Stepping Up

Design Orchard, in the month of its second anniversary, is finally stocking ‘designer’ clothes. But is it enough?

Thomas Wee gets a street-facing window and dedicated space for his first collection at Design Orchard. Photo: 路人甲

After close two years in business, Design Orchard is upraising its positioning. At a media event yesterday evening, when operator Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF) announced their “exciting plans in-store for 2021” and to “unveil” their Chinese New Year windows, one sensed that the operative word ‘design’ is finally taking tentative root in a store conceived to showcase what Charles Eames called “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose”. It is still not yet clear what purpose Design Orchard has set out for themselves other than to foster the spirit of “Shop Local, Grow Global”, but the current mix of names could portent well for a store that has not quite found its footing.

After protracted grumblings that there were no true designer styles in their merchandise mix, they have managed to invite some recognisable names to their fold, even successfully coaxing veteran designer Thomas Wee out of his serial retirement to present his first collection for Design Orchard. To be sure, at the 2019 opening of TAFF’s Cocoon Space, also in the building that houses Design Orchard, formerly operated by Naiise, Mr Wee had shown a selection of past fashion-show clothes. But as we understood at the time, that was a static display to fill the empty nooks of Cocoon Space, not a prelude to the availability, at Design Orchard, of our city’s premier designer line. Now that Thomas Wee is finally in the store and an “anchor label”, as one fashion buyer called it, would this be the charm to draw other revered names and to elevate Design Orchard’s standing among the design and retail community?

As the grand elder of Singaporean fashion, Thomas Wee gets his own private corner. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

The sizeable Thomas Wee collection takes up a space in an extreme corner of the store, on the opposite end of the main door, at what was another entrance (or rear exit) until the COVID-19 social-distancing mandate required stores to have a single point of entry and exit, to better control and monitor shopper movement. What Mr Wee is assigned is rather unusual in that, based on our earlier understanding, brands are not usually allotted their own designated spot. Within the roughly 50-square-metre corner, with a street-facing window, Mr Wee has set up shop in a layout that feels familiar: simple racks, headless mannequins (five of them—more than the other labels), the largely monochromatic scheme, a bench, which appears to welcome resting—a sum that hints at the elegant simplicity of his clothes. If not for the distracting UOB logo on a lightbox from next door, this would be a corner that could easily induce the appreciable description, cosy.

The familiarity extends to the clothes too. On the five mannequins that line the window, we could discern the discernible silhouette: relaxed, slightly voluminous, with drop shoulders, and a flare towards the hems (for both tops and skirts); the sum of which would not be out of place in today’s preference for a more relaxed approach to dress. Upon closer inspection, many pieces—some are tweaked or updated—have had their place in past collections. This could be, yet again, The Best of Thomas Wee fashion mixtape—a boon to those who are fans and for those who collect his designs or wish to replenish well-worn favourites. It is to the designer’s advantage that his clothes are situated away from the other labels. Mr Wee designs for a specific customer, a woman of a certain age, who is unconcerned with what’s trending, who has every reason to be dressed, attractively. But would the typical Design Orchard customer, weaned in the last two years on the store’s ho-hum offerings, be enticed? One attendee at last night’s event told us, “Only Thomas Wee’s things look and feel nice. They are really classy. Wear his designs and you will straightaway look ex.”

As the darling of the local designer pack, Max Tan gets the best spot to showcase his dramatic lines. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Mr Wee is not the only designer invited to showcase and sell here. Close to Mr Wee’s space is that of Max Tan, the Boy Wonder of Singaporean fashion. Mr Tan has not been this visible—and strikingly so—since closing his first free-standing boutique and exiting Capitol Piazza in 2016. He continued to sell in various pop-ups and to export. In the mean time, he earned his BA (Hons) at NAFA through a joint programme with the University of East London. Max Tan the label is in its 21st year, and there are some hints of maturity of thought and sophistication of execution, although his insistence, till today, on what he continues to call “quirk cuts” has somewhat hit the breaks on his progress. His collection at Design Orchard is appealing at first sight until, as is often the case with Mr Tan’s work, you come up close and touch. Refinement is still elusive. One round neckline stands out: it is gathered with a rather wide tape and, given the fabric’s inherent weight, forms a rather thick ring round the neck, as if with the intent to choke, if not to wring it.

Another name that’s new to Design Orchard, but not an unexpected one, given the approach of Chinese New Year, is Lai Chan by Goh Lai Chan. Although Mr Goh is a popular designer of occasion wear and a name bandied about among some society women, he is still the go-to name for his unchanging retro-modern cheongsams. A profitable sub-line, the cheongsams are reportedly in demand among women who favour this dress style, as well as among stockists that bank only on products that move, especially with the lead-up to CNY. The close-to-forty-years veteran provides Design Orchard with his usual, neatly sewn, not-too-constricted cheongsams, distinguished by the row of coloured spherical stones of indeterminate gemological value on the right, in place of Chinese frog buttons—an aesthetical sum Mr Goh seems to have churned out forever. These will likely sell well for the store, although if you already own one—or two—of this particular style, they may have less subsequent pull, however floridly vintage-looking some of the fabrics are. Nostalgia has its limits too. Change might inspire a more bloom-ful present than a mirrored past could.

Rows of Lai Chan’s signature cheongsams. Photo: 路人甲

Two unexpected names appear. The first, national-song-meister and occasional designer Dick Lee, with a new shirt line, put together in collaboration with custom tailor Pimabs, the brainchild of Leslie Chia, previously of Haberdasher (and, later, Haber) and the oddly named The Clothes Publisher. The “limited-edition” Dick Lee X Pimabs is really more the former than the latter. Mr Lee’s weakness for florid prints, which he often recounts (in his concerts too), harking back to the days when he went shopping with his mother at the first Metro department store in High Street, is again in full display, recalling his last menswear collab with the short-lived The Modern Outfitter in Tiong Bahru in 2014. Back then, shirts with micro-floral prints dominated. Presently, they still do. Only now, as Mr Lee boasted on Facebook, they’re “in mixed-up Liberty prints”. A la the Mad Chinaman. Although a trained designer, he seems to have overlooked the overall aesthetics of the line.

The shirts—especially those with open collars (some with an odd crease above the notch)—could be kin to the auntie blouse. The “mix-up” means a clash of prints (at least two different florals in one shirt), but it is hard to find in them print pairing that hints at something more contemporary. Loud is all that matters. In addition, we find it odd that with the use of silk and ultra-fine poplin in shirts that are mostly casual, there is a need to have fused, rather than unfused stand collars, with the interlining unnecessarily stiff. We expect more from the input of a experienced tailor that Mr Chia is. Is this Mr Lee’s contributive follow-up after criticising Design Orchard in a remark published by The Straits Times last June: “I went into Design Orchard and it’s shocking, the standard of clothing stocked there. Things are so basic and there’s no nice fabrication or nice finishing”? Is he showing us what “nice” is?

The other name new to Design Orchard that will surprise is Yang Derong. On hindsight that shouldn’t, in particular when Dick Lee is in the picture. Both of them are the best of friends, and Mr Lee’s song Follow your Heart (from the 1991 compilation album When I Play and, later in the OST of the 2017 autobiographical film Wonder Boy) was said to be written for Mr Yang. It is, therefore, not immoderate to assume that, this time, Mr Yang was roped in by Mr Lee. A designer who hails from the late ’80s, and who is reportedly retired from fashion, Mr Yang has, in recent years, made a name for himself as the creator and sole model of the quirky and unapologetically outrageous Instagram page FaceOfTheDaySG, which was followed with a 2019 exhibition at the National Museum, and also as the makeover stylist on Channel News Asia’s Style Switch. But rather than design clothing that many still remember him fondly for, he created a “lifestyle” line to appeal to not-yet-returning tourists. The refinement-lite collection of T-shirts, bags, face masks, cushion covers, and greeting cards are based on the Chinese zodiac. Labelled Sayang Sayang, the manja-ish name and the kitsch-driven products have Mad Chinaman written all over them.

A new collaboration between Dick Lee and custom tailor Pimabs. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Yang Derong’s Sayang Sayang collection. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

It is heartening to see familiar names with a storied past in the history of Singaporean fashion appear in Design Orchard, but are these individuals still able to pull in shoppers and, perhaps more pertinently, are they still relevant? Since its opening, Design Orchard has mostly availed easily accessible designs, such as those by Weekend Sundries and Little Match Girl, to their not-necessarily-in-the-know customers. Weaned on these not-artful labels (even when actual painting is involved), shoppers are not likely able to put themselves up to the level the new (old?) names are hoping to effect. That these names may give the store the directional heft it lacks is a plus. Young brand owners may feel a sense of pride to share the same platform as the established brands, but some may use the opportunity to be seen in the company of those they do not belong. Just a look at the window displays that TAFF has so proudly unveiled: the evidence is clear.

Despite all the efforts on the part of TAFF, mistakes (or oversight?) appear to dog Design Orchard, even in the digital-sphere. Yesterday afternoon, before the Cocoon Space event, we clicked on the store’s flat website to confirm the new names already talked about among those interested in such matters. To our astonishment, two captions incorrectly paired to two photos stared at us*. A picture with a model languishing in a recognisable cheongsam was attributed to Max Tan, while another woman looking haughty in a military-style trench coat to Lai Chan! As we write this post, no corrections are made or erratum published. One editor told us that the mis-match is “likely an honest mistake”. We are certain it is, but errors as easy to spot as these should not have their share of exposure online (or even off) when Design Orchard is positioned as the premier destination—the “hub”—for Singaporean labels. Or, perhaps, no one knew any better. One designer said to us, “Do you think they can tell what is Goh Lai Chan’s signature look or that Max Tan probably never made a qipao in his entire career?” We’re not referring to being intellectually fervid about the power of image and text coming together. Captioning is a marketing necessity, as well as an informational opportunity. If some of the Design Orchard brands are to be “featured”, such erroneous descriptions is palpable disservice.

The opening page of the Design Orchard website, with the incorrectly captioned photographs (blurred text inherent). Screen grab: designorchard.sg

This should not be mistaken as casting the proverbial wet blanket on Design Orchard. In the bleakness of the present, not-yet-post-pandemic time, what TAFF continues to strive for is laudable. But sometimes, we wonder if they truly have their heart in this and if the right people are recruited to see Design Orchard rise to greater heights. Design Orchard, unlike during Naiise’s watch, is now supposed to benefit from TAFF’s experience and industry leadership. If TAFF, with the resources (perhaps, not, as we’re repeatedly told, financial), does not discern, filter, or guide, who would take on the role? Who will be able to distill the essence of the work of those who are truly creative and encourage more from whence it came? Who will spur the vitality so necessary in growing a design community? How different is Design Orchard from, say, The Editor’s Market if they do not distinguish themselves with turbo-ed enthusiasm and intellectual might? Or are they just content with giving whoever’s interested in setting up a fashion (or lifestyle) label a hotchpotch confine to do their thing, and fizzle out within?

Even if we do not play on an international stage, we can aspire to play to an international audience. Design Orchard needs to go beyond its Singapore tag. Singapore Tourism Board’s “Made with Passion”, which Design Orchard yokes itself to, is good, but is geographical limitation encouraging designers to look beyond our front or back yards to scale higher? The view, as any climber or apartment hunter will attest, is always more impressive and inspiring when we’re aloft. But the trend seems to be for many to stay grounded: look back and dwell in the past, the more conspicuous and kitschier the better. Do we, therefore, invite committed and skilled designers to participate in the conversation of what fashion is now and will be in the future, or do we request the participation of those on/off practitioners who can’t give up living in their teenage years? The answer really lies with TAFF, and Design Orchard.

*Update (16 Jan 2021, 11.15pm): The content on the Design Orchard website has been amended to show the correct captions

Has TaFF Made Design Orchard Better?

The Textile and Fashion Federation took over Design Orchard from Naiise this month. We paid the store a visit

It was a Wednesday afternoon of sailing clouds. Inside Design Orchard, where we had arrived to see how TaFF (Textile and Fashion Federation) has re-made the store, it was unexpectedly still and disconcertingly cheerless. Except for the members of the sales staff (chatting among themselves), there was not one single customer. We came with sanguine expectations, but once we stepped in, it was all rather sombre. Even the market-like display of the merchandise could not lift our spirits. Many would consider this passiveness indigenous to the digital marketplace, but here, where everything is three-dimensionally more engaging, it was, ironically, just as devoid of life.

In January last year, when we acquainted ourselves with the newly opened Design Orchard, we did sense that, while the merchandise mix was initially varied and there were stocks to take up most of the space, there was no narrative. It was practically voiceless. One year and six months later, Design Orchard is still not talking to us. Or, could it be that we were not able to hear the mournful undertones? With the announcement of “The New Chapter” last month, TaFF’s taking over from the doomed Naiise as the store’s new operator filled us with hope. We thought change was afoot. But, TaFF did not create Design Orchard anew. The store looked as it did before, the products largely unchanged, the visual merchandising dreary than stirring, the layout banausic than inspired, the energy subdued than vibrant. It is unclear which was turning the new chapter: TaFF or Design Orchard.

At a time when reinvention is the buzzword for fashion retail, Design Orchard soldiers with a sameness as if its unfortunate fate could not be altered. If the tone set by its predecessor was uninspiring, the present chapter hasn’t budged beyond the first. This could have been a good opportunity to be rid of the blah that Naiise brought along with them. It is clear that Naiise’s output for the store did not match the confidence bestowed on the retailer. They did not meet the greatness that was first thought of the match. Yet, TaFF’s taking over from Naiise isn’t gleaming with the desire to shake free from the uninspiring positioning of its founding. Could some retail ideas be ill-placed to succeed from the start?

To be sure, a store that showcases Singaporean design is a good idea. There are similar emporiums in the region, such as Bangkok’s The Absolute Siam Store and Thai Designers The First Floor (at the Emporium, part of the EmQuartier complex), and Tokyo’s Studious (citywide) and the legendary Laforet in Harajuku, all of them emanating an energy that makes spending feels unburdened by guilt. And the physical act of shopping totally pleasurable. As important is how these stores have become destinations in which to discover the best the respective cities have to offer. They are habitats of good design, and also homes in which design can encourage creativity, curiosity, and culture.

Design Orchard tries to be such an establishment, but it has not been able to live up to the design part of its name. In terms of fashion, the 9,000-square-foot “retail showcase”, as it describes itself, is limited by the number of brands it can stock to reflect its purpose—the pool of labels here that can be unequivocally considered design-strong is small. To be sure, there is a staggeringly large number of clothing labels launched on our island in the past ten years. Between 2018 and the present, we counted 20-plus new names (that we are aware of). At present, more than 60 local labels are active. Yet, those with discernible design value can be counted with one hand. In fact, it is odd that Design Orchard has resisted (or have they not been able to entice) those brands that are considered under the radar, but with a discernible design voice, such as the womenswear label Baelf by the duo Jamela Law and Lionel Wong, and menswear label Nuboaix by husband-and-wife team Yong Siyuan and Jessica Lee.

There are many clothing labels in Design Orchard, of course (last count, 21, excluding lingerie, swim wear, and gym wear), and TaFF is still conducting an “open call” for more to be stocked in the store. Although there is—at least for the infrequent visitor—considerable clothes to see, quantity and quality do not necessary commensurate. Discernible is a certain sameness among the labels, as if all the clothes were put together by a not quite clued-in ‘curator’; working with one factory that is unschooled by the necessity of good finishing. With products that are dismal and an atmosphere mournful, the space feels like a graveyard for designs that can’t shine.

There seems to be an aesthetical oneness, too, at Design Orchard: relaxed shapes, with a resort vibe and ethnic detailing. It is hard to make out what the merchandising point of the store is, or who the target customers are. As the project is linked to Singapore Tourism Board, (STB), it is possible that the aim is to entice tourists (just as it is at Raffles Hotel’s as-uninspired Raffles Boutique). But since it is now run by TaFF, it is possible that emphasis is in availing a ‘showcase’ to Singaporean brands to sell their wares. Does the confluence of objectives make this a bastion of fashion or design? Or, neither?

Or course, what fashion is today requires to be redefined, in the same way elegance as a fashionable expression needs to be understood as a different visual language. The (Singaporean) designer prestige of the ’80s and for the first half of the ’90s (both decades thought to be local fashion’s “golden age”) is now mostly a distant memory. ‘Designer clothes’ are no longer as meaningful today since they are not even referred to as such. As we often see, consumers are buying looks, not design. In fact, the Singaporean designer is a quickly dying breed.

Emerging brands of the past ten years—following the blogshop popularity of the mid-2000s—mostly model themselves after the wildly successful Love, Bonito. ‘Designer’ as descriptor is outmoded. More popular is the identifier ‘the Label’ (latest example: Ilo the Label). Which makes it also ironic that Design Orchard’s equally weak website without an e-shop component is emphasizing the designers behind the brands, even when design is barely discernible in their work. Assuming that this is the way onward for the retailing of Singaporean labels, the store might be better served if a small zone is indeed dedicated to designers deserving the acclaim.

Likewise, it is necessary to acknowledge that retail today, especially in times of a pandemic, needs to be redefined, if not reimagined. Design Orchard is possibly operating on survival mode—sell what is saleable, which, in commercial sense, is to reprise what is sold and pitched elsewhere, such as the nearby 313@Orchard. This many-labels-based-on-one-city-or-country approach, however, had not proved to be viable. The most recent failure was Mporium at Suntec City in 2016. Unable to stock sufficient local labels, they positioned themselves as a store “dedicated to Asian designers”. The lacklustre merchandising and a feeble narrative quickly saw the Suntec-backed Mporium close in less than a year.

TaFF has their work cut out for them. It is not easy to be hopeful of even one Singaporean label that can fly the flag for the nation; it is even less so for a store that can, for example, be selected for B magazine, or to appear in the The Monocle Book Of series. Even with the guiding hands of TaFF, Design Orchard has set it sights too far ahead for the industry to keep abreast. Perhaps we were expecting too much. TaFF inherited a store that made no mark; they’re now starting from the proverbial square one with nary a change. To be sure, we were not expecting Design Orchard to shake up retail, but neither did we think it would not make even the slightest dent. We’d wish TaFF good luck, but they need far more than that.

Photos: Galerie Gombak

TaFF Flexes Its Retail Muscle

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design Orchard: One Year After

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

 

Design Orchard June 2020

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

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

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

Design Orchard June 2020 P2

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

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

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

Design Orchard June 2020 P3

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

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

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

Design Orchard June 2020 P4

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

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

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

Design Orchard June 2020 P5

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

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

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

Design Orchard June 2020 P6

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

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

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

Design Orchard June 2020 P7

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

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

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

Design Orchard June 2020 P8

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

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

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

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

One Online Option

Digital stores offering clothing and such are by now nothing new. As e-shops and sales conducted via social media go, newcomer One Orchard Store isn’t setting itself apart. They’re just joining the crowd

 

OOS homepage June 2020

Resilience is an admirable quality in the business of fashion. Failure is not. Nor succumbing to it. One form of a venture may not have succeeded, but you can try again with another. This can be said of the Textile and Fashion Federation’s (TaFF) latest retail endeavour, the new e-commerce platform One Orchard Store (OOS), set up to promote, as TaFF does, local designs. In the wake of an economy-ravaging pandemic, this enterprise is more urgently needed than ever.

Some observers thought OOS is the online imprint of Design Orchard, last known to be operated by the vagabond retailer Naiise. It is not. Design Orchard has its own website with an inactive “shop”. Rather, this could be considered TaFF’s return to retailing or the provision of a retail platform for fledgling and established brands. A post-Zhuang, if you will.

Few remember Zhuang (庄, or farmstead, or the banker in gambling, such as mahjong), a TaFF initiative to put local brands with minimum or no retail exposure in a pleasing physical space. Their first in 2016 was a pop-up at Tangs. That was followed by a store in swanky The Shoppes at Marina Bay in 2017. Zhuang quietly shuttered a year or so after their mall debut, due to lack of brand and shopper interest, and what was thought to be a diffident effort.

It is not known why the nearly 40-year-old TaFF chose to close Zhuang rather than take it online, which could have been a more viable platform, and in line with what many others retailers were already exploring to do back then. Formed in 1981 as a trade alliance of sort to augment the profile and visibility of its members and to propel them overseas, TaFF has since taken the role to not only guide local labels in their search for markets elsewhere, but also create channels with which to help them reach an audience within our shores or further afield.

Zhuang @ MBSZhuang @ The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands in 2017

Published just twelves days ago, One Orchard Store is “based on the idea of discovery”, according to its webpage, and it “curates contemporary designers in Singapore and introduces innovative businesses.” Nearly two weeks after going online, OOS looks like it’s still in browser testing stage. Curation is cursory and innovative businesses have yet to appear. Perhaps the mask-making workshop Mask4SG counts?

And what can be discovered? It depends on what is considered a discovery. If finding a product is the mission, perhaps. If it’s gaining insight, perhaps not. OOS encourages discovery by scrolling from the top feature banner down to the last. And clicking on tiled pictures between. The interface borders on the bland and the attempt to reach out to the viewer, on the passive, leaving behind energy levels of the pages that make Love Bonito’s look positively frenetic.

Opting for a flat design typical of websites such as Fairprice and Courts, OSS is built around click and get, less song and dance. No GIFs (or animation) are seen, no videos, no soundtrack (an opportunity to expose local music?). Engagement is perfunctory. At the moment, only shipping to local addresses are available, despite OSS saying that it “seeks to showcase and facilitate exposure of the locally based designers locally, regionally and globally.”

Three core categories of products are offered: women’s wear/accessories, kid’s wear, and lifestyle, which, despite a sub-head ‘home’, comprises only of products in ‘fragrance’. The women’s clothing section has a surprisingly large sub-section with a list of 14, but not all open up to something to see or buy—activewear, denim, and suits have nothing in them, while knitwear has one item. In shoes, there is only one brand, in beauty, none. It might be possible that OOS, like Zhuang before it, is disadvantaged by a lack of brand support.

OOS fashion labels June 2020Some of the labels available at OOS: (clockwise from top left) GINLEE Studio, Ying the Label, hher, Silvia Teh, Shirt Number White, Minor Miracles, ANS.EIN

Among the old and new fashion names that populate OOS, Zhuang alums such as influencer Beatrice Tan’s Frontrow by Klarra, the streetwear collective Mash-Up, and Gilda Su’s Rêvasseur are not included. But one name is: Ying the Label. A favourite of the political elite and a darling of TaFF since the days of Zhuang, Ying the Label—now without a designer collab—seems to enjoy favourable visibility, with the top feature banner in a photograph of the brand’s art-infused outfit shot like it was a design student’s work, destined for a graduation catalogue.

OOS is, visually, a sum of photographs pulled from the brands themselves, but not put through the rigors of editing. In fact, even the products appear to lack some measure of merchandising. Perhaps brands can choose what they want to sell in OOS. It is possible that OOS had been in a state where having stock is better than not. It is difficult to reconcile the astonishing difference between Anna Rainn’s ’90s secretary aesthetics and newbie Silvia Teh’s borderline edgy looks.

E-commerce platforms, like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, are better served if there is a component in its set-up that can effect experience. OOS’s potential is impeded by a genuine lack of content. Scrolling mindlessly down a page might be explorative to some, but it is, for many others, a reason to kill the page. And, strangely, despite all the discovering encouraged, facilitated by over-working the index finger, there is not even a single back-to-top button. Despite its shortcomings, OOS is still appealing to some, such as influencer Andrea Chong, whose website DC Edit calls it “brilliant… responsive digital marketplace.”

To land on OOS, it is imperative that one does not search One Orchard (an understandable action), which would link one to YMCA @ One Orchard! The full One Orchard Store is required. The name choice is, in fact, rather odd, considering that OOS is a digital-native business and need not be associated with a known shopping street or a specific destination, such as a fruit farm, unlike, say, the e-shop of Dover Street Market, which was originally situated on Dover Street, a short, 330-metre thoroughfare in Mayfair, London. If place name is crucial, why not—for strong local flavour—One Ang Mo Kio Store?

Screen grabs: One Orchard Store. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

So These Are Singaporean Designs

The effort behind Design Orchard is laudable. Launched on the last Friday of last month, it’s a dedicated space for local labels—something Orchard Road and our city sorely need. But will you be rushing down to shop?

 

DO P1The impact-lite welcome as you enter Design Orchard

The phoenix rises. From the exact space where Keepers vacated. On Orchard Green, as it was once called, Design Orchard now stands. The former “pop-up” that Keepers occupied for more than a year is swapped for a permanent, eye-catching, visible-from-the-street, roof-garden-ed, cafe-crowned, concrete centre committed to local designs, the umbrella term loved and loathed, merited and maligned in equal measure.

Initially thought to open in December to cash in on the year-end shopping craze, Design Orchard was finally unveiled eleven days before the Lunar New Year holidays. How that proximity to the most important retail season of the year after Christmas will jack up the opening sales is not yet clear, but the rush to open was sadly evident in how the store presented itself to both the curious and buying public.

On opening day (going by the excuses-permissible term “soft opening”), a lack of buying frenzy meant that the generous space and the stuff that occupy it could be zoomed in for analysis. This risks sounding potentially unkind, unnecessarily harsh, prematurely pessimistic, but when you are ready to open, you should be able to stand to scrutiny. When we stepped into Design Orchard on that first day, we didn’t approach it with some perverse delight that this would prelude a pan review. What we saw was there for all to see.

DO P2Despite a fitting interior, Design Orchard is let down with weak visual merchandising

Design Orchard is a handsome space. Not since Hemispheres, conceived by Dick Lee in 1985, has there been a well-considered store dedicated to Singaporean labels that allows the merchandise—wonderful or weak and those between—a chance for co-mingling and one-stop exposure. Conceived by WOHA Architects, the local firm founded by former Kerry Hill Architects alumni Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, whose collaborative 1 Moulmein Rise design won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) in 2007, Design Orchard is the kind of store that the Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF)-initiated Zhuang should have been, but is not.

Looking somewhat squat against its neighbours, the “2.5-storey” building itself is hard to define. It isn’t one uniform block, more like something put together to look like it’s carved out of a hillock. We resist using the word ‘modern’ since, in architecture—unlike in fashion—‘modern’ often refers to something that can be chronologically placed and linked to the period between 1900 to 1950. It is contemporary, for sure, but not in the same way as, say, the nearby 268 Orchard Road, where the popular Off-White store is situated. It bears no visible semblance to what might be considered Singaporean—no reference to what the Housing Development Board has done to shape much of our island, including playgrounds, or Peranakan motifs that have become the go-to reference for anyone wanting output with cultural clarity. This is something quite different, evocative of what might be considered equatorial, with a touch of post-Tadao Ando, capped with green terraces that perhaps capture the Garden City that we are.

While the exterior is sort of neo-brutalism-meets-deconstructionism-meets-naturalism, inside, it’s somewhat Scandi. Function trumps decoration in a configuration of considerable grace and flow, crowned by what appeared, at first, to be a central rotunda (there are three other such circular openings), but is, in fact, an aperture to part of the (yet-to-operate) second floor. Alongside, parallel, curvy wooden panels suspended from the ceiling not only reveal the concrete overhead, but the inner half of the next level, presumably interesting enough to warrant a peak from below. The design interest for the ceiling contrasts with the plain floor in the way our fashion designers here tend to love details in front of, say, a top. but pay no attention to the back. In all, a visual amalgamation that might encourage influencers to be fulsome in their appreciation.

DO P3Even on custom-made racks, the clothes can’t stand out in a sea of sameness

It does, however, appear that compelling interior design alone isn’t quite enough. Shells and settings may recast the humdrum as charming, but shells and settings can’t elevate what is vapid to start with. A showcase of design must showcase design, not merely gather merchandise so that there are things to sell. It is understandable that, given the 9,000-square-feet expanse, filling it with what is worthy is a tough call. But Design Orchard is, foremost, a project conceived to cast a firm eye on ‘design’, rather than ‘orchard’, moniker of a road or reminder of what the area once was. Unfortunately, this is one plantation not quite ripe with pickings.

While no one expects anything akin to a museum shop, the choice of fashion brands shows scant—or dubious—curation. (Regular readers of SOTD know we have little regard for that well bandied term in the practices of retailers and mall owners here.) Design Orchard is “operated” by Naiise, the incubator/mentor/retailer that caught the attention of local shoppers with their pasar malam-style pop-ups, and one of the earliest names to go that route. (TAFF, we’re told, is somewhere there, but their part won’t be revealed till March. No one, as yet, knows for certain what that might really be except that, for now, it’s called The Cocoon Space.) Naiise have, from their founding in 2013, supported local, a selling point that probably helped them win the open tender to run Design Orchard.

In July last year, a report in The New Paper drew readers’ attention to Naiise’s operational peculiarity: “defaulting on payment” to vendors. Prior to the story, there were already whispers in the market that the company had been “inconsistent” with disbursement. TNP reported that, according to founder of Naiise, Dennis Tay, one of the reasons for late payments was due to “slow transition from a start-up to a full-fledged company.” Some brand owners’ retort to that was, “after five years in business (and forays into Kuala Lumpur and a venture in London), they’re still transitioning?”

DO P4With hanger appeal less of a requisite in retail these days, Design Orchard, too, paid little attention to how the clothes look on the racks

At a press conference for Design Orchard in the first week of January this year, Mr Tay was overheard telling a persistent enquirer that, “there were some gaps in the company and internal issues.” And that they “started to realise” they can’t still be in transition. “We’re looking at the foundation of the company,” he pressed on. “And what we’re trying to do is ask ourselves how we can be better with each passing day.”

Better, if not the best, is crucial as Naiise is now watched by the project’s owners Enterprise Singapore (once International Enterprise Singapore and SPRING Singapore), Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). It isn’t clear what the business arrangements are with Naiise since Mr Tay would only emphatically say that they’re “just operators”. But it seems that Mr Tay is keen to make Design Orchard a veritable Naiise 2.0. He readily admitted, “Naiise has never been predominantly fashion-focused.” But “we have hired people who have a lot of experience managing fashion retail.”

Yet, even a cursory, first-visit look would single out those brands that challenge the hiring mission, that contradict the ethos and aspirations of Design Orchard: “offering a compelling retail experience”, as stated in a media release, or, according to STB’s Director of Retail and Dining, Ranita Sundra, “to profile the best of Singapore talent under one roof”. Best is, of course, subjective, but there must be a barometer with which best can be truly so.

DO P5Some zones of the store look very much like a gift shop, which could be tourist draw

The fashion merchandising approach Naiise adopted is akin to that of The Editor’s Market (a store, like Love, Bonito, much the envy of retailers here). It is understandable. Fashion retail in Singapore is today mainly product over design, speed-to-market over mulling-in-the-studio, follow over lead. For Naiise’s Design Orchard, it is probably strategic too, since this is what every other fashion retail outfit is doing. Designer fashion as we know it—in the golden age of the ’80s or the grown-up years of the ’90s—no longer exists. Clothing stores today, unable to be the omni-channel business required to survive, ape what they see around them that are successful. This could explain why malls are happily welcoming look-alike labels such as Her Velvet Vase and the quickly expanding Fayth, both easily mistaken for anemic brands such as Weekend Sundries, now in Design Orchard.

Despite the more elevated position that Naiise has found itself in with Design Orchard, the opportunity for something close to even “better-designed” was not seized. There is a sense that brands were gathered so that the allotted square footage can be filled rather than to bring together those of design value and with a distinctive voice. One label stood out: Knits, a bland, even confusing, collection by Cammy Wong, that offered not a single article in knit, not even a sliver of a trim. (Hitherto, knits are still clearly absent.) That no one thought to ask Ms Wong why a line called Knits can be so free of knits is beyond the ken of even an average clothier.

It’s been said many times that we have a very small and shallow pool to draw from, particularly in fashion. This is compounded by the lack of a strong and kinetic fashion design community. Sure, fashion these days is no longer as it was, even if looking back seems, ironically, what labels of today do. But, as arbiter of design, Design Orchard needs to set the bar high so that not any label, mediocre or worse, can be considered as exemplars of Singaporean fashion. If Design Orchard was a woman, you would not call her a potent creature.

DO P6Going beyond fashion, operator Naisse still proves they’re stronger with non-garment products

After Keepers closed in January 2016, it was announced at the Singapore Fashion Awards of 2017 in November that year by guest-of-honour, Senior Minister of State, Sim Ann, that a purpose-built store, dedicated to Singaporean designs, will be erected in the space Keepers had previously held court. Although by then the revelation was not entirely new, the confirmation delighted many brand owners as this could be the platform fledgling brands need. As one former journalist said, “Why can’t we have a Club 21 (admittedly not the best example) for born-in-SG labels?”

Why can’t we? Of course we can, but the consensus has been that there is a sheer lack of well-merchandised brands and credible designers. The scrapping (again) of Singapore Fashion Award last year bears this out. While budgetary constraints were cited, many knew, too, that the annual award was not sustainable as good, deserving designers are a very rare breed. A Hong Kong-based Singaporean textile specialist commented to SOTD after a visit to Design Orchard, “year after year, we are showing the same things. You can get a known retailer to help you sell, but sadly, it’s the blind leading the blind.”

We don’t know for certain if Keepers, now relocated to the National Design Centre, was ever deemed a roaring success as the project head, Carolyn Kan of the jewellery label Carrie K, has generally kept mum about it. But, they must have made a mark. According to STB’s Chief Executive Lionel Yeo, “Design Orchard builds on the experience gleaned from Keepers”, also an STB-supported project to showcase local designs. A Today report stated that Keepers “was so well-received that the pop-up, which was supposed to be there for five months, ended up staying for 16”. The question on many lips was, why then was Keepers not asked to run Design Orchard? 

DO P7The relatively large categories include children’s wear

Promoting and selling the designs of Singaporeans by bringing together brands and creators under one roof is, of course, not new. Ex-editor of Elle Singapore and former The Straits Times journalist Sharon Lim—returning to the daily as a columnist—noted in Life that there had been other attempts: the aforementioned Hemispheres (1985—1987) and Parco Next Next (2010—2014), the first incubator project in Singapore, interestingly managed by a Japanese company. 

To the two, we would like to add Style Singapore (1991—1994), set up by garment producer and retailer Heshe; Keepers (2011—present), as mentioned; Workshop Element (2012—present) in various locations, conceived by Mu (now bsym) and AWOL designer Alfie Leong; Superspace (2014—present) in Orchard Gateway, started by clubbing impresarios Ritz Lim and Bobby Luo, and dedicated to street style and club wear; and Zhuang (2016—present), a TAFF project that began life in Tangs and then tried to grow up in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, but was somehow stunted. There were also incompletely-local projects such as SA.GA (1992—1993) in the now-demolished Park Mall and Mporium in Suntec City (2015—2016), the latter with tall ambitions that, sadly, came up short.

These past and on-going enterprises have largely been private-sector initiatives. Design Orchard is not quite, since it is supported by three government agencies. If it is seen as a big G-linked project, Naiise running it may risk being thought of as status-quo-pandering. Design Orchard, as it stands, seem to indicate that newness and innovation may not be priorities. Notably, it may not look like Naiise, but it feels like Naiise. Sure, they have added interactive elements, such as mirrors that double as communication panels and touch-screen-topped stations for exploring the offerings of the store, but both are feeble and un-alluring attempts at engaging the smartphone-totting shopper. Experiential, as STB’s Ms Sundra was hoping for, it isn’t. Nor is there a sense of discovery, today even more crucial in a physical store. As a retail format, Design Orchard won’t be disruptive, not to Orchard Road businesses and certainly not to the retail industry.

DO P8Top: masking tape for prices

It is often said that retail is in the details. Surprising and disconcerting it, therefore, was for us when we saw what was really a slip-shod approach to the minutiae of the craft of selling. On the day it opened, Naiise allowed hang tags with prices crudely written by hand on masking tape that clearly wasn’t cut with scissors to dangle with appalling explicitness. Were we in an Ang Mo Kio Central expo? Someone remarked that in rushing to open, it was possible that the staff of Naiise did not have time to properly price-tag the merchandise (brand owners could be roped in to do that). There’s also the other saying in the business, if you are not ready to open, don’t.

Perhaps the ticket on the item is not important since you won’t be wearing it or using it when the purchase is made. What about the merchandise themselves? Naiise perhaps showed that their operational finesse could be commensurate with the founder’s admission: “Naiise has never been predominantly fashion-focused” when there is no regard to how the clothes—in particular—look on both hangers and mannequins. Facing the main entrance, and catching the eyes of first-time visitors on that opening day (and weeks later) were dummies in ill-fitted clothes and those that begged to be pressed. While it is possible that an iron or a steamer was yet acquired for the store, it is also possible no one on staff really cared. The two windows along Orchard Road, too, showed off clothes that could have benefitted from the pressure of a hot iron, but was left untouched for weeks.

First impression counts. But it seems that Design Orchard wasn’t counting on first impressions. Although they have yet to enjoy the giddy buzz usually associated with openings, soft or not (look at Love, Bonito’s), they did not seem to take the lull as an opportunity to fine-tune. The visibility of operational failings is not only shocking but disturbing. It is difficult to understand that given the store’s proximity to other fashion (as well as furniture, and general merchandise) retailers in the vicinity, it did not occur to them to see how it is done elsewhere. One designer who, too, visited Design Orchard that Friday said to SOTD, “It’s okay if you don’t know. You can always look at what others are doing. If Uniqlo is better than you, a design showcase, then something is not quite right.” He added, “Likewise for the young designers here: if you don’t know how it is done—finishing especially—go and see how other brands do it.”

DO P9Top: if it looks this way on the mannequin, how will it look on a real body? Bottom: could the unpressed impress?

We were reminded—when we spoke to industry veterans about their thoughts on Design Orchard—that, with the possible exception of Gin Lee, there are no real “designer labels” there. Yet, Naiise is keen to promote the names behind the brands, identifying them in the puffery that appears above each rack. From National Day-fave Phuay Li Ying of Ying the Label to publicity-eager newbie Elvynd Soh of Qlothè, all of them, it seems, want to be taken seriously as designers, and are eager to front labels that are not better than the unheard-ofs in Nex Serangoon. Repeated visits to Design Orchard affirm the grassroots vibe of the selections. This is more apparent when at least two—Martha Who and David’s Daughter—saw it fit to describe their brands as “luxury resort fashion/wear”. One shopper was heard asking her friend, “What are they doing here then?”

It is highly likely that Design Orchard is positioned to appeal to a generation weaned on the superficial, one partial to lolspeak, a group into looks and is unconcerned—we are repeatedly reminded—with flat seams and straight hems, details that once stood for fine dressmaking. Or, “not the serious fashion consumer”, as one merchandiser told SOTD. And, to tourists who are gift-seeking rather than fashion-acquiring, who know there are better buys and designs in, say, Bangkok, a city on the brink of taking over us in the shoppers’ paradise stakes.

If so, perhaps there should be less of a lofty ideal in making the store what it can’t yet be. Design Orchard could perhaps play down the ‘design’ aspect of the set-up. Or, review the brand offerings so that they better reflect the mission the company hopes to pursue. In an ST article in 2017, the plea for Orchard Road was, “change the shops, not the street”. In the case of Design Orchard, we say, change the brands, not the shop.

Design Orchard, 250 Orchard Road. www.designorchard.sg. Photos: Galerie Gombak