Madness: Is The End Near?

Hong Kong star Shawn Yue’s streetwear label Madness will close its Beijing store this week. The future of the brand isn’t looking bright

Madness store in Beijing’s Sanlitun. Photo: Liu Zhuolan

At the height of its popularity in 2017, the sole free-standing Madness store in Beijing’s Sanlitun (renamed in 2013 as Sanlitun Taikoo Li) shopping district often attracted such a snaking crowd that the queue time to get in was typically an hour and a half. Opened in 2016 to considerable fanfare, the lavishly appointed store was considered by retail observers to be the height of Madness. The streetwear brand was started by Hong Kong actor/singer/model Shawn Yue (余文乐) in 2014. This week, on Chinese social media, the phrase 倒闭了 (dao bi le or close down) was shared like wild fire after Madness announced on Weibo (微博) that they will shut their one and only store in the world on 25 February, their last day of operation. It added, “我们稍后将以另外一种形式于北京和大家再次见面!敬请留意 (we will meet you and Beijing again in another form later. Please take note).” The only thing Chinese Netizens took notice was that Madness is scheduled to “close down”.

Signs of the brand’s retail failure had, in fact, emerged last month when Madness closed its Tmall (天猫 or tianmao, a B2C e-commerce platform) store on 29 January, confirming rumours circulating at the start of the New Year that the brand will shutter around the Spring Festival. The closure had upset fans, who took to social media to complain of how sudden the shutting down was. Apparently, the store left no notice of its impending closure. Mr Yue did not say anything on his social media pages either. The Madness Weibo page made one last post on 11 Jan, with no mention of the Tmall store’s fate. Shoppers were not directed elsewhere. When we visited the brand’s Tmall “旗舰店” (qijiandian or flagship), we were greeted with a notice “店铺终止经营公告 (shop termination announcement)” and the date of its closure. The brand’s official Instagram account, with 358K followers, curiosly has only 7 posts. The Madness online store is still operating (its opening page shows a pensive Shawn Yue behind a pair of impenetrable shades), but much of its merchandise is marked “sold out”.

Inside the Madness Beijing store. Photo: Madness

It is not yet known why Madness has chosen to shutter their Beijing store. The brand has not responded to Chinese media’s request for comments. Unsurprisingly, speculation has been rife. The protracted COVID shutdowns and restrictions are probable causes. Some say that the lease of the space is expiring and negotiation with the landlord amounted to nought. According to local news reports, interest in Chinese celebrity-conceived brands during the pre-COVID years of 国潮 (guo chao or the trend of consuming home-born brands) has waned. There is also the possibly that the shopping destination itself is no longer the shopper magnet that it was. When it opened in 2008, the Kengo Kuma-designed Sanlitun was touted as the capital’s most luxurious and the hippest shopping destination. Last year, Dover Street Market Beijing, with its own glassed, box-like building, moved out of Sanlitun after 12 years there for the newer WF Central in 王府井 (wangfujing) a commercial hub within walking distance from the Forbidden City. DSMB’s exit hinted at Sanlitun’s fading hipster, even avant-garde edge.

Closer observation has been made on Madness itself. Conceived in 2014, the brand rode on the popularity of the street style of the time that leaned heavily on the workwear and military fatigues favoured by Japanese brands such as Neighborhood and WTAPS, as opposed to the more skateboarding-centric or sporty styles of the Americans, as seen in brands such as Palace and Kith. It was thought that Madness embodied Shawn Yue’s personal style, which has remained largely unchanged: baggy tees, just-as-large Oxford shirts, military-style jackets, and roomy shorts or trousers. Or, what an SOTD reader from Hong Kong called “dads-who-think-they’re-cool look”. While Madness has a relatable vibe, it has not distinguished itself from those that are aesthetically similar, and have been around much longer. Mainland Netizens—as well as those from Hong Kong—pointed out that the brand has “copied” the labels they have modelled themselves after, including those they have collaborated with. They went as far as to say that even the Sanlitun store is evocative of the old Neighbourhood outpost on Hong Kong’s Ice House Street. One Hong Kong retail communications head told us that Madness was never targeted at the “true fashion consumer”, but “the Sham Shui Po kids who hang out in Mongkok”. The Chinese news portal 搜狐 (Sohu) was perhaps spot on when they described Shawn Yue’s style, “与其说潮,倒不如说他的穿衣风格易于模仿,适合大部分男生学习.” Simply put, rather then say he is trendy, why not just say his style is easy to immitate, suitable for most young men to learn from.

Mainland Netizens—as well as those from Hong Kong—pointed out that the brand has “copied” the labels they have modelled themselves after

Madness themselves had been embroiled in controversy too, weakening the brand’s cachet. In 2018, two years after the Salitun store opened, Shawn Yue was impelled to issue a public apology after the Madness online store stated that all orders could be shipped to countries that curiously (or carelessly?) included Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. It requires little effort to imagine the rabid outburst on social media, especially Weibo and Xiaohongshu (小红书). Mr Yue swiftly reacted on Weibo: “As the owner of Madness,” he wrote, “I am so sorry for such a big mistake and [causing] misunderstanding. I will take responsibility for failing to monitor the company well. We will conduct a comprehensive review and will not allow such mistakes to happen again.” Strangely, the brand did not appear to be more careful in how they tread thereafter. The “review”, it seemed, did not include merchandise. In 2020, the actor had to aplogise again for a red sweater sold that sported an image in the rear of a pair of raised lower arms, with one hand showing five fingers and another with a stretched-out index finger. The optics were at odds with the sentiments in the mainland. Netizens read that as the 2019/2020 Hong Kong protesters’ angry slogan “5 demands, not 1 less”. To them, Mr Yue “踩雷 (cailei or stepped on thunder, a stock market term that generally denotes making yet another supposedly sound investment that crashed)”, again.

Aware of the potentially irreversible fallout, Madness quickly withdrew the offensive product (and others akin to it) and explained that the illustration was a visual take on 42-year-old Shawn Yue’s long-time nickname 老六 (lao liu or literally old six, ascribed to the number he was assigned to when he played basketball in secondary school) and also 六叔 (liu shu or sixth uncle) among his younger fans who cannot see him as the 小鲜肉 (xiaoxianrou or little fresh meat) that he was described as when he starred in his first film 忧忧愁愁的走了 (Leaving in Sorrow) 22 years ago. Few thought that a term of endearment that isn’t particularly cute could easily take such an unfortunate turn. After the corporate statement, Mr Yue wrote on Weibo, “The design was completed originally in March 2019. As the owner of the brand, my team and I have to express our apologies for not handling it well throughout the whole process.” Process issues or not, to followers of the brand, the missteps were sheer madness.

Madness merchandise still available online. Product photos: Madness. Collage: Just So

Madness isn’t Mr Yue’s first fashion venture. In 2010, he started Common Sense, a start-up, if you will, that was very much a vehicle to help him get into collaborations with his favourite clothiers, primarily the Japanese. Mr Yue distinguished Common Sense as “a creative unit” while Madness is “a clothing brand”. It would be difficult to find a Hong Kong fashion professional to say that Common Sense is key in the history of the city’s fashion, but the brand did quickly get him noticed as a streetwear aficionado, to the extent that he became a serial collaborator with the popular Cantonese infotainment weekly 東Touch (East Touch), who has put him on their covers more times than readers can remember. In return, Mr Yue would support the magazine’s promotional activities by availing the collaborative output of his brands to East Touch, such as last year’s 1,017th issue of the title, which came with a camouflage scarf by A Bathing Ape X Common Sense. His ability in attracting Japanese labels to co-brand with his, we suspect, is likely due to his celebrity reach than him being the Special Administrative Region’s own Nigo. Japanese labels, such as Neighborhood had a head start in the Fragrant Harbour after their successfully pairing with Hong Kong brand Izzue, established in 1999 by the I.T Group. Interestingly, Izzue’s own take on work and military wear predates that zealously adopted by Madness.

Shawn Yue and Madness have often been compared to the other Hong Kong celeb fashion entrepreneur Edison Chen and his label Clot. Both men loathe the comparison. Yet, there are some similarities in their brands and their creative trajectories. Clot was founded a decade earlier—in 2003, the year of the SARS outbreak. It is available through the multi-label store Juice, also owned by Mr Chen. Born in Vancouver, but found fame in Hong Kong, he actively pushes modernised Chinese motifs for Clot, even using Chinese typography and graphics rather freely. For many Hong Kong consumers, Clot is the OG celebrity-birthed HK streetwear brand. So credible and “authentic”, and sophisticated it is considered to be that Dover Street Market happily stocks the label (you can find Clot at DSMS), upping Mr Chen’s business clout. Whether by fate or design, both labels opened in Sanlitun and, notably, both have left (or, Madness soon will). Outside China, Clot is also available online and in their own Juice stores, including the newly opened outpost in Los Angeles. Madness had brief selling seasons with Asia-Pacific stockists such as Studious in Japan and Supply Store in Australia. But, it is best no parallels are drawn between them—men and brands. In one online spat from 2019, when a Netizen commented that he hoped to see a collaboration between Clot and Madness, Edison Chen replied, “We [are] many levels above that wack shit.” Shawn Yue may have been prescient when he chose his brand’s moto: “madness breeds madness”.

H&M Will Soon Close

…the ION Orchard store. Another one bites the dust

Main entrance of H&M ION Orchard store

Was the writing on the wall when H&M closed their store in Tampines Mall in August 2020 and then at Waterway Point in Punggol in January 2021. The Swedish retailer announced via a photo message on Facebook that the ION Orchard outlet will be shut next month, on 12 March. Despite the impending closure, H&M happily stated that “new beginning awaits!”. It also added: “Don’t worry. We’ll meet in other places”, without saying what would cause the worry or if “other places” meant outside our island, or within. With the ION Orchard store shuttered, the chain is left with eight others spread across our city. It is not known how many of these will remain. On Orchard Road, only one H&M store stands: the once-open-till-11pm, three-storey flagship at Orchard Building on Grange Road will continue to operate.

The H&M ION Orchard store opened in 2012, the year the ‘Lemons Laws’ were passed to protect consumers from good found to be defective after purchase. With two stories (the lower floor houses the men’s and kids’ departments), it is the chain’s second largest here. It is also in this MRT station-level location that the label’s designer collaborations were launched (other than at the flagship, some 700 metres away). Those who chose to get in line outside this store felt it was a more comfortable space to camp overnight as it was “not affected by the elements”, one regular queue folk told us. H&M apparently would be stepping up its digital presence in the wake of reduced numbers of brick-and-mortar stores and attendant traffic. ION Orchard has not announced what or which brand will takeover the two units that H&M will soon vacate.

The B3 entrance to the men’s department

The last of the window displays before the store closes

Way before the pandemic arrived, we had already noticed that H&M was looking slack. Visual merchandising was beginning to be non-existent, even the clothes on the racks were not pressed. One “former” H&M fan told us that the offerings were beginning to “look nasty”. At some time in early 2019, even the Orchard Building flagship, where the press office is sited, appeared like a preface to closure: just racks of clothes with no displays on shelves above them. Reportedly, this store will be “revamped”, a H&M spokesperson told the press. But it would not surprise us that even their biggest outlet, where the brand’s home decor line is available during the Christmas season, would shutter. In Tokyo last August, H&M closed their Harajuku flagship (it sat in a dedicated building next to ABC Mart) on Meiji-dori, following the similar fate of their first Tokyo store in Ginza in 2018. It would be surprising that this was not the result of the heat felt from other fast fashion brands, such as Shein, now with physical stores in Osaka and Tokyo.

At the ION Orchard store this morning, the number of shoppers was dismal. Most of them appeared to be tourists or domestic workers on their day off. At the main entrance on B2, merchandise for the Lunar New Year greeted us with little cheer. We walked around and noted that, aesthetically, H&M has not changed: a jumble of clothes and little else. Everything on the racks had scant hanger appeal. We spotted a staffer folding clothes in front of an island display. We walked to the chap and casually asked him when the store will close. He told us that it will likely be on 12 March or “some time in the middle of next month.” We asked him what could be the reason for the impending closure, and he quickly replied, “that one I don’t know because the staff is not supposed to know.” Still curious, we pressed on: Will there be a clearance sale? Pointing to a rack behind us, he replied helpfully, “all the sale items are there.”

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Blackjack’s Back

Or, will be before long. In 1996, when it opened, Club 21’s Blackjack was the temple of cool, but it closed 15 years later. They’ll soon return, very soon

Most shoppers these days associate Club 21 (this year marks their golden jubilee) with just that—Club 21, the multi-label store in the Four Seasons Hotel, and the separate units for men and for women. Those more aware would be able to identify other single-brand entities under the Club 21 Group, such as Jil Sander, Comme des Garçons, and the newly refurbished Issey Miyake, all at voco Orchard (the former Hilton Singapore), but still known as The Shopping Gallery. There were, however, other multi-label stores under Singapore’s most recognisable luxury retailer. One that might easily come to mind is Blackjack (in Forum the Shopping Gallery), Club 21’s carefully-considered assemblage of mid-’90s cool, featuring clothes by minimalist brands, such as Helmut Lang and Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair, as well as street/sports-centric labels (still minimal), such as Y3.

To be exact, Blackjack opened in 1996 at HPL House, the headquarters of HPL—Hotel Properties Limited, the conglomerate behind some of the best luxury hotels in the world. It was deemed the most exciting store for youths at the time, a haven for street style that included Japanese labels such as Tsumori Chisato, as well as those from the UK such as Maharishi. It even had an accompanying Blackjack Café (once Scoops, a Häagen-Dazs ice cream parlour). But, Blackjack was possibly too ahead of its time. The Straits Times journalist Jamie Ee (now an editor with The Business Times), once described in the daily that “there’s nothing for the over-20 set in this store.” Blackjack closed two years later due to sluggish footfall, and, perhaps more directly, the economic woes of the time. Although there were initial rumours that they would relocated to Pacific Plaza (then, a swanky mall with Prada in it), they chose the HPL-owned Forum The Shopping Mall, the former Forum Galleria.

Against its placid neighbours, the new Blackjack store stood out for its stylish incongruence and a departure from its initial funkier self. We remember the unusual and somewhat off-beat tangerine-hued rubber flooring and similarly coloured storage units. The space was not massive, yet there was the centrepiece of an ovoid rack, suspended from a stainless-steel vessel secured to the ceiling. Somewhat industrial was the effect, with a whiff of Halloween. Some shoppers sensed a coldness that they said was consistent with Club 21 stores, but came they did for the merchandise mix that spoke with considerable eloquence of the zeitgeist of the time. Blackjack closed in 2011 after an impressive 15-year run in all. Replacing it was the more intimate and, dare we say, edgier Club21b (that, too, recently moved out, and is in two unmarked units at voco Orchard). But Blackjack is poised to return this month. From an accidental peek at the black-and-white space (top) a few days ago, and the updated logotype, we sensed something appealing is afoot.

From an accidental peek at the black-and-white space (top) a few days ago, and the updated logotype, we sensed something appealing is afoot

To be sure, Blackjack was not the first into the hipster market back then. The template was formed by Blue Moon, a retail disrupter conceived unexpectedly by HPL in 1991. Blue Moon was unlike anything under HPL’s kin, the Club 21 Group. It was not situated in the Hilton Shopping Gallery (a HPL property, now voco Orchard) or in a mall, even a HPL-owned shopping centre. Rather, Blue Moon was in HPL House on Cuscaden Road, behind Forum the Shopping Mall. It sat on the first floor (but not quite street level), below Hard Rock Cafe, opened a year earlier, and, interestingly, our island’s first Emporio Armani store. From Orchard Road, you could barely see it. A discrete address, some had said: still on the our island’s only shopping belt then, but away from the main drag.

Blue Moon was a draw because it was the closest we had to street fashion that was not an obvious nod to hip hop. It was closer to what you would have found in London’s Covent Garden (of the ’90s). There were many brands (compelling products, rather than brand names, were the driving force) in the 7,300 sq ft (or 678 sqm)—too many for us to remember now. But what was also unique about Blue Moon was their openness to local labels. One of them was Argentum, the indie jewellery brand, still in operation today. Unfortunately, with the changing tide of fashion, and taste, Blue Moon closed in 1995. The baton to capture youth spend was passed to Blackjack in the same location, but that too shuttered in 1998. Unlike Blackjack, Blue Moon was not considered for resurrection. We are unable to say for now what the new Blackjack will stock, but we expect it to live up to its sterling past.

Updated: 5 December 2022, 18.30. Some dates have been corrected for accuracy.

Blackjack is expected to reopen at level 2, The Shopping Gallery, voco Orchard on 8th December. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Walk Into Shein

The Chinese hyper-fastfashion online label is now into physical stores: a pop-up in Osaka, and now its first permanent physical store in Tokyo

Shein pop-up in Osaka

Shein is not only going big, they’re getting physical. Two stores in Japan, the country with some of the best stores and shopping experiences in the world, are now Shein standalones. First a pop-up in Osaka (till the 26th of January or six days after the Lunar New Year) and then a proper bricks-and-mortar in Tokyo, touted “the world’s first”. It opened three Sundays ago in the streetwear/sneaker (but not quite hipster) stretch of Cat Street, Ura-Harajuku, a ten-minute, or so, walk from the famed Takeshita-Dori. These are not modest little stores. The glass-front Tokyo space spreads over two stories (or 201 sqm), and is stocked with merchandise for men (although somewhat limited) and women, including cosmetics, and even products for pets. Clothes (the largest category) can be tried on by Japanese customers for the first time, prior to purchase, on-line.

In Osaka, the pop-up, also a double-floor affair, opened a month earlier. Part of the Shein Popup: The Japan Tour (which will includes five cities in all), it sits on Osaka’s main shopping street of Shinsaibashi, in a space formerly occupied by Uniqlo, and is in the company of competitor-neighbours Gap and H&M (how thrilled is the Swedish brand now that Shein is directly opposite?), turning this area of the street into a multi-nation fast-fashion hub. Japanese media enthusiastically reported of “more than 800 items” on display in the Shein pop-up, but with the crowd, it’s hard to see the vastness of the offerings. There are, to the thrill of the Japanese, nine fitting rooms, each decorated differently (and with considerable camp!) so that the trying-on of clothes could also be a selfie moment to be shared on social media. These do not include seven additional photo-op spots throughout the store. Shein’s target audience is unambiguous: smartphone-dependent, must-be-visible-online Gen-Zers.

…fitting rooms are each decorated differently so that the trying-on of clothes could also be a selfie moment to be shared on social media

Despite the staggering array of merchandise, nothing in the two stores are for outright purchase. Shoppers can browse and try, but there are no cashiers for you to take your desired products to, to seal the deal. Shein is essentially a showroom, although, in Tokyo, the company calls it an “event space”. To purchase (which is surely the intention of opening a physical store), customers scan a QR code on a hang tag attached to every product. They would then be directed to the online page (or on the app) of the selected merchandise. An order of their picks can be placed. This is not Japan’s first browse-only fashion space. We remember that in 2019 there was a GU (Uniqlo’s sister brand) concept store in nearby Omotesando (close to the Harajuku station) called GU Style Studio, where shoppers were able to enjoy everything the store had to offer, except make a purchase. To buy, one scans a QR code too, and would be directed to GU online. There was also an avatar you can create to dress yourself digitally in GU clothes. Even earlier, in the ’90s, Shiseido opened a store—also on Omotesando, in a former apartment block where Omotesando Hills now stands—for women (and men!) to try merchandise (even do a makeover) the brand offered, for however long they wish, but nothing was for sale.

A Shein spokesperson told Forbes that the brand’s “focus remains digital-first.” He also said, “Shein customers can experience our fashion and lifestyle products at our pop-ups around the world. We will continue to expand our pop-up roadmap and keep making the beauty of fashion accessible to all.” Despite the impressive turnouts for both stores on opening day (in Osaka, 3,000 people reportedly turned up, and it took two and half hours to enter the store; in Tokyo, more than 150 were in line even before the store opened at 11am that day), it is not certain if Shein will be a stunning success in Japan when the country has their own low-priced but better-made fashion brands, such as the cheap and cheerful Wego, the fashion-reliable Niko And …, and, to a large extent, Uniqlo’s engaging GU, whose past collaborator included Undercover—it’s hard to get cooler than that.

Shein, launched in 2008, could be trying to rewrite their brand narrative in both visual and tactile ways, given the (still) bad rep they receive in so many parts of the world (they do not sell in China, where the brand was founded and where the clothes are manufactured), compounded by a Greenpeace Germany report published last week, claiming that some Shein products “contained hazardous chemicals that break EU regulatory limits”. Shein is probably aware that their customers do not care. The response to the two Japanese stores may be indicative. In both, one snappy slogan greets shoppers: “Wear your Wonderful”. In telling their Japanese customers to do so, perhaps Shein is trying to convince the skeptics that they do, too. Let other brands worry about the environment.

Photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

Not Quite A Busy Black Friday

Has the novelty of the American day of discounts waned?

A short line outside Louis Vuitton at ION Orchard

It was too calm to be a Black Friday, but it was the morning of the year’s biggest mark-down event. Yesterday, at around 11am in ION Orchard, the few shoppers seen did not appear to be in a haste to shop. By noon, the mall was still relatively quiet. The only store that was attracting a noticeable stream of shoppers was Sephora. But, on the first floor, where we had expected snaking lines, the entrances clear of willing-to-wait shoppers were a surprise to see. Were people too sloshed at last night’s Thanksgiving dinners to be able to be out this early? There was no “palpable sense of excitement” that The Straits Times Channel would later report.

At the newly opened Dior store (formerly Burberry), there was no line, only a woman making an enquiry. But, when we attempted to enter the store, a saleswoman stopped us and asked if we had “an appointment”. Do we need an appointment to shop at Dior? “The waiting time is about one hour if you have no appointment,” she said. But the store is not packed. We peered into the store to be sure. “We want to be able to offer you a one-to-one.” What is that? “We will assign one staff to you.” We were happy to be unattended. “We can serve you better.” It was clear she would not let us in.

We had better luck at Gucci, next door. Just as we arrived at the entrance, a saleswoman gestured to us to enter. Did we need an appointment to shop? “Oh, no. It is not packed yet. You don’t have to queue.” Why is there no line? How has the announcement of the departure of Alessandro Michele affected to traffic? “Not really. It’s about the same as before.” She accompanied us throughout our brief exploration of the store, even stopping us to draw our attention to a Gucci X Adidas shirt, with an awfully massive joint-logo of the two brands. We thanked her, sure in our mind that when we come back again, it would be when the store is rid entirely of the present crop of merchandise.

No queue at the new Dior store at ION Orchard

Over at Bottega Veneta, we sauntered into the store easily. A saleswoman approached us to ask if she could be of any help. We said we were browsing. She left us alone. There were only two other women in the store. The quiet and the freedom to look at the merchandise unharried lent almost an old-time vibe to the experience (even if it was too brief to be described as one). We could appreciate the lovely details of Matthieu Blazy’s ready-to-wear, and touch them. Our reverie was finally broken when we were looking at a S$1,100 pair of clear (yes, see-through!) Puddle Ankle Boots. “Would you like to try,” a coaxing voice came from across our shoulders. No, thanks. It’s a very hot day. We had no idea what we were saying in response.

Across BV was LV. There was a line to the right of the sole entrance on this floor. After SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang’s experience at the very same entrance in 2018, we had been wary of this particular LV store and had not visited since. It was after one, post meridiem, and we had not been nourished by lunch and we were not sure that we were able to handle any surliness of service, even when merely window shopping, not that there was much of a window to look at when those in line have mostly blocked it. When we stood at the entrance, to look beyond it, the doorkeeper’s speaking glance, said to us, “do you have an appointment?”

There was no one waiting at Loewe, although a rope secured to a pair of stanchions was stretched across the entrance. We stood in front of it, but caught no one’s attention. About a hundred metres to our right, there was a visible line outside Bacha Coffee. Behind us, the hoarding for Christian Louboutin on the former Moncler store looked uncommunicatively at us. Minutes dragged on. Then, a woman with no purchase in hand walked towards us. A sales staff let loose the rope to let her out. She waved to let us in. Were we hoping to see anything in particular, she asked. We wanted to look around first. “Sure”, she said, and left us to discover on our own. Further in the space called “Casa” (or house in Spanish), another staffer said to let her know if we needed anything. We found a S$850 almost-cubic coin case cute, but was not so sure about the extremely prominent logo on the front.

Sephora at Takashimaya Shopping Centre

Many of these stores made no announcement that they were participating in the Black Friday markdown. No standee was placed up front to entice, nor a discreet little sticker. The girl at Dior did whisper something about a “seasonal special”, but she did not elaborate. Was extreme bargain hunting seen on our faces, even when we had our four-ply mask on? A young guy, emerging from LV asked his shopping companion, “how come no sale?” They walked past the Saint Laurent pop-up in the atrium—it was without customers. A sales staff was loitering outside, like a tout. The relative quiet of this floor did not reflect what Black Fridays have become after the easing of COVID restrictions in 2020. Or, was this a reminder that it was a working day for most?

By two, ION did not look busier than usual. There was still no line outside Gucci. At fifteen to three, we walked to Wisma Atria. The traffic could hardly be described as heavy, the clusters of shoppers scarcely made a crowd. At the underpass to Takashimaya Shopping Centre, there was not quite the usual bottleneck. We breezed through. On the other side, it was not manic as we had thought it would be. Found café inside The Editor’s Market was full, but not the store. We took the escalator up, and was surprised to see a very short line outside Chanel (strangely, the queue did run along the side of the store, but cut diagonally across the entryway of the mall. It was quiet at the newly refurbished Fendi. Opposite, two people were waiting to be let in at Dior. Next door at Celine, staffers were chatting among themselves. Strange it was seeing so little action.

Finally a daunting queue. This was at, again, Sephora, where the long line for those opening their wallets was no deterrent to those determined to make a haul. Black Friday, as it turned out, had touched A Great Street rather unevenly this year. Could it be that, despite an impending GST rise, shoppers were not splurging if they were not buying a refrigerator or a television set? Friends WhatsApped us to announce that it was packed at the Courts Nojima Heeren store. Did we not want to see a crowd, they asked. Or go to Metro, they suggested. We would sit that one out.

Pasar Dalam

The Boutique Fairs, dubbed a “shopping event”, is basically an air-conditioned market with stalls. And it is products galore, but is there anything to buy?

The biannual Boutique Fairs is a misnomer and an oxymoron. There are no boutiques, only stalls, and it is largely a single fair, in one venue. Although spread over two floors of the F1 Pit Building, it is unmistakably a solo bazaar. The organizers refer to their retail assemblage as “Boutiques”. Which is which? Perhaps that does not matter. Despite its somewhat atas-sounding name, the 20-year-old Boutique Fairs is not quite a high-end affair, and therein, perhaps lies its attraction. Its mass appeal is obvious, which explains why it has been a crowd-puller in the pre-COVID years, so much so that they started charging for entry in the last in order to attract serious shoppers, one stallholder told us, and to control the foot traffic. E-tickets are issued, which means getting inside the venue requires joining a queue to scan a QR code for entry, and dealing with the enthusiastic sun in the unsheltered line.

The Boutique Fairs (BF) is huge. It occupies the entire length of the Pit Building (the nerve centre of the F1 night races), over two floors, of about 9,000 sqm in total (it can easily take three hours or more to cover the whole area). They do have a handy little “event guide”, if navigational assistance is what you need, or the exact location of a particular stall. But BF is known for their “curated” jumble of brands—this year, more than 240 make up the Gifting Edition (as it’s also known), according to their media release. Visitors do not mind getting lost in the borderline farrago. The set-up is pasar malam-style array, flanking the generous aisles, with vendors doing up their spaces as they please. Some put in more effort than others. One guy was heard saying rather loudly “angmo pasar malam”. In fact, we were reminded of the old YWCA fairs—merchandise miscellany brought together by Caucasian hucksters.

The Boutique Fairs was founded in 2002 by Danish expatriate Charlotte Cain and two of her friends. The Business Times reported in 2019 that Mrs Cain, a potter, wanted not only to sell her wares, but also desired to interface with the people buying her products. She rented a room at the Fort Canning Centre, and, with her friends, “found several like-minded vendors to take part”. Pottery was the primary focus back then, but that is no longer the case. Through the years, Mrs Cain moved away from ceramics and the like (but not entirely; they now form only a small part of the line-up), and was able to attract fashion designers who do not shun expo-like set-ups to peddle their merchandise, such as Max Tan, reportedly Mrs Cain’s “favourite”. BF’s neo-kampong vibe could be commensurate with Mr Tan’s recent design aesthetic. With the inclusion of SG fashion labels, BF slowly morphed into the general merchandise fair that has become part Blueprint Singapore (now defunct), part Singapore Gifts and Premiums Fair, part Singapore Food Festival.

While more SG brands (including several newbies) are now in the mix (many you would likely encounter for the first time), there is still the clique of the “like-minded”—those hawking what are especially a draw to Westerners-in-Asia in the business of lifestyle products. Inevitably, you get more floral sundresses (and matching cushion covers) you’ll ever need, more batik wear (and ware) than you’ll ever consider, and more of those items deemed Asian exotica that not many of us salivate over. On that note, BF has a whiff of Bali markets about it, but with just a smidgen of their vibrancy. Mrs Cain told BT that “it all boils down to the curation. I have done myself since the beginning and that will not change. Curation is very important, it is an instinct and a gut feeling.” Could this also boil down to the taste of one individual? Or her friends?

One product development professional, whose visit to BF was his first, told us, “I like that there is a variety of products, but I feel the curation can be segmented according to product types. So to make it easier for shoppers to look at the things they like within an area, rather than having different merchandise grouped in rooms with different names.” There are seven rooms in all, three on level two and four on level three, each—really a hall—named after a colour, except one where food can be consumed seated, known as Breathe. Other than a chromatic guide to pinpoint the precise location of the brand a visitor might wish to see, it isn’t clear what the colours of each room denote. Scarlet, their newest, for example, bears none of the old suggestion of immorality of a woman so labeled. And yet it is not known why a simple red would not suffice.

Perhaps, the zoning strategy is deliberate. Each room is seemingly calculated to be without discernible order. In this manner, it encourages shoppers to visit every room, rather than just zoom in on, say, a womenswear room and then discount the rest. And, you do not get a cluster of ‘designer’ brands. A clothier’s neighbour could be a seller of beddings. In fact, the no-fixed-order approach could be advantageous to first-timers. There would be none of the possible anxieties going into actual boutiques, or the intimidation. The minute you step into any of the rooms, you would be rather rapidly swept into the hive of the Fairs. And there is a dizzyingly wide range of merchandise, but few of it have real design value or quality of make that would encourage keen appreciation. In the end, your eager PayLah may not get activated.

Boutique Fairs is at the F1 Pit Building from today to Sunday. Tickets: $5 for single-day admission (four hours of shopping) and $25 for a three-day pass. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

It’s All Gone

The Yeezy Gap website is taken down, along with all the merchandise

The final new item from the Yeezy Gap line that was touted online

By Lester Fang

The last mail that I received from Yeezy Gap was last Saturday. In it, they tried to seduce my consumer self (but, unfortunately for them, not a Yeezy-fan self) with a “long round jacket”, an around-the-knee length take of the first item “you-can’t-manage-me” Kanye West released under that collaboration. Nothing in the minimalist, copy-lite mail said anything about Engineered by Balenciaga as this outer was not. I subscribed to their e-mail notification not because I have anything to buy there, but because, as a contributor to SOTD, I wanted to keep abreast with what’s happening in the Yeezy cult. By now you would have read of all the pull-outs by the brands that Mr West had aligned himself with. In fact, The Gap was the first to want to disassociate themselves with the man who, I am sure, was not worth all the trouble and online rants. There is so much even a resilient company such as The Gap can take.

I revisited that mail this morning. When I clicked on the link to, I landed at Gap’s own chirpy website. There was no, not even a landing page that says something like “this site can’t be reached”. At, there were links at the top to other Gap brands: Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Athleta, but there was nothing that said Yeezy Gap, not anywhere on the page. Everything vanished. Yeezy Gap has been obliterated, just like Pharaoh Akhenaten was. As I understand it from my friends in San Francisco, the clothes and accessories were not available in the stores too. No more of those ridiculous bulk bags. I would think that The Gap has a lot of merchandise to clear. Yeezy Gap did not enjoy typical Gap price points. Five days ago, they were discounting the Yeezy Gap hoodies. But now they are taking everything off the market. It is not clear if there is anything else in production, but clearly no more “cheap Balenciaga” tops to be had.

The Gap announcement on Instagram not long ago, Screen shot: yeezyxgap/Instagram

The Gap’s action is rather swift. It came as soon as Adidas announced that they would end their partnership with Mr West. On Instagram, three days after they shared that “YEEZYGAP AVAILABLE IN📍ATLANTA MORE GAP STORES CONTINUE TO GET YEEZYGAP ITEMS” (yes, in full caps, sans punctuation, just like how Mr West would text), it posted a “Statement On Yeezy Partnership”. The two paragraph notice stated that they “are taking immediate steps to remove Yeezy Gap product (sic) from our stores and we have shut down” after explaining that their “former partner’s recent remarks and behaviour further underscore why” the partnership had to come to an end. It added, “Antisemitism, racism and hate in any form are inexcusable and not tolerated in accordance to our values. On behalf of our customers, employees and shareholders, we are partnering with organizations that combat hate and discrimination.” But unlike Adidas, it did not say how much of a loss it would incur by this action.

To me, Yeezy Gap will not be missed. Nor Adidas Yeezy. While I think there was an aesthetical point in what Kanye West did, it was not for me. I have never found anything associated with Yeezy to be attractive. Or the people who wore Yeezy going about as if they were the epitome of cool. When I tried the US$220 Yeezy Boost 350 V2 ‘Zebra’ for the first time back in 2017 (I did not buy it. Someone I know had a pair; he later sold it for double the retail price. The shoe was tried on, but not worn), I thought to myself what an ugly piece of crap. It looked like something died on my feet. (Apparently, Adidas intents to continue selling Yeezy designs with the second name.) When it came to the Yeezy Gap, I was of two minds. While I did like the boxy silhouettes of the T-shirts, Engineered by Balenciaga, I was not too enamoured with the price: from US$140 a piece. And that they were very thick was a deal breaker for me too. But, more than anything, the fact that they were linked to Yeezy and the man behind it, just turned me away. I never saw him as a designer, never did, never will. Rapper—yes, social agitator—yes, anti-Semite—yes; designer, definitely no.

This Is A Bank

At the new OCBC Wisma Atria branch, deposits, withdrawals and such are not quite the main business of the day

When is a bank not quite a bank? When it’s the OCBC Bank Wisma Atria branch. To be certain, this is still a bank as we know it, with both retail and ‘premier’ banking facilities available, but not one we can immediately take notice. The bank’s financial business is tucked discreetly away, and what would usually be the main banking hall is conspicuously occupied by a bookshop, and rather stunningly too: curvilinear, ceiling-to-floor, pale wood shelving units that afford exceptionally generous browsing space between. This is a delightful surprise, like finding renowned sculptures in the CBD, only here you can spend more time or browse, and in welcomed air-conditioned comfort.

When we came up to the top-most floor of the Wisma Atria shopping centre (popularly referred to as Wisma) via the escalator from the lower levels of this side of the thirty-six-year-old building, the first thing that caught our eye was the light box on the ceiling, with the OCBC logo of a roundel in which a Chinese junk (as it appears to us) is framed. We have not been to this part of Wisma Atria for a long while, and the first thought was that OCBC bank has taken over the one-floor level-four space vacated by a gathering of Japanese food shops, known as Japan Food Town (it closed abruptly in 2020, a month before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic). But as we emerged and looked around us at the invitingly-lit space, we wondered where the bank was hidden.

This end of Wisma Atria, the space across five floors is—in an unusual arrangement—owned by Isetan (as far as we’re aware, it still is. Seventy four percent of the whole building belongs to SGReit). In 2015, the Japanese department store (in Japan, they merged with Mitsukoshi in 2008), stopped operating their retail business at the very spot that, since the opening of Wisma Atria, is very much associated with them, much to the surprise of regular shoppers. The five levels were converted to leasable space, but had been, on a whole, weak in terms of retail concept. While Japan Food Town was a draw for the 16 eateries it brought together, it was not an experiential offering. On other floors, assorted retailers (including pop-ups, such as Workshop Elements) came and went. The only constant is the Sony store. Last August, Isetan looked for investors to purchase the space, but found none. After Japan Food Town shuttered, the fourth floor was hoarded up, until 15 August, when this fascinating OCBC branch started with what staffers described as a “soft opening”. Are things looking up at this almost-forgotten corner of “A Great Street”?

OCBC wanted something more than a banking hall for their newest Orchard Road branch. According to one of the bank’s newly-created “lifestyle ambassadors” Sherman Sim, “the new concept” is to “integrate lifestyle products with those offered by the bank”. In fact, unlike at most banks, the first person on staff to approach us did not ask what they could do for us. Rather, an OCBC’s ebullient lifestyle ambassador enthusiastically introduced the entire space, “adding if you need banking service, we do have that too” (coincidentally, we had an inquiry about an OCBC card that was to be discontinued, and the information was forthcoming). When we met Mr Sim later, he even offered to show us around and explain each corner to us. When we told him that we were off to a lunch appointment, he said cheerfully, “if you come again and have more time, look for me, I’ll guide you around”. We had to remind ourselves we were in a bank.

The approximately 1,860m² mixed-retail space comes with a straightforward name: OCBC Wisma Atria branch. Prominent and probably the bank’s pride is the bookshop, operated by the Malaysian online discount retailer BookXcess (they’re also behind our favourite discounter Big Bad Wolf Books), takes up a considerable section (in area known as the Spiral), and is so stylishly appointed that it is easy to not notice those installations principal to banks—ATM machines. Mr Sim helpfully, and truthfully, told us that if we were to compare the books here with those in Kinokuniya, “Kino has newer books” and quickly added “we have more than 5,000 titles, we think people can find something they like. It’s just that if you want the latest release, we may not have them.” Despite his humble introduction, we did see some fashion tomes (usually not a popular category in book stores here) that beckons a return visit.

The bookshop is just one of the retail offerings within the bank. Incorporated, too, is what could be a home decor/gift shop, featuring table ware and decorative items, including those by such specialist manufacturers as Japan’s Kanazawa-based Hakuichi gold-leaf handicrafts. There are also items by indie retail darlings Scene Shang and Crane Living. For those who prefer a cup of java over printed matter, there is a hipster-ish café by Orange Mocha. In sum, this is probably a bank you’ll visit despite the many recent complains of the pains of visiting one. Visually, it brought to our mind bookstores Tsutaya and Muji Books in Japan and Eslite (誠品) in Taiwan, although on a far smaller scale. While a café fronting a bank is not new (DBS and UOB have tried it too, with indeterminate success), a space where banking seems secondary is.

It is not immediately understood how this retail-cum-banking model works. In many banks, retail banking appears to be waning in its business appeal, so much so that the strategy seems to be to turn customers off, to the extent that they would then minimise visits to the branch. OCBC has shown that it is possible for retail banking to be a pleasant, even enjoyable experience, complete with truly affable frontline staff. When we asked Mr Sim if the handsome fit-out is borne by OCBC or if the retail participants are operating on a sub-lease basis, he was not able to say, suggesting we speak to the person in-charged. The branch is clearly purpose-built, and this, on many fronts, is a bold move by OCBC. It is unlikely that the nearly ninety-year-old bank is diversifying into the brick-and-mortar retailing of consumer products, but what they have conceived easily puts them as a progressive against other banks. Just as UOB, for example, goes retro with its public image, OCBC is looking rather forward.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

A Name Change

The Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore has a new moniker

The Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore or TaFF is no more. In its place is the Singapore Fashion Council (SFC). The name change was announced in July and the new moniker took effect on the 28th of that month. But TaFF has kept relatively low-key about its rename. As of now, the TaFF website remains as it is, although under ‘About Us’, they have started identifying as SFC. Their social media accounts continue to sport the old name. Email communications are still sent out under TaFF. We were told that there would be a media announcement some time this month. Until then, one of the official events that comes under the new name is the upcoming Singapore Stories—the ‘Finale Runaway’ will be staged under the banner of SFC at TaFF‘s favourite museum, Asian Civilisations Museum, on 28 October. Presumably, this would allow SFC to be inaugurated with a major, museum-worthy show.

The renaming of the 26-year-old TaFF came two months after their “retail showcase” Design Orchard was “relaunched”, following a cosmetic makeover of the space in May. Now, with the SFC, it is likely that the former TaFF is looking to refresh its positioning, and show both members and the public that the organisation is keeping abreast with the times. The name change, to some industry observers, is overdue. TaFF was formed in 1996, the year our once-laminated NRICs (‘boomers’ might remember) was no longer usable. In the present, nearly post-pandemic era, when the ‘textile’ component of the industry is wanting, the old moniker was not only unwieldy, it sounded rather bygone. It didn’t help that TaFF was referred to as a federated body, which has a decidedly pre-1990s ring. One designer told us that whenever he referred to TaFF in its full name, he would think of lianbang (联邦, especially in Hokkien), which means federation, in particular, the Federation of Malaya (1948—1963). Some years back, when we attended Bangkok Fashion Week, a Thai designer asked us if the garment industry on our island was so big that it came under the stewardship of a federation. We could not provide a convincing reply.

One designer told us that whenever he referred to TaFF in its full name, he would think of lianbang (联邦, especially in Hokkien), which means federation, in particular, the Federation of Malaya

Our island’s sole “trade association”—as TaFF referred to itself—that supports the industry was, in fact, the result of the 1996 merger of the Society of Designing Arts (SODA, co-founded by Dick Lee in 1975) and the Singapore Textile & Garment Manufacturers’ Association (STGMA, founded in 1981). While both bodies did organise fashion events during the hey days of SG fashion, such as the hugely popular SODA Shows and STGMA’s Singapore Fashion Week (the first, not the 2015 version, staged by Mercury M&C), co-organised with the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board [pre-STB]), their influence appeared to be waning. By the time TaFF was formed, the fashion industry here was quite different from what it was in the ’70s and ’80s: manufacturing was rapidly facing what the media then called a “sunset”. STGMA likely found itself to be an extraneous entity, especially when, according to DOS figures, manufacturing output has declined, so had global export. Between 1980 to 1999, we went from 19th biggest exporter of apparel in the world to the 28th.

TaFF has largely been a relatively quiet industry supporter—at least in the public eye—until in recent years, when it began to manage the Cocoon Space at the Design Centre in 2018, and create the annual design competition Singapore Stories, an event “to promote, support, and develop the local fashion industry”. A year later, it launched The Bridge Fashion Incubator (TBFI) to “groom early stage fashion, beauty brands and related tech startups to refine and validate their products, services or solutions, and commercialisation strategies”. In 2020, after the failure of its predecessor Naiise, TaFF was appointed as the operator of Design Orchard Retail Showcase. Thereafter, they launched their first e-commerce site, the One Orchard Store with merchandise found in the Design Orchard retail space (it is not known why Design Orchard did not get its own e-shop). There was also TaFF Talks, “a series of intimate conversations” with known industry names, such as Guo Pei, Joe Zee, and Andrew Gn. TaFF had been really active.

Singapore Fashion Council, the former TaFF, is housed in Design Orchard. File photo: Chin Boh Kay for SOTD

Now as Singapore Fashion Council, the organisation has not really released its mission statement, although on the current TaFF web page, it does say that SFC will “bring together leaders across multiple sectors to bolster the fashion industry both in Singapore and internationally” (such as facilitating the Singapore Stories 2020 winner Carol Chen’s Paris debut?). In addition, it “actively works to develop the entire industry, positioning Singapore as a key partner in Southeast Asia centred in technology and innovation, sustainability, and Asian craftsmanship”. For all the industry-speak, the name change still aligns with their marketing language heard before and frequently used by its executives. The question that many of those we have spoken to is now asking: Will there be real change?

The Singapore Fashion Council could be mistaken as a part of DesignSingapore Council, the Singapore Economic Board agency—established in 2003—“that promotes design”. While those that DesignSingapore Council’s support is multi-disciplinary, with eyes mainly on architecture and urban design, it does acknowledge fashion, as seen through the prestigious President*s Design Award (P*DA)—past recipients of the Designer of the Year category include Andrew Gn (2007) and Alfie Leong (2013). It is also tempting to see Singapore Fashion Council modelled after the British Fashion Council, the organiser of London Fashion Week. Therein lies the poser for SFC: Would a fashion council do without a fashion week that showcases the talents it purports to support? Or, is a sole retail outlet and an e-shop sufficient? It is unlikely that anyone in the industry here would hold SFC against the BFC or compare Singapore Stories with P*DA. Yet, how would they address the skeptics? One industry veteran said to SOTD, when asked about the new name, “it’s like giving a crumbling house a fresh coat of paint without repairing its foundation.” Perhaps, as in the business of fashion, all it matters is that someone buys a new dress.

Illustration: Just So

More Bad News For The Gap

After Kanye West announced the end of the Yeezy Gap partnership, the three-letter brand has announced the elimination of jobs as margins shrivel

Gap has been stricken with one bad news after another, all in less than three months. In July, reports emerged that the Indian-born Canadian CEO Sonia Syngal was dismissed after a mere two-year tenure, with Bloomberg describing the move as somewhat unceremonious: She was “fired after failing to rescue struggling retailer”. The Gap has not announced a replacement. Then last week, the announcement that “Gap and Kanye West are Ending their Partnership” was made by The Wall Street Journal. Few people were surprised by that news. And now The Gap has said that they would be laying off staff—up to 500 corporate jobs—in offices in San Francisco, New York, and in Asia. Was Mr West’s bowing out timely for The Gap?

It has been speculated that the once-loved San Francisco brand was not terribly thrilled with what Ms Syngal had done, including signing up Mr West to bring about Yeezy Gap, and that what she put in place was taking too long to see real results. Ms Syngal was previously with The Gap’s sister brand Old Navy, having arrived at Gap Inc in 2004 with no background in fashion (before that, she was with Sun Microsystems and Ford Motor Co.). Yet she was considered to be instrumental during the family-centric Old Navy’s admirable height of success, escalating the brand’s revenue to more than double The Gap’s. But just because she was able to realise the potential of one sibling did not indicate that she could bring to fruition the aspirations of another.

Just because she was able to realise the potential of one sibling did not indicate that she could bring to fruition the aspirations of another

For a while, The Gap as a fashion player has been languishing. The world has basically moved on and on, and without The Gap’s washed chinos and straight-legged jeans, and, most definitely, their logo-ed tees. Did the 53-year-old clothier ever consider that their all-American fashion, often described as “laid-back style”, has lost considerable appeal, especially since Donald Trump took office in 2017 and the US is a different place. But critics say that The Gap’s lost its punch even earlier, in 2004, a year before Uniqlo, who does American laid-back better then the Americans themselves, opened their first store in New Jersey. That year, when a chap Mark Zuckerberg launched The Facebook (later shortened to Facebook), The Gap scored Tommy Hilfiger alum Pina Ferlisi to tweak the retailers offerings so that things could look up again after two years of decline. Few remember The Gap from that period and later, and the brand continued to fizzle.

When they had Mr West onboard in 2020, it was thought that The Gap finally took a close look at their merchandise, and realised that a major refresh was desperately needed, and Mr West was their guy even when his own Yeezy clothing line was not the epitome of brand success. So convinced they were that they signed a 10-year deal with him to birth Yeezy Gap. But the first year was not all rosy for the new brand. News emerged that back of house, things were messy. Mr West’s pal Demna Gvasalia was called in to help and very quickly Yeezy Gap was “Engineered by Balenciaga”. Despite the added edge, it is not clear if the collab is making pots for The Gap. But one thing is obvious: many shoppers did not like buying merchandise out of bulk bags. Rapidly, Mr West revealed that he wanted out and had his lawyers make it happen, claiming The Gap did not open Yeezy Gap stores as they agreed to. According to Forbes, “Gap president Mark Breitbart immediately shot off an email to all Gap Inc. employees suggesting it was a mutual decision”. Still, it appears that Kanye West had The Gap in his grasp. We’re not near a cliffhanger yet.

File Photo: SOTD

Will It Be 迪奥 Only In China?

The supposed ban on the use of English names by Chinese artistes and celebrities, could mean that Dior may have to give up using the 4-letter word in place of Han characters. And other foreign brands too?

Could this be how a Dior store in China would look in the future? Photo illustration: Just So

Much to the disappointment of Chinese stars who like using a Western name in addition to their Chinese moniker, there is now a rumour that non-Han names would not be allowed in China. According to one Chinese screenwriter Wang Hailin (汪海林), who shared the news on Weibo, the Chinese National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) had “requested” that local stars not use “foreign names” or any that ”sounds foreign” to identify themselves in—probably—public or during public performances. He gave an example: Shanghai-Hong Kong model/actress “Yang Ying (杨颖) can no longer use Angelababy”. It is not known if her name can be uttered in private or if her family and friends can call her by what most fans know her by. Nor did Mr Wang say why NRTA made that unusual—and likely, unpopular—request.

We know Chinese artistes and celebrities like to use non-Han appellations, even if it is one not shown on their identity card. Or, especially when not. It isn’t understood why a Western name would pose a problem in China or why the authorities would think so, or how the use by stars would diminish anything, whether personally, professionally, or socially. Does the prohibition include those English names that sound like given Chinese names (or Cantonese, as it is the case in Hong Kong), such as Eason that precedes Chan Yick Shun (陈奕迅) or Hacken that comes before Lee Hak Ken (李克勤)? The use of a moniker associated with the West is, for a long time, not uncommon. In fact, the more uncommon the name the better. Whether drawing from fruit and vegetable (rather popular), the animal kingdom (the choice among the Chinese themselves, although mostly in the past), or the gaming world (a Gen-Z love), unusual determines the choice.

Presently, the prohibition (or discouragement) is not confirmed. Yet, Chinese influencer-turned-actress Lamu Yangzi (辣目洋子) announced on Weibo that she would revert to her original name Li Jiaqi (李嘉琦) henceforth, even when her self-chosen moniker does not sound especially English or Western. But if Chinese authorities are allegedly asking private individuals not to use whatever version of Western proper nouns they have adopted, would they, we wonder, request the same of Western brands? Would we soon see 爱马仕 (aimashi or Hermès, not to be confused with 赫耳墨斯 [heer mosi], the name of the Greek god), 巴伦夏卡 (balun xiaka or Balenciaga), 圣罗兰 (shengluolan or Saint Laurent), 宝缇嘉 (baotijia or Bottega [Veneta]), 古琦 (guqi or Gucci) or 迪奥 (di ao or Dior)? In the case of Dior, the maison was one of the earliest to encourage the use of Chinese characters on their products when they ran the ABCDior personalisation service for the Book tote in 2020. The two-word 迪奥 appearing appearing above store entrances may, therefore, now even look cool.

In China, most lovers of luxury brands use the respective Western names (pronounced with varying degrees of accuracy, but that is the same here, too) rather than those in hanzi (汉字). Most foreign brands, if not all, register their Chinese names as trademark. They are often displayed, although somewhat discreetly, on store-front windows. It is not known if shoppers there seek brands out by their Chinese moniker since it is likely that most would recognise English alphabets even if they are not always able to read them. Purists and branding professionals do think that brand awareness—and to a large extent, their appeal—is tethered to their foreign moniker. Even the Hermès-backed Shang Xia (上下) has yet to enjoy the same cachet as its French endorser. Semantically, the Chinese language is different to the Western names that desire a Sino-form, and indelicate naming, there are those who argue, may dilute brand value. Some of these Chinese names may sound odd too, even silly. And when uttered, they could phonetically be unlike how they’re pronounced in their native language. But, in some cases, the Chinese names may help with, for example, the silent ‘s’ in French. The Chinese characters of Louis Vuitton 路易威登 (luyi weideng) could, perhaps, allow some to simply say the first name as loowee.

Visited: & Other Stories

H&M’s girlish sibling is finally open. Could this be the closest we’ll get to Cottagecore?

The first & Other Stories in our city

The storefront two weeks earlier, at its opening

Back in April, after seeing the hoarding of the & Other Stories store in ION Orchard, we were told by the helpful staff at COS next door that their sister brand and new neighbour would open in the last quarter of the year. As it turns out, & Other Stories welcomed shoppers on the 19th of last month, considerably sooner that expected. As with any new opening (or for that matter, closing down!), the store drew a large, rummaging crowd, like pigeons at feeding time, in the first weekend of its rather quiet debut. To avoid the crush, we paid the store a visit two weeks later, and on a week day. And it was a pleasant roll in the barn for us. The imagery of the country building is deliberate. This is probably the closest to Cottagecore—an aesthetic trend that emerged around 2017—we’ll get here in a retail concept.

To be sure, it is not all-out rural charm. But on the day we did not enter the store—just after it opened, the entrance was flanked by a profusion of flowers in jars and plants in pots, and a kiosk-on-wheels that would not be out of place in a Tenille Townes music video. When we were there last week to shop, the country props fronting the entrance were removed, but the hint at Western agricultural life is still evident. From the farmhouse chair and wooden screen in the window to the coated iron racks and display tables with timber trestles, the vast interior is far more bucolic than the stores of its sibling brands, H&M and COS, have ever been, or desire to be. Atmospherically enhanced, this could be & Other Stories’ selling point: There is the very real possibility that you’d linger.

It is likely that the store’s visual merchandising is a strategic approach to capture the attention of shoppers increasingly accustomed to the near uniformity and predictability of e-shopping. Physical stores (H&M brands are primarily a brick-and-mortar business) have to try harder than their online counterparts. Although there is something old-fashioned about the in-store look of & Other Stories, the layout avoids lines of racks after racks of clothes, with pockets of space that are islands of accessories and others in what would otherwise be a lake of garments. This may bode well for the store’s ability to entice and engage those who do not consider shopping as a grab-and-go moment. Sure, there are many who do not consider physical stores to hold real value, but it is possible that more might not be underwhelmed by the physical sum & Other Stories.

The not-modernist lines of the store make for a space that is less cold, less uninviting than other similarly not-atas brands. The entrance is lined with plants on both sides, hinting at a warm, even cosy, interior ahead. Clothes are worn on tailor dummies, augmenting the interior’s subtly old-fashioned vibe, circumscribed by pale, near-white walls. These are not left bare, but appended with photo collages and what look corkboards (or the rear of framed canvas panels?) on which clothing hang, or more photographs are attached. We sensed that there is an attempt at recreating a schoolgirl’s room, with its natural disorderliness, but no clutter. Plants, placed on the tiled or wood-panelled floor, or on wooden stools, as well as dried variety on tables—continue to appear throughout the space, ensuring its calculated homeliness.

Although a single-brand store, the irregular-shaped space is separated into zones of various sizes. It is not immediately discernible if in each there are different fashion categories (excluding accessories, footwear, and bric-a-brac), but there are pockets in which discoveries could be made. This could, of course, be due to the novelty of a first visit. The clothes are, consistent with the Cottagecore sensibility, largely print-driven—flowers the mainstay. If the florals are insufficiently feminine, there are dresses with frills and flounces, and “flutter sleeves”. For most international brands, this is the season of the first drop for fall, but at & Other Stories, the collections seem to reflect a far warmer season, which could make a more sensible product launch for their debut here.

At the rear, the space is akin to a boutique—“more atmospheric”, as one SOTD follower said to us, which could be reference to the seemingly warmer lighting here, as well as the pale wood floor. Impressive is the width of the aisles, with the racks and shelves assigned to the perimeter, providing adequate room for a group of girlfriends to amuse themselves without creating too much traffic obstruction (regrettably, there is no space for bored boyfriends or spouses to wait, or even a stool on which to lay a heavy backpack). The clothes here seem dressier, even party-worthy. Plunging neckline, the halter neck, and the one shoulder provide the sexiness that frills and the like may not. It is also here that the fitting rooms (unusually not hidden) are situated. Each is a wood-framed unit with curtains for doors. And there is sufficient foreground for queues when they are necessary, or for those offering their opinion to observe comfortably. As we turned to walk away, we heard a young voice behind us exclaim approvingly, “yes!”

& Other Stories is at Level 3, ION Orchard. Photos: Chin Boh Kay