If reinvention had a new synonym, it might as well be “Singapore”. Whereas our financial hub has been better known as a cultural desert taken over by a concrete jungle, the city-state’s landscape has undergone an opposing sea change. Home-grown brands have flourished in sleepy neighbourhoods better known as old residential enclaves or known for seedy establishments. Indeed, these names have become such heroes in branding and design that a compilation Brand Guide: Singapore celebrates them.
Meanwhile, creatives have been representing Singapore in Beijing and London as part of this year’s SG50 celebrations. The travelling showcase will be in New York’s Madison Square Park later this month, before returning home in November.
History has shown that money and time are crucial ingredients for culture and the arts to thrive, says prolific sneaker designer Mark Ong, who goes by the moniker SBTG and has designed for celebrities such as US rock band Linkin Park and basketball legend Kobe Bryant.
“… we have enough doctors and lawyers now, and it’s time for art and design to come in.”
Mark Ong, SBTG
Now that the period of nation-building has settled, the scene is set for the present generation to explore other fields. Referring to the local design scene, Yu Yah-Leng of branding studio Foreign Policy Design Group says: “What was a desert is turning into an oasis. The current generation is freer to choose what they do. We are more well-travelled and we know what we want. The Internet has also levelled the playing field and brought the world to us. As we become more exposed to what’s happening in the world, we discover what we like and we’ve come to appreciate design.”
The wheels were put in motion in 2003 when Design Singapore Council was set up to develop the sector. Then came the President’s Design Award in 2006, Singapore’s most prestigious design accolade. To groom future talents and creative professionals, the first specialised pre-tertiary arts school, School of the Arts, opened in 2008.
The maturation of the design/creative scene has also been aided by what Yu’s husband and business partner, Arthur Chin, refers to as the “casino effect”. He says: “When the casinos opened between 2010 and 2011, they brought forth a lot of attractions for us to market ourselves as the new destination. We became visible regionally and internationally. New opportunities mushroomed.”
A confluence of these factors has contributed to Singapore becoming a regional benchmark for design, a sure indication of growth in the sector. Chin cites one client from Kuala Lumpur who showed him and Yu projects that he liked. “About six or seven of the projects shown were ours. This is just one example we’ve encountered, which gives us a very good sense of how Singapore has become an inspiration,” he says.
Support on home ground has also strengthened, and local consumers are more willing to pay for local brands. Since starting her fashion label Ong Shunmugam in 2010, Priscilla Shunmugam has been adamant about not lowering prices of her pieces to increase sales volume. Ready-to-wear pieces start from $450 and made-to-measure services, from $1,400. She says: “Five years ago, people had the perception that local was inferior and could command only a certain premium. It was a huge psychological barrier to break.”
Whereas they would traditionally stock international tried-and-tested brands, local department stores are now more open to local labels. For instance, SBTG has been engaged by Robinsons and Tangs to hold DIY workshops. His wife and business partner, Sue-Ann Lim, says: “It’s a cycle. As the artisans get better, consumers become more receptive. In turn, more business means more opportunities to improve one’s skills.”
Being able to boast that a product is “made in Singapore” has never been more pertinent. Recalling her recent experience as a jury member at the 2015 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity – the advertising world’s Oscar – Shunmugam says: “I always had my lookbooks to give to those who hadn’t heard of Singapore design, kebaya, batik. If there is anyone who can share and discuss Singapore’s textile history, I feel I can and should do it. It’s a responsibility. I’m speaking for South-east Asia and all these cultures.”
THE NEXT STRETCH
Still, more needs to be done to foster a sustainable ecosystem. Ancillary services should be championed too. “While we have enough people who can come up with brilliant ideas, we lack that middle section to actualise them. To me, that is the Achilles heel,” says Shunmugam. This is also why she recently invested $80,000 to set up a 500 sq ft work studio at Hong Leong Building, where her shopfront is located. From a one-woman show, she now has nine seamstresses. “Every fashion label worth its salt invests in its own backend.”
Robert Tomlin, chairman of Design Singapore Council, says that it is time for “passionate youngsters to push us old guys out of the way, and build the ecosystem for their generation and beyond”. He adds: “For them to be world-class, they need to be exposed to the best in their field. They must travel, but we must bring in world-class events and artists to show the way. We need set designers, theatre technicians and skilled specialists who are not rock stars.”
“For (passionate youngsters) to be world-class, they need to be exposed to best in their field.”
Robert Tomlin, Chairman, Design Singapore Council
It is, after all, the perfect climate to be a part of Singapore’s history. Ong says: “It’s almost as if we’re writing history. We have this opportunity right in front of us, so why not contribute to subculture here, however small it may be.”
Shunmugam, who was awarded Her World Young Woman Achiever last month, summed it up in her acceptance speech: “The most important thing I’ve done is to have the audacity to think about what I want to do with my adult life. For a society that prizes results over anything else, I’ll take this as a sign that we’re ready to respect those who try, no matter the outcome.”