Send Out The Trucks

Muji’s food truck for general supplies proves that selling in person to another person is still a good thing

If your customers can’t come to you, you go to them. In the era of fervent e-commerce, that sounds terribly old-fashioned. Yet, that is precisely what Muji is doing in Japan. Charmingly. In the mountains of Sakata City, they have sent out steel and motor—“light trucks”, filled with daily necessities that include food, cooking supplies, stationery, home wear, and even skin care items, to sell to those elderly folks who are unable to travel to a Muji store. All in a neat little white truck. This Muji-on-wheels is kin to Muji to Go, a similar mobile retail concept initiated in August. It targets customers who can’t conveniently go to a Muji store located in the city, in particular the elderly.

Sakata City is a port city in the prefecture of Yamagata—on the island of Honshu—that is known for its mountains, and like most mountainous regions of the country, hot springs too. But Japan’s population is ageing, and many old folks in Sakata City’s higher elevations are left behind when the younger inhabitants decamp for the big cities to seek a more economically-rewarding life. Muji is not only alert to the needs of these people in their own hometowns, but also aware that they require basics that are Muji-stylish.

As simple as the designs of their products are, stylishness is part of the Muji DNA. Urban folks who dress their homes in Muji, approach it as if styling for an opportunity to appear in Kinfolk. Muji Hotel, opened just last year in the swanky neighbourhood of Ginza, is so minimally fetching and palpably chic that the Wall Street Journal called it one of “the coolest new hotels” in Tokyo. We can’t say that for the mountain folks of Sakata City, a few Muji utensils is enough to turn their kitchens into exemplars of effortless chic, but it could be a subtle shift to living among stuff that can be things of beauty and usefulness.

Perhaps, more significantly, Muji shows that even selling in a truck up in the mountains can be done stylishly. There appears to be even visual merchandising in the compact vehicle. Nothing is spilling from the receptacles that hold them. Everything is neatly displayed in their respective spaces. There are even dangling merchandise to complete the neighbourhood-store vibe. Never was there a miss on the Muji aesthetic. Maybe the authorities here should allow (more) mobile retail ventures, and more creative retailing, as a result, could emerge. Fairprice’s Finest on Wheels, learn.

Photo: Muji

Hang Tags: Necessary Truth?

Nine months after reports of alleged forced labour used in Xinjiang for cotton production, Muji still proudly announces that they’re using cotton from the troubled region, despite being called out for this damaging association

About nine months ago, Xinjiang—a region in China’s northwest—was thrust into the fashion spotlight. Last November, reports in mainstream media emerged, stating that Xinjiang cotton-supply sources were considered to have violated human rights. According to one BBC report, “rights groups say Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority are being persecuted and recruited for forced labour.” Reuters also wrote that these groups “named H&M, Ikea, Uniqlo and Muji among companies selling merchandise made with cotton from Xinjiang where the United Nations estimates at least a million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in massive camps.”

H&M and Ikea responded by saying that their suppliers no longer deal with Xinjiang cotton. Both Uniqlo and Muji apparently did not answer media queries. Perhaps remaining silent was a better way to ride out the controversy. But Muji did not seem to want to play down their links to Xinjiang. Up till now, those clothes made of “Xinjiang cotton”—both knits and wovens—are unambiguously identified. While China is recognised as the world’s largest producer of cotton, it isn’t clear if there are marketing advantages in identifying the source of Muji’s fabrics, in particular this cotton. Muji’s French linens, possibly made from French flax and likely made into textile in China, isn’t identified by region.

It is generally thought that the cotton grown in Xinjiang is the finest in China, some even think the world. According to one BBC report, Xinjiang cotton accounts for more than 85 percent of Chinese production, making this land-locked area China’s largest producer of cotton. It constitutes about 20 percent of global supply. Brands offering cotton garments prefer using Xinjiang cotton as this is of the long staple variety (even longer than renown Supima cotton), which means the cloth that is woven from this yarn is extremely soft. Unsurprising, therefore, that brands such as Muji want not only to be associated with Xinjiang cotton, but consider the region a vital part of its branding.

Apart from identifying the provenance of their cotton on their hang tags, Muji has similarly availed the information on their shelf-front signage. On their website, the said cotton is also labelled as “Xinjiang cotton”. No other description regarding the fabric’s origin is stated, but earlier media reports quoted Muji’s caption: “Made of organic cotton delicately and wholly handpicked in Xinjiang…” Handpicking is a selling point because the cotton staple remains long (as opposed to machine harvesting, such as Texas cotton, which is generally considered not as superior), an important factor in the softness of the end product. Hand picking, as imaginable, is extremely labour intensive. Given Xinjiang’s socio-political situation, it is possible that there are difficult, unfavourable labour conditions.

We are unable to find the above description on Muji’s current version of their SG website. Interestingly, Muji Hong Kong’s webpages do not state where the brand’s cotton comes from. It is not certain why some labels need to be transparent when it comes to cotton and not other fabrics. Many labels use silk, for example, from China, but consumers are none the wiser with regards to the exact origin of the fabric. Where fashion’s snob appeal is concerned, country of manufacture seems to carry more weight than provenance of fabric or yarn.

As far as we are aware, Muji is not inclined to name or identity their sources, although cottons from countries rather than regions have been named, such as Turkey and India. So, it arouses the curious mind to see the troubled region of Xinjiang feature so prominently on their tags and and shelf signs, and online. At Muji’s flagship store this afternoon, we asked one young chap, who selected for himself a white collarless shirt in a cotton from that part of China, if it bothered him that he buys cotton from Xinjiang. He asked, “Where is that?” Have you heard of the Uyghurs? “What is that?” Is it important to you where the fabric of your shirt comes from? “As long as it is comfortable, it does’t matter.” Apathy may win, but not Xinjiang.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Some Stores Shall Stay Shut

Tomorrow may be break-free day for many people on our island as Phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker begins, but those planning to go shopping will find some stores still closed


Uniqlo annoucement

Many people, ready for tomorrow’s resumption of some semblance of social life, are surprised that Uniqlo announced around six this evening on their Instagram page, “We are not open yet.” It continued to say, “Uniqlo is not rushing to open on 19 June 2020, Friday.” No official word was released by the company at the time of this post. Majority of the comments appeared to approve or support Uniqlo’s decision, agreeing that there is no need to scramble to commence its offline business. The brand added, “We will announce our store opening dates in the upcoming few days through our social media channels, website and app.” Some fans, however, are disappointed that this confirmed Uniqlo would not launch their Airism face mask here, as it will in Japan nationwide tomorrow.

While Uniqlo resists opening their physical retail stores, compatriot brand Muji is laying the welcome mat, although one outlet will be shuttered permanently. The brand announced yesterday that they have closed down their Marina Square store. Through IG, it said, “We regret to inform that Muji Marina Square has ceased its operation.” Muji has not officially commented on the closure of the branch, but some observers feel that Marina Square is “not looking good” despite the last centre-wide refurbishment. Still, IG commentators were disappointed that the store is no more. One ‘amsingapore’ wrote, “That was a favorite branch for many of us. Muji shouldn’t have given up that location”.

Store closures were expected even before the easing of the Circuit Breaker measures. Back in April, Esprit announced permanently shutting all their retail operations here. Robinsons ended their presence in the west by choosing not to remain at Jem. But Muji closing down any store is unexpected as it is believed to be one of the most popular Japanese brands here. One representative director of the parent company in Japan told The Business Times last year that sales in Singapore have been rising steadily each year. He added, “We believe in the growth in the Singapore market.”

Muji announcement

Many stores have announced they’re opening tomorrow. Club 21, in the middle of an online end-of-season sale, will welcome shoppers on the first day of Phase 2, according to an IG Story statement. So is the related emporium Dover Street Market Singapore. Surrender, the streetwear headquarters to many, confirmed on IG that they will open tomorrow. Louis Vuitton announced rather discreetly that they, too, will open, but shoppers are told to “schedule an appointment”. It is not unreasonable to assume that if Louis Vuitton will be opening, other brands under LVMH will be too.

All malls, it appears, will resume full operations as well. Paragon made no mention on its website about what will happen tomorrow, but did say one can “Shop & Dine With A Peace of Mind”. ION Orchard announced, “We Are Ready To Welcome You Back”. So did Wisma Atria: “Welcoming You Back Safely”. Takashimaya Shopping Centre communicated no happy news on their website or Facebook page (its last post was on 6 April), but it will likely open since Louis Vuitton did not say that its Taka store won’t. Over at the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, “nearly 200 stores, including F&B tenanted outlets, will be re-opened at the start”. Mostly happy news, it would appear, for those who have been deprived of retail therapy for this long. It remains to be seen if the revenge spending that seized Shanghai and Seoul after those cities opened will play out here too.

Screen grabs: respective IG page

The Shopping Bag To Have

Muji tote

By Mao Shan Wang

Recently, somewhere in the eastern tip of our island, I heard a sixtysomething woman  telling a nurse that “if you go to South Korea, you have to bring a lot of plastic bags because they charge for every single bag in the shops. How ridiculous is that?” Her surprise that plastic bags are chargeable in many cities outside our own is, well, not surprising. Singaporeans are too in love with plastic bags to part with them. Or, be aware that in many parts of the world, single-use plastic bags are no longer considered socially acceptable to ask for.

In Asia, our just-turned-54 Singapura is one of the slowest cities to discourage the use of plastic shopping bags issued by stores. Often enough, I see aunties in supermarkets bagging each purchase in individual bags and at check-out asking for more plastic bags, totally oblivious that somewhere out at sea and on land, animals are dying from the indiscriminate ingestion of disposable, one-time-use plastic bags.

Hong Kong has already impose a fee on plastic bags. It is the same in Taiwan and, as mentioned, South Korea. Where a charge is not levied, such as in Japan (charges will be introduced by 2020) and Thailand, customers are asked if they need plastic bags (some retailers, such as stores under the Mall Group, are starting a deterrent charge) before even one is issued. In these cities, people seem much more aware that excessive use of plastic carrier bags are detrimental to the environment and the animals in it.

…shoppers with the ubiquitous aluminium shopping carts request for the paid items to be bagged before placing them in the mobile baskets. Why are we so ashamed of what we buy at the supermarket that we have to have them concealed?


I often wonder why we have not adopted the habit of  bringing our own reusable bags when, say, grocery shopping. I have seen even those shoppers with the ubiquitous aluminium shopping carts request for the paid items to be bagged—or worse, double-bagged—before placing them in the mobile baskets. Could it be because the carts reveal too much their shopping? Why are they so ashamed of what they buy at the supermarket that they have to have them concealed?

In the case of the lack of popularity of the reusable bag, is it because what is available out there are too hideous to be seen with? If that is indeed the reason, consider this bag from Muji. Made of water-repellent polyethylene (a versatile polymer that is commonly used for shopping bags and even shampoo bottles), this roomy tote is simple as it is stylish. It comes in two colour: off-white and royal blue. I prefer the latter if only because it is more dirt-proof that the former.

The tote comes with two lengths of handles—one that you can hold in your hand, and a longer pair that allows you to carry the bag on your shoulders. Few reusable shopping bags are more versatile than this. Using it (and regularly!) may mean that somewhere in or across the ocean, even as far as Alaska, a fish or a bird need not die because of our unthinking use of plastic bags and, more importantly, the careless discarding of them.

Muji polyethylene tote, SGD8.90, is available in most Muji stores. Photo Chin Boh Kay

Not The Finest Cut

Yet, as of now, Jewel is dazzling the masses—massively


Control towere in the rear OPOnce synonymous with Changi Airport, the control tower (in the rear) is now upstaged by Jewel and its rain vortex

Two weeks after the media introduction, eight days after the opening to the public, and three visits amid the crazy crowd after, we are still unsure if Jewel is a passenger terminal mall spilled out of the airport; a suburban shopping centre adjoined to T1, T2, and T3 like a sparkling pendant to a dulled chain; a giant, multi-storey fancy food court feeding the perpetually hungry; Gardens by the Bay II with lower-cost foliage; a rain-vortex geek’s wet dream, or a striking set for the next Jurassic Park film. Even the Oracle Garden Pavilion at the Stark Expo!

Don’t get us wrong. Jewel is a fine example of extraordinary building design, probably up there in the top-ten works of its expensive, headlining architect Moshe Safdie, alongside his equally curvilinear Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City in the US. Jewel is stunning outside in, inside out, top bottom, bottom top. Approaching the engineering marvel via Airport Boulevard, you can see how it lives up to its name, making the surrounding terminals looking like they were built by the HDB. As you come near it, even a quarter of a dozen times later, you sense you are venturing into the deeply spectacular.

HSBC Rain Vortex OPThe rain vortex that most visitors to Jewel come to see

That feeling, however, rather quickly dissipates when you walk in. Our first encounter with Changi Airport’s new engorged protuberance was, in fact, at the beginning of April when we had returned from a trip and had landed at T1. As we left the baggage carousel, we could see just ahead, beyond the palm trees in the foreground, that the gleaming gem of a mall with horticultural exuberance was ready to open. The must-see and, by now, probably the most-Instagrammed indoor waterfall was audible, beguiling and emphatic enough, but something else made us think we would not be here for the shopping: Kate Spade and Coach.

Even clearly not opened, they stared at us like a couple of menshen (door gods) deterring intruders. There is, of course, nothing wrong with having American ‘masstige’ brands in a mall, but it did make us suspect that Jewel isn’t going to be the sparkler of a retail destination the way the five-months-old Iconsiam in Bangkok is, for example. Singaporean shopping centres are not known for their leasing flair, specifically their desire for the unexpected or the truly new, and Jewel is no exception. It’s predictable, it’s cautious and unenterprising—it smacks of a suburban mall with The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (interestingly, another Safdie building, also with a water feature) pretension.

Kate Spade & Coach OPA pair of American brands passively welcome those arriving at Terminal 1 to Jewel

Fashion retail in Singapore, we have repeatedly been told, is difficult. It’s not just the selling of clothes, but more specifically the selling of fashion—a category that covers what most Singaporeans do not really buythat seems to be met with hurdles. A ‘cool’ T-shirt and a couple more do not fashion make. Yet, that is what most retailers prefer to sell. Jewel, despite its fashion-y and ‘cool’ (not hipster) projection, houses mostly brands that are associated with clothing easily deemed casual. That it is unable to be a magnet to attract real fashion names is understandable. Even Design Orchard, the conceived-as-bastion of Singaporean designs, has an inventory that cannot appeal to cultivated tastes.

On the afternoon of the first Saturday after it opened (admittedly a bad day to visit), we overheard no less than five visitors expressing disappointment at Jewel’s retail offering, with one woman—clearly annoyed—loudly asking her companion, “We came all the way here for Uniqlo?” To be sure that these people, among heartlanders looking through heartlander eyes, were not exaggerating, we surveyed every shop that is not selling food, on all seven leasable floors of the ten of this 135,700-square-metre behemoth.

Muji duplex OPMuji’s duplex store that is less impressive than the Plaza Singapura flagshipTokyu Hands duplex OPOne of the cheeriest at Jewel: the Tokyu Hands duplex store 

Unsurprisingly, the retail jumble is classic Capitaland, specifically CapitalMallAsia, Jewel’s co-developer. This could have been Tampines Mall transplanted into a puffed-up, precipitation-in-the-middle doughnut of glass and steel-plus-aluminum. We’re not, except perhaps tourists, asking for LVMH brands to be here (actually, not even Sephora has taken up space), but there is little that can seduce the fashion consumer, only, perhaps, the undemanding. Some of the brands, such as Muji and The Footlocker take up duplex units, but that does not necessarily equate to twice the fun or double the desirable merchandise.

This is regrettably Jewel’s one setback: retail plays second fiddle to the “Insta-worthy” (as the mall’s own marketing material describes it)—literally—central attraction. Everyone we spoke to, across three mornings we were there, came for the 40-metre tall (or long? The ceiling of the recently burnt Notre Dame de Paris is, in comparison, only 30-metres high) never-dry funnel flow, funded by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, hence the HSBC Rain Vortex (even the encircling terraced garden is sponsored—by Japanese cosmetic giant Shiseido, which resulted in the Shiseido Forest Valley that, frankly, sounds like a makeup collection for fall). That’s where visitors first make the beeline for, the watery pull so strong that it drags you to its downward rush like the water sucked to the unseen bottom. One tourist from Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, who had asked us to take a photo of her against “the most beautiful namtok (waterfall) in the world”, told us that the shops “in Bangkok are now better” and that shopping isn’t a priority for her here unless she sees something she “can’t find back home”.

It is arguable then that, without the rain vortex, Jewel is, as one airport staff said to us, “just another mall”. Or, Sentosa without the casino, Mandai without the zoo. When the rush of seeing the main attraction fades, one needs the rest of the complex for a modicum of anticipation in order that interest in its content can be generated and, consequently, prolonged. For us, this is not so. To be sure, there are those who need only a cup of coffee to be contented—and there are enough coffee places to even satisfy those who know their kona from their luwak—but there are those who do come, expecting to shop, to put Apple Pay to good use. The rain vortex, opaque as it is, blinkers many visitors from so much that really borders on the blah.

Foot Locker duplex OPAlthough Foot Locker has a store in Tampines Mall, just 5 km away, they are still keen on a duplex in Jewel

Out of 280 shops or stalls (excluding the cineplex, the hotel Yotelair, and “general services” such as banking) already opened or soon to, only 85 (minus children’s and maternity wear) deal with apparel, footwear, and accessories. That is just 30 percent of the total number of tenants. Food outlets comprise 140 units, making it the largest category at 50 percent. If you look at just clothing (excluding undergarments), which would have to include sports labels since brands such as hot-again Fila and cool-yet-not-quite Kappa consider themselves fashion apparel brands and take up large and highly visible stores, only 37 are apparel-strong. Of these close-to-three dozens, it is debatable which is truly a marquee name.

In the booklet guide to the mall, visitors are told that, among the “10 Things to Do in Jewel”, you can “Shop at the ‘World’s Marketplace’. From international marques to local labels, you’ll find the unusual, the novel, and the popular in this one-of-a-kind urban marketplace”. In that one paragraph of their contrived listicle, we could see what Jewel is or isn’t. They may have hit the “marque”, but we sure did not see a single automobile for sale. To us, “world” is Capitaland speak that in marketing parlance is mere puffery, but perhaps in keeping with Changi Airport’s world-class standing, Jewel has to be a “world’s marketplace” and an “urban” one too, in case there are tourists who think we are still an island of kampongs. “Unusual” could be the two-and-half-hour queue (“at least”, according to those who have braved it) at A&W, but then again, in Singapore, getting in line for food is not that unusual. “Novel” could mean dining next to the rain vortex even if this is not that novel since a similar idea is seen at Suntec City around its Fountain of Wealth. “Popular” appears to be the only apt description: the place is conceived to please the throng.

Oysho OPOne of the two new ‘fashion’ labels at Jewel: Oysho from SpainMotherhouse OPJapanese bag and accessory label Motherhouse debuts in Singapore at Jewel

Jewel also touts the “many firsts-in-Singapore”—24 of them new-to-market names, of which only two are ‘fashion’ brands, the Inditex-owned Spanish label Oysho, a seller of mainly lingerie and lounge wear (which debuted in Southeast Asia in Jakarta in 2016), and the motherly Motherhouse, 13-year-old, Japanese-owned vendor of Bangladeshi-made bags. Mall operators of considerable experience would know that there are good firsts and why-bother firsts, and, between them, better-to-have-them-than-leave-the-space-empty firsts. We met an “experience concierge”, one of a large detail that Jewel avails throughout the space who “helps visitors find their way around” and also to tell them to have “a sparkling time”. We asked her if there is one store among the firsts that we must not leave without visiting and she said somewhat apologetically, “I have not seen all the shops here.”

That only two new fashion brands are willing to open in a potentially successful retail destination with global exposure could be indication that market penetration is—or perceived to be—low. With major labels already in the three terminal buildings in Jewel’s immediate vicinity, such as Louis Vuitton, with their unmissable duplex store in T3, there is perhaps less incentive to venture beyond the departure and transit zone of the airport. Or, could it be because fashion retailers are not able to decide if Jewel caters to departing/transit passengers or the Singaporeans who come to see something new, but would soon tire of it the way they have with, for instance, another mall whose name is also inspired by precious stones: Jem? So dismally lean is the list of fashion names that even Changi Airport’s own blog-like website Now Boarding recommends only three labels under the fashion crosshead of the “shopping highlights” of Jewel.

Jewel mall OPThe bland interior of Jewel

Another anticlimax: after the eye-opening sight that is the rain vortex, the design details of the mall is on the side of humdrum. Many parts not close to the column of rain could really be anywhere in, say, ION Orchard—just shop after shop after shop, between which no distinctive feature that can be considered decorative or senses-arousing. Walls are just walls, ceilings are just ceilings, pillars are just pillars: they are as dressed up as the average Singaporean visiting, well, a mall. Some perimeter areas are decorated with plants to go with the indoor garden theme, but beyond that, you’d be hard pressed to find anything visually engaging.

This is compounded by the lack of effort on the part of brands when it comes to how they design their shopfronts to grab the visitors’ propensity to spend. In fact, many don’t—not compellingly, not in a way that encourages shoppers to stop in their tracks to ponder what is before them. The way we see it, brands in Jewel have taken the concept of “marketplace” quite faithfully. Many have not only dispensed with an entrancing facade, they have done away with window displays. It is probable that the thinking is, when dealing with the hordes, brand recognition is enough to draw the people in.

Nike store @ Jewel OPThe best storefront in the whole Jewel?

There are a couple of exceptions. The SUTL Group-operated Nike store here has the simplest facade, but one so strikingly spare, you are inclined to go beyond its entrance—identified only by a Swoosh and the subtly designed catchphrase Just Do It—to uncover the store’s merchandise, reportedly “the most extensive in Singapore”, as well as a custom service that Life, in a cover story two weeks earlier, mistakenly reported to include “personalised shoes”. It offers only limited customisation for T-shirts and dubraes (decorative lace locks). This is not Nike’s most exciting outlet, even if it’s touted as Southeast Asia’s largest, not quite like the Harajuku flagship in Tokyo, nor is it the most unique, such as the Kicks Lab concept store, which debuted in SEA in Bangkok last November. But on our island, this is their best yet.

One Singaporean store that has remained true to its aesthetic strength, and is unconcerned with what others are doing to lure shoppers is In Good Company (IGC). Their third free-standing store now, IGC here is—not incorrectly described by parent company Produce—“a moment of calm within Jewel”. What a welcome calm too. Those who have experienced the crowd and the massiveness of the complex will appreciate the space that IGC has created—so restful that it echoes the seductively quiet designs of the clothes. IGC continues to prove that not only do they not need to go the blogshop-turn-physical-store route typical of local fashion retail, they are able to hold their own with a distinctive, ‘open’ store that can hushedly tug at our heartstrings and, consequently, our purses.

In Good Company OPLocal fashion label In Good Company’s inviting ‘open’ front

At Jewel, the Rain Vortex is going to be the first stop for most visitors, even the would-be regulars. Once that obligation is fulfilled, sightseers-turn-shoppers may find, as we did, the shopping experience that the complex had indicated lacking. Jewel has, in the lead up to its opening (and the preceding three days of by-ticket-only previews) projected itself to be a destination of immense distinction, unique by every standard so far accorded to airports of the world, and breathtaking, but it is not quite the mall for the fashion cognoscenti, except for those, including the deciders in leasing, who think fashion is Calvin Klein Jeans—now as exciting as Gap.

Without counting, it is obvious that Jewel is overwhelmingly more food stops than fashion shops. No matter where you turn, eateries won’t let up. And the lines at some of the makan places are so amazing (or ridiculous, depending on who’s asked: the eager-to-queue or the can’t-be-bothered) that it is clear curiosity rather than hunger waiting to be satisfied. At Shake Shack, a twenty-something chap told us he started queuing at 7.30am (two and half hours before the shop opens), not for sustenance, but to be first in line. Does he think it would be worth the wait? “If it’s good, then it would be,” he said smugly, adding, “Anyway, it’s fun.”

The only line seen outside a non-food shop is at the Pokémon Centre (the first outside Japan), where a twelve-year-old, who had queued for 40 minutes with his equally-a-fan father, said he did so because he was told “it’s fun inside.” That word again. Fun, it would seem, is what most had come for. The fun element was further affirmed by a mainland Chinese tourist from Guizhou, who delightfully volunteered to us, “在这里, 迷路也好玩!” In here, even losing your way is fun.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji and Chin Boh Kay

Keep It Flat

Small, neither deep nor thick bags are very much seen across the body these days. Do they constitute a trend or, maybe, micro-trend? Are these ultimately clutches with shoulder straps?


Muji labo bagMuji Labo nylon ‘Sacoche’

By Ray Zhang

According to earlier media reports, 2018 is the “year of the bum bag”. The comeback of pouch that was meant to be worn close to the posterior, while evident on the catwalk, is not quite the sac du jour on the streets, where people seem to prefer something less connected to beer ladies at coffee shops. While the bum bag may have its own bag-atop-footwear moment, its real appeal among those without the Supreme/Louis Vuitton version is not immediately discernible since I do not see its visible presence.

The bag to have, if we believe those carried on the streets are a better gauge of their popularity, is compact and pancake-thick: what in Japan is known as the “flat pouch shoulder bag”. Some retailers, such as Muji, call it a sacoche (in various spellings, as expected in Japan), which in French roughly means saddlebag, and may also refer to messenger bags commonly used by cyclists, only smaller—a lot smaller.

Outdoor bagSeen in Tokyo, a lad with an Outdoor ‘Sakosh Shoulder’

In fact, it was in Japan that the trend began to emerge a year ago. So numerous was this bag style seen on the streets that we believed it was going to take off outside the country. And it did. As with many of the bags they carry, the Japanese are far much ahead of everybody else. The so-called bum-bag craze, too, can be traced to what young Tokyoites have been strapping diagonally—and stylishly—on their backs for years earlier. The small, flat bag, similarly, was seen on trendy fashion folks, from Tokyo to Sapporo, before even Louis Vuitton started issuing their own versions.

A helpful salesman in L-Breath Tokyo, one of my favourite outdoor specialty shops in Shinjuku, told me that such bags were originally used by trekkers who wanted to carry their personal effects close at hand rather than in their backpacks, which do not facilitate quick retrieval. These are worn cross-body, but with the bag itself held in the front. Practicality aside, many of these bags by even traditionally conservative brands such as Outdoor are stylishly made. It explains why the stylish folks of Tokyo shop for accessories in the likes of L-Breath.

Gregory bagsOne of the few brands that carry the flat shoulder bag is Gregory at ION Orchard

If you’re used to capacious sacks, these are more envelopes than bags, more cases than pouches. They could be considered, in fact, formerly trending clutches, now with shoulder straps. Users, I suspect, find appeal in their flatness, which is diametrically opposed to the bulk of the bum bag (no fat-shamming here!). These thin satchels are mostly devoid of gussets, so they’re not expandable. In fact, its limited capacity may not appeal to those who have a load to carry when moving about. Some of these bags may even find welcoming an umbrella a daunting task.

There’s a sportif element to most of them: nylon body, waterproof zipping, para-cord-as-straps—with carabiners to secure them to the bag—and all manner of hardware that one associates with mountain climbing gear than urban leather accessories. That could explain why outdoor/trekking/camping brands lead the pack. From Japan-only The North Face Standard to American camping gear and equipment specialist Kelty, these flat bags also augment their standing among Tokyo’s many fashion tribes: they simply look cooler than anything you’ll find in Gucci.

Flat bags on SG streetsFlat bags seen on SG streets

On our island, these bags are not as available as, well, socks. Since the particular style is still popular in JapanI assume, I thought that the best place to look for them would be in Japanese stores. My first stop was Tokyu Hands in Orchard Central, but the flat bag’s conspicuous absence here, in a sizeable bag department, was a disappointment. As I had expected, I found a nice one in Muji (under the Labo sub-brand) and in Uniqlo, where the U line offered one that could double as a waist bag. Unfortunately, they did not have a mountaineering vibe; both, while handsome, looked a tad too garden variety.

Thinking I might be able to court lady luck at a specialist shop that deals with camping and climbing equipment, I happily headed for one of my favourite stores, Outdoor Life in Plaza Singapura, but found nothing there. At Outside in Orchard Central, I was more fortunate. Other than the surprising large Chums collection of bags and such, there were also enticing ones by the Japanese bag maker Fredrik Packers, among them the flat sacks I sought. A couple of days later, while killing time at ION Orchard, I found the object of my affection at Gregory, the 41-year-old American backpack specialists, now also makers of the sacoche—their version, as outdoorsy as the bag could get. I succumbed, finally.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Basket Case

By Mao Shan Wang

The era of the It bag may be over, but our affair with the hit bag isn’t quite finished. I don’t suppose it would ever be. Whether it’s a Supreme bumbag or a Dior Diorama, many women need a security/statement bag. Their clothes can be from The Editor’s Market, but their bags won’t be from any place that’s the synonym of pasar.

But sometimes it’s all rather tiresome, even conformist, to just go with what streetwear or luxury brands put out there. That’s why when something unusual comes along, I allow myself to be enamoured. Such as this basket backpack I saw recently at Muji.

To be sure, this is quite the opposite of anything you’d see on bag aficionado Alvin Cher’s Bagaholicboy. It is definitely bears no semblance to anything seen on Jamie Chua’s arm (I doubt she carries anything on her back!), too. In fact, this could pass off as a fancy, fruit collector’s basket employed during harvest time, a period of the year surely alien to us on this island nation.

But this is no ordinary farmland receptacle. This is a select, artisanal item that’s one of a few of this season’s Found Muji highlighting crafts of North America. As part of the Box 3 Series that looks at various boxes used for transporting goods across distances, Muji has included a handsome, light, and sturdy pack basket made of blond maple wood strips, with black cotton twill tapes for straps. If you are into discreet blink, the copper rivets as fastening are a detail to note and appreciate.

What’s appealing to me, apart from its depth and capaciousness, is the potential visual contrast of this rural-looking basket/bag in an urban environment. It is perhaps the same reason why a Shaker chair works beautifully in a Tadao Ando house.

Muji maple wood basket, SGD150, available at Muji Plaza Singapura. Photo: Muji

Le Sac Plastique Fantastique

After last year’s Fraktar bag hack, is the nondescript and omnipresent plastic supermarket bag the next big thing?

Actually plastic bagStylish, extra-large and extra-thick plastic bag offered by Actually @ Orchard Gateway

By Ray Zhang

Ten years ago, a dear friend of mine gave me a birthday gift that came bundled in a pink plastic bag, typically used by vegetable sellers—yes, the wet market staple. To be sure, he wasn’t a fashion forward type although he worked in fashion his whole life. And he definitely did not have a crystal ball to see a decade into the future, when anti-fashion fashion has taken root in fashion, and spawned fashionable bags with a provenance that can be traced to sellers of fresh comestible.

That the lowly plastic market (and supermarket) carrier can now have fashion cred may be attributed to our predilection for choosing low to yield high. Does the T-shirt not come to mind? Let’s, for convenience, put the blame on Demna Gvasalia, that provocateur-in-chief at the house of Balenciaga. He had picked common bags—for example, those usually associated with mainland Chinese moving vast quantities of city goods back to their rural homes during festive seasons such as the Lunar New Year—to make them into high-end, covetable carriers. It culminated in the re-make of Ikea’s Fraktar tote—in leather, of course—that could be seen as Mr Gvasalia doing a DHL for the equally humble shopping bag.

Muji shopping bagMuji’s nylon shopping bag can be folded flat and fitted into an attached slip case that comes with a loop at the top in case you’d want to add a carabiner to it

But that wasn’t the last of the common bags that Mr Gvasalia has given a luxury spin. Last month, his Balenciaga launched the “supermarket shopper”, an undisguised shopping bag not normally associated with fashion once steeped in the tradition of couture. The thing is, it isn’t yet clear if a leather “supermarket shopper” will have the same impact on popular fashion the way Celine’s leather shopper did back in 2009 (which predates Balenciaga’s own leather ‘Shopping Tote’ by eight years).

Brands are following Balenciaga’s lead. But rather than leather, plastic is presently king. Phoebe Philo, as a parting shot perhaps, created plastic supermarket bags to be sold as merch rather than for you take your in-store purchases home in one. Just a month ago, Raf Simons, too, got into the act, and released a see-through version (called, what else, RS Shopping Bag!) with Voo Store, one of Berlin’s most progressive multi-label fashion retailers. Mr Simons’s version is clearly pitched as a collectible, not to be used when you next go shopping and you want to play eco-warrior. The plastic supermarket bag has achieved It bag status, which, admittedly, now sounds rather quaint.

MMM cotton shopping bagThe nondescript store bags given to shoppers at what was once Maison Martin Margiela. Their version is not tubular, with stitched hems on both sides of the folded gusset

The nondescript store bags given to shoppers at what was once Maison Martin Margiela. Their version is not tubular, with stitched hems on both sides of the folded gusset
Like many fixations of fashion designers, this one isn’t terribly new. For the longest time, Maison Martin Margiela, pre-John Galliano, packed your purchases into supermarket-style shopping bags in white cotton that was akin to calico. (A leather, for-sale version was also released under the sub-line MM6.) I can’t tell you convincingly enough (now that such bags are a fashion item) how surprised I was many, many moons ago when I was presented with that bag after buying an MMM leather jacket at its Rue de Richelieu store in Paris. Surely they could do better, I had thought. But there was something decidedly appealing about the idea of a luxury item housed in a non-luxury bag that I found myself traipsing the City of Lights for the rest of the day in this plain and un-labelled sac with some satisfaction that I can’t quite describe now. A wink-wink moment perhaps. Was this how Mr Gvasalia had felt when he thought of the shopping bag for Balenciaga? Or was he being nostalgic of his days at the influential house?

The supermarket shopping bag—not as article of fashion—has a rather long history. According to popular telling, the grocery bag that we know so well was invented by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s. What Mr Thulin had in mind was a one-piece bad that can be formed by folding, welding and die-cutting a flat tubular plastic. This he did for Celloplast, a Swedish company known for producing cellulose film and for processing plastics. Celloplast was quick to patent the making of the plastic shopping bag and the rest, I think you’d agree, really requires no detailed recounting.

Bag in TokyoShoppers in Tokyo are often seen with shopping bags attached to a carabiner that’s hooked to a belt loop. Here, a velvety plastic bag from retailer Bayflow that’s printed with a message: “Respect nature, respect fashion. Stay healthy and simple, comfortable and beautiful.”

Oversized shopping bags—carried over the shoulder like a tote—are often spotted in Bangkok where shoppers carry them to house large purchases

While the bag of our current interest has been mostly associated with the wet market and the supermarket, versions in more durable nylon and with attractive prints started to appear when retailers discourage shoppers from using the plastic versions as they are not biodegradable and will add to the woes of inadequate landfills. Some cities such as Hong Kong and Taipei started charging customers when a plastic bag is required for their purchase. With demand for bring-your-own-bags rising, many bag manufacturers started producing reusable, washable, and long-lasting nylon shopping bags that can be folded neatly into a little package no bigger than a wallet.

In Japan, Tokyo especially, not only are these attractive bags available in supermarkets, they are sold in stores such as Muji and Uniqlo and trendy shops such as Beams and Urban Research. The basic shape is the same no matter where you find them, but there’s where the similarity ends. Patterns are almost always the eye-catching part, but, for me, it is how the Japanese carry them that I find so fascinating. Many guys have them secured to their waist with a carabiner. Some would tie them to their bag straps in a way that can only be described as fetching. Once, in Tomorrowland, the multi-label store, I saw a woman with a black nylon shopping bag. Nothing terribly interesting in that except that she had one handle looped over the other, which was slipped on to her wrist. There was something terribly artful in the bag-and-wrist composition. It reminded me of the Japanese azuma bukuro, a traditional cloth bag that—at least in Japan—is anything but ordinary.

Aland bagsThe myriad colours and patterns cheerfully offered at Seoul retailer Åland, as seen in their Bangkok flagship store

Today, fancier shops call them “marché (which is really French for market) bags”. At Muji, their version is labelled as “tote bag”, which adds to the mild confusion. The thing is, these fancy takes on the supermarket bag are not likely going to be seen in the likes of Fairprice. But where would you carry them to, then? Except at Ikea, home of the Fraktar, few retailers in Singapore discourage you from expecting a store-issued shopping bag, for free. In fact, at many supermarkets, shoppers are known to ask for more than they require. When will this habit be shaken off? When will the use of our own unique shopping bags be a common sight?

Or perhaps the structured, hardware-festooned bag of unambiguous designer standing is over. Who even remembers the Baguette now? Isn’t 1997 a long time ago? This is the era of Vetements, the time of looking at seemingly commonplace, unremarkable things to make them objects of desire. This is, after all, the age of the sweatshirt made good.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay and Jagkrit Suwanmethanon

Muji’s Mighty Magic

The Muji flagship opened in Plaza Singapura last Friday, occupying the 1,896-sq-m expanse that was vacated by the doomed John Little’s last year. Is the Japanese specialty store set to take the place of traditional department stores, such as Tangs and Metro, which have become increasingly lacklustre?

Muji PS pic 1Muji’s new flagship store at Plaza Singaura

Muji is many things to many people. To some, it is a fashion store. To others, it’s a beauty bar, and, many still, a furniture seller. There are also those who consider it a mini-market. If you visit its new flagship store, it’s manifestly all of the above and more, so much so that it, despite its comparative smallness, easily surpasses the offering of any department store in Singapore today.

This is Muji you’ve not seen before. Not even the ION Orchard store, already considered sterling by so many of its fans, is as expansive, wide-ranging, or atmospheric. This is Muji built on some performance-enhancing magic bullet. It is stocked to the rafters to entice, to arouse, and, ultimately, to encourage spending.

That Muji is able to do all this with merchandise that, for some, is just too bashful in design is testament to the brand’s skill at pulling deceptively simple things into a rather grand whole. There’s a sense of authenticity—an unabashed Japaneseness—and an unwavering minimalist aesthetic that has kept them in good stead indeed. No matter how wide their product offering, they’ve kept to their DNA of uncomplicated, and indeed straightforward, designs that are augmented by their welcome usefulness.

Muji PS pic 2Muji Labo: a more forward collection that pays particular attention to fabric and cutMuji PS pic 3There’s athletic wear now, presumably to take advantage of the athleisure trendMuji PS pic 4A new jeans section that is so extensive it easily rivals Uniqlo’s

The new store is reported to be the largest flagship in Southeast Asia. Designed by Super Potato, the Japanese ID firm of Takashi Sugimoto, who is noted for his impressive list of hip stores and restaurants designs such as the Grand Hyatt’s Mezza9 and Straits Kitchen, this is a Muji conceived for discovery, zoned to bring you from one corner to another, not quite knowing what to expect. Those “Mujirers”, as they’re known, who are compelled to visit every Muji store in the cities they operate in will see the similarity with the Shanghai flagship in Huaihai Lu (淮海路) than, say, the Tokyo store in Shinjuku—one neo-rustic, the other white-steel-modern.

This is not a one-look-and-see-all approach to store layout, which, in many ways, had been Muji’s preferred floor-plan treatment until the arrival of Muji Yurakucho (Tokyo) store, a multi-floor behemoth that strikes awe with its warehouse-like space in which pockets of visual merchandising delightfulness are erected. The Plaza Singapura store is, perhaps, a lot more atmospheric (the differentiated lighting, for example, is a lot warmer than their other outlets here, and really recalls the Muji Chengdu flagship) and visually more engaging, with much of the store’s merchandise employed in its imaginative, tactile decor.

The focus is clearly on customer engagement, which accounts for the new areas in the store such as Found Muji in which items sourced from around the world is picked for their shared aesthetic values with the brand, and “re-tailored” to sit suitably alongside other Muji products. This includes an exhibition area, Open Muji, done pasar malam-style to show that regardless of provenance, good and functional design is border-less when it comes to usefulness and beauty.

Found MujiOne of the new concepts seen in Singapore for the first time is Found Muji, a collection of wares selected from different parts of the world

Found Muji pic 2Open Muji showing the various products from all over the world that inspire Muji designsIdeeIdée shows off a more ‘designed’ aspect of MujiMuji wall hangingIdée is stocked with unexpected items such as this wall hanging by Los Angeles ceramic artist Heather Levine

This belief is also exemplified in Idée, a line of merchandise described by Muji as “based on the theme of ‘Life is about everyday’”. But there’s nothing really “everyday” about these products since a knowing customer would immediately see the everyday-ness as ‘elevated’. Idée started as collaboration with emerging designers for furniture a few years back, but soon grew to cover table ware, textile, and decorative accessories that include art and even wall hangings. This, to us, is one of the most alluring parts of the new store.

In fact, furniture and furnishings now make up nearly half the store’s offerings. This may pose some competition to Ikea, although, admittedly, Muji’s prices are not as wallet-friendly and can, in fact, match those of stores such as Conde House in Millenia Walk. And as with Ikea, the new store offers interior decorating service, as well as custom-order for rugs and such. Customisation is, in fact, a crowd charmer, with shoppers drawn to the customised embroidery service available to those who purchased clothing in the store.

The thing about Muji is that no matter how wide the product categories or varied its in-store services, there’s an aesthetic oneness that does not arouse the senses for the sake of getting your buying urges in a knot. It makes one sometimes ponder, and, many a time, enjoy. For naysayers, Muji makes very plain and basic products. This plainness and elementariness do indeed make their success all the more beguiling. Is it saying that our appreciation of good design is finally seeing some semblance of sophistication?

MUJI furniture and furnishingAn impressive selection of furniture and furnishing is available in the new Muji Muji furniture and furnishings 2Bedding, always a strong product category, is now even more alluringMuji food 1Food remains a strong offering and now even more strikingly presented

It is ironic that Muji has occupied the space where John Little’s has failed. Since 2013, Singapore’s oldest department store has been relegated to the annals of our island’s retail history as a forgettable relic. Despite its heritage (174 years in business), John Little’s simply could not keep up with the changes that equate modern retailing. Muji opened in Singapore in 1995, four years after its first overseas store in Hong Kong. Its debut in Liang Court proved a little too premature as local shoppers didn’t quite understand the brand’s striking, chic minimalism and found the “plain things” (now dubbed by the press as “commercial zen”) too expensive. It exited Singapore after the Asian financial crisis of 1997 (also known as the tom yum goong crisis as it started in Thailand) and returned in 2003 in then Seiyu department store (now BHG) to a staggeringly warm welcome. From that point there’s no stopping Muji, which now numbers 13 stores island-wide.

Muji, an abbreviation of the full name Mujirushi Ryohin, or “no brand, good quality” in Japanese, is now a staggering enlargement of the 40 products it started with in 1980, when parent company Seiyu created the private brand for their eponymous supermarkets as a way to lure shoppers tightening their purse strings during the economic downswing of that era. It fortunes turned so quickly that by 1984, it has enough clout to even commission Haruomi Hosono to compose its stores’ piped-in music. According to media reports, Muji presently retails more than 7,000 products, covering nearly every aspect of the urban lifestyle, with many of them having won awards in the category of design.

Some industry observers state that Muji is able to do what they do because they create everything under their own brand. Department stores, especially those here (Japanese ones too), have long forsaken the model of producing house brands that can be differentiated from those of competitors’. Instead, much of the space in department stores these days is leasable space, which inevitably means stores are no longer ‘curating’ their offerings the way they used to. Department stores are landlords the way mall operators are. Additionally, according to London-based BMI Research in a report last year, department store’s declining popularity, “can be attributed to an outdated approach to demands of local consumers”. That Muji’s customers are forming long queues at the cashiers’ even five days after the opening high perhaps indicates that the brand knows how to appeal to shoppers. This, even without industry admission, is likely the envy of trad stores such as Tangs and Metro.

Muji flagship store is on level one, Plaza Singapura. Photos: Galerie Gombak

(2016) Winter Style 4: The Blanket Wrap

uniqlo-2-way-stoleUniqlo’s handsome blanket stole. Product photo: Uniqlo. Collage: Just So

As the drapey silhouette is increasingly preferred over the structured, some of us are retiring tailored outerwear such as the Chesterfield coat until they are road-worthy again. One of the easiest ways two lend softness to the outline of any outer is to throw on a shawl. This season, the blanket wrap (also known as a stole) is making a splashy entrance like never before. Oddly, though, few retailers are offering them in addition to the standard scarves.

That’s why it is surprising to us that such a stylish piece could be found in the stores of mass retailer Uniqlo. Thanks to Japan’s biggest fast fashion brand, those bound for wintry lands are now owners of at least one down jacket, and, this season, perhaps also the blanket wrap. Uniqlo’s version, called the stole, is especially appealing because it can be worn on both sides, each a different colour or colour-block. To make this an even bigger draw, Uniqlo has called it a “2-way” and touted its versatility as a wrap and a scarf.

journal-standard-blanket-shawl-aw-2016Journal Standard blanket stole for men. Photo: Journal Standard/Baycrews

Scarves, as a practical accessory, are gender-neutral, yet, puzzling as it may be, the brand is peddling this blanket wrap only to women and has availed them only in the women’s department. Perhaps the problem lies in the name: men don’t wear stoles! The striking thing is, none of the pieces available are particularly feminine. And with a size that’s no different from an airline blanket’s, these are not exactly filmsy-bitsy pieces to be tucked away in a handbag until you need it when the MRT train is unusually cold.

Interestingly, the blanket wrap is also available in Muji and, similarly, is stocked in the woman’s department, possibly due to the how-to-wear hang-tag with a figure that’s clearly female. This seems to us at odds with what many retailers in Japan are doing. One of them is Journal Standard, and they’ve made their mono-tone versions (above) a must-have of the season to update the winter wardrobe of both men’s and women’s. If a friend is in Tokyo now, do ask a favour.

Uniqlo acrylic knit 2-way stole, SGD29.90, is available at Uniqlo stores


GSS In December?


This just appeared in our inbox. And it was definitely a ‘huh?’ moment. Could it be that the year isn’t coming to an end, and that the Christmas songs playing in the distance are a part of our over-active imagination? Sometimes you smell pine even when you’re not in a forest of conifers; so desirous of a non-tropical Christmas that the yearning plays tricks on your olfactory organs. If only it’s the month of May! But, it’s been a year of lows more than highs, and many of us want next year to come, in the hope that things may be better. Skip Christmas altogether!

Muji, you’ve got us mystified. It was like looking at a monthly calendar that stopped being flipped on the month of Labour Day. Or maybe someone in marketing sacrificed her bonus this year in order to recycle a six-month old ad.

Blues For Any Day


Here’s another way to explore sustainability. How about re-colouring what you cannot move on the selling floor? That’s exactly what Muji is doing with their new sub-brand Re-Muji, which the label describes as a “recycling initiative whereby selected unsold garment items would be re-dyed as an effort to reduce and eliminate waste, while giving the product a ‘new life.’”

Sure, the clothes were subjected to the usual rounds of markdowns. But when even that can’t clear the merchandise, rather than discard or destroy them, Muji facilitates a rebirth by treating the garments to a colour job, in this case, blue. Not just any blue, but the Japanese plant dye indigo. And as with dyeing the natural way, the shades of blue varies. Therein, for us, lies the charm.


In keeping with Japanese brands that tout their love and penchant for indigo, such as Blue Blue, these clothes not only have an earthy patina; they feel lived-in too. Most of these new-again garments come with contrast top-stitch of khaki. The effect brings to mind Japanese finishes such as those by Junya Watanabe. A shopper was heard telling the staff that many of the styles in their original colour held no appeal for her until the appearance of this inky wash.

Surprising for so many charmed by the blue is what Muji is charging for them. Nearly all the pieces, whether tops or bottoms, for men or women, go for the very persuasive price of S$29. This is lower than similar garments displayed under the section New Arrivals.


If there’s a problem with such a concept, it’s the availability of sizes (mostly S and XL). Chances are, you’ll not find the style you want in the size that fits you.The staff could not confirm if the stocks of any particular model will be replenished. “We were not told,” one of them said with a hint of regret.

Still, the fun is in what you may unearth. There’s a thrift-store aspect to the experience. For the eco-warrior, the additional appeal of shopping with less guilt could be had. These clothes were rescued from the brink of death by dye. Muji reworks Muji. Who’d have guessed?

Re-Muji is available at Muji, Ion Orchard. Photos: Galerie Gombak