year, Dennis Tay Chi Wai (郑志伟) was hailed as a flag bearer of Singaporean designs across many product categories and the operator of the largest online and physical store of its kind here. One editorial in Life of The Straits Times in 2016 described “Mr Tay proving his business chops and Naiise making S$30,000 in its first year”. In the same article, his wife Amanda Eng was quoted calling him a “visionary boss”. But on 9 April, six years later, a couple of videos was shared on-line of a group of debt chasers in pursuit of Mr Tay, the founder and CEO of Naiise.

The showdown took place in the carpark of Jewel Changi, above which the HSBC rain vortex was doing its equally attention-grabbing job. Below ground, the view of Mr Tay, often blocked or cut off, almost supplicating to the debt hounds, was one of unbelievable wretchedness. The debtor was being grilled by the much younger man, who had a commanding lead in the confrontation. That was quite a sight, considering that just three years ago, Mr Tay was in Tatler’s Gen T list of 2018 (that “recognises 400 leaders of tomorrow who are shaping Asia’s future”). He shared the accolade alongside regional retail notables such as Barom Bhicharnchitr (son of Central Department Store Group CEO Yuwadee Chirativat), MD of the Bangkok mall Central Embassy and the Naiise-ish Central: The Original Store, as well as Gary Chen Wenhao (陈文豪) of Gentspace, the Shanghai-based menswear lifestyle store, including Gentspace Casa, with branches throughout China.

Naiise at PLQ, two weeks before it abruptly closed. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

In the same year, The Peak reported that Naiise’s topline figure for 2017 was “between S$4 to 5 million”. According to Mr Tay, as the article continued, “70 percent of the sales came from brick-and-mortar stores.” If the off-line business was this lucrative, no one understood why Naiise was unable to pay their consignors. An article in The Straits Times quoted an employer saying that “it was constant fire fighting. If we paid supplier A, we could not pay supplier B. The outlook wasn’t great, which is why many of us left in 2016.” By now, the question that kept going unanswered was, “what happened to the money made from the sales?”. Allegations—fueled by anger—were rife that Mr Tay was not forthcoming with the company’s finances. Some frustrated brand owners were amazed with “the great success” Mr Tay had made himself out to be in the media despite financial troubles in the office. Some started warning others not to believe what they read.

While news of non- or delayed payments to consignors were making the rounds, damaging chatter of paying employees late, too, started appearing on social media. One person, posting on Glassdoor in September 2016, said that the “pay (was) late” and that there was “no CPF”. But five months earlier, Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, posted holiday shots that showed the couple basking in Bali, in the upscale Soori resort, which World Luxury Hotel Awards and France 24 described as “best luxury beach-front resort hotel in Asia” and Financial Times calling it “no.1 luxury hotel for design” (hence, the appeal to the Tays?). Bali became a favourite vacation spot (the Maldives next). Between 2016 and 2019, there were five known holiday trips to the Indonesian island. When they were in London in 2017 to open the UK pop-up in Shoreditch, they stayed in the hipster hotel The Hoxton, described by the British media as “upscale”. It is understandable why there were so many—in the company and outside—who were affected by the unabashed display.

At the end of 2018, when news emerged that Naiise was selected as operator of the soon-to-be-opened Design Orchard, many in retail received it with disbelief. At the press conference in the new year to announce the launch of Design Orchard, Mr Tay was confident of his ability to make his new retail charge a great success. He said, “we have experience in the retail industry; we are relatively close to the design community; we have created design showcases for the last six years.” When asked about his poor payment record, he said, “What happened was that there was some gaps in the company, so we had internal issues—there are a lot of process failures… we are essentially resolving it by basically looking at the foundation…” Resolving? Not resolved? “No, it has not been resolved.” Eleven months after Design Orchard opened, Naiise at Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ) was launched. When we visited the store just before Christmas and saw the bustling footfall, we wondered—like others earlier, how could he be in debt?

Design Orchard in 2019, under the watch of Naiise. File photo: SOTD

Dennis Tay was born in 1985 to a remisier father and a school teacher mother. By his own telling, he was “a playful kid” and, as recounted in a video interview with The Ice Cream & Cookie Co., posted in YouTube in 2018, it was “a memorable childhood, growing up in a condo with a large and really strong community—kampung spirit.” According to ST, the family was staying in a “HDB maisonette in Bukit Batok.” Mr Tay claimed that, since young, he “had an interest in entrepreneurship.” He told The Business Times in 2017, “in primary school, I was selling erasers.” Even with the ardent vending, he finished the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) with a respectable score of 213 (over 300) and was admitted to Tanglin Secondary School. In the ST feature, he reported that his “first mini business (began) at the age of 17—doing tutor matching services.” It was also at that age that he met his future wife Amanda Eng, when both were school mates at Anderson Junior College. Into adulthood, he “started an events company when (he) was about 22, and co-founded a creative agency a few years after.” Mr Tay went to SIM-RMIT University, where he graduated with a bachelor in business, majoring in entrepreneurship in 2013.

Six months before graduating, he began planning the birth of Naiise. The business started in January 2013 with the by-now-famous seed money of S$3,000, which he grew to the even more glorious and just-as-noted S$30,000 in the first year, all managed from his bedroom in his parents’ flat. In 2016, just three years after he launched Naiise, he reportedly “made”, as the press ambiguously described, an enviable S$5 million. But the rosy picture was just that: rosy. In one report in The New Paper in 2018, “Naiise had failed to pay at least four companies”. According to TNP, Mr Tay’s business “was transitioning from a startup to a full-fledged company.” Two years later, BT stated that, back then, money from sold consignment was already owed “despite its core operating revenues growing by more than 40 per cent year on year.”

At the start, Mr Tay ran a one-man operation. After that encouraging first year, his JC mate Amanda Eng joined him in various roles, not initially defined. Ms Eng went to Raffles Girls Secondary School and after JC, continued her studies at the National University of Singapore, where she graduated in business administration. According to her, it was during their undergraduate days that they started dating. Before teaming up with Mr Tay, she worked between Singapore and Hong Kong as an equity research analyst, with an eye on Chinese Internet stocks. She made one more stop before her tenure at Naiise: the e-commerce platform Zalora, as their marketing director. In 2015, the colleagues of two years and couple of ten got married in a wedding happily covered by the media. Two years later, Mrs Tay was appointed the retailer’s buying and marketing director. In no time, her artful management—just like the company’s payment defaults—began appearing on social media: “The boss’ (sic) wife,” in one Glassdoor entry in 2018, “began to meddle a little in everything… her methods winds (sic) up rubbing people the wrong way.” In 2020, Mrs Tay suddenly stepped down from her post. She joined Shopee as their regional marketing head. Her husband told BT that “she has proceeded to venture out to pursue other options for her career.”

Naiise Iconic, shortly after it opened in 2019. File photo: SOTD

Dennis Tay, according to those who have dealt with him, is personable and chatty, and is often all teeth and smiles. He is convincing and appears to be deeply passionate about design although, as one brand manager who had once presented merchandise to him told us, “he has a loose definition of what design is. At first look, you won’t guess he is a seller of nice things.” A former operations manager wrote on Glassdoor, “Dennis is a charismatic person who constantly manipulates his employees, many who are fresh-grads into working long unpaid hours. He’s been pocketing a lot more than he lets on but when pay (is to be) given always tells us that ‘it’s been a bad month’ and then tries to psychologically sway us that everyone is in it together.” An ex-journalist told us that the Naiise founder “is a charmer. He is eloquent, has an answer for everything, and will give you a good interview. He just knows what to say.” And, as reporters and consignors noted, he always had a probable answer for every question asked about the allegations of payment defaults.

But despite the many editorial profiles (the Tays love write-ups about them, such as the regular plugs by friend Jacky Yap, the founder of Vulcan Post), it can’t be said people really knew the entrepreneur, or how he truly viewed fiscal prudence. In a 2015 article posted on dbs.com, Mr Tay said, “I actually don’t have secrets. I’ve built Naiise to be an open and transparent company, so everyone, including my employees, know everything about me.” Yet, when brand owners wanted to reach him, they were met with an opaque wall. Many complained that he would not answer calls, text messages, and e-mails. In April 2015, Mr Tay wrote on Facebook, “One of my greatest joys of being at Naiise is that everyday, I get to see customers walk in, smile and discover the amazing things that we sell.” Can retail be so one-sided, some now wonder? Does Mr Tay not want to see his consignors walk in, smile, and see the amazing things sold and them, consequently, receive payment?

In the beginning, Dennis Tay had frequently and proudly called his company a “bootstrapped” one (business with little or no outside cash or built from the ground up with just personal money). To augment that description, his wife Amanda Eng told Yahoo News that Naiise was developed “slowly and by saving every cent we could.” By the time they pulled out of Design Orchard last July and closed the PLQ store in the same month, few gave credence to those assertions. A lover of motivational quotes, Mr Tay is fond of placing them prominently in his office and also to share them online. One stood out: “Dream. Believe. Do. Repeat.” Those who have been owed money were sure he chose the last. In a Facebook post that appeared after announcing that Naiise will totally cease operations, Mr Tay started by saying, “It has been an extremely difficult two years, and the last few weeks have been the darkest of my life.” Reaction to this: “sob story”. By now, no one believed him.

Illustration: Just So

When Naiise Isn’t So Nice

For a long time, the retailer Naiise was not fine and certainly not dandy. Now, they have reportedly defaulted on paying vendors—again, some up to ten grand. Citing woes as a result of the ongoing pandemic, its flagship in Jewel Changi ceases operation today. Is that just a neat way to bow out?

The two-storey behemoth, Naiise at Jewel, not long after it opened in May 2019. File photo: SOTD

Naiise today. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

It doesn’t pay to be Naiise. That might be a pun in poor taste, but for many vendors who did business with the former operator of Design Orchard, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Naiise has not enjoyed a sterling reputation as a retailer who paid their consignors on time and consistently enough. According to recent media reports, the company owed “hundreds of vendors” payment for sold merchandise, with some “up to S$10,000”. Things are dire enough for their last retail operation in Jewel Changi that its doors opened for the last time yesterday (the same fate befell on their Paya Lebar Quarter store last year). The Business Times attributed the closure to “ongoing struggle to pay its vendors”. But some, reacting to the statement, noted that “the struggle has been going on for years.” In one 2018 The New Paper report, Naiise has been “defaulting on payment since 2016”. In a Facebook post shortly after the TNP story, jewellery brand Tessellate Co asked, “Is it fair for Naiise to owe us nine months of sales payment since October 2017?” Many retailers are curious to know how Naiise have been able to “keep this up for so long” when finance professionals generally consider three months of no (or late) payment a default.

Observers had noted that the shuttering of the Naiise flagship store in Jewel, announced two days ago, “is a matter of time”. The chatter among them as early as January, when news again emerged in the media of was that Naiise’s physical store is not “sustainable”, given the extant of payment issues with their consignors that now go back to the time Naiise was operating Design Orchard until last August. A little earlier, in 2018, five years after Naiise was born, and the company’s problems came to light, main man Dennis Tay told the media that his business was transitioning from a start-up to a full-grown enterprise. Retail folks and brand owners are wondering: Naiise is eight years old, are they still in transition?

It goes without saying that brands, especially the small ones, need to be paid to continue to do what they do. One designer told SOTD, “many of us need fast cash to make ends meet.” The frustrations with tardy (or no) payment led to more than a hundred of those with settlement issues to participate in a Facebook page (private) Naiise Vendors so that their grievances could be heard. Some brand owners claimed that repeated calls and emails to the Naiise office went unanswered. Capital Gains Studio, a games publisher, for example, shared on Facebook that they are “owed money since 2018… and our monthly email chaser are (sic) generally ignored”. One brand owner (believed to be Bespoke Parfums Artisanaux, said to be owed the 10 grand) was so frustrated with the retailer that they sent debt collectors to get back what’s owed to them, with the proceedings recorded and posted on Facebook to gain public attention and corporate humiliation for Naiise.

Naiise Iconic back then, with merchandise from brands who believed in them. File photos: SOTD

Fashion was a large category at Naiise Iconic, but the merchandise moved slowly. File photo: SOTD

The debt recovery is—if we go by Singapore Debt Collection SDCS’s Facebook posts—a social and socially accessible exercise. Debt chasers dispatched to Naiise at Jewel videoed their hunt and posted it on FB two days ago. “Please stay tuned, like, and share,” they urged. The quartet of twentysomething guys (plus a videographer), whose demeanour seemed no different from those associated with loan sharks, and were styled in a manner that even Mediacorp’s costume unit can’t do better (fake LV mask improperly worn, gold jewellery and fancy watches, monogram messenger bag and Kenzo jogger of indeterminate provenance, and even a tall, sparse, rigid mohawk do!), had wanted to make their demands in the store, but was told to meet the debtor in the car park. The guys tracked their target while giving a running commentary in Singlish, Singdrin, and Hokkien. Those who represented Naiise appeared to be the boss Dennis Tay, as well as a “financial adviser”, and a woman, speculated to be Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, who, too, videoed the confrontation.

It is hilarious to see the two men who clearly look like senior members of the management of Naiise near-beseeching the youngsters to be sympathetic to the former’s predicament, even to the point of addressing the clearly younger sole inquirer 大哥 (dage or big brother). Mr Tay, in a cream-coloured Uniqlo U tee, said, “I had actually in the past few months; I have also been putting money back into the company, to help the company. But now I am also empty. I don’t have deep pocket (sic).” If not for the clothes and the underground carpark in which the scene unfolded, the samsengness (even when of the chief money collector assured his target, “We are not gangsters, ah”) of the proceedings could lead one to believe this was action straight out of a movie from the 1970s. Unscripted and unfiltered, it was better than any reality TV, past and present.

For tourists, Naiise Iconic was an interesting gift shop. File photo: SOTD

Purchases were made, but payment to vendors reportedly not. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Dennis Tay, describing himself on LinkedIn as he who “founded Naiise and continue(s) to play a critical role in driving Naiise’s growth to become one of the region’s largest and fastest growing omni-channel marketplaces, generating SGD10mn annual revenue”, has previously said that the payment problems to consignors were due to “some gaps in the company and internal issues”. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll, his business, as he told Today, “never recovered”. But those who have been following Naiise’s rise from humble online business to multi-location pop-ups (their first, in 2014, was on the roof top of People’s Park Complex, as part of an “urban farm”) to permanent stores (including Design Orchard), were surprised that the company’s weak financial management could have gone uncorrected for this long. Or that there are brands, now also as affected by the pandemic, who knew not of Naiise’s tendency to issue late, very late, or no payments. It is an ironic turn of events, considering that Ms Eng told Yahoo News in 2019, “we realise that we are also responsible for our employees, our designers, our community.” Similarly, Mr Tay told Malaysian media a year earlier that “what we are doing is empowering creative entrepreneurs, enabling them to do what they love to do and making it sustainable…” Many of the affected brands now wonder, how can “it”—presumably their businesses—be sustained when they have received no payment due?

Despite the debts, Naiise continued to expand locally and also, in 2017, into Kuala Lumpur, in the retro-trendy ‘village’ of Kampung Attap, west of the capital city. In the same year, they even opened a 1,000-sq ft pop-up in The Old Truman Brewery, located in the hipster area of Shoreditch, East London. You can understand why landlords, leasing managers, and government agencies were easily and readily impressed with them. On LinkedIn, Mr Tay stated that he was “awarded government contracts for Design Orchard and Naiise Iconic at Jewel”. If so, these have been two failed government-linked deals. We understand that Naiise Iconic was “supported by Enterprise Singapore”. It is surprising that the awardee was able to secure these projects with strong national branding despite the company’s unfavourable track record.

An ex-staffer shared on Reddit that the store “cannot hit the daily quota of sales.” Through Glassdoor, a former retail associate wrote that “sometimes it feels as though the entire company is run by a bunch of secondary school kids”. One source familiar with the Naiise merchandising team had said to SOTD that, for some, it was a “nightmare” working there, as the “missus interfered with the daily operations”. Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, stepped down as chief marketing and buying officer last May; she later joined Shopee as regional marketing lead. Ms Eng’s departure was presumed to be planned so as not to have her implicated in the company’s financial woes. And, as some have noted, “better to have one spouse with a salary”. When asked by the head debt collector, as seen in the Facebook post, if Naiise was doing a Robinsons, Mr Tay’s suit-wearing companion said, “It is exactly like Robinsons.”

Lights out on Naiise Iconic. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Left for the liquidators? Photo: Zhao Xiangji

In 2016, way before their Robinsons strategy, Dennis Tay and Amanda Eng was placed 15th on ST’s Life Power List (that year, Nathan Hartono, fresh from Sing! China, scored 1st). By then, husband and wife had become media darlings, and appeared to enjoy the flowing publicity. Ms Eng was Mr Tay’s first employee two years earlier. The couple met in Anderson Junior College (now merged with Serangoon JC as Anderson Serangoon JC) when they were 17, dated on and off, and tied the knot in 2015 (their “$50K in total [excluding our honeymoon]” wedding was reported in Singapore Brides). Both were known to be very hands-on in the Naiise pop-ups. The two, who admitted to being not design savvy in the beginning, mostly—according to some of those who had supplied to them—“have an eye for the kitschy”. A few who had interfaced with Mr Tay thinks he’s “a Beng at heart”. Naiise took in anything any local brand or designer had to sell. The stores did not really have a distinct point of view nor did the couple have curatorial flair. Their biggest showcase—9,500 sq ft, spread over two floors—at Jewel went by the grandiose name Naiise Iconic Singapore. At launch, Naiise claimed that they were offering a “new retail concept”, but, as one buyer told SOTD, “just because they had never operated on this scale or attempted some semblance of merchandising before did not make anything in the Jewel outlet new.” When we first visited the store back in June 2019, we thought it was the Orchard Central pop-up, circa 2014, all over again, except in a swankier space, with an eye on tourists.

On Facebook, Naiise announced two days ago that there was a storewide 20% discount (and an additional 10% with purchase above S$150 in a single receipt). Their last post on Friday was a plug for modest fashion brand AJ Flora that was participating in a curiously scheduled, in-store event Pasar Iconic this weekend. Why hold it when they knew Saturday was their last day? AJ Flora’s proprietor Atiqah Jasman was caught off-guard, saying on Facebook that “due to some unforeseen circumstances /hiccups. The last day of operation of the booth will be today. We hope to clear at least 1/2 of our stocks there so do come down and support us! There will be no booth going on tomorrow at the outlet as it is closing down.” Naiise made no mention on Facebook of the 23-month-old Jewel store’s permanent closure. They are, as of today, no longer listed in Jewel’s directory. The airport mall told the media that “a tenant has been found to take over the space”. Surely not in the past three days?

According to news reports, Naiise will continue to operate their e-stores. A check on their website showed that business is as usual. Their UK website seems to be in service too. In KL, the store closed last September, after three years of operation. This morning, in busy Jewel, a sign on Naiise Iconic’s front door read, “SORRY WE ARE CLOSED. HAVE A NAIISE WEEK! :)”. Seated at neighbour Starbucks Reserve, we chatted with a fellow coffee drinker, who had quite a few shopping bags with her. Have you ever been to Naiise? We were gripped with curiosity. “Got lah, but nothing to buy,” she said. They have closed down. “Aiya, sooner or later,” sounding as if to say, “why are you surprised?” She added, “I don’t see people going inside, mah.” You don’t think they have nice things? “Okay, lah, but not very useful, leh.” Where do you go to when you wish to buy useful things? “Daiso, lor.”

Update (15 April 2021, 2pm): according to the latest media reports, Naiise will wind up all businesses. A liquidator has been appointed. Dennis Tay will also file for personal bankruptcy

Update (16 April 2021, 5pm): Naiise UK website now says “website under maintenance”. The Malaysian webpage, which still had a landing page until 11 April now announces “opening soon”. Ditto for the Singaporean site

It’s Still Busy

Rose Bakeries in Tokyo are temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but looking inside their Marunouchi café, you probably won’t know

Tokyo’s Marunouchi (丸の内), at this time of the year, is normally packed with shoppers and people coming out to enjoy one of the prettiest Christmas light-ups of the capital city. Flanked by the Imperial Palace East Garden and the stately Tokyo Station, it is a financial district with a formidable shopping stretch that, to us, could rival nearby Ginza. This year, being what it has been thus far, the main retail thoroughfare Marunouchi Naka-Dori Avenue is unusually quiet. This could be because the light-up is turned off at 8pm (usually till midnight) to discourage people from staying late or to throng the area to enjoy some seasonal illumination. Similarly, many shops have chosen to close early, which further augment the stillness of the area.

But one of those that has decided to shut—temporarily—is the English-French café Rose Bakery. There are four Rose Bakeries in Tokyo (the fifth in the trendy neighbourhood of Kichijoji [吉祥寺] was shuttered permanently in 2017), and all of them have chosen to close for the time being. The Rose Bakery at the Comme des Garçons’ store in Marunouchi (My Plaza), a stone’s throw from Tokyo Station, is closed until next February as a response to “a change in the business situation due to various circumstances,” according to a company statement. This has been one of our favourite of the Rose Bakeries, primarily because it is at street level, unlike the others housed in Dover Street Market London and DSM Ginza, both with the cafés in the topmost floor (we do not know why there isn’t a Rose Bakery at DSMS other than Como Lifestyle, linked to DSMS, also runs F&B outlets in the same area known as Como Dempsey). Although it is now closed, this Rose Bakery still caught our attention because it is still ‘packed’.

Rather than let the lights go out on the area it shares with the CDG boutique (as well as the Play corner) or have the space cordoned off, Rose Bakery has allowed its tables to be busy with customers—mannequins all togged in CDG. Of course. And the mannequins weren’t just standing, as in a typical window display. They were gathered around tables, some seated, others huddled: a veritable tableau of on-season CDG wearers (a few bag-totting), partaking in something festive, even when there was nary a tinsel in sight. These silent revellers, of course, needn’t practise social distancing. And, although faceless, they appear, like the celebrity guests at Jeffery Xu’s birthday bash and Max Lim’s wedding party, rather happy for it.

It is admirable that there are brands using temporary closure as a marketing opportunity with long-term effect. Charm can, indeed, be created in the clutches of crisis. And, as a consequence, hope too. If retailers are sanguine about future prospects, consumers will be as well. Does it only happen in Japan, where, despite a year that has to surrender to the vagaries born of a still-raging pandemic, retailers are expressing a will to survive, and creatively? On our island, the same cannot be said of those who had to shut during the Circuit Breaker. Shops were left completely dark, with some tightly covering their mannequins with plastic, as if to suffocate them, and others remained as if hastily abandoned. Perhaps looking real is a better way to survive than daring to dream.

Photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

AW Lab Is Closed

Another victim of the pandemic?

AW Lab in Suntec City, September 2018

The sneaker retailer is now closed, permanently. According to a former staff, all four stores ceased trading at the end of last month, which would have been AW Lab’s third anniversary of operations on our island. They were one of the three foreign-owned companies to open on our shores. The Italy-headquartered AW Lab, one of the largest multi-brand sportswear sellers in Europe, with “more than 200 stores world-wide” (according to their Facebook ‘About’), exited their business here rather quietly. Their last Facebook entry for their SG business was on 30th November, of a pair of Adidas Continental 80. On Instagram, they had an identical post on the same day. There was no official announcement, no media reports (they are, after all, not Robinsons), nor closing down sales, with long queues to draw other closing down sales hunters. It was a discreet exit.

AW Lab debuted in November 2017 in Suntec City Mall, with a 2,630-square-foot AW Lab store that was described by the media as “whopping” and touted by the retailer as this continent’s first. Head of Asia, AW LAB, Giuseppe Nisi, told members of the press at the store’s launch, through a media statement that “We are thrilled to bring AW Lab to Asia for the very first time. Singapore’s close proximity to high growth markets in Asia is a choice location for many global companies, including us—especially with today’s youths well acquainted with Western trends and the latest street wear movements.” That thrill was not intense enough and their “play with style” positioning not compelling enough to allow their stores here to go beyond three years.

AW Lab on the last day of their operation, 29 November

In fact, by mid-November this year, sneakerheads noticed something amiss. All AW Lab stores were looking rather lean, in terms of stock levels. Their usually rather impressive selection of Nikes, for example, was reduced to only those few they were getting rid of. The stores clearly appeared as if they had arrived at their end of days. But even a week before they permanently shuttered, a large poster was spotted hung on their windows, announcing a “Clearance Sale”. It also urged shoppers “to keep following (them)”, assuring that “there will be surprises”. When we asked a staffer at the Suntec City store if they were closing, seeing the way the store was, he replied with a terse, “I don’t know”. By 30 November, posts in Facebook began to appear, showing the stores shuttered. FB users began confirming that all four stores—in Suntec City Mall, Tampines 1, Westgate, and Wisma Atria—were closed for good. On Suntec City’s web directory, AW Lab is still listed, but with the word ‘closed’ in parenthesis, next to the store’s name.

The retailer that quickly replaced AW Lab in (at least) Tampines 1 and Wisma Atria is In:famous, also a sneaker shop (in operation since at least 2012), but one that seems to cater to the back-to-school crowd, with an unusually large number of plain white kicks. When we asked one of the the salespersons if this is a new iteration of AW Lab, she quickly said, “no, we are not the same company.” Over at Foot Locker in Suntec City Mall, we noticed that the store was busier than usual, and wondered aloud to one of the staff if the closure of AW Lab was good for them. He laughed and said, “Yah.” And then he added, “Former staff over there told us business had been bad.” It would not be unreasonable to assume that the pandemic has claimed yet another victim.

File photos: Galerie Gombak

Cool Convenience

Tokyo Report | Japan’s Urban Research fashion retailer has teamed up with convenience store Family Mart for a capsule collection in a delectably charming space

It’s hard to imagine Family Mart beyond what it essentially is: a convenience store. Yet, in Japan, such stores can be shopping destinations in themselves. Many, including 7-Eleven and Lawson, provide such an experience in selected stores that tourists consider them must-stops or places to visit when other regular shops close. Some of them carry ‘fashion items’, such as those from Muji, but Family Mart, the second largest convenience store chain in Japan behind 7-Eleven, takes it one step further. They’ve teamed up with the fashion and general goods retailer Urban Research to create both merchandise and retail space that give konbini added cool.

Opened in February this year, the store is called by a rather modern-yet-matriarchal name of Urban·Famima!! (yes, double exclamation marks. Famima!! was, in fact, the name of the now-defunct Family Mart stores in the US). It is not only a nod to Family Mart’s own konbini heritage, but also Urban Research’s fashion retail flair. One of Urban·Famima!!’s first stores is located in the opened-this-year Toranomon Hills Business Tower, between Akasaka and Ginza, close to Hibiya Park. Toranomon Hills is a retail-and-office complex that is part of the ‘Hills’ development by Mori Building Company, creator of equally posh projects such as Omotaesando Hills and Roppongi Hills. Japanese retailers, it has to be said, are ever so inclined to dream up new concepts to fit the building or neighbourhood their stores are situated in. Urban·Famima!! is one such realisation.

According to Toranomon Hills’ media release, Urban·Famima!! is “based on the concept of ‘urban life convenience store’. This is a next-generation convenience store that proposes a new lifestyle that combines fashion and convenience stores.” In essence, it’s two different retail businesses coming together as one, which is not different from BICQLO, the nine-level behemoth in Shinjuku that houses both the electronics giant Bic Camera and Japan’s fast fashion leader Uniqlo. Urban·Famima!! is, of course, smaller, and with the food, makes the pairing perhaps even more compelling. And as the space is relatively small, but still large for a convenience store, the merchandise is even more judiciously selected and the space appealingly laid out. The typical konbini aesthetic does not really come to play.

The idea of a clothier (or celebrity designer) creating a retail outlet that pays homage to Japan’s more-sophisticated-than-elsewhere convenience store is not entirely new. One of the earliest to do so was everyone’s favourite design maven Hiroshi Fujiwara who created, in Ginza, The Conveni, which was recently shuttered. The Conveni, with its literal fit-out, was more kitschy, even derivative, while Urban·Famima!! is more boutique-like and a lot more compellingly merchandised. The store describes their offerings as “lifestyle miscellaneous goods”, but the miscellany is far more controlled than a typical Family Mart store. The clothes have the city-smart aesthetics that Urban Research is known for. Not exactly the stuff of Harajuku or nearby Aoyama, but fashion that would keep you longer in a convenience store than you normally would spend time in. Will there ever be a day our Cheers goes this cool?

Photos: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

Spill Not From Santa’s Sleigh

You know for certain that times have changed when outside mailboxes, they are delivering more parcels than letters

This isn’t Christmas morning. Yet. It’s a gloomy, humid, drizzle-speckled noon. The mailman has not arrived, but the delivery people have. And they come bearing what could be Santa’s early bounty. The orders are scattered all over the void deck, as if Mr Clause’s elves have been busy, but not tidy. Big and small, tall and stout, thick and thin, they are there, all more massive than any mailbox could hold. They look to be the same community of packages, delivered in the paper uniform of brown/white envelopes/boxes. What we see are arrivals for an entire block of flats. Is that not a lot of shopping delivered in a moment? And Black Friday has only just arrived, barely 12 hours ago.

Perhaps we have been e-commerce disbelievers, the die-hard brick-and-mortar shoppers for too long. Seeing this pasar malam spread, it’s hard to dispute that our shopping habits have changed, and that we’re the goons still going to stores and touching things, and interacting with increasingly indifferent service staff, who must think we are from a distant, backward star. The rest of the populace are no longer going out to buy what they want and bringing the items home themselves. They are shopping via their smartphones, and having their purchases delivered to their front door. And it isn’t just the odd lazy consumer ensconced at home. It appears to be a whole community, an entire people doing their shopping online. One of the most primal of human behaviours—and needs—has really succumbed to digital conversion. Like cash.

Retailers, too, are pressured to go online. Adopt the platform or perish. The threat is very real, not virtual. A distributor and retailer of a popular shoe brand told us that the potential of online sales cannot be ignored. “Before 11/11, we were doing less than 10% of online sales,” she said. “Now, we’re doing more than 35%!” One sales assistant at a clothing store, said to us that “unless we have a sale, traffic is very slow. People may come in, but only to check the prices. They end up buying online.” Government ministers have warned too. Reacting to the impending closure of Robinsons, manpower minister Josephine Teo told the media that “it does signal very strongly that our industries are going to continue to have to transform.” There was no mention in the trite statement of how Robinsons has slipped in store positioning or merchandise mix. Whatever it is, rejig—go online. Keep the deliverymen busy.

Photo: Chin Boh Kay

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

TaFF Flexes Its Retail Muscle

Next month, the Naiise-operated Design Orchard store shall be no more. The Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) will take over as “A New Chapter” 

 

TaFF's New ChapterTaFF’s Instagram posts early this evening. Photos: TaFF.SG/Instagram

It was first teased on TaFF’s Instagram page at around 6.30 this evening. That was followed by a brief announcement on the news ticker of Channel News Asia’s (CNA) Asia Now segment: “Textile and Fashion Federation to operate Design Orchard retail showcase from August 2020.” CNA seemed to have beaten TaFF to the announcement. On IG, the Federation—currently running the co-sharing and incubator centre one floor above the Design Orchard store—wrote, “In this challenging business climate, TaFF is ready to step up and lead our locally based brands”. In a second post, it stated, “Here at TaFF, we are committed to nurturing and supporting home-grown talent—which is why we are all the more excited for the plans ahead in August.”

TaFF’s reveal may be ambiguous, but it is clear from the CNA blurb that the contract of Naiise—the present operator—is either terminated or not renewed. The surprising—yet not quite—news came just a year and a half after Naiise took to the running of Design Orchard with considerable fanfare, and assurance that they were able to run a fashion showcase as they had the right people in place. But observers are not surprised that it has come to this. One retailer told us, “I don’t believe they picked the right operator. Certainly not a general goods, serial pop-up seller. From Naiise’s own stores and offerings, you’d think they are playing masak-masak.”

But would TaFF be a better retail operator? Or are they taking over Design Orchard because a suitable partner can’t be found? It is often said that, while the intention is appreciable, the people involved have not matched the intended results. TaFF itself has the unsuccessful Zhuang in its retail track record. May we hazard a daring guess: Could this be the resuscitation of Zhuang? As one SOTD reader cheekily said to us, “Naiise is the wrong choice. And now TaFF think they can do it? Isn’t it like our GE—the usual suspects running!”

20-07-14-19-26-47-807_decoA quiet Design Orchard in need of a makeover. File photo: Chin Boh Kay

And we should not miss another possibility. Last month, TaFF launched an e-commerce platform called One Orchard Store (OOS). When we first visited the site, we were puzzled by the name TaFF chose. But now, it seems conceivable that One Orchard Store was set up to replace Design Orchard, with the former’s e-shop to launch first. At present, there is no mention in One Orchard Store’s homepage of a likely brick-and-mortar store, but why would TaFF operate an e-commerce venture separately from running a physical store? If OOS offline is true, TaFF’s dropping of ‘design’ in the new retail venture’s name may augur well for them. Without design as UPI, there is less pressure to market itself as a design destination, and less likely to receive flak from those who hold ‘design’ dear and to a higher ideal.

The flop that Naiise has made of Design Orchard put the spotlight again on a retailer steadily losing credibility among brand owners. Repeatedly paying the brands they sell late, Naiise’s founder Dennis Tay would only comment that their financial systems and processes have not been “optimal”. This sounds synonymous to what Mr Tay described as “some gaps in the company and internal issues” just before Design Orchard opened at the end of January last year. Much was also said of the lacklustre merchandise of the store. Mr Tay had installed his wife Amanda Eng as Design Orchard’s chief marketing and buying officer. It leaves little to the imagination as to how that worked out. Ms Eng stepped down from her role in May.

The initial failure of Design Orchard also raises the question of whether there are enough fashion talents to house in such a large space. It is not misguided to open a store to sell products associated with the culture and the stories of our island, but it is fallacious to imagine that the pool of accomplished and consummate home-grown fashion designers is large enough to warrant a 9,000-square-foot fashion store to feature them. Many good designers have resisted Design Orchard not because of the lack of pull, but because of the association. Indeed, the 40-year-old TaFF has the task cut up for them. As with Naiise, they would be judged. But if TaFF, as they have said, “is ready to step up”, perhaps something grand is afoot. We can’t wait till August comes.

Design Orchard: One Year After

Eighteen months after opening, Design Orchard does not appear to have budged beyond the lacklustre of its early months

 

Design Orchard June 2020

In an article in The Straits Times last month about the future of Singapore fashion in the wake of the pandemic, multi-hyphenate Dick Lee was quoted saying, “I went into Design Orchard and it’s shocking, the standard of clothing stocked there. Things are so basic and there’s no nice fabrication or nice finishing.” That remark was subsequently much discussed on social media. The words of Mr Lee—a trained designer, once with his own labels, and was an impresario of young fashion designers, and still an ardent supporter of Home talents—must mean something. That the founder of our island’s first multi-label store for homegrown labels, Hemispheres, could be shocked by what he saw must have been discouraging to the project’s owners, the triumvirate of Enterprise Singapore, Singapore Tourism Board, and Jurong Town Corporation.

Design Orchard opened at the end of January in 2019 in a building purpose-built to be home to Singaporean design talents—not necessarily just fashion. If you could whip up a nice curry paste, you could sell it there too. But clothing does take up a substantial real estate in the store. They comprise labels that, unless you are an ardent follower of local fashion, would draw a blank among even the most regular fashion shopper. It is not known how well the brands are doing or whether Design Orchard is indeed a showcase for designers to reach a larger audience, but according to another ST report at the end of January, “more than 40 of the 60 labels stocked at Design Orchard have chosen to sign new contracts and stay on for another year.” With such encouraging contract-renewal figures of 67 percent, could Mr Lee be mistaken?

It was all quiet during our visit on the second weekend of Phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker. Not a single shopper was in sight. The clothes, as in our previous encounters, did not speak to us. They looked ignored, unappreciated, and in need of a home or a body of a willing wearer. We were not deterred from physical contact with them. In the present climate, when even touching our own faces is understandably discouraged, the tactile connect was strangely assuring, even if we only gave a few of the pieces a light tap (we were conscious to act responsibly). And it was through touch that we could feel, not just see, for ourselves what Mr Lee meant by “no nice fabrics”.

Design Orchard June 2020 P2

The lack of good fabrication is just one part of Design Orchard’s feeble merchandising, regrettably evident from the first day of its operations. As a store purported to highlight “design”, it is design that have not been in stock. It, therefore, has not become a pull for those who want to uncover design, to support the creators and cheer them on. Design Orchard seems to lure mostly clothes that would not be out of place in an equatorial beach resort. It reminds us of the doomed Aseana, the Malaysian multi-label store conceived by Singapore-born, Kuala Lumpur-based Dato’ Farah Khan (aka Chan Keng Lin), that opened in Millenia Walk in 2002 and closed two years later. It is also evocative of—for those who can still remember—the 1997 Fashion Connection theme, Asiatropics. Despite a confident start, the concept never took off. One fashion marketer we spoke to conceded that Design Orchard “still needs to iron the creases”.

To some observers, Design Orchard’s prospects were hampered by Naiise, the retailer picked to run the operations of the store and, as we understood last year, the merchandising of the products too. This was a surprising choice, as many had thought, since Naiise—even with multiple stores of their own opened at that time—was not exactly operating a paragon of retail and merchandising panache. During the media walk-through, it was mentioned among the attendees that Naiise had even employed a buyer from Robinsons to oversee the merchandise mix. If that was the case, could it be possible that, as one designer said to us, “Naiise made a bad hire?”

When news broke even before Design Orchard opened that Naiise was appointed as the store’s operator, chatter was rife that the company had been tardy in their payments to brand owners. Founder Dennis Tay admitted to “some gaps in the company and internal issues”. He also said that “we’re looking at the foundation of the company. And what we’re trying to do is ask ourselves how we can be better with each passing day.” In January, when COVID-19 was a mere outbreak, The Business Times reported that “years of repeated late payments have led to several brands removing some or all of their products from… Naiise’s shelves.” Are the gaps still gaping and is the company still looking at its foundation?

Design Orchard June 2020 P3

It was also reported in ST that those “more than 40 of the 60 labels” that renewed their contract with Design Orchard gave the store “thumbs up despite management Naiise’s troubles”. Apparently, “they have not encountered payment delays”. The promptness of payment could be due to the fact that government agencies are behind Design Orchard’s existence. Brands supplying to the Naiise stores do not have that advantage. It is also suggested that the individual brand’s sales in Design Orchard are not significant enough to result in payment being held up.

Naiise is not known to release sales figures or the ranking of brands. Designers supplying to Design Orchard tend to be reticent when it comes to talking about sales performance (“okay” can’t be considered revealing). It is possible that attractive consignment deals have been struck between the retailer and brand owners to retain the latter. It isn’t clear how Naiise picks the brands for Design Orchard. It As reported in the press, STB conducted a round of selection last year. Naiise has not elucidated the tourism board’s involvement, but this may explain why some shoppers thought that Design Orchard looks like a tourist gift shop. We do not know what the selection criteria is, but it would push us to lying if we say we found what STB’s Director of Retail and Dining, Ranita Sundra, considered at the time of Design Orchard’s impending opening to be “the best of Singapore talent under one roof”. Or, according to their website “Singapore’s most beloved brands, lauded designers and talented newcomers”.

At Design Orchard last Christmas season, one tourist was heard asking her companion, believed to be local, “are these famous brands?” A curt “don’t know” was the reply. The obscurity of many of the brands might have been inconsequential if the designs indeed reflected talent, hitherto still elusive. But whether Naiise was able to suss out talent is also unknown. It is generally believed that anyone interested can have their products displayed for sale. We are sure some vetting would have been in place, but how stringent it is, can’t be said. The result is a jumble of names with assorted, yet same-same looks that ultimately appear to cater to those who really don’t care if they wear the output of talents.

Design Orchard June 2020 P4

Talent, like creativity, is used rather loosely these days. A person who dabbles in water colour and likes clothes and, subsequently makes them is considered talented. We concede that talent in the digital era cannot resist redefinition. A talented designer in the 1920s needed to be able to draft and cut, a talented designer in 2020 needs no such skills. Regardless, talent in designing is as much required as talent in handling fabrics and in finishing garments to yield a certain polish. One common regret for the past 40 years is that we do not have the manufacturing base with which to nurture designers with the understanding of off-studio garment production. Is it possible that the labels in Design Orchard are beset with “production woes” as those cited in the ST article in which Dick Lee and other designers—some practising, some not—were quoted?

Throughout much of the ’80s—often lauded as the “golden age of Singaporean fashion”—that gave conscious recognition to an emerging fashion design scene, a recurrent problem was manufacturing, though not from the lack of it. Textile companies and factories producing clothes were significantly large enough in numbers that there was a Textile and Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Singapore (TGMAS, 1981—1996), the precursor to TaFF. It was reported by ST that in 1982, a year after TGMAS was formed, “the clothing industry was the second largest industrial employer. Its 31,000 employees accounted for 11.14 percent of the country’s manufacturing workforce”. Just two years earlier, the Economic Development Board (EDB) was “pushing for the top-end market”, according to another ST report. But that mission soon trailed off, and not one spoke about the manufacture of clothing as a possible pillar of our economy.

In one article in ST in 1987, the then president of the now-defunct SODA (Society of Designing Arts) Alan Koh was quoted saying that something needed to be done for young designers to “take away the burden of their lack of a manufacturing base”. By then local garment manufacturing was becoming a dwindling possibility for designers. According to a 1983 report in The Business Times on garment manufacturers moving their operations to Indonesia, “the cost of production in Singapore has gone up by 20 percent. Some factories also have difficulty recruiting enough manpower, and the cost of production is relatively cheaper in Indonesia.”

Design Orchard June 2020 P5

In the ’90s, inadequate manufacturing support, again, was reported to be the bane of designers. There were still factories, but most of the larger ones had started moving their production facilities off-shore, namely to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. If in the decade before, when manufacturers still had factories on our island, and designers still had a hard time seeking resources to produce their clothes, it was just as tough now to find those who could be their production backbone. Dick Lee is well acquainted with the problem. As a young designer, production snags were as real as design issues. Mr Lee, whose retail quantities were not large enough, was often at the mercy of tailoring services, such as Stitch By Stitch at Orchard Towers, to get his collection, well, stitched up.

As dire as the lack of production sounded, many designers were able to soldier on. One independent name who practised through the ’90s remembers this decade to be “tiring (but fun)” as he had to use up to five factories at any one time—“I could not depend on one,” he said. “Some factories were better in wovens than knits, and vice versa. And other designers were using them too. So there was a queue system. Depending on just one factory was really not feasible.” He recalled too that it was mostly small-time designers who were doing the running around, “it makes you more resourceful and creative.” Back than, established names such as Bobby Chng, David Wang, Celia Loe, and Esther Tay (who launched a comeback label last year), and even Thomas Wee had their own factories (the sizes varied).

A name that was very much associated with garment production in the ’90s is CMT (cut, make, trim) pioneer Tan Boon Lan (known in the industry as Wen Lan), whose son Patrick Chia is the highly-regarded industrial designer behind the National University of Singapore’s Design Incubation Centre. Ms Tan started in the mid-’70s, operating out of her flat in Toa Payoh. The cottage operation soon upgraded to a HDB shop in Circuit Road, Macpherson, with a crew that mainly comprised of housewives. It was known as Monray Fashions, but few remember that. Designers went to her because she was amicable, flexible, and fast in equal measure. She was willing to take small orders, too, sometimes as little as 24 pieces. When she eventually set up a more professional outfit in Kallang Pudding Road in the ’90s, many young designers of the day went to her as she was one of the few who had machines to handle both wovens and knits. Ms Tan is now retired.

Design Orchard June 2020 P6

Throughout the ’90s, modest and informal production facilities like Ms Tan’s emerged to support fledgling, resource-starved designers who had no confidence to approach large garment factories, or a tech pack to go to them with. Quite a few were run by ex-staff of the backrooms of retailers such as Chomel (once a clothier) and Esprit (now closed); most were, interestingly, concentrated in the area of Paya Lebar, before it’s the commercial hub that it is today. The availability of these small-scale services meant that many designers were able to produce sufficient numbers to supply to department stores, such as the long-closed Tangs Studio, as well as indie retailers, such as those in the old Heeren, where the music store HMV was the anchor tenant.

When we arrived in the 2000s, nearly all fashion designers with their own factories have given them up to be freed of financial and operational burden. Most of the big manufacturers of the ’80s had moved their factories abroad or diversified. One of the largest, Wing Tai Garments, is no longer in manufacturing. Its parent company Wing Tai Holdings is now a property developer, and fashion retailer. Others such as Sing Lun (now Group), whose third-gen CEO Mark Lee is the former president of TaFF, has diversified into equity funds and real estate, even when they still own 13 factories across the region. Mido Textile, whose retail store China Silk House (now defunct) was named in 1987 Singapore Tourist Promotion Boards’ Store of the Year, has investments in China and diversified into real estate and travel. Foreign direct investments into China was, in fact, prevalent as business and labour costs and rising Singapore dollar were often said to be insurmountable. In the ’70s and ’80s, we were attracting FDIs (especially in electronics and technology), but by the ’90s, local garment firms were directing investments overseas.

These large FDIs outward may have led to the impression that Singaporean garment manufacturers were hungry for a larger market and more amenable to big brands such as the Gap, Nike, and Adidas than local labels. One merchandising executive who worked in a buying house here once said to us, “when these factories received an order from these brands, the numbers were huge. Each time the Gap ordered for one item, even just a white T-shirt, it was worth hundreds of thousands. USD!” Many young designers broke out in such a climate, and believed that there was no production back-up for them. If you can’t meet the minimum order, as it was often repeated, forget it.

Design Orchard June 2020 P7

“A lot of people depend on China to produce their designs, but China won’t touch you with a 10-foot pole unless you can hit their minimum order,” Thomas Wee was quoted in that ST article from two weeks ago. Is that still true? Is it possible that despite much industrial advances in production and huge changes in the supply chain, designers operating tiny businesses, with production quantities that are usually modest, are unable to find manufacturers willing to accept small orders? Or, is this a perception left over from the ’90s and one that ST journalists can’t shake off? It is rather curious that four decades after the era of the EDB overseas trade missions, and years of dramatically different supply chains, with many garment manufacturers now also serving as apparel solutions provider, ST is still harping on how our poor designers have no one to sew clothes.

One Singaporean merchandiser and textile specialist now based in Hong Kong told us that the problem, if it exists, is that many brand owners here do not “source deep enough”. Even FPP (full production package) may be available to the young designer if cost is no concern. In Hong Kong, buying houses that will take small orders “are all over the place,” he said. If even those are not able to meet a designer’s needs, he could go to Sham Shui Po, an industrial area in Kowloon, where one could source not just for fabrics and trims, but also manufacturers. “In some of these industrial buildings,” he explained, “there are small factories upstairs from the fabric suppliers. You buy your fabrics and trims downstairs and go one floor up, they will sew for you, and the output would be definitely garmental. In Hong Kong, the clothes are always garmental.” These almost self-contained cottage set-ups can similarly be found in Seoul’s famed Dongdaemun, where pick-your-fabrics-and-have-CMT-do-the-rest keeps many of the stalls in business in the area’s famed wholesale markets.

There are similar small-order-friendly set-ups in China, too—only larger. And they will touch you—no 10-foot poles required. In Jiangsu, for example, entire garment-production villages—comprising modern factories—welcome customers without the same production requirement as the likes of Uniqlo. These places offer a full eco-system, including garment wash, special techniques such as fagotting, or sourcing of hardware, and others, all within the village. One Singaporean designer told us that if orders are too small, the factories may suggest using their sampling facility, but the charge would not be astronomically higher, as it usually is. “There are often sewers who handle what is known as ‘shipping samples’ (required by brands to be sent to different retailers or buyers),” he said. “During low months, they would take on small quantities.”

Design Orchard June 2020 P8

In Thailand, many young designers, too, face the same problems as newbies everywhere, but they have been able to meet production challenges. In Samut Prakan, south of Bangkok, local brands without huge retail presence in the capital work with small factories to produce both wovens and knits. One womenswear designer in Bangkok told us that “many of us go to Samut Prakan for our production needs. They can do anything that you want. I am sure they will be happy to sew for foreign customers.” Such small-scale set-ups and the accessibility to them could explain why it has been relatively easy for any Thai interested in fashion design to set up shop in Bangkok, even in Chatuchak weekend market.

Moving into the third decade of the 2000s, there is, in fact, an explosion of local brands here, although many do not enjoy the visibility of, say, Fayth or Weekend Sundry. The fact that they have clothes to sell must be indication that they have found production facilities to accept their unlikely-to-be-large orders. Following the rise of blogshops in the Noughties, would-be label owners saw that these businesses had no problems with production, even when the production quality has been, till now, debatable (often attributed to the lack of a garment technician to control the production). Although many designers are not inclined to reveal their source, they are likely using one of these small-scale factories, rather than go to “the neighbourhood tailor”, as Mr Wee suggested in that ST story.

Design Orchard’s first anniversary on 25 January came and went without a whimper. Two days before that, Singapore registered its first case of COVID-19 infection. With the subsequent Circuit Breaker measures, it is understandable that sales at Design Orchard could hardly be described as brisk. Now that retail businesses have been allowed to open, its low footfall is expectedly disquieting. With the typhoon of recession now picking up speed, it is unclear how Design Orchard is going to rejig what is clearly stagnated merchandising, and garments that have scant design value and finishing finesse. The local labels they stock may have a place in the market, but not in a retail outfit conceived to spotlight Singaporean design. This could just be an emporium of Singaporean brands. As one noted fashion retailer said—somewhat diplomatically, the store “needs more work.” We think she meant a lot more.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Tokyo Is Back!

Apart from the return to business, new stores are opening. Can we look to the Japanese capital for inspiration?

 

Uniqlo HarajukuThe new Uniqlo store in Harajuku, Tokyo

After Tokyo announced the state of emergency imposed on the city to be lifted on 25 May, six days before it was due to expire, news began to emerge that a raft of new stores would be opening in June. The revelation was not met with shock, not a whimper of surprise. Japanese retail is an evolving, ever-changing behemoth. While COVID-19 has impacted both business viability and the appetites of consumers for shopping, as seen everywhere else in the world, it has not dampen the spirit in Tokyo for keeping retail going, and with verve.

Here, we’re mostly exposed to gloom and doom. It is widely reported that the global economy is expected to shrink by 3% on average this year. Our economy, as reported by CNA last month, is expected to contract by 4% to 7%. According to Singstat, retail sales fell 13.3% year-on-year in March, which was the sharpest fall in two decades. The Business Times wrote that apparel and footwear saw the steepest drop of 41.6% in the same month, compared to last year. These figures are those before the Circuit Breaker measures were introduced. They are, therefore, expected to be bleaker.

Official Japanese numbers are not especially encouraging either. Retail sales, as reported by the Japan Times recently, have fallen 12.3% in May from a year earlier, with apparel retail hit especially hard. Japan Department Stores Association figures showed apparel sales in department stores to be ¥97,548 million for April, compared to ¥243,870 million in the same month last year. That’s a decline of more than half. Yet, in Tokyo, retailers, do not appear to succumb to such dismal prediction. They are actively participating in the on-going rejuvenation of shopping belts, such as Harajuku and Shibuya.

To be sure, many of the stores that opened in the past month were planned much earlier to coincide with the now-postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, which was projected to yield nation-wide retail sales of ¥4 trillion, now probably not to be realised. Undeterred by the double whammy of the rescheduled Games and the COVID-19 pandemic, some retailers are forging ahead with not just opening new stores, but also creating novel shopping experiences for a market that is already far more compelling and innovative than most. Harajuku, a district in the Shibuya ward, with a youth fashion history younger than Shinjuku’s, appears to be leading the recovery as some of big boys of retail open new, crowd-drawing stores.

Uniqlo Harajuku Style HintUniqlo’s first physical Style Hint corner in its new Harajuku store. Photo: Uniqlo Japan

Uniqlo leads the pack with not one, but two new stores opened, just eight kilometres apart (also new in neighbouring Yokohama is so mega a store that it is called Uniqlo Park). There is Uniqlo Harajuku situated in the new mall With Harajuku that faces Yoyogi Park, across from the equally new Harajuku Station. Then Uniqlo Ginza, a refurbished and larger “Global Flagship” in the swanky shopping belt of the same name. Despite skeptics saying that Uniqlo is over-stretching itself during an unending pandemic that has subdued consumer spending, Tadashi Yanai, the founder and president of Fast Retailing, parent company of Uniqlo, told the media during the opening of Uniqlo Harajuku that “the coronavirus has accelerated change, but this store is to be a part of the recovery.”

Such positive and upbeat sentiments are reflected in the 2,000-square-metre Harajuku store itself: a hub of happy vibes. While habitués of Uniqlo would recognise the typically neat interior and layout, they will spot one new stand-out concept. Housed in a separate boutique-like space in the basement of the two-level store is Style Hint. One visitor last weekend described it as “a bit experimental”. Perception aside, Style Hint is tech-centric to better serve its digital-savvy customers. Inside, the highlight is a wood cabin-like wall of 240 touch screens that feature influencers and customers all fashionably togged in Uniqlo pieces. The pictures are reminiscent of those in the now-no-more local magazine Fruits. If any of the photos catches your fancy, you may touch any part of the outfit, and corresponding information will pop up to guide viewers to where the clothes are available, in-store or online. Also new to Uniqlo Harajuku (and any Uniqlo, for that matter) is a flower shop(!) that offers bunches of blooms (ten varieties, according to a staffer) for sale.

The new Global Flagship store in Ginza is not the biggest as the accolade still belongs to its older, similarly titled sister—the world largest, in fact—on Ginza’s main drag. This must-stop for tourists is oddly sandwiched between the swanky Ginza 6 mall in front and the edgy Dover Street Market Ginza in the rear. The new store, located in Marronnier Gate Ginza 2 (of three buildings) in the Yurakucho area, just 500 metres away (or 10 minutes by foot) from the sibling, sits amid less pricey names such as Loft, Tokyu Hands and Muji, whose first hotel is practically round the corner. Spread across 4,500 square metres of space across four flours of the building designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, this Uniqlo features the first LifeWear Square, a sleek space with exposed skeleton of the interior that brings to our mind Nike Town.

20-06-27-17-34-07-781_decoNext to Uniqlo is Ikea’s first compact store

Not to be outdone, Ikea—increasingly inching into the fashion sphere—has also opened its first “city-centre store” two weeks ago, in Harajuku. As a matter of fact, they have Uniqlo for an immediate neighbour. In the past, Tokyoites who wanted to get their Ikea fix would head to Tachikawa in the west of the city, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo Station. Out here, the Swedish company’s first store opened as recently as 2014 (it arrived on our shores in 1978). That Ikea has opened in “cool” Harajuku (ironically losing its DNA as more mass-market brands have set up shop here, including Daiso) has many living in the heart of the city quite thrilled, even if the store offers mostly small Yamanote-Line-friendly home ware—more Färgrik mug than Klippan sofa.

While Ikea’s retail director Jaap Doornbos told The Straits Times last month that Ikea at Jem (slated to open next year), similarly a “smaller concept—within a shopping centre—will be the first of its kind in the region”, Japan beat us to it. In fact, it is possible that Ikea Harujuku is a foretaste of what the upcoming Ikea Jem would look like. The 2,500-square-metre “compact” store, as the Japanese media called it, is, like Uniqlo, unmistakable in its image. Just imagine its Market Hall shrunken and given a steroidal boost, and a visible shop front. Once inside, the merchandise arranged to greet shoppers is reminiscent of Ikea’s closest competitor, Nitori, with a nine-storey store less than a kilometre away, in the Shinjuku neighbourthood.

People come to Ikea to be inspired by their “room” set-ups, and here they mirror the average Japanese homes—small. But unlike those of Muji’s home department, the merchandise here do not seem to be specifically designed for Japanese living spaces and quirks. However, Swedish lagom seems to work fine with Nippon wabi-sabi, such as the yet-to-launch-here Symfonisk speaker-lamp and desk lamp. People come to Ikea for the food too. Unfortunately, their famous meatballs are not available at the Swedish Café. Instead the main comprises tunnbröd, Swedish flatbread sandwiches with assorted fillings. There is, unsurprisingly, a Swedish Food Market—with familiar combini-style fittings— that is called, what else, Swedish Combini. Even cup noodles with the Ikea branding is available (they are labelled as “plant ramen”). A shopper, out with his wife for the first time since the state of emergency was lifted, smilingly told us that, Ikea Harajuku “is a good date place.”

20-06-27-23-58-10-755_decoBustling, as always, at the Harajuku intersection of Meiji Dori and Omotesando

Harajuku—kawaii central—seems to be where the action is taking shape (nearby Shibuya too, but that’s for another post). Apart from Uniqlo and Ikea, beauty giant Shiseido has opened a new “digital store” called Beauty Square (also at With Harajuku) that is reminiscent of their retail concept from the ’90s known as the Cosmetic Garden (situated at a basement unit of a donjukai apartment at the adjacent Omotesando that is now replaced by the shopping centre Omotesando Hills), where customers can visit to discover things, but now with a digital, also app-driven component. Another Japanese brand that has opened a new store in Harajuku is Snow Peak, which is, to us, a more advanced—design wise—The North Face (except the only-in-Japan The North Face Standard). For hipsters who camp! The new store, dubbed Land Station, has a more urban vibe—industrial rather than outdoor.

It cannot be certain that much of the buzz is to meet pent-up demand, but Tokyo, with 14 million inhabitants, has always been the hotbed of hype-prone retail activity. Not only are the Japanese brands getting into the scramble, foreign names are, too. Kith, the New York-based sneaker retailer, now with their own clothing line—including a Vogue collab, has announced that they will open their first overseas store in Shibuya next week, in the recently unveiled Miyashita Park, a 67-year-old public area with a playground that was once a conduit of sorts between Harajuku and Shibuya, now turned into a shopping complex. It is hard to say how Kith’s entry into Tokyo will pan out, given the presence of local sneaker retailers such as Atmos and Mita Sneakers, but Kith will no doubt add excitement to the mix.

Last Saturday, the crowd on Meiji Dori, a thoroughfare that cuts through Harajuku and the swanky Omotesando, is as large as it typically was before COVID-19. From new malls to the indie shops of Aoyama further south, people succumbed to retail therapy with palpable joy and corresponding reward. If retail performance can be gauged, even superficially, by the number of people with shopping bags, then this particular weekend, a month after the state of emergency was lifted, could be indication that, for Tokyo, retail isn’t doomed. Two weeks after our own Circuit Breakers measures were eased into Phase 2 and retail businesses resumed, things are not looking as jaunty.

It is often said that comparing us to Tokyo is pointless. The common conclusion is that we are not even near Hong Kong. Nationally, the Japanese enjoy shopping and are not fashion-averse. And they have made many retail businesses buoyant through their collective interest and curiosity, and consumption. Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku alone reportedly sees retail sales amount to about ¥720 million per day. While, in general, Japanese fashion retail volume has registered deficits since 2011, it has not put a damper on the spirit of creating good, usable, attractive products and selling them in spaces that can rightfully claim to be experiential. Japanese retailers are often thought to be more intrepid and innovative than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Perhaps, here on our island, retailers can abandon predictable, and try plucky and leading-edge too.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori

Some Stores Shall Stay Shut

Tomorrow may be break-free day for many people on our island as Phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker begins, but those planning to go shopping will find some stores still closed

 

Uniqlo annoucement

Many people, ready for tomorrow’s resumption of some semblance of social life, are surprised that Uniqlo announced around six this evening on their Instagram page, “We are not open yet.” It continued to say, “Uniqlo is not rushing to open on 19 June 2020, Friday.” No official word was released by the company at the time of this post. Majority of the comments appeared to approve or support Uniqlo’s decision, agreeing that there is no need to scramble to commence its offline business. The brand added, “We will announce our store opening dates in the upcoming few days through our social media channels, website and app.” Some fans, however, are disappointed that this confirmed Uniqlo would not launch their Airism face mask here, as it will in Japan nationwide tomorrow.

While Uniqlo resists opening their physical retail stores, compatriot brand Muji is laying the welcome mat, although one outlet will be shuttered permanently. The brand announced yesterday that they have closed down their Marina Square store. Through IG, it said, “We regret to inform that Muji Marina Square has ceased its operation.” Muji has not officially commented on the closure of the branch, but some observers feel that Marina Square is “not looking good” despite the last centre-wide refurbishment. Still, IG commentators were disappointed that the store is no more. One ‘amsingapore’ wrote, “That was a favorite branch for many of us. Muji shouldn’t have given up that location”.

Store closures were expected even before the easing of the Circuit Breaker measures. Back in April, Esprit announced permanently shutting all their retail operations here. Robinsons ended their presence in the west by choosing not to remain at Jem. But Muji closing down any store is unexpected as it is believed to be one of the most popular Japanese brands here. One representative director of the parent company in Japan told The Business Times last year that sales in Singapore have been rising steadily each year. He added, “We believe in the growth in the Singapore market.”

Muji announcement

Many stores have announced they’re opening tomorrow. Club 21, in the middle of an online end-of-season sale, will welcome shoppers on the first day of Phase 2, according to an IG Story statement. So is the related emporium Dover Street Market Singapore. Surrender, the streetwear headquarters to many, confirmed on IG that they will open tomorrow. Louis Vuitton announced rather discreetly that they, too, will open, but shoppers are told to “schedule an appointment”. It is not unreasonable to assume that if Louis Vuitton will be opening, other brands under LVMH will be too.

All malls, it appears, will resume full operations as well. Paragon made no mention on its website about what will happen tomorrow, but did say one can “Shop & Dine With A Peace of Mind”. ION Orchard announced, “We Are Ready To Welcome You Back”. So did Wisma Atria: “Welcoming You Back Safely”. Takashimaya Shopping Centre communicated no happy news on their website or Facebook page (its last post was on 6 April), but it will likely open since Louis Vuitton did not say that its Taka store won’t. Over at the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, “nearly 200 stores, including F&B tenanted outlets, will be re-opened at the start”. Mostly happy news, it would appear, for those who have been deprived of retail therapy for this long. It remains to be seen if the revenge spending that seized Shanghai and Seoul after those cities opened will play out here too.

Screen grabs: respective IG page

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