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