Visited: Leftfoot

Our island’s earliest indie sneaker store Leftfoot has always been a trail blazer in terms of product offering and shopper experience. Their new store at Mandarin Gallery sees the retailer in fine facile form

By Ray Zhang

Fond memories accompany me whenever I visit the Leftfoot store. I still remember their first in Far East Plaza in the mid-2000 (yes, Far East Plaza had a lot more going for it than their sad present (but Gen-Zers won’t remember). Leftfoot exposed me to the world of limited-edition kicks, as well as those in colours not offered in the regular releases available elsewhere here, before I visited Tokyo’s Atmos and Mita Sneakers for the first time. The Far East Plaza store closed, as were other cool stores such as the buzzy bag shop Trever, led by former Bodynits designer Gary Goh, and multi-label Ambush and Surrender (the first stockist of Supreme) set up by Earn Chen (also, later, Cherry Discotheque And Potato Head Folk), invariably dubbed “the poster boy” of the SG streetwear scene. In fact, if you go further back to, say 1982, there was even designer fashion—Thomas Wee’s first boutique! Yes, Far East Plaza was that happening even if, looking at it now, you would never have guessed.

Leftfoot was founded in 2003 by Anthony Ho and Kevin Lo, considered pioneers of the streetwear scene back then (Mr Ho started in the retail of vintage clothes). After their Far East Plaza venture closed around 2008, to the dismay of fans, they reopened Leftfoot in Cineleisure Orchard, then a youth-oriented shopping destination that seemed poised to take over from the old Heeren, but never quite did (now, in fact, it’s also, like Far East Plaza, a shadow of its former self). A larger store, intriguingly called Leftfoot Entrepôt, followed at The Cathay; it was a space put together with an edge not seen in sneaker retail then, designed as if for hanging out, with a wood-wall store front that practically obscured the going-ons inside. When both the Cineleisure Orchard and The Cathay stores closed in the middle of this year, some of us thought that what we considered an SG institution had come to an end, until they posted on Facebook that a “new location will be announced soon”. Sure, they continued to sell Via Facebook and Instagram (even offering free delivery for purchase above S$60) in the mean time, but, for me, seeing the kicks personally and being able to try them on makes a difference—massive difference. Moreover, I missed the indie vibe of their physical stores, which often made me feel like I was shopping overseas. Leftfoot is not Limited Edt.

That distinction is again made clear with the new Leftfoot store, opened on 16 July in the hard-to-defined (maybe that’s good) Mandarin Gallery. Since its reincarnation in Cineleisure Orchard, Leftfoot always has an edge about it. The store turns footwear retailing quite on its head, and in doing so, draws the attention of sneakerheads. (Sure, Limited Edt also sells, as its name suggest, some merch considered rare and available in limited numbers, but, to me, their stores have no personality and the friendliness level—even in not-quite-atas Queensway Shopping Centre—leaves little to be desired.) Leftfoot never has a window, at least not in the traditional sense of store windows. At Cineleisure Orchard, I remember, the first shelving unit of a single row of them on the left of the compact space, was situated right at the store front. Shoppers were picking up their fave kicks and trying them on the corridor of the mall! Conversely, at The Cathay, there was only an entranceway and shelves of shoes to the right. At both stores, no particular brand was given upfront prominence. Leftfoot seemed to draw mostly those in the know and those who know their kicks.

Their new space is, in contrast, a lot more orderly than I remember them to be. Not that Leftfoot was chapalang (messy) to start with, but at the Mandarin Gallery shop, the striking use of shelving units akin to cabinets in a compactor storage and archival system is eye-catching, and allows shoppers to zero in on the kicks they want quickly. The pale office-grey, too, heightened the pleasing orderliness. Additionally, I thought I sensed a seriousness about what they are doing, as if they are now really curating what they sell—the one-side sneakers on those metal shelves like prototypes ready for mass and limited production. The store has nothing blocking its full-glass front, not even a name. On the left, what looked like vintage traffic barriers were the only display, while on the right, a table on a pair of similar-looking trestles stood. I was in the store on a Thursday afternoon and it was, to my surprise, busy. I already had in mind what I wanted, but no sales staff could, at first, be spotted. When she finally appeared, she quickly came to my assistance, found the sneakers in my size for me to try (I sat on one of three small wooden stools dotted in a row in the centre of the store), and then offered to hold it for me at the payment counter while I made up my mind, and continued browsing. And then I spotted a watchman near the entrance, his vigilant gaze deterring would-be shoplifters, but when I left, he said “thank you” with a nod, amicably.

The Leftfoot Family and Friends Pop-Up Store

The Left Foot pop-up store at Mandarin Gallery

Like the old Leftfoot in Cineleisure Orchard, the store at Mandarin Gallery is accompanied by a sibling sale outlet on the same floor (interestingly also on level two). The staff at the main shop happily referred me to the Leftfoot Family and Friends Pop-Up Store as it’s known, “just behind the escalator”. This sale shop contrasts dramatically and charmingly to Leftfoot itself. While one is all sleek and minimalist and bright, the other is groovy with bohemian vibe, made even more palpable with the discernible smell of incense, wafting in a romantically-lit shoe-box space. Once inside, I thought I was transported to a store lost somewhere in the winding lanes of Harajuku, Tokyo. Nothing about the modestly-appointed pop-up screamed sale. Shoes and bags and other items—even mugs—were mixed with no discernible order, but neatly, as if in a sample room. The bazaar energy intensified the store’s browsability. This space, as I understand, is also an event area of sort, having played host previously to Obey and The Lucky Shop (aka 福乐店 or fu le dian). I would have loved to linger, but it was getting a tad crowded, and the shoppers, probably excited, were speaking too loudly.

It seems that Leftfoot has found itself in the right ’hood. Their immediate neighbours are Carhartt WIP (across) and the multi-label store Manifesto (next door). While not exactly a streetwear haven, Mandarin Gallery—with ‘big’ names fronting the four-story mall—seems to be attracting retailers that offer a street-centric point of view, such as the Euro-cool Manifesto, the goth shop L’amoire, and the alt-bent menswear store Supplies & Company. Some observes think Mandarin Gallery should better define their positioning, but I think it makes a better shopping experience if the mall is less predictable, less like its neighbours, less opposed to unknown/unfamiliar names. And more willing to go with an adventurous retail mix, which now, for a discernible on-going and distant good, includes the 18-year-old Leftfoot.

Leftfoot Family and Friends Pop-up Store will open till the end of year. Photos: Galerie Gombak

Pedder On Scotts Walks The End Of The Road

Hong Kong’s premium shoe emporium will close for good at the end of this month. But their parent store in Takashimaya Shopping Centre remains

The tell-tale signs on the front side of Scotts Square were there, way back when Hermès closed in 2019, followed by Delvaux, the Belgian bag’s flagship store and then Alexander McQueen’s—this year. The mall, one of the smallest in Orchard Road, seems to be shedding its high-end image. A former marketing staff with Wheelock Properties once told us that they would be filling their spaces “with exclusive luxury brands not found elsewhere”. The Business Times once described it as “home of luxury”. But with the debut of the LA eatery Eggslut next week (official opening on the 9th) in the corner where Hermès (and Mosscape Concept after that) vacated, are we looking at a less “exclusive” image? A long queue was seen this morning when they opened for “family and friends”. Long is expected when Eggslut finally opens to the egg-loving public. Is F&B the direction Scotts Square is going, especially with crowd-pulling names? Could this be the reason why Pedder on Scotts is closing—they no longer fit?

Pedder on Scotts’s “It’s hard to say goodbye” closing down sale (“up to 80% off”, but not everything is marked down to clear) started sharing on social media this week (the store’s website and Instagram pages are no more). We are not surprised by the closure announcement. Since the start of the pandemic, the store, occupying the whole floor of the three-storey mall, has been looking a tad less glorious than their former self. Some mall leasing managers we know were already speaking of a “massive space to be available in Scotts Square soon”. News of their closing travelled fast. Although it is stated on their communication material that opening hours are from “10am to 6pm daily”, the store welcome shoppers an hour later—“open eleven (sic)”, a staffer said brusquely when we asked her if they were closing down. By 10.30, people were milling in the corridor, with the crowd concentrated at Coffee Academics, the atas Hong Kong cafe situated in the Scotts Road-facing corner of the floor. When asked why the store would be closing, another staffer, a lot chirpier, told us it’s because of “landlord change”.

We’re not sure what to make of that surprising reveal. Scotts Square has been, for as long as we remember, a part of Wheelock Properties. A staffer in the mall told us that “the place is now under Wharf”, which is really Wharf Estates, a subsidiary of the esteemed, 135-year-old Hong Kong-based Wharf Real Estate Investment Company that is behind popular HK shopping destination such as Harbour City and Time Square. Known to the staff of the mall here as Wharf, the operator is, according to their website, “formerly known as Wheelock Properties (Singapore)”. Scotts Square and Wheelock Place are two of Wharf Estates’ commercial properties on our island. Is dropping the Wheelock name as owner of the mall reason to belief that there is a “landlord change”? Or is Wharf Estate truly rejigging their tenant mix so dramatically that staff of their lessees believe some major overhaul is afoot?

Pedder on Scotts opened in October 2015. The massiveness of the store—20,000 sqf—and the breadth of the merchandise were seen as a strong boost to luxury retail here. It was an emporium—specialty store, really—unlike any SG had seen, however large our consumption of luxury footwear. One fashion stylist at the store’s opening party, we vividly remember, called the product offering “orgiastic”. Shoe-lovers would not see that as exaggeration. Before the arrival of Pedder on Scotts, the largest standalone footwear haven was parent store On Pedder at Takashimaya Shopping Centre. We were told On Pedder would not close down. The women’s shoes in the Scotts store would move there, but the men’s and the sneakers would not. They will be “discontinued”. It is unclear what the fate of Canada Goose’s boutique in Pedder on Scotts is (Coffee Academics, it seems, will stay). Pedder Red (closed at Takashimaya Shopping Centre), the in-house, pocket-friendly diffusion line, will cease to exist too.

When we spoke to a society lady earlier today, she said that it may not be right to conclude, as many have, that Pedder on Scotts is closing because of discouraging sales as a result of the COVID pandemic. “U assume they weren’t doing well, but in reality they were,” she texted us. “Many (socialites) shop there. I have seen them. (They) don’t blink an eye at buying a few pairs at a go. Not unusual for them to spend 1k on a pair and they shop a lot. So on average 3k to 5k.” What did they buy, we wondered. “Dressy heels,” came the quick reply. It may surprise some that heels are selling when Crocs are increasingly popular, even among the fashion set. But, a former magazine editor told us, “Pedder on Scotts has their customers, but how many shiny, glittery heels do ladies need during this pandemic?” To him, price is the store’s undoing: “how to sustain if the selection is always pricey. Sneaker sales can only help so much. (They) need to have a nice (selection) of affordable practical styles as well, no?”

Affordability is increasingly not an issue in the marketing of luxury footwear. Otherwise, Louis Vuitton and the like would resist increasing their prices, repeatedly. What is appreciable of Pedder on Scotts is their attempt at going beyond just running a shoe store, and a static one. Sure, they have introduced us to otherwise alien-to-our-shore brands such as Malone Souliers, Rene Caovilla, Sophia Webster, and Tabitha Simmons, and, for men, Japanese advant-gardiste Yoshio Kubo, but they did broadened their offerings to include exquisite accessories, such as bags (Benedetta Bruzziches) and eyewear (Linda Farrow), and introduced items not-bound-for-feet products, such as the home ware of Fornasetti and the fragrances of Maison Francis Kurkdjian. They have supported local creatives too, staging the Onitsuka Tiger Stripes 50th Anniversary exhibition, featuring the collaborative works of our own designers and media professionals and, also in the same year, invited photographer Mark Law and fashion stylist Jeremy Tan to exhibit their work, as well as the entries of the finalists of Harper’s Bazaar’s NewGen design competition. At Pedder on Scotts, there was community outside the patronage of socialites. We shall miss all that.

Pedder on Scotts will be permanently closed on 26 September 2021. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Gone Quietly

Elaine Heng’s digital-native Ilo the Label is shut, just a year after she started it

Click on the New In tab, and “0 products” is shown

It left as discreetly as it arrived. Ilo the Label—influencer Elaine Heng’s rookie hand at fashion retail—has stopped trading. The eponymous website is now only a landing page, with a still banner offering a “10% off when you purchase Tasha Twist Front Top & Tina Mermaid Midi Skirt as a set!” No Tasha or companion Tina is available. Oddly, a video from her last season—“Citrus Summer: 07.07.2020” remains. We noticed this non-activity at least four months ago at the eponymous website, but we thought it was going through some maintenance or renewal exercise. But it seems that isn’t quite the case. At the end of January, Ilo the Label shared on Facebook what was their “third and final Chinese New Year collection”. Their last post on Instagram was a photo of an off-shoulder romper on 7 February. Ms Heng’s last post with the hashtag #lovebyilo was twelves days later. The last of the #happyilogirls to post (also in February) did so to announce that she was selling an Ilo the Label jumpsuit. Since March, we also noticed a rise in viewership on our post of the birth of Ilo the Label, resulting from searches on Ms Heng’s clothing business. Shoppers or the simply-curious could be wondering what happened to the “fashion brand that cares about your feelings”, according to the label’s self-description.

Back in March this year, Elaine Heng (aka Elaine Jasmine or Elaine Ruimin [瑞敏], depending on the stage of the influencer’s digital life) posted on IG a photograph of herself and a rack of three dresses (followed by four more snaps in that one post, showing her work space being cleared out), with an accompanying farewell message: “Bidding goodbye to my first ever office space.” In the rather lengthy post, she also wrote: “Such a bittersweet feeling because there’s been so much memories and emotions experienced in this humble space.” That spot of humility was in Kallang Place, in one Four Star Building, owned by the people behind Four Star Mattress. (Strangely, she thanked the company that renovated her office when she was closing it!). Spaceportal descibes what could be seen from the building as such: “…the stunning view of the Kallang Stadium along Kallang river is spectacular and well appreciated by our tenants, some call it a ‘fireworks view’”.

If Elaine Heng fashioned Ilo the Label after her own cheery personal style, she might not have realised that, some time down the road, the jelak factor would just as happily set in

Launched on 18 March last year after two years of gestation, Ilo the Label was met with less fanfare: no fireworks. Essentially an online brand, the collections were available through their own website shortly before last year’s Circuit Breaker was implemented. They were heavily touted on the brand’s IG pages, as well as on Ms Heng’s own IG account, where she continually posted photos of herself, looking vivacious, in her own label, as well as of her friends wearing the same, such as fellow influencer Melissa Jane Ferosha (何青燕 or He Qingyan). As we understood it, Ms Heng did not design the collections: she had what was described as “a team of designers”. One fashion buyer we spoke to said that the brand did not seem to be “conceived to last. It is really hard to sell very similar things, season after season. How many rompers and jumpsuits do you really need?” If Elaine Heng fashioned Ilo the Label after her own cheery personal style—as it appeared, she might not have considered that, some time down the road, the jelak factor would just as happily set in.

Another victim of the pandemic? It is hard to say. Ilo the Label is available only online—and just that one point of sale. It has no physical store. According to Globaldata figures published last year, Singapore’s online sales were set to hit S$9.5 billion, despite the pandemic. Singstat data showed that by the time we came to last November, we reached “an estimated total retail sales value” of “about $3.6 billion. Of these, online retail sales made up an estimated 14.3%, higher than the 10.5% recorded in October 2020”. It would appear to be relatively encouraging then for those brands who were available online. In that March IG post to announce that she was clearing out of her Kallang Place office, Elaine Heng wrote: “now that the one year (sic) lease has ended, it’s time to move on to a new space & look forward to better things ahead”. That did not sound like Ilo the Label would be totally folded. But just a month later, she posted (also on IG) about “trying to juggle between my new full time job & night grooming course”. Ilo the Label’s bland positioning might have been eternal-blooms-in-solar-radiance but, alas, like many flowers, is monocarpic—bloom, seed, and then die, quite the contrary to their early upbeat belief that “the flower that follows the sun does so even in cloudy days.”

Screen grab: ilothelabel.com

Forever 21 Not

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

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

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

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

Storefront of the Forever 21 unit early this week

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

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

Photos: Chin Boh Kay/SOTD

Zara Closed

…its Ngee Ann City store

The entire shop front, about 30-metres long, on basement one of Ngee Ann City is boarded up. The messages on the hoarding, printed against a pink background, read “business as usual while we reignite your experience”, offering no information to what (or who) will come next. Inside, workers can be seen dismantling fixtures. On NAC’s website, the store is no longer listed in its directory. It’s the same on the in-mall digital directory. Zara’s own homepage still shows the existence of the NAC store, but when you click on “opening times for the next few days”, you’ll see “closed” indicated on each of the next seven listed. Google Map still shows the NAC store, and states that it is open and will close at 9.30pm. A call to the accompanying phone number went unanswered. The line is not disconnected yet.

In front of the former Zara, a security guard walked past. We asked him what happened to Inditex’s star brand. He grumpily told us the store “was closed on Sunday”. Which Sunday? “Last Sunday.” Verifying that were the salespersons of the MAC store opposite. “They closed four or five days ago,” we were told. Were they not doing well? “Don’t know, leh.” Could they be closed for renovation? They had no answer to that either. At the information counter, the cheery attendant said that the “store is closed permanently.” Do you know why? “Don’t know. Maybe they have too many stores in Orchard.” Then she helpfully told us to “go to either 313 or Wheelock”.

Screen grab of Zara’s homepage showing the opening times of their NAC store

Zara was one of the earliest fast fashion brands to open here—in 2002, 47 years after its debut in the port city of Coruna in Spain. (Topshop opened earlier—in 2000, but they exited the market here earlier too—last year). Inditex entered the Asian market with the first store in Tokyo in 1999. We were the first in Southeast Asia to have a Zara store, then operated by Royal Clicks, formerly Royal Sporting House (it reverted to RSH in 2003). It was at NAC that the first Zara store welcomed delighted fans as well as the many who thought Zara’s arrival to be late. The space was originally a single unit until it doubled (it was originally the unit adjacent to Guess), with a separate menswear store. It would become the go-to store for reasonably-priced, on-trend clothes. At last count, Zara had eight stores throughout our island.

In 2012, former owners of Robinsons, Al-Futtaim Group, invested in RSH for a sum never publicly disclosed. Four years later, they acquired the distribution rights to Zara (as well as RSH’s other brands, such as Mango and Bebe). Despite news emerging last June that Inditex was planning to close 1,200 stores globally, a spokesperson for Al-Futtaim Group told The Straits Times, “our stores are planning to open as usual in Phase 2 in line with the government measures.” Open as usual does not mean—especially with the end of the pandemic nowhere yet in sight—indefinitely. We saw that in Robinsons. Zara’s closure, even just one store, does not bode well for our shrinking fashion retail industry.

Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Google Opens A Store

Its first is in the Big Apple, New York City

Google is a latecomer when it comes to hardware retail. Apple’s first retail outlet was opened two decades ago, in May 2001, in not one but two locations, both not hub cities: McClean, Virginia and Glendale, California. Google’s retail debut, simply called Google Store is in Manhattan, New York, in the still-happening neighbourhood of Chelsea, just across from the famed Chelsea Market. In fact, in the same building as Google’s NYC HQ is situated. Adjacent to what’s known as the Meatpacking District, the swanky glass-fronted Google retail temple is in the company of some of the big names associated with the city: Diane von Furstenberg, Anthroplogie (just opposite, in fact), and Kiehl’s, and restaurants such as Buddakan (in which Carrie and Big’s wedding rehearsal dinner from the first Sex and the City movie was shot). Perhaps what’s more interesting is that an Apple Store is situated nearby too, less than 100m away, and on the same thoroughfare: 9th Avenue. With the Samsung store and Tesla showroom nearby, too, Chelsea is geared up to be quite the tech district.

In a blog post, Google wrote that the eponymous store is “a space where customers can experience our hardware and services in a helpful way.” It sounds very Apple, of course. In a press release from 2001, the late Steve Jobs was quoted saying, “Rather than just hear about megahertz and megabytes, customers can now learn and experience the things they can actually do with a computer, like make movies, burn custom music CDs, and publish their digital photos on a personal website.” There is that word “experience”. In a world where online is the preferred place to shop, what one gets out of visiting a physical store other than the purchase considered is what makes or breaks the store. Perhaps echoing Apple twenty years ago, Google said it wanted their space for consumers to come and try all of its devices and services that show their synergy, and how they’ll work together in different places.

But experience isn’t just a beautiful space or good service. There’s also the component, “theatre of retail” (stand outside an Apple store as far away as you can, and look at the action within—performance indeed!). Google is so serious about making their debut store work, they built a full-size mockup in a hangar in Mountain View, California to give their ideas the necessary trial runs.The Google Store is divided into rooms or “sandboxes” (to suggest play?) that offer situations in which their gadgets might be used. There is even a soundproofed area to audition their various Home/Nest products. One particularly experiential feature is a striking 5-metre-tall circular glass enclosure that is known as the Google Imagination Space. At this spot, shoppers can enjoy an immersive exploration of Google’s newest technologies. For the opening, the company’s Translate service is in full display. Speak any language (almost, anyway—Google can’t translate Aramaic!) and you will be able listen to real-time translation, in 24 languages (about 6,500 are spoken in the world today), while learning how this is possible. Playing can go hand-in-hand with purchasing.

Despite the popularity of the their search engine, Google is not really known for their products, at least not here, where they are not as widely sold as in the US. The store’s lure is that you can “shop the latest Chromecasts, Phones, Speakers & Smart Displays at Google Store. Buy Pixel 5, Nest Audio, Chromecast with Google TV, Nest Wifi, and more,” according to pre-opening marketing blurbs. And to that, add sending what you already own for on-site servicing or tweaking. The shopping and learning is done inside the 465-square-metre space, clearly designed to encourage discovery. As it looks less cold and sparse and more homey than the Apple Store, there is a good chance this is where you’ll be able to easily while away an afternoon. Now that the prospect of travel is still dim, we are unlikely able to see the Google Store soon. It took Apple 16 years to open its first free-standing flagship here (and the first in Southeast Asia), on Orchard Road. For Google/Android fans, the wait for our own Google Store here would probably be just as long.

Google Store is at 76 9th Ave, New York, NY10011. It opens tomorrow (New York time). Screen grabs: Google

A Bathing Ape Will Go Out With The Bath Water

Once a popular streetwear label, The Bathing Ape has lost its simian appeal, and will exit our shores on 18 June

Gone will be the good ape. The well-loved, urban primate that bathes will vacate its flagship premises at the Mandarin Gallery after 12 years. The impending closure of A Bathing Ape (also known as Bape) was announced on Vesak Day via the label’s Facebook page. “We hope to see you all one last time before we say a final goodbye,” went the message. Although another fashion brand to exit Singapore is hardly surprising these days, some observers thought Bape, one of the better-known and established Japanese streetwear names, would survive the retail havoc caused by COVID-19 since it had past the one-decade mark. When a member of the staff was asked yesterday why the store would be closing for good, he shrugged his shoulders and then added, “don’t know”. But it requires no effort to guess that even the great ape is unable to survive the pandemic jungle. Next month, the bath water will be thrown out of our island, and sadly, together with the ape.

The Bathing Ape opened its first Southeast Asian store here at the Mandarin Gallery in December 2009 (then, the seventh outside Japan. Three years earlier, Hong Kong saw Asia’s first). Distributed by the thirty-year-old fashion retailer Kwang Sia Fashion, a Singaporean company that brought to our shore brands such as Max Mara and Y3, and lost those, such as Hugo Boss, Dsquared2, and Replay Jeans, Bape was very much welcomed at its 186-square-metre debut. Prior to its opening here, most fans would cop their must-haves (mostly T-shirts) in Japan, or nearer, in Hong Kong. The opening of Bape also attested to the growing popularity and importance of streetwear here. And that there was a sizeable market for those willing to pay for what has been touted as a premium brand (no S$29.90 T-shirts!). Bape’s logo—a recognisable silhouette of a species-indeterminate ape—was the Supreme box logo of its day. It would not require extraordinary insight to know where our own The Slurping Ape (conceived in 2001, eight years before Bape’s splashy Orchard Road appearance) took inspiration from.

A Bathing Ape is the brainchild of Japanese street-fashion impresario Nigo—on his passport, it would have read Tomoaki Nagao. Mr Nagao is no longer directly associated with the line he created, but Bape and its sibling brands that emerged later are still linked to their creator/founder. Nigo’s A Bathing Ape emerged in the early ’90s alongside schoolmate Jun Takahashi’s Undercover. These were the fledgling years of street fashion in Japan. In the late ’80s, Mr Nagao, then a high-school student, met his idol-turn-mentor Hiroshi Fujiwara, the godfather of Japanese hip-hop, as well as its “living legend”, as Western followers of Japanese street style like to call him. As luck and the intervening hand of fate would have it, Mr Nagao ended up working for Mr Fujiwara, whose first clothing brand Goodenough (considered Japan’s “first streetwear brand”) was a rapid success after its launch in 1990. Soon, he decided to open his own retail store. It was situated in the then not-quite-frequented ura-Harajuku, and appropriately named Nowhere. Two of Mr Fujiwara’s friends were asked to operate the business: Mr Takahashi, who took one half of the space to stock his Undercover line, and Mr Nagao, who took the other half, sold imported labels, such as Stussy. But, Mr Nagao’s share of the store reportedly did not fare well. He realised that, just as with his mentor and friend, he needed to have his own brand.

A Bathing Ape was born in 1993, before, as we remind ourselves, the Internet, before Instagram. As many know by now, the name was derived from the old Planet of the Apes films that found a fervent fan in Nigo, who had (what we call today) binge-watched on them on television. The simian logo requires no explanation. The name, however, came not from any scene of the films in which a primate was bathing. Rather, as author Marx W. David wrote in the seminal book Ametora, Nigo “slapped on an English slogan—A Bathing Ape in Lukewater (sic)—borrowed from a line in an underground Takashi Nemoto comic that described an old man “like an ape in a bath of lukewarm water”. The initial run was T-shirts (just 50, reportedly) and jackets in the vein of American vintage wear that was popular at the time. From the start, A Bathing Ape (shortened to Bape in the late ’90s) was aligned with local hip-hop stars. And then there was the meeting with British electronic musician James Lavelle, also founder of the indie record label Mo’Wax and a member of the band UNKLE. Mr Lavelle wore a lot of Bape. He would also soon introduce Nigo to grafitti artist Futura (formerly Futura 2000, who, two seasons ago, collaborated with Comme des Garçons). In 1997, Nigo—even not a musician—surreptitiously debuted the album (B)Ape Sounds under Mo’Wax. The blink-heavy cover was, unsurprisingly, designed by Futura.

These deep connections with the music world, especially hip hop, led to long-lasting affiliations with those of similar taste, who eagerly endorsed Bape, such as Pharrell Williams, the Notorious B.I.G., and Lil Wayne. In no time, others came to sing Bape’s praises, including Kanye West and Virgil Abloh, with the rapper Souja Boy even going on about eagerly acquiring some Bapes in the 2007 Crank Dat. In return for the enthusiastic response he received in the West, Nigo (and his friends) would help launch Mr Williams’s now-waning labels, Billionaire Boys Club (BBC) and Ice Cream. The Japanese graphic designer Sk8thing (aka Shinichiro Nakamura) from the days of Goodenough, and a faithful Bape collaborator, would also create BBC’s astronaut logo and the brand’s well-loved repeated patterns. A Bathing Ape, now an international brand, sold in some of the buzziest streetwear stores in the world, and worn by performers from both sides of the Atlantic, gained even more traction in Japan, where it was sold in the Nigo-conceived Busy Work Shops. The success in America meant that they could open flashy Bape flagships, such as that in Aoyama in 2005 and in Shibuya in 2007, both designed by the bigwig Masamichi Katayama from the esteemed firm Wonderwall.

Market watchers believe Bape enjoyed a peak in popularity between 2000 and 2010. At its height, there was even a Bape café and a Bape TV station. But after 2010, adoration for the brand started to wane. There were always complaints of scarcity, a deliberate merchandising model to project the forced exclusivity that would come to define Supreme, but it became detrimental to Bape’s ability to win continued customer support. Quantity unfortunately remained below market demand. ‘Limited editions’ soon limited the brand’s appeal. Bape’s standing among Japanese consumers can perhaps be best summed up by what has been clearly observable. Vintage pieces are mostly found in the grungy neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa, for example, rather than those in the secondhand shops of swanky Ginza or Shinjuku, where Bape’s fellow brand in Nowhere in the ’90s, Undercover, could often be found. When one visited the Shibuya store (now closed), just next to the old Parco, one would often see mostly mainland Chinese tourists wanting merchandise that would allow them to boast about their visit to a Tokyo Bape store. Its arrival here in 2009, although rabidly received, was really at the tail-end of its popularity. Singaporean consumers, as it’s still often said, tend to be late adopters.

In 2011, the fashion world was brought to torso-straightening attention when it was announced that A Bathing Ape was acquired by the Hong Kong fashion conglomerate, the I.T Group. A year prior to that event, news had emerged that the Japanese brand had accrued a whopping ¥2.5 billion (approximately S$30 million) in debt. The sale to the Hong Kong owners was made for a surprisingly paltry ¥230 million (approximately S$2.7 million). Tomoaki Nagao stayed on as creative consultant for the next two years to “help with the transition”, as widely reported. Last December, another surprising announcement was made: founder and chairman of I.T Group Sham Kar Wai and co-investor of A Bathing Ape CVC Capital Partners had decided to keep the brand as separate company, independent of I.T Group. A year before the high-profile sale of the brand he created, Mr Nagao launched Human Made. It has, as we understand, yet to become as huge as Bape. In 2014, Uniqlo appointed Mr Nagao as creative director (namely for their UT line). A year later, he opened the rather out-of-place Store by Nigo in Harujuku’s Laforet. As expected, Human Made took the spotlight. Nigo, without his beloved Bape, is still a fashion force that brands turned to. Ten years after Bape’s staggering debt was announced, Louis Vuitton revealed a collaboration with Nigo—without doubt facilitated by pal Virgil Abloh.

At the time of its rage, many young fans found Bape expensive, even when purchased in Japan. Sure, if you look at just the T-shirts, they were cheaper than Supreme, but dearer than Stussy. Aware of the less-appealing pricing of Bape, the I.T group created Aape, which was available here in their short-lived multi-label store i.t at Orchard Gateway. But A Bathing Ape’s visual appeal slowly lost to the likes of the BFF of Kaws. Although the brand tried to counter the simian logo’s seriousness with other more affable-looking characters such as Felix the Cat and the other feline, Hello Kitty (with the cuter Baby Milo), Bape did not quite regain its footing at the apex of global streetwear, not even with best-sellers, such as the Nike Air Force 1 look-alike Bapesta (Kanye West even has his own made) or the no-longer-rare, quickly-jelak shark-head hoodie. Bape, like all primates, has aged.

A day after the closing down was announced, shoppers formed, outside the Mandarin Gallery store, a line that stretched past Michael Kors in the corner of the building. The waiting time in the scorching sun was, according to the Bape-clad crowd controller, “an hour and a half”. As with many brands suffering the same fate, A Bathing Ape is appealing when it is going out of business (50% off storewide, except T-shirts, which are marked down by 40%). A twentysomething guy in a tee with the name Alexander Wang repeated six times down his chest was deciding whether to join the queue. “Actually,” he told us, “I don’t wear Bape anymore. The last time I bought something in the store was when I was in secondary school.” He looked up, as if someone was beckoning. We looked too. On the façade of the store on level two, the familiar head of the twenty-eight-year-old primate was looking at all of us below. A speech bubble, larger than his face, sat alongside, with the text, “Go! Ape”. In all likelihood, that exhortation will be permanently gone.

Photo: Galerie Gombak

Prada Outdoor: Tale Of Two Cities

Could Prada Outdoor be the world’s most compelling post-lockdown fashion? In Hong Kong and Singapore, Prada shows—rather seductively—what going out to open spaces to have fun could really look like. But why is one atrium exhibition more compelling than the other?

Outdoor indoor: Prada’s spectacular pop-up in Hong Kong’s IFC Mall

Our version in ION Orchard: considerably smaller and, curiously, dimmer

Fun. Do we still remember that? Enjoyment. When did that last strike? Mirth. Hasn’t that been missing for a long while? Well, we were already beginning to re-acquaint ourselves with what going out to play would be like, until the latest COVID-19 safety measures—a return to Phase 2, now also known as “heightened alert”—kicked in last Sunday. Many of us, of course, can’t wait to fully return to a post-lockdown, post-socially-distanced, post-movement-controlled world. Shopping, for example, is still muted here, but elsewhere, retailers are out to seriously entice. In Hong Kong, for instance, the locals are offered a glimpse of how alluring going out for a spot of fun can be, even only through the lens of Prada. The eye-catching mini-exhibition is concurrently available here too, but it is dismally smaller, and no shopper seems to bother with it.

This pop-up store/exhibition at IFC Mall in Central opened last Thursday to launch the brand’s across-season collection Prada Outdoor. In full visualisation of the theme, a massive diorama of a beach-side scene is brought indoor in the usually less outdoorsy IFC Mall. Awash with sky-meets-sea blue, the set-up clearly hints at fun and relaxing times by the waves. Awning-striped beach umbrellas and chairs hint at seaside fun that’s more Amalfi Coast than the East Coat, more Biarritz than Pulau Ubin. There is even a rather mid-Century-looking lifeguard tower, on which a mannequin in a Breton top sits. A blue pop-up canopy is put together to welcome whoever wants relaxation under the shelter. A polyhedron tent—blue too—is erected as well, in which a mise en scene of ‘glampers’ relaxing in a surprisingly utilitarian space (but no less suitably equipped) could be viewed—and envied.

A view from second floor of IFC Mall: going to the beach for the day or to camp overnight is more appealing than ever—going by Prada’s life-size diorama

Seen from level two of Ion Orchard, the SG set-up is oddly ill-lit and says precious little of the purpose

On Monday, three days ago, our own pop-up Outdoor opened in ION Orchard, in a small, rather low-lit corner of the mall’s fragmented concourse. Its diminutive set-up is in sharp contrast to Prada’s breadth of covering nature’s bounty. The beach umbrellas are there, the tent too, as well as the lifeguard tower, on which a mannequin (dressed in a logo-ed French terry sweat top) also sits. Missing is the pop-up canopy. All the shelters are placed on a relatively flat platform, unlike those in the HK display, which mimics the undulating dunes seen on some beaches. It is also dimly lit, as if it’s the beach at dusk, but no campfire was roaring. The Outdoor set styling at ION Orchard seems to be toned and scaled down to cater to an audience that wouldn’t be bowled over by anything not quite contemporaneous to real life here. Even the tent has a sole occupant, rather than more to suggest, or welcome, social times. Does this go with the oft-expressed belief that we’re too small for anything major or massive? Or, could this be Prada SG’s cheeky, glammed-up kampung version that we can relate to?

The seaside scene is only one part of Prada Outdoor’s trifecta of “nature in its myriad forms”. Dubbed “special project”, Outdoor comprises the Garden, the Coast, and the Mountain in their idealised articulations. These static displays are, according to the brand, “dedicated to the emotions conveyed by different settings”. Occupiable and enjoyable that they already are, every scene too comes with “a selection of original products recalling each particular environment.” In Hong Kong, despite the large size of the IFC Mall atrium, Prada has only what appears to be the Coast set up, but if you look closely, the canopy wouldn’t be out of place even in the most modest of gardens and the tent would be happy anywhere along a mountain trail. Is the outdoor this inviting or have we been holed up at home for too long?

It is doubtful anyone would be this stylish and so well kitted when enjoying nature and the outdoors, but Prada shows us we can dream

The SG proposal: Dressed for a night by a camp fire?

Prada’s embrace of the outdoors is possibly to pave the way for a return to the old normal of going out to enjoy oneself with a few friends. It also proposes that we should be in the open, rather than indoors or within closed quarters. As The Straits Times reported four days ago, “recent clusters have shown that the new Covid-19 variants are more infectious, with transmission more likely to take place in indoor settings where people do not wear masks”. Prada not only provides the clothes, but also the context in which to wear them. In addition, when viewed from above, the nicely outfitted, in-character, mask-less (presumably vaccinated!) models that dot the space are socially distanced. There is clearly no over-crowding. Retailers can, indeed, lead by example.

Prada Outdoor is, of course, also riding on the bandwagon of ‘gorpcore’, so gleefully adopted by Gucci and The North Face last December. The Mountain component corresponds to the rising popularity of outdoor brands such as Patagonia and Japan’s Snow Peak, Nanamica, and the rebranded Goldwin. Prada has always made outerwear that can stand the test of the harshest elements, but what makes it more appealing this time is the inclusion of the gear not typically seen in the stores. Sure, they have offered water bottles and thermoses before, but now they include camping kit such as mess tins and lunch bowls (made in collaboration with English brand Black & Blum) and reusable cutlery (even chopsticks!), stylishly sheathed in a logo-ed pouch. There are also accessories that are ready for any climb: paracord survival bracelets, with enamel Prada triangle as charm, of course!

The clothes alone are not quite enough. Complete the look with Prada’s camping kit

The Prada buying office here seems to know that we are not going to be seduced by camp-ready lunchboxes. In their place, huggable terrycloth handbags

This multi-product approach is also consistent with luxury brands going totally lifestyle. In fact, a Prada store is increasingly a department store—the Tokyo flagship in Aoyama, for example, is, without doubt, one. Prada Outdoor is not only category-breaking for a luxury brand, but also indication that they can sell almost anything. Apart from clothing, accessories, and wearables, there are also play things such as inflatable pool floats and rings, and even a hammock! What makes extra Prada Outdoor appealing is how wearable and usable every item is. There is also something delectably familiar about what is in stock: the tropical prints (and, yes, the bananas too); bold, colourful stripes; the loose, boxy shapes; the goofy footwear (fluffy slides) and the elegant (river sandals with Japan-esque knotted thongs), volleyball bags, and for men, the eve-popular camp shirts with bold graphics, only now multi-print and even bolder.

Hong Kong, like us, isn’t out of the pandemic woods, yet retailers there are not resistant to creating enhanced shopping experiences that are impressive not by content alone, but scale too. And it is experiential: Prada Outdoor in Hong Kong is open to walk-ins. The pop-up is not cordoned off. Shoppers are free to saunter in, examine the displays up-close and even touch what interests them. The sale staff happily tells you she is contactable whenever you need something, even after leaving the display area. She later sends you a message to thank you for stopping by. Here, the already small set-up is entirely surrounded by stanchion and velvet rope (Phase 2!). An attendant (accompanied by a security guard) is around to introduce the collection to you and to answer questions, and, no, you can’t walk into the exhibition area, not that anyone seems to want to. If there is anything you need, you would just be directed to the nearby Prada store. End of contact. Charming.

Prada Outdoor pop-up exhibition is on at ION Orchard from 17 May to 2 June. Prada encourages all shoppers to call ahead to secure a spot if a store visit is necessary. Photos: K S Yeung (HK) and Chin Boh Kay (SG)

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, 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