The 100-Billion-Dollar Question

Could Shein be the future of fashion? It’s a scary thought

Shein has been in the news again. Not for the S$10 (or less) dresses that they sell, but for the staggering US$100 billion evaluation that they have received while the “clothing giant”, as they are now called, reportedly seeks a bold US$1 billion in funding, according to a Reuters report last week. This is so major, Bloomberg described it as a “big moment“, so big that every fashion business is taking notice. For context, that makes the brand worth more than H&M and Zara… combined! Shein, as news reports are wont to remind us, is thus worth as much as Elon Musk’s Space X. That, in merchandise quantity, is mind-boggling. Shein is believed to produce between 2,000 to 10,000 SKUs (roughly meaning individual styles) for it’s e-store, according to one report by the non-profit journalism organisation Rest of World (who was researching and examining the impact of Shein in the market). One University of Delaware study revealed that between January and October of last year, Shein produced “more than 20 times as many new items as H&M and Zara”. It is reasonable that, in order to enjoy a reported US$15.7 billion of sales in 2021 based on extremely low-priced products, they need to generate more merchandise than the world’s leading fast-fashion brands.

Do people buy that much clothes? Is this the reflection of what is happening in the market? That consumers need this amount of garments to view, choose, and buy? Or, to be “entertained” by, as one 20-year-old fashion student told us when we spied her engrossed by the Shein website? That this China brand is able to continue to increase its production again and again is veritable that whatever they put out to sell are snapped up as rapidly as they are produced. Shein offers, as fans know by now and love the brand for it, fast fashion that has gained even more speed. They put out on their website (their only point of sale other than the occasional pop-ups) with such incredible speed, the merchandise is now considered “ultra-fast” fashion, or as one store buyer calls it, “bullet-train-fast”. Typically, fast fashion brands, such as Zara, request a turn around time of approximately 2,000 fresh products in 30 days. Shein is able to get manufacturers to churn “6,000 new items daily”, according to Bloomberg.

Those new merchandise do not replace the existing (perhaps some styles that are sold out or discontinued are replenished). The total amount of items available for a shopper to choose from is, therefore, mind-blowing. Department stores, once known for their breadth of merchandise, would never tie themselves down to this amount of stock. But, Shein does not technically hold what are to be sold. They use big data to get manufacturers to produce “virtually on demand”. While traditional e-commerce platforms—such as Amazon—bring retailers and brands together, Shein’s gathers manufacturers (thereby cutting out middlemen). These producers come from every corner of China. And the massive products available on the Shein website or app have an added benefit: They keep shoppers glued to their smartphone (or tablet) for far much longer than they would be on even social media. And the longer they spend their time on Shein, the more likely they will spend. And spending on Shein, just as viewing videos on TikTok, can be frightfully addictive.

Much has been said about the link between Shein and TikTok (where, two months ago, influencer Chrysan Lee drew embarrassing attention to herself and concurrently created [further] brand awareness for Shein). The clothing retailer gleans from TikTok for trends and use the site’s members/users to promote (even hawk) their wares (such as the famous “haul” videos, with the hashtag #Shein enjoying more than 29 billion views). In researching for this post, we observed the young women who would not give the use of their smartphones a break, whether on the MRT train or on a busy street as they cross it. Oftentimes, they would have on their screens the ‘content’ from these two sites. TikTok is Gen Z’s Netflix (who has time for a feature-length film when in the same amount of time, you can binge on more than 40 inane TikTok posts) and Shein is the Taobao of trendy (which does not necessarily mean nice) clothing for the fashion bargain hunter. When, on the Downtown Line one morning, we spotted a teen visibly enjoying a video touting Shein dresses, we asked her what she got out of it. She said, “Nice, mah.” What is “nice”—the clothes, the wearer, or the post? “Aiya, all nice, lah! And she very clever to dance (sic).”

If Shein on TikTok is this appealing and is enticing many viewers to then cross to the Shein site and spend, then the brand could be dancing very closely to that US$1 billion funding. And if these Gen-Zers are behind this success, are they the passionate, save-the-environment adherents that we are led to believe? Are they really aware of fast fashion’s massive and damaging impact on the planet? Do they even care? Or are there fewer Greta Thunbergs in the fashion-consuming world than we have imagined or like to believe? Fashion before environment, it would appear, is more appealing to these shoppers who have placed cheap and plentiful at the top of their priority list. According to one Bloomberg report early this year, clothes are being discarded, as we type this, at a rate of 2,150 pieces per second! Is Shein not encouraging this disposal by making their wares so irresistible to buying, and then chucking? And do their selling approach not run counter to the belief that in order for our consumption to make a difference, we need to reduce our purchasing of new apparel by 75%? Besides, what are truly Shein’s green credentials when so much of what they sell are made of environment-polluting polyester and kindred fibres?

There is talk that what Shein does is the democratisation of fashion. Talk is cheap, just like the Shein clothes. But how does this broad appeal and wide reach help Shein tackle the issues of environmental impact when sustainability is trending across the industry? And just as pertinent: how will fashion advance when an entire generation is weaned on not-made-to-last clothes that are purchased to be (largely) showed off on social media? It is disheartening to see the oftentimes grim offerings on the Shein site and to know that there are many who are proud to be associated with the brand. Whenever we see fans on social media put on pieces from their “hauls” to show how proud they are with their purchases (even clothes that are not ironed!), we can’t help but wonder if fashion is doomed. But then we remember: We used to knock blog-shops when they were the rage, but look at how far they’ve come. If Shein’s astonishing evaluation is any indication, they and their retail model are here to stay. That possibility is frightening.

Photo (top): Zhao Xiangji. Screen grabs (bottom): shein.com

H&M: Multi-Label Online Store

The Swedish fast fashion giant allows other brands to trade on its e-commerce site in Sweden and Germany

According to a recent Reuters report, H&M won’t be just selling the group’s own labels on their e-store. The news outlet quoted an H&M spokesperson saying that online shoppers can now also purchase from a “curated selection of other fashion brands” in Sweden and Germany. The brands cited are namely jeans and streetwear names: Lee, Wrangler, and Kangol. This expanded mix was made available in Germany this month. A quick look at the Swedish page saw at least 20 non-H&M brands, including the footwear of GH Bass (and even Crocs!), bags of Hershel, and eyewear of Le Specs. There is no mention of introducing this enhanced e-commerce concept outside Europe, only that they “will gradually add more markets online”.

H&M has been comparatively slow in turning to the potential of online selling (although their Swedish site has been around since 1998), compared to others, such as Zara or Uniqlo. As their physical stores are looking a shadow of their earlier selves, the company needs online presence to boost their waning appeal, even with the reported 23% hike in first quarter sales. Some observers say that H&M needs to strengthen their online offerings in the wake of the onslaught by China’s Shein, coupled by increasing difficulty in the Chinese market, where it is (still) suffering backlash against its decision to stop using cotton from Xinjiang. H&M needs to shore up its brand positioning by doing more, and online seems the natural place to press on. Their online sales achieved last year was in the neighbourhood of one-third of total sales.

The inclusion of third-party brands reminds us of e-stores such as Zalora, ASOS, and Urban Outfitters, all with their house labels too. Despite the variety of brands, hm.com, is still primarily and aesthetically H&M, comprising at the fore, their own products. To seek non-H&M names, you need to click on ‘H&M with friends’ which allows you to “shop by brand”. While the site layout is similar to its competitors’, hm.com is not exactly fizzing with excitement. It could do with the elusive quality known as fun or what e-tailers like to call experiential. It is perhaps telling that despite including the group’s kindred labels, such as Monki, & Other Stories, Arket, and Weekday (all not available here), H&M’s e-commerce offering requires the presence of other brands to augment its merchandise breadth as the world’s second-biggest clothing retailer.

File photo: SOTD

Wear A Tee, Take A Stand

Japanese e-tailer Zozotown has offered a special-edition ‘No War’ T-shirt “to support those who have been deprived of their peaceful life in Ukraine¨. Why are there no similar initiatives among our fashion businesses?

“The peace that everyone naturally wants is now lost,” read the promotion copy for the Zozotown special-edition ‘No War’ T-shirts. “The ordinary everyday life of people who, like us, should have been able to spend time with family and friends with a smile suddenly disappears one day.” As “humanitarian aid to Ukraine”, proceeds of the sale of the T-shirt will go to ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) Japan. In an official statement, ADRA International “calls for peace for the people of Ukraine and mobilizes relief for millions of people impacted by the war.”

While not exactly a creation in the vein of Supreme tees, these simple, 100% cotton, crew-neck, white tops have already hit the number one spot on Zozotown’s merchandise ranking just a day after its launch on 1 March. Available in two unisex styles for young and old, they sport motifs in yellow and blue, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. For kids, a garland in the form of the peace symbol and, for the adults, two flowers on the left side of the chest, with a short text below that reads, “NO WAR IN UKRAINE”. The item is described as ‘Ukrainian Humanitarian Charity T-shirt’, and is available by pre-ordering only (unfortunately not outside Japan). In its promotional material for the T-shirts, four hashtags of #nowar appear in three other languages too: Japanese, Ukrainian, and Russian. Zozotown is clear of their intent: “to support those who have been deprived of their peaceful life in Ukraine”.

Zozotown is clear of their intent: “to support those who have been deprived of their peaceful life in Ukraine”

A quick survey of some of the most popular local e-shops reveal no such initiative. At The Editor’s Market, the homepage asks visitors to “explore” their “Forever Hits”, described as the brand’s “most wanted silhouettes back and in better shape than ever”. Love, Bonito’s homepage skips any message altogether, going straight to their merchandise under a banner ‘Women’. Fayth is promoting ‘Back to Work’, or “sophisticated looks for the office”. Weekend Sundries is still in a festive mood, showing off ‘A Feast of Colours’, featuring “new limited edition prints for good cheer this holiday season”. We were discouraged and did not go looking further. Nowhere on each of these sites mentioned the occurrence of war. Or, offered a denouncement.

A marketing head said to us that for most fashion retailers, “staying neutral is probably the best”. Moreover, it takes too much effort to create new merchandise that is already past each brand’s production schedule. He added, “As a society, we are rather indifferent to such thing—attacks not happening near us. Few people would have heard of Ukraine!” At a Uniqlo store early this afternoon, two young women were looking at T-shirts featuring recognisable characters from Studio Ghibli. We asked them, “what attracts you to these?” One of them replied shyly, “they are cute, lor.” We asked again, “Would you wear a T-shirt that says ‘No War’?” Their puzzlement is unmistakable: “What war?” Zozotown, Japan’s largest fashion e-commerce site, is straightforward when they said, “We oppose the war.” So do we.

Product photos: Zozotown. Typography: Zozotown. Collage: Just So

When Paris Marries, You Gain

The heiress Paris Hilton’s marriage is also a marketing opportunity for the c-commerce site Italist. Fabulous?

By Mao Shan Wang

Paris Hilton is a married woman. I am happy for her; I truly am. Last month, she tied the knot with her venture capitalist fiancé Carter Reum in what CNN described as a “lavish ceremony”. Meghan Trainor called it the “most beautiful wedding ever!! (yes, double exclamation marks all hers)” and Rachel Zoe said she was “the most beautiful bride.” Yes, I am happy for her. To top the many compliments, Ms Hilton will have a new reality TV show, Paris in Love, on Peacock, after the inane Netflix series Cooking with Paris. Everything from the engagement to the proposal to walking down the aisle will be featured in Paris in Love. She gleefully posted of the show, “I want my fans to know how I found my Prince Charming, and a fairy tale. Happy ending”. So, yes, I am Happy for her.

But I am not sure that. despite all the happiness I am feeling—in times of the ominous Omicron—that I would want to win a “Paris Hilton’s Fairytale Wedding Giveaway”, as curiously offered by the e-commerce site Italist. The wedding is over, but somehow it is still happening. We’re still seeing her veiled face. Is this like one of those long Indian weddings that could last five days (although for most couples, it’s just the average three), only now, with Ms Hilton, much longer? Wouldn’t it be great if newly engaged Kim Lim and Club 21, too, give something away after the former’s likely lavish-as-well wedding in the unknown future?

Would this be like those that guests receive at the end of wedding parties? Or, something akin to the Chanel advent calendar?

In Paris Hilton’s name (also to “honor” her new show) and part of their “December Treats”, Italist is letting “one lucky winner” walk away with a “Paris and Carter’s (nope, not Cartier’s!) Gift Bag”. Would this be like those that guests receive at the end of wedding parties? Or, something akin to the Chanel advent calander? According to Italist, the gift, probably housed in a (now-trendy/trending) dust bag, includes “Wedding Sweatshirt, His & Hers Paris Hilton Perfume Set, Tote Bag, R3SET Botanical Stress & Anxiety Support Supplements, & Candles”. Excited yet?

But that is not all. The winner will also be gifted with four certificates for a stay at, where else, a Hilton Hotel of their choice (valued at USD2,400), a wedding crystal figurine (worth USD500), a USD500 gift card to Jane (a “curated marketplace”), a USD300 gift card to The Dog Bakery (yes, a canine pâtisserie), a USD350 hair-care hamper from Keratase, USD500 worth of products from paw.com, and a USD500 gift card to Italist. If you include the Paris and Carter’s Gift Bag, which, according to sweepstakes.com, is worth USD4,800 (oh yes, they, too, are giving that away), the total value of the haul is very close to a rather handsome US ten grand. (More) excited yet?

To be sure, Italist addressed their communique to: “Hilton fans” with the specific, “this one is for you”. So that, technically, counts me out. I can be happy for Paris Hilton and not be a fan. There are enough of them around the world. Otherwise, why a show of her married life? Who really cares? Who even bothered when she was living The Simple Life? Truth be told, I am no fan of anyone. But, as a believer in the institution of marriage and its sanctity, I am glad that she is heading towards marital bliss and, despite numerous past engagements, a “happy ending”. Do I want any of those giveaways? Yes, I am happy for her, but not that much.

The Paris Hilton’s Fairytale Wedding Giveaway is open to US residents only. Photo: Italist

Visited: Vault

Gucci’s all-new, all-dancing e-store may change the way online shops are conceived in the future, but not everyone gets to buy what’s up for grabs

Gucci describes its fresh digital platform Vault as a “new experimental online space”. The website is primary an e-store, but it is also an e-mag. When you arrive at the homepage, there is surprisingly not an immediate call to view the merchandise. No cart symbol could be seen in the top right-hand corner (instead, it reads “Edition #1”). Click the ‘hamburger’ menu icon on the left, and it drops down to reveal a very short list of three items: Join Vault, Current Country (SG isn’t listed), and Language. No shop and items. The main image—not animated—featuring Gucci fashion is not even clickable. Below the photograph, you are told to “Discover More”. But you scroll further down. The site is highly visual and the images are mostly full-bleed, which lend the webpage the feel of a vertically-flowing magazine. And it’s quite a way down to the end: 28 swipe-ups later, in fact.

The experiential component of the space is, therefore, not over-stated. There is considerable content to discover, apart from stuff to buy (we’ll come to that later). What you are entering is a totally Gucci world. If their mostly retro-heavy images are not your cup of kombucha, or are overwhelming, there is a good chance you may not go to the subterranean end. But the website’s content developers are eager to engage you. And Gucci wants to foster “an imaginative relationship that goes beyond the purely transactional”. It is a strategy that will make you stay as long as, if not longer, than you would at Net-A-Porter and the like. Gucci is serious when they say Vault is “a time machine, an archive, a library, a laboratory, and a meeting place”.

That a project associated with Alessandro Michele should facilitate time travel, cast a light on the archival, the librarial, the experimental, and the social (can any online enterprise be without this component?) is unsurprising. Gucci under his watch is all of the above. And Vault is a flashy showcase of how imaginative Mr Michele is or, as the intro to Vault states, how much a reflection of “the Creative Director’s passion for experimentation, showcasing restored and customized archive pieces alongside the creations of emerging designers through a poetic and coherent editorial format.” Restoring? Is that a stab at sustainability? Yes, there is talent discovery too. And designers you would not have heard of elsewhere are given a space in Vault.

Even esoteric music (yep, there is a tune to “discover”), which, according to Gucci, is the “sound of style”. Or, if a more learned description is required, the “captivating delights of autonomous sensory meridian response”, per the brand. What in the world of pussy bows and Kingsnakes is that? Sound engineers call it a “perceptual condition”. There is an example in Vault: a ‘music video’, if you will. A model is seen with a vintage GG Plus bag (presumably “restored”). She squeezes the body to yield crunchy sounds, then she strokes the straps and then taps on the distinctive handle of the Bamboo bag, generating more sounds. A teaspoon is seen grinding the rim of a Gucci coffee cup. A bag buckle snaps. These sounds and others more come together to create a percussive chorus. And there you have music. Or, as Gucci calls it, “sensory overload, where objects can inflame or provoke, placate and subdue”.

Mr Michele is clearly creating a world not yet imagined as a welcome and doable sphere for online retail. But this is not the same as Raf Simons’s History of my World (now inactive, but quite the precursor to Vault). This is far more immersive, even if it borders, in parts, on the pretentious. But do visitors want to go through this much in a site visit that begins with transactions in mind? So what Gucci merchandise are there to buy after you have enjoyed the “sound of style”? Almost nothing. Before you can click on the past-era products temptingly photographed, you will meet the message, “All vintage items are sold out”. There is a top, one unexceptional Aria T-shirt that is a limited edition and a Vault exclusive. If you are open to the products of the new designers Mr Michele has selected (13 of them), then perhaps the credit card you have on standby would be useful. If, however, you are in Asia but outside Japan, all you could do is browse. Vault has shut you out of their merchandise.

Shortly after Vault went online, an SOTD reader wrote to us, rather with a huff: “It’s such a stupid site,” his message read. The vexation is palpable. “You cannot buy if you are not living in those few countries they want to sell to. So few countries for members to select. We can’t buy cos (we are) not among the 20+ countries on the list.” There are, as of now, just 25 countries that Gucci ships to, including Romania! Italist, to compare with a compatriot business, ships to 216 countries. It is understandable why this reader fumed. “Waste of my time to join (as member),” he wrote in conclusion. Apart from writing to us, he also sent a missive to Gucci. And, rightly, there was a reply, which was shared with us by the SOTD reader.

A written reply from Gucci Customer Services

“Thank you for contacting VAULT,“ one client advisor called Hiroko from Customer Services replied (presumably, Gucci had their Tokyo office respond since they are in a time zone closer to ours), addressing the male complainant as “Ms“. She continued: “Unfortunately, Singapore, Hong Kong and China are not eligible for Vault product delivery and cannot meet your needs.“ We suspect Google translate is at work here. “Thank (sic) for your interest in Vault products and we apologize for not meet (sic) your expectations. If you have any questions, please reply to this e-mail or contact VAULT Client Service (sic).”

The mail does not say if things would change or if purchases on Vault can be made by shoppers in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China beyond “currently not”. There is something final about “not eligible”, so too “cannot meet your needs“, since there is no attempt at assuaging this Vault visitor’s disappointment with more positive news. It is unknown if Gucci sees limited shipping as strategic advantage. But if e-commerce market size in Southeast Asia alone is reported to be around USD62 billion now, why is it favourable for Gucci to keep part of its online retail vaulted from the rest of us? Sticking to “beyond the purely transactional”? Rather mind-boggling, isn’t it?

Screen grab: Gucci Vault

Valentino Makes A Statement

And it will drive the anti-vaxxer nuts

Fashion do want to be counted when it comes to making a social/political stand. Valentino, for one, not only knows their position on the divisive issue of COVID-19 vaccination, they are willing to express it, and, concurrently do good. Taking advantage of the cool-after-summer season, they’ve released a black, made-in-Italy, cotton hoodie with the word “Vaccinated” stretched across the chess, above which the unmistakable V-logo is centred. There is nothing to the hoodie really, other than what it might literally say about the wearer. With the vaccinated more appreciated in social circles and welcomed in dine-in-allowed eateries, knowing that they have received the two doses of either the mRNA or viral vector vaccines without turning on their Trace Together app might be a boon to those who’d benefit from the knowledge or be able to complete a professional duty.

Launched on the Valentino website today, the hoodie is shown on the label’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, who looks relaxed in a rattan chair, placed in a garden. According to Valentino’s corporate comms, the designer was “captivated” by an identical hoodie conceived by “the American pop culture sensation Cloney” (a multi-disciplinary collective based in LA, headed by one Duke Christian George III) that he ordered all that was available (five, it is said) and gave them to his friends, among them Lady Gaga, who dutifully wore the V-logoed version and posted a video on Instagram. Clearly Nicki Minaj of the “swollen balls anti-vaxx claim” wasn’t on the receiving end of this messaged top.

Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli proudly promoting his vaccination status

But, apparently, Valentino only told part of the story. According to media reports, Cloney “cloned” Valentino in their hoodies by replacing the V in ‘Vaccinated’ with Valentino’s V and the rest of the letters in the brand’s serif font. Mr Piccioli spotted the item on IG and magnanimously bought them to gift his friends, seeing the potential good that could come out of this hoodie. So rather than sue Cloney, as big brands such as Adidas are wont and eager to, he chose to work with them, pairing the couture brand in his charge with another closer to street that stars such as Justin Beiber and wife Hailey already love so that both can benefit from the resultant social-media exposure and old media support.

Lest you think this is just a commercial, opportunistic exercise, the sale of the hoodie, in fact, benefits places where COVID-19 vaccines have yet made significant impact. “All net profits,” Valentino reveals, “will be donated to UNICEF in favor of the COVAX facility, which ensures equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by supplying doses to countries in need.” Doing so is also “to highlight the values the Maison stands for”, we are also told. We are not sure how many pieces are allotted to our island, but as of now, they are still available. Those who are keen on a charitable purchase and be in the company of others who share Valentino’s mission, best be quick. They are sold out in Europe.

The Valentino ‘Vaccinated’ hoodie is available on the brand’s website for SGD 1,1901. Photos: Valentino

Naiise To Be Back?

The multi-brand retailer returns. Will the baggage of a troubled past weigh them down?

Designer names used to be enduring. These days, retail brands are the ones that don’t die. Once born, they can’t be rid of; they can’t self-destruct. One of them here is Robinsons, the other is Naiise. Announced on Instagram last night, Naiise’s comeback is a return to their founding format: an e-store. The big reveal struck at nine this evening, their “witching time of night”, to borrow from Shakespeare (it is unclear why the store is launched three hours to midnight rather than during the day). However, unlike the return of Robinsons, there is no fanfare prior, no media walk-through, no build-up. One post on the brand’s Facebook and Instagram pages each appeared yesterday evening, followed by two more—six hours apart—that announced their sudden re-emergence. The second post stated that followers of their social media were missed. A comment followed: “We know it has been a while, but we are coming back online”. At the time of this writing, it garnered 126 likes.

One of the earliest media outlets to report on Naiise’s re-opening is Vulcan Post, an ardent supporter of the brand, then—and now, as well as its founder Dennis Tay. In an editorial, they wrote that “this comeback is not too surprising as the previously-defunct website had the words ‘opening soon’ emblazoned across”. In their social media announcement, Naiise also stated: “We’re gonna continue our mission in championing local creatives, designers and artisans. Come on a journey with us as we inspire creativity and connect communities!” Despite their cheeriness, the new Naiise is aware that the fallout of the past (just this year, in fact) is not quite forgotten, yet. In the final post before the online opening, they wrote/assured: “The new and improved marketplace platform allows sellers to be paid instantly upon every successful order fulfilment.” However, it is not known if those to whom money was owed were all paid.

If this is the Naiise still associated with Dennis Tay, now largely held in disesteem, perhaps the declaration of prompt payment would be taken with a generous pinch of salt. But the confidence is now expressed by a new company. By Naiise’s own reveal hours earlier, seemingly written by a legal advisor, “the WestStar Group has completed its acquisition of Naiise Pte Ltd’s (the “Company’s”) online marketplace (“Online Marketplace”) as well as its accompanying trademarks and social media accounts”. It also quoted the group’s CEO Ong Lay Ann saying, “in line with its mission of inspiring creativity and connecting communities, Naiise aspires to be at the forefront of aggregating a community that has always appreciated local designs.” Mr Ong is the former CEO of Honestbee, an also-embattled company once self-touted as “Asia’s leading online lifestyle concierge and delivery service” that is now described by the media as “insolvent”. One PR manager cheekily said to us, “from the frying pan into the fire!”

The new Naiise homepage

WestStar Group is an 18-year-old Malaysian company with multifarious business activities, namely automotive, aviation, construction, defence, and engineering, according to their corporate communication material. We are not sure if they have been in the lifestyle retail business before the acquisition of Naiise, but Mr Ong told The Straits Times online that he had been “on the lookout for good quality companies that have potential to scale, and this was one of the companies I was interested in”. He did not say how the dent to Naiise’s reputation—slowly nicked by many years of consignor complaints of tardy payment—would impact the stewardship of the company henceforth. Or how he would “scale” his new charge when the former owner too tried to set the stage to enable and support the growth of Naiise, but failed, dramatically. But in the last social media post before the new Naiise went online, the company did say that “the priority will be to built and improve on the Naiise platform to ensure its long-term sustainability and scalability for a wider creative ecosystem”.

When we spoke to a retail marketing manager about Naiise’s present potential, he said he is “keen to see how they’d reinvent themselves”, adding, “Naiise, as a retail concept, is not really damaged, not in the way the name of the founder is. His name may need rehabilitation, but Naiise, through the eyes of consumers, may not. It is still the store to go to when they want to buy products with distinctly local identity, not necessarily of design brilliance”. It is possible that WestStar sees the investment value in the brand recognition—even in Malaysia, where Naiise’s MY IG page, interestingly, still remains, suggesting that the brand may also be brought back there. Hence its potential “scalability”? Conceptually, Naiise was plugging a hole in the market that, in the early years of the brand’s existence (2013 to 2015), saw few place, if any, similar to the “fancy pasar malam”, as one shopper recalled, that it was.

On Naiise’s social media pages, Mr Ong also said that “the creative ecosystem is fragmented and the reintroduction of Naiise marketplace, will allow both consumers and merchants to connect through a dedicated platform”. The new e-shop (and a refreshed logotype that is now in colour) came online on the dot, . Although it looks quite like its past site, it now lacks a certain buzziness of the former, including the snappy, even if hackneyed, copy that was rather unusual for an SG e-shop. On the new homepage, there is the call to “Meet Your Familiar Brands”. We are not able to ascertain if these 20 are those that were sold on the former Naiise platform, but Dennis Tay’s favourite curry puff cushion by local, food-themed, home-ware brand Nom Nom Plush—purportedly one of the best-selling items in the heydays of Naiise—is conspicuously missing. As in its previous incarnation, the e-store’s merchandise mix is predictably a mish-mash of the kitschy and the retro, with Singaporeana the identifiable USP. Now that Naiise is back, every day can be National Day.

Illustration (top): Just So. Screen grab: naiise.com

Torture To Go Through

Is it reasonable to spend an hour hitting keys on your smartphone repeatedly to score a pair of shoes and not be rewarded?

By Ray Zhang

“OOPS…” went the full-cap message. Is that the best Nike can do? I sat at my desk five minutes to ten, ready to hit my virtual keyboard on my smartphone so as to enter the necessary information to buy myself a pair of LDWaffle x Sacai x Fragment kicks, launched today on Nike’s SNKR site at 10am. At the precise moment, I selected my size, and hit “Add To Bag”. I was then linked to a page where all my purchase details were listed. I filled in my credit card info, and hit purchase. As if I was played by a ghost (which wouldn’t surprise me since this is the seventh lunar month!), I was brought back to the previous page. Not yet discouraged, I repeated this procedure another ten times at least, and finally I got to the page (above) that went “OOPS”! I would spend the next hour going between the page that asked for my shoe size and the one that expressed surprise at its own blunder. In the mean time, my fingers and my mind were begging for mercy. Despite the exercise I give my thumbs daily, this was still too much stress to expect of them.

Is it reasonable to ask anyone to spend an hour on the same page, doing the same thing, hitting the same keys, looking at the same numbers, reading the same “OOPS” message only to come up naught each time, and be filled with deep disappointment at how unpleasant the entire procedure was? When I checked the page at around 1pm, the shoes were “sold out”. It’s inconceivable to me that a company as massive and wealthy as Nike would put their customers through what I went through. And I was not the only one. Another 12 of my friends who tried came away empty-handed and frustrated—and cursing. One of them said to me, “It is wicked that the biggest brand in the world, with all the resources at hand, would do this to their customers.” If indeed one of the basic tenets of good service is never to let your customer wait (let’s not even talk about letting them down), why did Nike put so many of us through the torment? And if we’re more likely to remember a bad customer experience than good, why would Nike not make purchasing their shoes online even slightly more pleasant?

This is not my first time in such a maddening situation. For as long as I have been using the SNKR site to score a pair of shoes—okay, mostly the Nike X Sacai collabs—I would want to scream my lungs out. I knew my chances here would be as slim as the OG Waffle sole, so I entered the Club 21 raffle last week to, well, double my chance. But someone later told me I would also be wasting my time as Club 21 would likely avail whatever stocks they have to their top-spenders, and I am not one of them. Undeterred, I submitted my details for the raffle. Up till ten last night, I did not hear from them. No word this morning either, not a simple “thank you” for participating. However, on Instagram Stories earlier (close to midnight, I believe), they posted a photo of the shoes and the message, “All winners for the Nike X Sacai X Fragment raffle have been contacted via email. Congratulations to all and thank you everyone for joining.” Should I feel better?

Screen shot: nike.com

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 concluding post on Instagram was a photo of an off-shoulder romper on 7 February. Ms Heng’s last post with the hashtag #lovebyilo was 12 days later. The last of the #happyilogirls to share on IG (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; on YouTube she’s also known as Elaineypoop) 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 the 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 describes 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

Opens With A Sale

Robinsons Online’s much-awaited launch starts with platform-wide mark down. The opening “sale worth waiting for”?

They were supposed to go online at 3pm this afternoon; they were two minutes early—off to a good start. Robinsons is back, and, not just with merchandise that presumably many desire, but with considerable discounting: “up to 60%”, according to the very large, very prominent, very dark banner image cum headline on its homepage. Everyone loves a bargain, we have often been told, but by re-emerging with a sale, is Robinsons positioning itself as a regular discounter? Or is this what managing director Jordan Prainito calls, in a media release, “compelling value curation strategy”? The business of e-tailing is often said to be price sensitive. Robinsons appears ready to go down with their prices to stay up. Despite a reminder that the store was “established in 1858” at the start, alongside the assurance of fast shipping and 30-day returns, it seems that department store’s storied past has to take a back seat to a “relaunch sale”, the tried strategy to incentivise visitors to the site to make a purchase so that they might become long-term customers, which in turn justifies the cost of the discounts dangled.

Online sales seem omnipresent these days. E-commerce and aggregator platforms are pushing substantial discounts more than ever (the just concluded, or still on-going for some, 6.6 Sale!!!). Competing sales from other online retailers (Zalora’s Big Fashion Sale also begins today!) are making Robinsons’s opening salvo not only less special, but uninteresting too. Click on the Shop Now button on the sale banner and you’re immediately linked to the All Sale page. The first 157 products—skincare/hair/grooming—are reminiscent of the old physical store’s personal care department (known to be among their best-performing), with the same, familiar brands. Exciting. But you would require the patience of a praying mantis to scroll right to the very bottom of this page. Products after products with no particular order will pass you by, namely in the categories of skincare and haircare, toddlers and kids, supplements and healthcare, home and bedding. A total of 2,215 sale products are listed, requiring you to scroll through 554 rows of merchandise, if you are viewing on your PC, or double that, if you are swiping up on your smartphone. It took us the entire length of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour album (a good 38 minutes of fast index finger movement on the scroll wheel of our mouse) to come the end. As she sang, “god, it’s brutal out here”.

If you are not interested in the discounts and want to discover the merchandise, the e-store is not fully opened. Click on the Women tab on the navigation bar, the menu will drop, offering eight categories. We pick “Women’s International Brand Apparel” and are directed to a page that reads: No products found in this collection. We hit the back button and repeat the earlier action and then we now see the discreet “Coming soon!” text next to all the seven sub-categories—51 in total for the Women department, but only four can be found with merchandise, namely underclothes and hosiery. A source later told us that this is “Phase 1” of the opening and they will be “onboarding in the next few days”. Undeterred, we decide to try Beauty. The product placement here is rather odd. We go directly to the page, bypassing the sub-categories. Beauty opens without an enticing header-visual. We are immediately met with health supplements, the first item Herbs of Gold’s Liver Care 60s! As it turns out, most of the merchandise are found in The Bedshop (no surprise there: Robinsons Online is owned by Canningvale Australia, a leading maker and retailer of bedsheets and towels), and Home and Tech. Fashion shoppers come back later.

The fervent push for retail to go digital is a bummer for the offline romantics among us. Robinsons Online is a reminder that we can no longer feel for the store the way we did, to hold it in the esteem reserved for grand dames. Historic it may be, and an institution it might have been, but Robinson Online is a totally new store, bereft of the sentiments its physical self once stirred. Earlier press advisory described its reincarnation as “a fully digital, state-of-the-art, vertically integrated online department store”, with an emphasis on how easy it is to navigate: just scroll down. The result is a cold screenful that corresponds with the anatomy of a great homepage, but evoke no emotion that would spur positive user experience. Thinking that it might be different on a smartphone, we take to our Galaxy S21 for a (re)visit. Although optimised for the small screen, the site now looks oddly condensed. The strolling gets even more tedious. What’s frankly annoying is the repeated popping up of a window that asks us to subscribe to their ”marketing communications” in exchange for ”$10 off at checkout when you spend $100 or more.” We hope this is a work in progress.

Physical retail appeals to emotions. The proverbial “theatre of retail” that successful stores adopt makes the emotional connection. The rebranded Robinsons at The Heeren in 2013 had that, so much so that we considered it the best department store here at that time. Admittedly, it is difficult—some say impossible—to recreate this relationship online. Many e-tailers think it’s all about merchandise and if you flood your space with products, shoppers will visit. But increasingly, the talk is about building “emotional motivators”, even online. Perhaps Robinsons Online is new and there is, as it appears, the rush to open, but it is dismal that the transition to e-commerce is just that: a digital exercise. Or, has “compelling value curation strategy” overtaken strategic goals that should have also spanned the customer journey? Price is prime? Sure, many of today’s shoppers still go after a good deal, but when it comes to the online environment that encourages them to stay and return, it is still a memorable experience that many desire. We know we do. Robinsons Online might benefit from offering virtual shopping that is experiential rather than merely transactional.

The reality is that people and brands still connect to the Robinsons name. The Straits Times, for example, is curiously fixated with Robinsons, like the many women who can’t forget Robinsons once had a haberdashery and fabric department. Since the announcement of the last two stores’ closure in late October last year, they have run nearly a dozen stories with the name in its headline. No other department store enjoys such exposure, especially posthumously. Two consecutive days prior to today’s rebirth online, a pair of articles about Robinsons were published. Perhaps none want the return of Robinsons—owned by foreigners in succession since 2008—more than ST. Now, the onus is really on Robinsons’s Aussie owners Canningvale Australia to truly elevate one of our beloved brands, and a national newspaper’s, to a first-rate digital entity many more would love to embrace again, rather than mirroring their own home-turf site. We can wait.

Screen grabs: robinsons.com.sg

Robinsons To Be Resurrected

…as an online store on 24 June. It is now owned by the Australian family behind Canningvale sheets

The news was released to the media just after eight this morning. The reactivated landing page was published “late last night”, according to a source. Three weeks ago, just after Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), talk was emerging that Robinsons could come back as an e-tailer. Some brands had been asked if they would like to sell through the new e-commerce site, which was marketed as “tightly curated”, one merchandise manager told us. Some former suppliers to Robinsons thought they were only “conducting a market study”. Six months after the sudden announcement of the total closure of Robinsons in late October last year, the brand is now back, but only with an online presence. Or, as described in the media advisory, “a fully digital, state-of-the-art, vertically integrated online department store.”

The return of Robinsons surprised industry watchers. While it is understandable that an online retail model is viable and right for the present time, it is also rather curious that Robinsons would stage a comeback at all, considering that their abrupt shutting down of their last two stores—in The Heeren and Raffles City—after 162 years of existence (that saw them survive two World War II bombings and a massive fire that razed their Raffles Place flagship in 1972) was not especially graceful or thought to be sympathetic to consignors and customers (particularly those who had paid for mattresses and not received them). But one retail veteran told us, “Robinsons has history behind it. Its name won’t be tainted. Singaporeans are sentimental.”

Robinsons shuttered for good in January. Its return—which the Australian media calls “rescue”—is led by Canningvale Australia, a manufacturer and retailer (online) of sheets and towels, and fabric goods, conceived “to make luxury homewares attainable”, according to the company’s vision statement. Canningvale’s former managing director Jordan Prainito (he now holds the same position at the newly named Robinsons Online) will lead the operations in Singapore. Mr Prainito is a third generation member of the family that founded Canningvale in 1997, when Italian father-and-son refugees from Libya started a terry cloth weaving factory in Perth that emerged to be Australia’s “main towel company”. It is widely reported that Canningvale is “one of the fastest-growing digital retailers in Australia”. According to the press release, the company “evolved from a wholesale supplier into a multi-million-dollar business in just five years”. Business News Australia reported that Mr Prainito led Canningvale Australia’s digital transformation since 2016. During this time, the company’s “e-commerce turnover surged tenfold”.

The Canningvale website. Would Robinsons Online look like this?

Mr Prainito is no stranger to our city. As reported, he did his tertiary education here and knew of Robinsons and the subsequent failure. He told Australian Financial Review, “When we heard the news it had collapsed, we had a chat as a family and I said it’s an amazing brand and an amazing heritage—why don’t we throw our hat in the ring and see what comes of it.” Robinsons was part of the Dubai-based Al Futtaim Group for 13 years. Sometime in the mid-2000s, it was rumoured that Thailand’s Central Retail Corporation (which owns and operates a local department store chain Robinson—without the ‘S’, apart from the more upscale Central) had shown interest in acquiring Robinsons, but dropped the idea because the asking price was too high. The sale to Canningvale—value not disclosed—includes the domain names for Singapore and Malaysia, customer data base, and some 50 product names, presumably former Robinsons house brands. It is not known if those names will be brought back.

Canningvale initially manufactured for bedding company such as Sheridan and fashion labels such as Country Road. They’ve now their own product ranges and are available mainly through the company’s website and select specialty retailers and department stores. Over here, Canningvale sheets and towels are stocked at Tangs and Courts, as well as on e-commerce platforms Amazon and Lazada. Those who were aware that Canningvale were behind Robinsons Online had, in fact, wondered if the e-store would be similar to Canningvale’s own, and if the latter’s merchandise would dominate. Might the emphasis then be on home goods? According to the press release, 200 “specially-curated” brands, including homegrown ones, will be made available. Names have not presently been offered. In addition, Robinsons Online “will present price-sensitive customers with a value oriented, rationalised product offering”. It is not unreasonable to assume that “price-sensitive customers” means bargain hunters. Or is that based on what Jordan Prainito calls “forensic focus on our customers”? Even in the present time of Trace Together, that reveal is oddly discomforting.

Watch this space for our review of Robinsons Online. Photo: file. Photo illustration: SOTD. Screen grab (below): Canningvale

The Uptick From The Umbrage

One trending word, now happily used and proudly worn

By Bu Shikong

As a nation, we’re hardly ever affected by single words, nor pairs. Ex-Mediacorp stars can start a food business with the curse-turn-oxymoron Sibay Shiok, but no one’s undies are caught in a knot. When former military man, now SPH’s CEO, Ng Yat Chung indignantly brandished “umbrage”—twice!—in response to CNA reporter Chew Huimin’s question, many people are piqued. The uncle’s contempt at the press conference was, for sure, unmistakable. However, it was not just how garang he was that people reacted to, but the word choice (choice word?) as well. This morning, The Sunday Times reported that that one beautiful word very quickly led to a 200,000-plus searches on Google that day: what did Mr Ng really take? What was given? People were burning with curiosity.

In one Coconuts report I read, it was noted that “many Singaporeans have never even heard of the word until it got a mention at the company’s press conference…” With the Speak Good English Movement still running this year’s campaign, Let’s Connect, Let’s Speak Good English, on TV, that is hardly surprising. But the memes and jokes that emerged have somehow diluted the kau-ness of the fury. And the retailers that have been quick to turn this into a money-making opportunity have only made a word expressing no ordinary anger funny. Since yesterday morning, I have been inundated with photos of and links to the availability of T-shirts with ‘umbrage’ emblazoned across the chest, as well as marketing campaigns enjoying the use of what Asiaone called “word of the day”.

It is rather puzzling that the lead time for producing garments, bags, and cups could be this short. Clicking on a Lazada ad on my social media site, I was brought to a page of a selection of merchandise—six different pieces in all. There is a three-product ‘line’ known as “Umbrage Dictionary”, offered by sellers that appear to be in the digital printing business. Things the now-shuttered-for-good Naiise would have gladly taken in. When I looked closely at the images on the website, I could see that the U-word had been superimposed on the images of standard-issue crew-neck tees. This is likely a print-on-order product line, which could explain how they managed to put umbrage out almost as soon as Ng Yat Chung was susceptible enough take it. But I wonder if more umbrage would be taken if he has read how the seller’s lexicographer defined the word that had a nation talking and dissing.

Those who don’t find charm or humour in this meaning of the hot noun may aquire some other at the National Library. I always thought that our flagship public library is staid. Well, it isn’t. A new display to entice you to their books was very recently set up: “Umbrage And Other Words You Should Know”. An orgiastic grouping for those who would relate to titles such as Word Nerd. But if you need to take knowledge-seeking to social media, enter ‘umbrage’ in Facebook search—the result will tell you the word is “popular now”, just as another phrase is: Umbrage Singapore. As it turns out, this is “a group for Singaporeans who want to take umbrage at anything and anyone”, created just a day after Mr Ng’s heated retort. It is understandable why his rebuke has generated so much reactions. It wasn’t just the use of an uncommonly-mouthed word, it was also the near-bullying way that he spoke it, which included the delectable and by-then-obvious admission that he is not a gentleman.

But not everyone thinks the umbrage was unwisely taken. The former journalist Bertha Henson, who, as one online description enthused, covered “Singapore developments for the Singapore Press Holdings stable of newspapers for 26 years”, took a more contrary view. In her blog Bertha Harian (Bertha Daily, a pun on the Malay-language broadsheet Berita Harian or Daily News), Ms Henson wrote in the piece “It…could be… a new beginning for news media here”, shared a day after the incident of the CEO and the journalist, that she “empathised” with Mr Ng, even when she noted that he “lost his cool”. Many who have read her post were certain she was speaking up for her former employer SPH, which wouldn’t be surprising. Ms Henson, now also an author, is a product of The Straits Times and its sibling titles. She knows why—and how—SPH has become what it is today, even correctly acknowledging that “journalism standards… have been declining at a precipitous rate”.

But as an experienced news person, she curiously chose to deprecate a journalist who turned up to do her job, of which asking questions is expected. She opined that “it is a naive reporter, especially from a local media outlet, who asks such questions which can be applied to his or her own employers and editors”, in a clear reference to a competing news organisation. I don’t expect Ms Henson to play the dajie of local journalism, but choosing not to also empathise with someone whose job she once did seems, to me, to be taking the side of a media company she still feels dearly for. If that singling out was not enough, in a Facebook post from yesterday, Ms Henson wrote in defence of those working for her former employer: that it was “pretty insulting to insinuate that SPH journalists were pandering to advertisers and not maintaining their integrity.” Ms Henson was basically saying to the CNA staff, you deserve it. How becoming, I wonder, is that of a news veteran? Was Bertha Henson also insulted or was she, as the T-shirt sold on Lazada suggests, simply dulan?

Product photos: Lazada. Photo illustrations: Just So