Banking On The Body-Con Baju

AI G1UK-based Eshamuddin Ismail of Ashley Isham continues to show in hometown Singapura even with exposure to a more international audience via London Fashion Week. This willingness to preserve the Singapore connection has endeared him as “one of the most famous Singaporean fashion designers around” or “one of the most prominent figures in fashion” even when fame is not the synonym of prominence.

Earlier this evening, Mr Ismail presented what was essentially a trunk show in the private rooms of the new Robinsons Orchard to a small audience that comprised some members of the media, potential customers, as well as his family. Seated quietly by herself, Mr Ismail’s 62-year-old mother Rokiah Abu looked at the models expressionlessly, perhaps not comprehending what the statuesque women wore—clothes that were so distant from her own pakaian tradisi.

But upon closer scrutiny, the Ashley Isham look was not entirely a contrast to Tradisi, the line of baju kurung and baju kebaya that Mr Ismail debuted during Hari Raya this year. A part of this evening’s showing featured a “preview” of the Spring/Summer 2014 collection that first appeared in September in London’s Freemasons’ Hall (although staged during London Fashion week, it was not part of LFW’s official calendar). So many of the outfits stood out because of their semblance to Malay baju: blouses or tops that ended somewhere between the hip and the knee over straight skirts (sarung!) or what appeared to be skirts due to their separate fabrication, which, when paired, were not unlike the baju kurung; as well as lace and embroidery placements (even on the sampling of men’s wear) that were akin to those typically found on a kebaya top.

AI G2To give the clothes a less ethnic appearance, Mr Ismail used rain wear fabrics such as PVC, but that did not take away the obvious. It is not an impairment to design judgement when Asian motifs and shapes are employed, but the challenge for designers based far away from home is one of judicious use. How much is too much? How clear without being derivative? How blatant before it appears too keen to pander to Western sense of Eastern exotica? In forging a recognisable Asian identity, Mr Ismail wasn’t heavy-handed with his silhouettes and details, but neither was he merely hinting. Naturally, he is not expected to totally abandon his roots, but heading West, in his case, was to become “an international designer” which could mean a less geography-centric attachment. It is admirable that Mr Ismail has never refuted his Southeast Asian source of inspiration, but the obvious could suggest ideas coming from the obtuse.

Ashley Isham, once stocked at the now defunct Link, has, since its inception 13 years ago, been a about a certain shapeliness that would do Saloma (the famous singer who was P. Ramlee’s last wife) proud. By his own admission, his designs are aimed at the femme fatale. The goddess dress and its various interpretations—his catwalk staple—clearly has a destination: the red carpet. Although based in London, his work shows not a bit of wit or quirk or irony that the city, as a fashion capital, is associated with. Instead, he packs so much sexiness in most of his designs that it would not be immoderate to assume that they came out of Los Angeles.

AI G3The real reason for this evening’s display is the line Mr Ismail has developed for Robinsons. Called Draperie (above), it is his first collaboration with a department store. According to Doris Loh, the store’s women’s wear merchandise manager, who had approached the designer directly in London to conceive Draperie, “he was very enthusiastic and supportive and keen” and undeterred by the extremely short time to assemble the collection, which Ms Loh said was partly made in England and partly made locally. The show is also testament to Robinsons’s believe in the Ashley Isham label although the main line is available diagonally across the street in Orchard Central, and despite the failure of Mr Ismail’s earlier attempt at a diffusion line, AI (FJ Benjamin was appointed as the buying house then). The AI store in Mandarin Gallery was shuttered last year. For many, it is hard to recall what AI was about except for the unusually large label stitched to the clothes.

While it is clear that Mr Ismail is trying to avoid his usual overly sexy aesthetics with a more geometric and technical approach to design, as evident in his A/W 2013 collection, the pared down treatment seemed like a token dodge.  He is not by nature a minimalist designer. As such, Draperie’s clean-lined pieces seem unconvincing only because you know they have been done before. The shell-top fashioned after a tee (with leather thrown in the mix of fabrics) recall a London-based English designer’s earlier output for a certain French label; the shirt with contrast bodice that were at one time prevalent in the collections of a German designer who left her house only to return again (and again); and the jersey dresses that share similar drapes with the staid styles of Mphosis: these, of course, have become standards of retail racks and they mirror market wants rather than design savvy. In this respect, one suspects the unseen but deft hands of Robinsons’s merchandising team supervising the development of the line.

Draperie, a name that reflects the Ashley Isham penchant for drapery, is noticeably a saleable line that is well merchandised, and not badly made. If the excited response of the invited guests to the clothes placed strategically at the event’s holding area, just by the exit, was any indication, the new label is off to a good start.

Draperie by Ashley Isham is available exclusively at Robinsons Orchard, level 3

Is The New Robinsons The Best Department Store in Singapore?

Level 1_Beauty & ConciergeOur city’s second oldest* department store has a new home. The grande dame has, interestingly, moved into what was once a retail hub for the young: The Heeren. So without a trace of the building’s juvenile past is the current abode that what came before Robinsons Orchard (as it is now called) is nearly completely obliterated. As my shopping companion said, “only HMV and Marché come to mind now.” The new store yields so much swank that it is able to stretch Orchard Road’s high-end quotient further south, away from the epicentre that is Ion Orchard.

The last time I stepped into Robinsons at its other address on the same street—Centrepoint, where it has stood for thirty years (and will continue to do so till next year when the lease expires), it was to go to the only haberdashery in this part of town. And that was at least, if not more than, two decades ago. While Robinsons is one of our city’s most recognisable names in retail, with a 155-year history, it was not the island’s trendiest shopping destination, and clearly off the fashion radar on Orchard Road.

Despite attempts at a makeover, with stores such as the one in Raffles City and the now-closed branch at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Robinsons had not been adept at adapting to changing times. Talk among retailers prior to last Friday’s opening was that its latest incarnation would be fashioned after Lane Crawford as the man currently helming Robinsons, Franz Kraatz, was from the posh Hong Kong store. This speculation spawn skepticism as few believe a Lane Crawford would work in Singapore since the consumers here are known to be very price-conscious. It was doubt augmented by the fact that Lane Crawford did establish itself here with a 200,000 sq ft outpost at Wheelock Place (then known as Lane Crawford Place) in 1994, only to close 3 years later, during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Level 2_Ladies' Shoes & AccessoriesAs it turns out, Robinsons Orchard has not lived up to the rumours. Unlike Lane Crawford, which today positions itself as a “specialty store” (aka mega-boutique), the six-level Robinsons Orchard is conceived closer to a conventional department store. Standing across the street at the junction of Orchard Road and Grange Road, and looking across at the building’s new glass-window exterior, I thought it looked more like a mall than a store. But once inside, the nondescript façade belies the international modernity that awaits. And the undressed glass windows make sense: the side along Orchard Road from the second floor up affords a calming and attractive view of the trees outside Mandarin Gallery, the very same trees that every evening are the site of our own conference of the birds.

While the first floor, allocated to cosmetics—a conventional zoning plan, reminds me of the old Robinsons, the other levels clearly broke free from what the store was used to. Its design speaks to a well-travelled shopper, with motifs culled from European furniture such as the French armoire that inspired the open, shelved cabinets and the Chesterfields in the men’s floor that suggest a gentlemen’s club. Some ideas reflect current trends in retail design: the preference for breaking the flow of a space with an unexpected ‘housing’ as seen in the woman’s jeans section, a treatment first expressed in London’s Dover Street Market, and, in the men’s shirt department, a display cabinet (featuring a miniature dinosaur skeleton) that brings to mind those used in the Comme Des Garcons Trading Museum in Tokyo, which are on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Level 3_Women's WearWhat would impress the first-time visitor is the staggering number of labels Robinsons Orchard stocks. The store has been touting the figure 382, of which 287 are exclusive. Most of the new labels are found in the women’s department on levels two and three. According to one of the merchandising managers, on level three, the percentage of outright purchase (products bought directly by the store) is 60% versus 40% consignment. That is an unusually high figure as department stores traditionally adopt a distribution model that gives greater weight to consignment than what they would buy outright since the latter means greater capital and larger inventory to manage.

But that is no concern of the regular shopper. Robinsons Orchard’s breadth (rather than depth) in merchandising results in a brand and product mix that is lively and sometimes surprising: qualities now quite lost in the department store retail format. The buyers would like you to believe that they have carefully ‘curated’ the selections since there is no underlying theme to the choices they make, but it is this happy, trendy hotchpotch that sets the store apart. It is interesting to note that Lane Crawford was the first store here to entice shoppers with a ‘curated’ selection of products, but, as a merchandising concept, it was too ahead for Singapore then. It is still uncertain if a store’s own discretionary merchandising trumps one that is market-led.

Level 4_Men's WearThe labels they carry are too numerous to list here. The store offers not what some retailers like to call “affordable luxury”, but accessible luxury. In this respect, it is less treasure trove and more of a bazaar of high-end and mid-priced brands, high-street names, edgy labels and new talents. With a layout not based on a grid, which can be too formal, and sales people that are refreshingly friendly, it unzips the uptightness sometimes associated with an upscale store. The way to enjoy Robinsons Orchard is to be swarmed by the many products you have not previously encountered. Whether a pair of Manolo Blahnik kitty heels or an Elizabeth & James sweatshirt of floral silk chiffon and heather grey cotton, what can be found, if not bought, elicits the typical reaction: “there is a lot to see!”

A department store, unlike a supermarket, is not an everyday destination where you go in, get what you want, and leave. In the format refined by the Japanese, and strengthened by the Europeans, it is a self-contained space with a retail culture that encourages shoppers to stay and spend time there. This is possible though a merchandise plan that offers variety and newness, and visual merchandising finesse that allows a sense of discovery and encourages touching and learning.

Robinsons Orchard, as of now, seems to be such a store.

*For you trivia buffs, the oldest department store in Singapore is John Little. It was opened in 1845 on Commercial Square, the present Raffles Place