One Online Option

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


OOS homepage June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen grabs: One Orchard Store. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

The Startling Transformation Of Ying The Label

With help from a fashion design veteran, Phuay Li Ying turns Ying the Label into something even more women would want for National Day or Chinese New Year

Ying the Label before & afterFrom this to that, juvenile to sophisticated: Ying the Label finally adopts fashion, but is it authentic? Photos: Ying the Label/Instagram

People do grow up. Designs do mature. Fruits do ripen. National-Day favourite, Ying the Label, once indistinguishable from the surfeit of brands of comparable aesthetic, has, like buds, blossomed. Or, in tech speak, received an upgrade. Founder Phuay Li Ying has, this year, punched up the sophistication and re-imagined her four-year-old label as ‘designer’. This is possible because Ms Phuay recently “collaborated” with Thomas Wee on ‘Ink’, a capsule collection of indeterminate season. Launched last Saturday—during the month that precedes the Great Singapore Sale—at The Cocoon Space of Design Orchard, the clothes now come under a truncated, monosyllabic, four-letter Ying.

Shortened the brand name may be, but it isn’t immediately clear if it is a long shot of the creativity and finesse one usually sees in fashion described with a capital F. To be sure, every look from the new collection is not anything close to those Ms Phuay created, based—at first—primarily on her water-colour doodles, blotches, smudges, and whatnot. Ying the Label has always had a whiff of the juvenile—her approach, as we saw it, somewhat like playing masak-masak. From her first presentation during Digital Fashion Week in 2015 to her collaboration with another water-colourist Aaron Gan last year, her designs mostly veered into play-play—at most grad-show—territory. They were girlish in the way fashion for a certain demographic had been, and still is. Ms Phuay merely held up a mirror to what was going on in fashion, at a certain price point.

These new clothes—that made up a mere twenty or so looks—now communicate a womanly, even modest, vibe; their designs show a deft hand, their execution a confidence that belie the brand owner’s inadequate experience. To those who are familiar with the work of the co-creators, between them an age gap of some 40 years, it is not clear how collaborative the collection is. At the end of the show, when the five models emerged and stood in one row, something was discernible: the overt sensibility of a master and the obvious lack of active participation of the novice. The DNA is clearly not Ying’s.

Thomas Wee X Ying the Label May 2019Ying X Thomas Wee collaboration. Photo: Ying the Label/Instagram

Some of the attendees of the show had this on their lips: how did Phuay Li Ying come to collaborate with Thomas Wee? Mr Wee is known in the industry to help those designers who need pattern-making expertise, but he is not known to team up with a potential competitor to output a collection, even a really small capsule. According to what has been swirling earlier, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information & Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann—who is a customer of Mr Wee’s—has been the link. It was said that both the Sims and Phuays are family friends, and the senior minister had asked if the veteran designer could help the willing fledgling.

Although Ms Phuay had, by her own admission, taken “part-time courses in Melbourne and Lasalle”, her technical skill, if seen in her finished garments, is not quite on par with those who can churn out a full collection sans a drafting team. This has been the point of contention between her unquestioning supporters and those who think she isn’t quite the sterner stuff that serious fashion design demands. Which comes first: art or the dress?

But in 2017, just two years after Ying the Label was launched, Ms Phuay had become a different designer. She found herself professionally elevated when, encouraged by Sim Ann and her friends, she put out red-and-white dresses, separates, and scarves sporting orchid motifs that can be proudly won on National Day. Ministers and MPs’ wives enthusiastically lent support and wore her label for the NDP.

It was like she had won the Oscar.

Phuay Li Ying's InkThe “Ink” drawing of cherry blossoms that formed the basis of the new Ying capsule. Photo: Ying the Label/ Instagram

While her brand received a huge boost during the National Day celebrations of 2017 with a “Singapore Identity-inspired project to showcase iconic elements of Singapore with sophistication and painterly styles… adorned by our women politicians”, the trajectory of Ying the Label was not exactly flaming like a comet’s.

To be fair, Ms Phuay seemed genuinely interested in dressing Singapore. But how to, as one observer pointed shortly after her National Day designs became somewhat divisive, “with those clothes?” Avoiding the use of the word ‘fashion’ is telling. A few splotches is no start to garment-making and beginning with so-called “art” isn’t the best approach, a former design lecturer told SOTD. We concur: Not many can be Mary Katrantzou. Perhaps the senior minister, became aware of Ms Phuay’s shortcomings and thought that mentoring-as-collaboration might shine a new light on her young charge’s work, if not on her clothes, at least on her water-colour art destined for fabrics.

Thomas Wee's illustration for Ying the Label
Despite her keen interest and her “ immense passion for painting”, it doesn’t appear there is consensus to state that Ms Phuay’s art is compelling. To us, she has not produced anything that one can admire for its complexity, for its distinctive voice, despite the four-year journey. Although her own description of her paintings is often an emotive use of words, the brush strokes are not an emotive use of form. When shown her “ink” work of cherry blossoms, which is the basis for the print in the capsule produced with Mr Wee, a fashion illustrator thought it lacks “tonal value.” And if “you contextualise it, then it might not work for fashion.”

For certain, we are not expecting dramatic washes akin to the work of, say, the Ming painter Xu Wei. Ms Phuay’s painting can be considered oriental, if not specifically Chinese. It is pretty, as one show attendee said, yet we are not sure if its art or illustration. Painting in ink has been very much a part of the Chinese literati, and is often discussed in terms of resonance and vitality, but on the Ying clothes, her drawing is evocative of those on Chinese New Year cards or packaging for moon cakes on the 8th lunar month.

Curiously, despite Ms Phuay’s professed love of drawing, the illustrations (above) for the collaboration are clearly in Mr Wee’s distinctive hand (so is, may we add, styling of the photographic images). It is not known if Mr Wee had a say in the painting that was used, but it was said that he did suggest to Ms Phuay to explore cherry blossoms. Based on our own unscientific observation, the cascade of the flowers and placement of the branches are typical of Mr Wee’s floral-and-leaf compositions if he were to take up a brush to paint directly on fabric.

Ying the Label @ the National LibraryPhuay Li Ying’s designs and illustrations displayed at the National Library last year. Photos: Cecilia Kong

But what is obvious to us is the Thomas Wee silhouette, so distinctive that we can trace it as far back as the spring/summer 2015 season, shown during Digital Fashion Week 2014, a collection steeped in Orientalism and so poetical in its visual lyricism and gorgeous in shapes (still evident up till last year, as seen in the reprisal of sorts for Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week) that it gave many in the audience goosebumps. Back then, nobody would have guessed that a designer of such refined, modern elegance would some day collaborate with another whose style is, at best, daintily enthusiastic.

In all likelihood, Mr Wee does not know how to design with Ms Phuay’s sweet-and-light-as-cotton-candy prints. Nor is he keen on her it’d-be-just-as-cute-as-a-version-for-the-wearer’s-daughter transmutability. It is possible that Ms Phuay provided the ink drawing (with input from Mr Wee) and the rest has been up to the senior designer. Mr Wee took shapes fundamental to Ying and gave them a polish previously not achievable in the hands of Ms Phuay, who has said that she usually keeps “the silhouette simple” as “ultimately” she wants “people to focus on the art (and) the print I create using water colours because I hand-paint them and there is a story behind it.” We can understand why she would want to focus on the art: Ms Phuay is not, foremost, a fashion designer. She may make clothes, but, ultimately, she does not create fashion.

Don’t get us wrong—there is nothing unsound about approaching the rag trade in this manner. There is a market for such clothes, and there are shoppers who see the value in prints first drawn by hands and later digitally rendered on fabric, as well as those who place a premium on prints over design. But it is not clear how Ms Phuay’s “artistic expression via fashion and designing” can elevate her to be placed alongside vocationally strong and artistically gifted designers such as Jessica Lee of Nuboaix or Elizabeth Soon of Ametsubi without the hand-holding of experienced technical masters such as Thomas Wee.

Thomas Wee & Phuay Li YingFront left and right: Thomas Wee and Phuay Li Ying. Photo: source

According to the notes on the show’s invitation, Ink is “a capsule collection representing the permanency of beauty.” It is hard to equate “permanency” with cherry blossoms since the flowers are admired for their fleeting allure. Is this then perpetuation of the clothes themselves? This would be an odd proposition since the designs were probably executed to reflect the present rather than eternity. But based on their ‘classic’ styling and a vague Chinese-ness, it is possible Ms Phuay is hoping to sell the clothes for a very long time to come, especially during times when hint of ethnicity is considered—rightly or not—indicator of nationality.

This must not be construed as sneering. Ms Phuay’s heart is in the right place; her talent, we are, however, not so sure. Although Ying the Label has not climbed to a glorious apogee and we don’t see that happening soon, the brand—now simply Ying—is making gentle waves with the help of a wave maker. To be blunt, the clothes don’t break new ground except, perhaps, help the brand improve sales. It is possible that the shift in design direction is to coincide with a milestone of sort for Ms Phuay: she turned turned 30 this past March (also the month DBS unveiled their new uniforms designed by Ms Phuay). Taste, however, don’t change overnight just as flair doesn’t suddenly appear at sunrise.

It isn’t known if this is a one-off collaboration or ongoing counseling. Nor, whether new tricks can eventually be imparted and, more importantly, learned. Can the difference between Ying and a brand such as Weekend Sundries be merely the former’s “instinctive and arty” prints? Perhaps, these do not matter. Phuay Li Ying had her moment that afternoon. Or, as she posted, “experienced passion, determination, love, patience and so much more in this journey of creation.” If only she knew fashion involves so much more.

The Passive Side

Ying the Label G1

If Ying the Label is named to suggest yin, then a yang in the designs may be what is needed to lift the brand from blandness. Meet, however, the twain did not. Showing for the first time at this year’s Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Ying the Label sent down the catwalk clothes bereft of newness, amusing itself, instead, with the familiar. At the end of the presentation, the Label is just the inert outfit that it is, like so many countless others in an already crowded marketplace catering to the smartphone-totting, selfie-ready clothing consumer. One unremarkable button in a bag of many unremarkable buttons.

What this year’s Digital Fashion Week (DFW) lacked in terms of local designer names, it made up with brands linked to Singapore’s burgeoning fashion e-commerce. Of the four Singaporean fashion labels (shirt maker CYC not included), two of them have their roots in blogs/blog shops. Apart from Ying the Label, there’s Run After, the line conceived by “social-media star” Melissa Celestine Koh and put together with players of the future-undetermined Whole 9 Yards. Fashion born of blogs was having its day.

The look of these labels won’t be alien to DFW’s target audience, as well as the many “influencers” that were invited to the event. In fact, the clothes could have been exhibited as part of an audience-participation segment. The separates or ensembles do not differ from those seen off-runway. You sensed you were watching a sixteen-year-old’s Pinterest page come alive on the catwalk. They, too, were homage to KissJane, to Love and Bravery, to the brands in Taobao. The shows themselves could have been mall productions at Bugis Junction. At some point, they looked like a mise en scène of Sunday in Lucky Plaza.

Ying the Label G2

There’s nothing wrong with churning out clothes that typify the blandness of blog-shops and the preference of their followers. So many of these brand owners (also models of their own brands) have, by their own admission, a “strong passion for fashion, shopping and the social media”. They know what entices their admiring audience and why the latter keeps coming back. Those who make it a habit to visit these online outlets mostly do so out of admiration of the bloggers or blog-shop owners. These are often young, lovely (to look at), and feminine women who have turned their love of self and own clothing choices into successful online businesses. By making purchases at these sites, these consumers are living vicariously through these women; each buy ratifies the seller’s perceived-to-be flawless taste. Question is: do these clothes deserve to be shown on a catwalk of a major fashion event, such as the DFW?

Ying the Label, like so many of its counterparts, work with design acuity and parameters that speak to a community of women between 20 and 30, women whose fashion education is largely provided by the daily updates of bloggers. The clothing choices of these online stars are invariably a kind of sales pitch. The clothes fall into very specific categories: feminine, girly, sweet, cutely-patterned, and moderately sexy.

Designed by social-media-savvy, brand founder Phuay Li Ying, Ying the Label was launched in November last year as “a highly wearable range of clothes which distinguishes itself with a whimsical colour palette and friendly silhouettes”. Its spring/summer 2016 collection succeeded in presenting the same wearability and friendliness; in other words, what have been consistently seen in the blogosphere in at least the past eight years: camisole tops, shell tops, tented slip tops, peplumed tank tops (presently a fave), housewife-y blouses, cute shorts, high-waisted culottes, high-waisted skirts, circle skirts, pleated tulip skirts, and column dress… what you really want to sell online.

Ying the Label G3

To be sure, this is not about Ying the person. Yet, the clothes are largely the results of skills honed through experience rather than training, taste shaped by sisterhood rather than scholarship. The lack of refinement is evident in the details, the finishing, and the proportions. There was a pair of rather shocking knee-length shorts with wide cuffs embellished with over-sized bows at the outseams. Questionable too was the origami rose that appeared like an afterthought just below the end point of the V-back of a sack dress. Attempts at tucks of fabrics on the bodice looked like napkins in the hands of an especially inept hostess.

Consistent with the branding, there were the prints. As explained in Ying the Label’s homepage, “We are not just a designer (sic), we seek to inspire. We sketch, fold, paint, stitch, deliver and celebrate.” The “paint” aspect was intriguing. Playschool paper cutouts that adorned the catwalk were a foretaste of things to come. On the clothes, there were inky lines punctuated by splotchy, coloured dots, vaguely recalling the kitschy work of Jo Soh of Hansel. Referring to those brush-stroke lines, Ms Phuay said, in an interview that was broadcast prior to her show, “Everything is like art.”

You almost believed her.

Photos: Jim Sim