What Happened, Dennis Tay?

How did our island’s biggest supporter of local designs become national bad guy?

At the entrance of the now-closed Naiise Iconic store in Jewel Changi, a brown sign in white san-serif font welcomed visitors with the proclamation: “Here we celebrate local design, creativity and community. Happy shopping and have a #Naiise day!” It was such personableness than endeared many shoppers to the retail brand. The sign-off in that notice read, “Love, Team Naiise.” With the massive 9,500 sq ft (882.5 sq m), two-storey store now shut for good, many shoppers and those who had dealings with the retailer wondered what happened to that celebration. “No one is celebrating now,” many were saying, certainly not when defaulted payments to many of the store’s consignors may no longer be recovered as Naiise goes into liquidation and the high-profile company winds down. A puzzling turn of events, eight years in the making.

Despite long-standing issues with paying consignors that allegedly go back to even before the reported 2016 start making media rounds last year, Dennis Tay Chi Wai (郑志伟) was hailed as a flag bearer of Singaporean designs across many product categories and the operator of the largest online and physical store of its kind here. One editorial in Life of The Straits Times in 2016 described “Mr Tay proving his business chops and Naiise making S$30,000 in its first year”. In the same article, his wife Amanda Eng was quoted calling him a “visionary boss”. But on 9 April, six years later, a couple of videos was shared on-line of a group of debt chasers in pursuit of Mr Tay, the founder and CEO of Naiise.

The showdown took place in the carpark of Jewel Changi, above which the HSBC rain vortex was doing its equally attention-grabbing job. Below ground, the view of Mr Tay, often blocked or cut off, almost supplicating to the debt hounds, was one of unbelievable wretchedness. The debtor was being grilled by the much younger man, who had a commanding lead in the confrontation. That was quite a sight, considering that just three years ago, Mr Tay was in Tatler’s Gen T list of 2018 (that “recognises 400 leaders of tomorrow who are shaping Asia’s future”). He shared the accolade alongside regional retail notables such as Barom Bhicharnchitr (son of Central Department Store Group CEO Yuwadee Chirativat), MD of the Bangkok mall Central Embassy and the Naiise-ish Central: The Original Store, as well as Gary Chen Wenhao (陈文豪) of Gentspace, the Shanghai-based menswear lifestyle store, including Gentspace Casa, with branches throughout China.

Naiise at PLQ, two weeks before it abruptly closed. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

In the same year, The Peak reported that Naiise’s topline figure for 2017 was “between S$4 to 5 million”. According to Mr Tay, as the article continued, “70 percent of the sales came from brick-and-mortar stores.” If the off-line business was this lucrative, no one understood why Naiise was unable to pay their consignors. An article in The Straits Times quoted an employer saying that “it was constant fire fighting. If we paid supplier A, we could not pay supplier B. The outlook wasn’t great, which is why many of us left in 2016.” By now, the question that kept going unanswered was, “what happened to the money made from the sales?”. Allegations—fueled by anger—were rife that Mr Tay was not forthcoming with the company’s finances. Some frustrated brand owners were amazed with “the great success” Mr Tay had made himself out to be in the media despite financial troubles in the office. Some started warning others not to believe what they read.

While news of non- or delayed payments to consignors were making the rounds, damaging chatter of paying employees late, too, started appearing on social media. One person, posting on Glassdoor in September 2016, said that the “pay (was) late” and that there was “no CPF”. But five months earlier, Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, posted holiday shots that showed the couple basking in Bali, in the upscale Soori resort, which World Luxury Hotel Awards and France 24 described as “best luxury beach-front resort hotel in Asia” and Financial Times calling it “no.1 luxury hotel for design” (hence, the appeal to the Tays?). Bali became a favourite vacation spot (the Maldives next). Between 2016 and 2019, there were five known holiday trips to the Indonesian island. When they were in London in 2017 to open the UK pop-up in Shoreditch, they stayed in the hipster hotel The Hoxton, described by the British media as “upscale”. It is understandable why there were so many—in the company and outside—who were affected by the unabashed display.

At the end of 2018, when news emerged that Naiise was selected as operator of the soon-to-be-opened Design Orchard, many in retail received it with disbelief. At the press conference in the new year to announce the launch of Design Orchard, Mr Tay was confident of his ability to make his new retail charge a great success. He said, “we have experience in the retail industry; we are relatively close to the design community; we have created design showcases for the last six years.” When asked about his poor payment record, he said, “What happened was that there was some gaps in the company, so we had internal issues—there are a lot of process failures… we are essentially resolving it by basically looking at the foundation…” Resolving? Not resolved? “No, it has not been resolved.” Eleven months after Design Orchard opened, Naiise at Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ) was launched. When we visited the store just before Christmas and saw the bustling footfall, we wondered—like others earlier, how could he be in debt?

Design Orchard in 2019, under the watch of Naiise. File photo: SOTD

Dennis Tay was born in 1985 to a remisier father and a school teacher mother. By his own telling, he was “a playful kid” and, as recounted in a video interview with The Ice Cream & Cookie Co., posted in YouTube in 2018, it was “a memorable childhood, growing up in a condo with a large and really strong community—kampung spirit.” According to ST, the family was staying in a “HDB maisonette in Bukit Batok.” Mr Tay claimed that, since young, he “had an interest in entrepreneurship.” He told The Business Times in 2017, “in primary school, I was selling erasers.” Even with the ardent vending, he finished the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) with a respectable score of 213 (over 300) and was admitted to Tanglin Secondary School. In the ST feature, he reported that his “first mini business (began) at the age of 17—doing tutor matching services.” It was also at that age that he met his future wife Amanda Eng, when both were school mates at Anderson Junior College. Into adulthood, he “started an events company when (he) was about 22, and co-founded a creative agency a few years after.” Mr Tay went to SIM-RMIT University, where he graduated with a bachelor in business, majoring in entrepreneurship in 2013.

Six months before graduating, he began planning the birth of Naiise. The business started in January 2013 with the by-now-famous seed money of S$3,000, which he grew to the even more glorious and just-as-noted S$30,000 in the first year, all managed from his bedroom in his parents’ flat. In 2016, just three years after he launched Naiise, he reportedly “made”, as the press ambiguously described, an enviable S$5 million. But the rosy picture was just that: rosy. In one report in The New Paper in 2018, “Naiise had failed to pay at least four companies”. According to TNP, Mr Tay’s business “was transitioning from a startup to a full-fledged company.” Two years later, BT stated that, back then, money from sold consignment was already owed “despite its core operating revenues growing by more than 40 per cent year on year.”

At the start, Mr Tay ran a one-man operation. After that encouraging first year, his JC mate Amanda Eng joined him in various roles, not initially defined. Ms Eng went to Raffles Girls Secondary School and after JC, continued her studies at the National University of Singapore, where she graduated in business administration. According to her, it was during their undergraduate days that they started dating. Before teaming up with Mr Tay, she worked between Singapore and Hong Kong as an equity research analyst, with an eye on Chinese Internet stocks. She made one more stop before her tenure at Naiise: the e-commerce platform Zalora, as their marketing director. In 2015, the colleagues of two years and couple of ten got married in a wedding happily covered by the media. Two years later, Mrs Tay was appointed the retailer’s buying and marketing director. In no time, her artful management—just like the company’s payment defaults—began appearing on social media: “The boss’ (sic) wife,” in one Glassdoor entry in 2018, “began to meddle a little in everything… her methods winds (sic) up rubbing people the wrong way.” In 2020, Mrs Tay suddenly stepped down from her post. She joined Shopee as their regional marketing head. Her husband told BT that “she has proceeded to venture out to pursue other options for her career.”

Naiise Iconic, shortly after it opened in 2019. File photo: SOTD

Dennis Tay, according to those who have dealt with him, is personable and chatty, and is often all teeth and smiles. He is convincing and appears to be deeply passionate about design although, as one brand manager who had once presented merchandise to him told us, “he has a loose definition of what design is. At first look, you won’t guess he is a seller of nice things.” A former operations manager wrote on Glassdoor, “Dennis is a charismatic person who constantly manipulates his employees, many who are fresh-grads into working long unpaid hours. He’s been pocketing a lot more than he lets on but when pay (is to be) given always tells us that ‘it’s been a bad month’ and then tries to psychologically sway us that everyone is in it together.” An ex-journalist told us that the Naiise founder “is a charmer. He is eloquent, has an answer for everything, and will give you a good interview. He just knows what to say.” And, as reporters and consignors noted, he always had a probable answer for every question asked about the allegations of payment defaults.

But despite the many editorial profiles (the Tays love write-ups about them, such as the regular plugs by friend Jacky Yap, the founder of Vulcan Post), it can’t be said people really knew the entrepreneur, or how he truly viewed fiscal prudence. In a 2015 article posted on dbs.com, Mr Tay said, “I actually don’t have secrets. I’ve built Naiise to be an open and transparent company, so everyone, including my employees, know everything about me.” Yet, when brand owners wanted to reach him, they were met with an opaque wall. Many complained that he would not answer calls, text messages, and e-mails. In April 2015, Mr Tay wrote on Facebook, “One of my greatest joys of being at Naiise is that everyday, I get to see customers walk in, smile and discover the amazing things that we sell.” Can retail be so one-sided, some now wonder? Does Mr Tay not want to see his consignors walk in, smile, and see the amazing things sold and them, consequently, receive payment?

In the beginning, Dennis Tay had frequently and proudly called his company a “bootstrapped” one (business with little or no outside cash or built from the ground up with just personal money). To augment that description, his wife Amanda Eng told Yahoo News that Naiise was developed “slowly and by saving every cent we could.” By the time they pulled out of Design Orchard last July and closed the PLQ store in the same month, few gave credence to those assertions. A lover of motivational quotes, Mr Tay is fond of placing them prominently in his office and also to share them online. One stood out: “Dream. Believe. Do. Repeat.” Those who have been owed money were sure he chose the last. In a Facebook post that appeared after announcing that Naiise will totally cease operations, Mr Tay started by saying, “It has been an extremely difficult two years, and the last few weeks have been the darkest of my life.” Reaction to this: “sob story”. By now, no one believed him.

Illustration: Just So

When Naiise Isn’t So Nice

For a long time, the retailer Naiise was not fine and certainly not dandy. Now, they have reportedly defaulted on paying vendors—again, some up to ten grand. Citing woes as a result of the ongoing pandemic, its flagship in Jewel Changi ceases operation today. Is that just a neat way to bow out?

The two-storey behemoth, Naiise at Jewel, not long after it opened in May 2019. File photo: SOTD

Naiise today. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

It doesn’t pay to be Naiise. That might be a pun in poor taste, but for many vendors who did business with the former operator of Design Orchard, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Naiise has not enjoyed a sterling reputation as a retailer who paid their consignors on time and consistently enough. According to recent media reports, the company owed “hundreds of vendors” payment for sold merchandise, with some “up to S$10,000”. Things are dire enough for their last retail operation in Jewel Changi that its doors opened for the last time yesterday (the same fate befell on their Paya Lebar Quarter store last year). The Business Times attributed the closure to “ongoing struggle to pay its vendors”. But some, reacting to the statement, noted that “the struggle has been going on for years.” In one 2018 The New Paper report, Naiise has been “defaulting on payment since 2016”. In a Facebook post shortly after the TNP story, jewellery brand Tessellate Co asked, “Is it fair for Naiise to owe us nine months of sales payment since October 2017?” Many retailers are curious to know how Naiise have been able to “keep this up for so long” when finance professionals generally consider three months of no (or late) payment a default.

Observers had noted that the shuttering of the Naiise flagship store in Jewel, announced two days ago, “is a matter of time”. The chatter among them as early as January, when news again emerged in the media of was that Naiise’s physical store is not “sustainable”, given the extant of payment issues with their consignors that now go back to the time Naiise was operating Design Orchard until last August. A little earlier, in 2018, five years after Naiise was born, and the company’s problems came to light, main man Dennis Tay told the media that his business was transitioning from a start-up to a full-grown enterprise. Retail folks and brand owners are wondering: Naiise is eight years old, are they still in transition?

It goes without saying that brands, especially the small ones, need to be paid to continue to do what they do. One designer told SOTD, “many of us need fast cash to make ends meet.” The frustrations with tardy (or no) payment led to more than a hundred of those with settlement issues to participate in a Facebook page (private) Naiise Vendors so that their grievances could be heard. Some brand owners claimed that repeated calls and emails to the Naiise office went unanswered. Capital Gains Studio, a games publisher, for example, shared on Facebook that they are “owed money since 2018… and our monthly email chaser are (sic) generally ignored”. One brand owner (believed to be Bespoke Parfums Artisanaux, said to be owed the 10 grand) was so frustrated with the retailer that they sent debt collectors to get back what’s owed to them, with the proceedings recorded and posted on Facebook to gain public attention and corporate humiliation for Naiise.

Naiise Iconic back then, with merchandise from brands who believed in them. File photos: SOTD

Fashion was a large category at Naiise Iconic, but the merchandise moved slowly. File photo: SOTD

The debt recovery is—if we go by Singapore Debt Collection SDCS’s Facebook posts—a social and socially accessible exercise. Debt chasers dispatched to Naiise at Jewel videoed their hunt and posted it on FB two days ago. “Please stay tuned, like, and share,” they urged. The quartet of twentysomething guys (plus a videographer), whose demeanour seemed no different from those associated with loan sharks, and were styled in a manner that even Mediacorp’s costume unit can’t do better (fake LV mask improperly worn, gold jewellery and fancy watches, monogram messenger bag and Kenzo jogger of indeterminate provenance, and even a tall, sparse, rigid mohawk do!), had wanted to make their demands in the store, but was told to meet the debtor in the car park. The guys tracked their target while giving a running commentary in Singlish, Singdrin, and Hokkien. Those who represented Naiise appeared to be the boss Dennis Tay, as well as a “financial adviser”, and a woman, speculated to be Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, who, too, videoed the confrontation.

It is hilarious to see the two men who clearly look like senior members of the management of Naiise near-beseeching the youngsters to be sympathetic to the former’s predicament, even to the point of addressing the clearly younger sole inquirer 大哥 (dage or big brother). Mr Tay, in a cream-coloured Uniqlo U tee, said, “I had actually in the past few months; I have also been putting money back into the company, to help the company. But now I am also empty. I don’t have deep pocket (sic).” If not for the clothes and the underground carpark in which the scene unfolded, the samsengness (even when of the chief money collector assured his target, “We are not gangsters, ah”) of the proceedings could lead one to believe this was action straight out of a movie from the 1970s. Unscripted and unfiltered, it was better than any reality TV, past and present.

For tourists, Naiise Iconic was an interesting gift shop. File photo: SOTD

Purchases were made, but payment to vendors reportedly not. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Dennis Tay, describing himself on LinkedIn as he who “founded Naiise and continue(s) to play a critical role in driving Naiise’s growth to become one of the region’s largest and fastest growing omni-channel marketplaces, generating SGD10mn annual revenue”, has previously said that the payment problems to consignors were due to “some gaps in the company and internal issues”. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll, his business, as he told Today, “never recovered”. But those who have been following Naiise’s rise from humble online business to multi-location pop-ups (their first, in 2014, was on the roof top of People’s Park Complex, as part of an “urban farm”) to permanent stores (including Design Orchard), were surprised that the company’s weak financial management could have gone uncorrected for this long. Or that there are brands, now also as affected by the pandemic, who knew not of Naiise’s tendency to issue late, very late, or no payments. It is an ironic turn of events, considering that Ms Eng told Yahoo News in 2019, “we realise that we are also responsible for our employees, our designers, our community.” Similarly, Mr Tay told Malaysian media a year earlier that “what we are doing is empowering creative entrepreneurs, enabling them to do what they love to do and making it sustainable…” Many of the affected brands now wonder, how can “it”—presumably their businesses—be sustained when they have received no payment due?

Despite the debts, Naiise continued to expand locally and also, in 2017, into Kuala Lumpur, in the retro-trendy ‘village’ of Kampung Attap, west of the capital city. In the same year, they even opened a 1,000-sq ft pop-up in The Old Truman Brewery, located in the hipster area of Shoreditch, East London. You can understand why landlords, leasing managers, and government agencies were easily and readily impressed with them. On LinkedIn, Mr Tay stated that he was “awarded government contracts for Design Orchard and Naiise Iconic at Jewel”. If so, these have been two failed government-linked deals. We understand that Naiise Iconic was “supported by Enterprise Singapore”. It is surprising that the awardee was able to secure these projects with strong national branding despite the company’s unfavourable track record.

An ex-staffer shared on Reddit that the store “cannot hit the daily quota of sales.” Through Glassdoor, a former retail associate wrote that “sometimes it feels as though the entire company is run by a bunch of secondary school kids”. One source familiar with the Naiise merchandising team had said to SOTD that, for some, it was a “nightmare” working there, as the “missus interfered with the daily operations”. Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, stepped down as chief marketing and buying officer last May; she later joined Shopee as regional marketing lead. Ms Eng’s departure was presumed to be planned so as not to have her implicated in the company’s financial woes. And, as some have noted, “better to have one spouse with a salary”. When asked by the head debt collector, as seen in the Facebook post, if Naiise was doing a Robinsons, Mr Tay’s suit-wearing companion said, “It is exactly like Robinsons.”

Lights out on Naiise Iconic. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Left for the liquidators? Photo: Zhao Xiangji

In 2016, way before their Robinsons strategy, Dennis Tay and Amanda Eng was placed 15th on ST’s Life Power List (that year, Nathan Hartono, fresh from Sing! China, scored 1st). By then, husband and wife had become media darlings, and appeared to enjoy the flowing publicity. Ms Eng was Mr Tay’s first employee two years earlier. The couple met in Anderson Junior College (now merged with Serangoon JC as Anderson Serangoon JC) when they were 17, dated on and off, and tied the knot in 2015 (their “$50K in total [excluding our honeymoon]” wedding was reported in Singapore Brides). Both were known to be very hands-on in the Naiise pop-ups. The two, who admitted to being not design savvy in the beginning, mostly—according to some of those who had supplied to them—“have an eye for the kitschy”. A few who had interfaced with Mr Tay thinks he’s “a Beng at heart”. Naiise took in anything any local brand or designer had to sell. The stores did not really have a distinct point of view nor did the couple have curatorial flair. Their biggest showcase—9,500 sq ft, spread over two floors—at Jewel went by the grandiose name Naiise Iconic Singapore. At launch, Naiise claimed that they were offering a “new retail concept”, but, as one buyer told SOTD, “just because they had never operated on this scale or attempted some semblance of merchandising before did not make anything in the Jewel outlet new.” When we first visited the store back in June 2019, we thought it was the Orchard Central pop-up, circa 2014, all over again, except in a swankier space, with an eye on tourists.

On Facebook, Naiise announced two days ago that there was a storewide 20% discount (and an additional 10% with purchase above S$150 in a single receipt). Their last post on Friday was a plug for modest fashion brand AJ Flora that was participating in a curiously scheduled, in-store event Pasar Iconic this weekend. Why hold it when they knew Saturday was their last day? AJ Flora’s proprietor Atiqah Jasman was caught off-guard, saying on Facebook that “due to some unforeseen circumstances /hiccups. The last day of operation of the booth will be today. We hope to clear at least 1/2 of our stocks there so do come down and support us! There will be no booth going on tomorrow at the outlet as it is closing down.” Naiise made no mention on Facebook of the 23-month-old Jewel store’s permanent closure. They are, as of today, no longer listed in Jewel’s directory. The airport mall told the media that “a tenant has been found to take over the space”. Surely not in the past three days?

According to news reports, Naiise will continue to operate their e-stores. A check on their website showed that business is as usual. Their UK website seems to be in service too. In KL, the store closed last September, after three years of operation. This morning, in busy Jewel, a sign on Naiise Iconic’s front door read, “SORRY WE ARE CLOSED. HAVE A NAIISE WEEK! :)”. Seated at neighbour Starbucks Reserve, we chatted with a fellow coffee drinker, who had quite a few shopping bags with her. Have you ever been to Naiise? We were gripped with curiosity. “Got lah, but nothing to buy,” she said. They have closed down. “Aiya, sooner or later,” sounding as if to say, “why are you surprised?” She added, “I don’t see people going inside, mah.” You don’t think they have nice things? “Okay, lah, but not very useful, leh.” Where do you go to when you wish to buy useful things? “Daiso, lor.”

Update (15 April 2021, 2pm): according to the latest media reports, Naiise will wind up all businesses. A liquidator has been appointed. Dennis Tay will also file for personal bankruptcy

Update (16 April 2021, 5pm): Naiise UK website now says “website under maintenance”. The Malaysian webpage, which still had a landing page until 11 April now announces “opening soon”. Ditto for the Singaporean site

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