A handful of retailers here are out to prove that homegrown and Asian fashion designers can hold their own against their international counterparts.
These multi-label boutiques carry either purely Singapore and Asian brands, or a selection of such labels mixed with international ones.
Ms Pek Lay Peng, 36, says she set up SocietyA because “we saw a growth in Asian designers well trained in the fashion industry, but under-represented. We want to dispel the misconception that Asian designers are not of international standards”.
SocietyA, which started as an e-commerce site in 2014, has a retail store at Takashimaya Shopping Centre. It started with 13 homegrown and Asian brands. It now has close to 80 brands spanning from fashion to lifestyle, including Singapore womenswear label Aijek and jewellery brand [in]trigue, and South Korean labels LIE and MINJUKIM.
Jewellery designer Carolyn Kan, 48, who started her brand Carrie K. in 2009, says the market is ripe for concept stores to cast the spotlight on Asian and Singapore designers.
She says: “There are more strong Asian designers to choose from and a growing pool of Singaporeans who seek homegrown brands with unique and well-made designs.”
She names womenswear brand In Good Company, bag designer Ling Wu and watch brand Hypergrand as homegrown brands to watch, as they “know how to balance unique design aesthetic with commercial know-how and are focused on sustainable growth”.
Designers are all for being stocked at such multi-label boutiques as it helps them save on operating costs and widens their customer reach. However, multi-label fashion boutiques championing Singapore and Asian designers say business can be challenging, especially in this tough retail climate.
In 2015 October, 5,000 sq ft multi-label store Mporium opened at Suntec City, carrying more than 35 Asian and Singapore brands such as Aijek, Amos Ananda and Q Menswear. It closed in 2016 April. Owner Jennifer Yii declines to share why it closed, but says she is moving into e-commerce.
Mr Alfie Leong, 51, founder of W.E. Workshop Element, says there are times when the retailer does not turn in a profit, especially when the brands it carries do not have new stock to sell, leading to a sales dip.
He says: “It boils down to time management and decisions on production and design. If designers have no stock to sell, they might miss out on peak periods such as Chinese New Year or Christmas.”
Mr Leong, like other boutique owners interviewed, declines to give sales figures.
Another challenge these retailers face is that Singaporeans are reluctant to shell out money for homegrown and Asian designers.
Founder of L’armoire, Mr Rocco Wu, in his 30s, says: “The majority prefer to spend money on a brand they are familiar with. Only a few would follow their heart and pay for a design that they like, regardless of the brand.”
Mr Walid Zaazaa, 43, director of multi-label shop Manifesto, feels that to win customers and compete against global brands, Singaporean and Asian designers “have to be original and retail business ready”.
He says: “The only way for Asian designers to compete with international brands is to come up with original concepts and designs and not copy or follow their favourite brands. The most important factor is to not compromise on quality.”
Additionally, COVID-19 has upended our normal lives, forcing us to spend more time staying at home. This means that business for multi-label stores, just like any other tenants in a shopping mall, has been largely impacted.
As a result, business owners have to think out of the box and come up with new ways to attract customers — both existing and new — to their stores.
Homegrown lingerie label Perk by Kate, for example, now has sectioned out a space within its Perk by Kate Lingerie Studio, featuring lifestyle and beauty products handpicked by founder Ms Kate Low.
“As a business owner, wife, mother and daughter – I fully understand what it’s like to be completely caught up in giving myself to others that I forget about my own needs,” she says.
“Especially after the pandemic hit, I found myself fraying at the ends. I really needed to carve out me-time and create rituals to centre and calm myself. The new lifestyle corner in the studio is my way of inspiring and encouraging women to take that step towards creating personal spaces for themselves, both in their hearts and homes, and filling it with anything they love and everything that sparks joy”
Advocates of homegrown and Asian labels feel there is a demand from consumers who are bored with mass-market brands and want to stand out from the crowd.
Operations manager Jade Khoo, 33, is a regular patron of SocietyA. She says: “The styles carried are not commonly seen in other stores, but yet are easy to pull off. I feel unique when I wear the clothes.”
Public relations freelancer Alicia Ali, 33, who supports Asian designers and lists Hypergrand and Malaysian womenswear designer Cassey Gan as her favourites, says: “Compared with mass-market brands, Singapore and Asian designers cater more to the Asian silhouette and because they produce their designs in limited quantities, I find that they are more exclusive.”
A version of this story was originally published in The Straits Times on July 14, 2016 and updated in July 2021.