How often do you notice a “Made in Singapore” tag on your clothes, especially when it comes to local brands? Not often, we reckon. Manufacturing garments here poses its own challenges, such as higher production costs. Yet, some homegrown labels are pushing on.
To celebrate National Day (and to #supportlocal), we’ve rounded up five local fashion labels that are producing their clothes (and accessories) here in Singapore. Find out why they continue to do so despite the challenges, and how they’re moving forward in these times.
Photography Tan Wei Te
Art direction Debby Kwong
Set up by Nigerian-Italian Ify Ubby, OliveAnkara is known for its tailored and structured separates in bright African prints and statement earrings – a homage to Ify’s roots.
After completing her PhD in Italy and moving to Singapore in 2013 to pursue a career in cancer research, she struggled to find 100 per cent cotton African wax prints, known as Ankara, to make her wedding dress. So, she decided to import the fabric and make her own African-inspired wear.
Inspired by the melting pot of cultures in Singapore, she went on to start her label here in 2017 in hopes that her pieces can be worn by women of all races.
Pictured here: Cotton wrap pants, $179
Before Ify made OliveAnkara a full-time endeavour in January 2019, she was juggling her postdoctoral work at the National Cancer Centre Singapore and running the business. Producing locally was most efficient as she cut out the middleman.
“I wanted to be able to connect with the seamstresses and be able to talk through small adjustments face-to-face,” she says.
She works with five local seamstresses in their 60s, who all work from home, and says she values their feedback.
“Some can be a bit conservative and they tell me upfront that something might be too revealing!”
The label operates on two sustainability-driven pillars: slow fashion, by producing in very limited quantities; and zero waste, by repurposing fabric scraps into earrings and scrunchies. It typically makes one piece per size per print, as Ify says: “My prints are very bold and no one wants to walk into a bar and see 10 other people wearing the exact same design.”
As her materials are all here, she easily pivoted her zero waste project into the production of masks during the pandemic. The masks, which she makes at home, have also been donated to at-risk individuals, while 10 per cent of sales go to charity organisations.
Pictured here: Cotton long top, $309
The brand currently offers over 20 designs of cheongsams for customers to create made-to-order pieces, and a collection of “Afromonos” – kimonos made with African prints, but Ify aims to expand its ethnic wear selection to include Malay and Indian designs.
She’s also exploring ways to make her apparel sustainable starting from the fabric source.
From $149 for a top to $369 for outerwear, at www.oliveankara.com and #01-02, 79 Chay Yan Street.
Pictured here: Cotton shorts, $159
Fashion media and industries graduate Caroline Justine, 25, came up with her handmade jewellery brand as a medium to convey positive messages through her fun designs, incorporating natural gemstones, freshwater pearls and glass beads.
What started out as a school project in 2014 during her student days at Lasalle College of the Arts ended up as serious business, with her label being stocked at stores in Singapore as well as Malaysia (Snackfood) and Tokyo (Tokyuhands).
Pictured here: Fruits collection earrings, $30 per pair
Caroline says she produces locally to cut cost and save time. “Materials can be expensive in Singapore, so I produce the pieces in-house to cut out middleman costs,” she says.
“Apart from having control over the workmanship, production time is shortened so we can send out orders faster,” she says.
Though it’s mainly a one-woman show, a handful of stakeholders are involved. She enlists the help of silversmiths in Bangkok, and works with partners in Japan and China for materials like beads and gemstones. Her mother and sister also help out in the studio. Caroline also relies on other factors to keep prices down.
“Customers help by requesting for less packaging or making trips down to our pop-ups to pick up the accessories,” she says.
The brand is now transitioning to a made-to- order basis to reduce wastage. Her proudest achievement was participating in the Design Festa jewellery fair in Tokyo in 2019, where locals gave affirmative responses and shared memories of visits to Singapore. She says:
“It made me feel proud to be a Singaporean. I love how 3125 brings people together, regardless of where we’re from.”
Pictured here: Freshwater pearl necklaces, $55 each
With the pandemic causing physical stores to close and more brands turning to social media, Caroline says she felt insecure that her brand would be lost in a sea of capable brands.
“Identity is a challenge for many Singapore labels,” she says. So she’s been rolling out more lifestyle instead of product-centric content to encourage interaction.
She’s also working on packaging and visual merchandising aids “to give customers a better brand experience.”
From $10 to $89, at www.threeonetwofive.com, Essential Extra at #01-40 OUE Downtown Gallery, and Gather Stores at #01-28 North Bridge Centre.
Pictured here: Gold-plated hoops, $22-$24 per pair
Offering elegant summer gear from dresses to beach cover-ups and kimonos, womenswear label Akosee was started by Anna McBride in 2015 out of her love for travel (the name is an acronym for her favourite destinations: Australia, Kerala, Orpheus Island, Sunshine Beach, Essaouira). The brand got its start by collaborating with boutique resort Azura Retreats on a men’s swim shorts collection.
The resort later became a stockist for Akosee’s first capsule women’s collection, and the brand has grown from strength to strength since, stocked at boutiques in Singapore as well as hotels and resorts in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Monaco, Mozambique, New Zealand, Seychelles, and the US.
Pictured here: Cotton corset dress, $350
The brand didn’t start with local production, but the pandemic helped Anna see things differently. From its latest collection titled Monochrome Stories onwards, half the pieces will be made in Singapore, and half in Indonesia.
She says: “During this slower period, we realised we had the time and resources to produce part of it ourselves. This means complete control over production, and it’s easy to make changes quickly.”
While Anna hopes to increase the ratio of production in Singapore, the shift is gradual as the brand does not work with factories.
“We do all the pattern- and samplemaking here,” she says.
This is also in line with Akosee’s main goal: sustainability. In-house production cuts carbon emission by reducing the need for air transportation.
“We hope to be more transparent with our supply chain and be able to share this with customers,” says Anna.
Pictured here: Viscose A-line maxi skirt, $290
The label is moving forward with its sustainability goals by using existing fabric for its next collection.
“We’ll design around the materials we already have,” says Anna. “We also have exciting upcycled designs coming up.”
From $190 to $450 at www.akosee.com, Design Orchard, 250 Orchard Road, as well as Therapy Market at #02-311 Marina Square and #02-129/130 Great World City.
Pictured here: Cotton and polyester maxi dress, $450
Set up in 2018, the womenswear label is known for its timeless pieces that transition easily from day to night. Founder Wu Kailing, 31, says she hopes to offer staple pieces for every woman regardless of her style. The label also prides itself on comfort.
The Raffles Design Institute graduate says: “Almost all our pieces are fully lined, and we put as much thought into the lining as the designs we create. In fact, the lining fabric we use sometimes costs as much as the external fabric! Many customers keep returning as they love the comfort and quality.”
Pictured here: Cotton blouse, $99
According to Kailing, producing here gives her full control over every step of the process to ensure a high quality output. And working with a local manufacturer means she can meet them often to discuss designs and adjustments for the perfect fit.
“They are always around and easy to communicate with,” she says.
She works with a husband-and-wife-run factory recommended by a friend in the industry – proving useful the connections she made in her two years as a fashion buyer and five in fashion marketing before starting The Form.
“Being made in Singapore helps reduce waste, as we focus on producing in smaller quantities that are high quality, instead of mass producing in lower quality,” she says.
Kailing also sees it as a statement: “We are a country with many great designers and brands, and we’re able to hold our own against international brands.”
Still, it’s not without challenges. Strict regulations on ethical production and wages in Singapore means it’s costlier than in countries like China or Malaysia.
“But as a local business owner, I know how important it is to support local, especially in these times,” she says.
Pictured here: Polyester loose fit pants, $129
The slump in the fashion industry caused by the pandemic was a sobering reminder to innovate. Instead of relying on brick and mortar stores, The Form is now working on streamlining the online purchase process, including fast delivery and returns. The brand is looking to make it a permanent service.
As photoshoots were out of the picture during Circuit Breaker, Kailing took to modelling her own pieces on IG stories (linked to her product pages). The warm response to her DIY shoots has motivated her to get creative.
Her mantra: “When change breaks us out of the norm, it can shape us into something stronger.”
From $79 for a top to $249 for a blazer, at www.theform.com.sg and Level 2 Tangs at Tang Plaza.
Pictured here: Silk satin slip skirt, $129
“Made for women by women,” says Sihui Chua, 32, of her womenswear label. Founded in 2019, Hher reinvents classics by fusing feminine and masculine elements to create minimal and eclectic pieces. The name is a reinvention of the word “her” to include the founder’s initial and the word “he”.
Sihui, who has a Workforce Skills Qualifications Diploma in Fashion Technology, says the emphasis is on tailoring, material, and construction to cater to the confident and unconventional woman. Though barely a year old, Hher is not just stocked locally at Design Orchard and Gather Stores, but also at American multilabel stores Re:Store and The Lobby.
Pictured here: Cotton and polyester oversized pocket shirt, $69
Sihui says local production was the only way to ensure the quality of her pieces. “Before launching, I went around looking for contacts for any sort of manufacturing facility in SG, from big factories to home-based seamstresses,” she says.
She finally settled on a factory owned by a seamstress with over 30 years of experience. Sihui says she keeps prices affordable by absorbing most of the costs incurred for producing locally. It’s part of her larger plan to bring down manufacturing costs as its quantity increases with the label’s growth. She also personally sources for fabric suppliers from Japan, Korea and Europe to ensure high quality.
According to Sihui, there’s been an encouraging shift recently with people more willing to support local due to the Covid-19 situation. “I hope this #supportlocal spirit will continue,” she says.
Pictured here: Cotton and polyester belted jumpsuit, $129
Sihui has been inspired by the current climate: “In our next collection, expect more WFH-appropriate designs. Think partwork- part-loungewear, like button-down shirt tops, simple day dresses and co-ord sets with shorts,” she says. “We’re also planning a capsule made with sustainable/ organic fabrics by year end.”
And she has plans to grow the brand, from launching more product lines (home decor, stationery and clothes for young girls) to generating more lifestyle and personality-driven content on her site.
From $49 for a top to $129 for a dress, at www.hherstudios.com, Design Orchard at 250 Orchard Road, and Gather Stores at #01-28 North Bridge Centre.
Pictured here: Cotton and tencel curve sleeve shirt dress, $129
This story was first published in Her World’s August 2020 issue.