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How local designers like In Good Company are bucking tradition to beat tough times

From eschewing regular seasonal collections to adopting bold pricing strategies, local fashion brands are defining their own formulas for success.

In an economic climate that has seen Orchard Road retailers shutter one shop after another and forced many fashion brands out of business, one small fashion company is defying the odds. In Good Company (IGC), a womenswear label co-founded by four alumni of former contemporary fashion label Alldressedup, is not just defying the retail slump that has been plaguing the country. It is also lending its hip cachet to smaller local brands, and slowly but surely growing its international footprint.

Since the label was launched in 2013, it has not only more than doubled the retail space it occupies in department store Tangs, but has also opened a 3,300 sq ft standalone store in Ion Orchard. The one-year-old boutique has garnered a cult following among customers with an eye for well-designed indie products, and features an in-store cafe run by Plain Vanilla, as well as holds frequent collaborations with small brands such as beauty label Mmerci Encore, florist Triceratops and Underscore magazine. It has even done well enough to break into the international market, with stockists in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand.

What is most impressive is that this is happening at a time when the fashion industry seems unable to catch a break, with fashion stalwart Raoul closing all its boutiques to focus on its wholesale business abroad, and brands including M)phosis and Hansel winding up their business. Even multi-label designer incubator and retail spaces that were opened to much fanfare, such as Parco Next Next and, more recently, Mporium have closed.

(RELATED: Singapore’s Fashion Scene Back Then: New Book by Three Industry Insiders Tells Colourful Story.)

As for Alldressedup – the brand that brought the dynamic IGC foursome together and was once regarded as one of Singapore’s most promising labels – founder Tina Tan-Leo announced in 2013 that it would be closing its stores for a rebranding exercise, but to date has not yet indicated when the relaunch will happen.

The IGC team, which comprises designers Sven Tan and Kane Tan and managing directors Jaclyn Teo and Julene Aw, is quick to clarify that they did not leave their former jobs to start this label. Says creative design director Sven: “It must be said that we didn’t leave Alldressedup in order to start our own label together. It was rather through an opportunity, much later, where we were still meeting up often as friends, and it was a case of ‘Why not?’ over coffee sessions.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Daring to be Different

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STYLE TO SPARE The clean lines and modern cut of IGC’s designs.

Loved for their modern silhouettes and clean cuts – a relaxed, contemporary aesthetic reminiscent of Alldressedup – the brand has unconventionally decided not to put out trend-based collections. Teo, IGC’s managing director of sales and marketing, says: “We eschewed traditional fashion business models as we didn’t want to offer trendy items; it was silly to put out seasonal collections when we live in Singapore. So we stuck to what we heard our customers wanted – well-made, affordable wardrobe essentials with a twist. Going against the grain has served us well.”

As it turns out, going against the grain works well for other Singaporean labels too. For instance, Priscilla Shunmugam, founder of Ong Shunmugam, has carved a niche for herself with her modern reinterpretations of traditional Asian clothing, such as the cheongsam, instead of churning out multiple collections to feed the fashion cycle. In fact, Shunmugam’s latest collection dates back to Chinese New Year 2016, where she relaunched 11 of the brand’s most popular cheongsam and samfu silhouettes in fresh fabrications to commemorate the brand’s fifth anniversary.

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PAST PERFECT Label Ong Shunmugam stands out with its modernised take on Asian tradition.

In a similar vein, Kevin Seah, arguably Singapore’s best-known bespoke menswear designer, is the go-to man for dapper dandies seeking
a well-cut suit – a cornerstone of the male wardrobe. “The process starts with understanding what the customer requires,” says Seah. “Then we go through the selection of about 30,000 cloth samples in the showroom, the cut, and details like the choice of lining and buttons.” By focusing on off ering clients their ideal versions of this menswear classic, Seah has seen an impressive year-on-year growth of 30 per cent in his business over the past two years.

PRICE DOES MATTER

With the proliferation of high-street labels and mass-market e-commerce platforms such as Asos and Zalora, it is no surprise that consumers as
a whole are becoming increasingly price-sensitive. To hit the sweet spot that customers are willing to pay for a local brand, IGC sticks to a pricing strategy that sees tops starting from $49, bottoms from $149 and dresses from $169.

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YIN & YANG Minimalist lines and soft layers meet in an ensemble by In Good Company (IGC).

Sven says: “We are priced slightly higher than fast fashion, but we offer better quality and design that is perennial and classic, and with more design finesse. We had a good look at the market and thought we might have a good chance of succeeding if we went after the sandwich market that was above fast fashion and just under the ‘affordable luxury’ category.”

The age-old strategy of holding frequent sales has made it ever more unsustainable for smaller businesses without such economies of scale.
Sabrina Goh, co-founder of Elohim by Sabrina Goh, says: “Frequent sales have changed consumer buying behaviour and educated consumers to buy without thinking. They are buying more, despite poor quality, or grabbing deals to keep from losing out. That has to change.”

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WHITE SPARK A style from the Spring/Summer 2016 collection of Elohim by Sabrina Goh.

Instead of joining the fray, Goh has taken an opposing strategy by not holding frequent sales. “After many years of price wars, I’ve learnt that the strength of a designer lies in her ability to create design and to value this.” To achieve this, her staff are trained to explain the finer points of fashion design to customers and to share with them the story and inspirations behind her collections. Says Goh: “Now, 90 per cent of our sell-through is at 100 per cent retail price and this is not an easy achievement.”

TRANSCENDING PHYSICAL BOUNDARIES

Another challenge that Singaporean labels face, industry insiders say, is the country’s geographical size, making it necessary for
designers to find a market outside the country to stay in business.

Says Tjin Lee, long-time champion of the Singapore fashion scene and chairperson of Singapore Fashion Week: “Our market and population
is too small. Our designers have to get out of Singapore, scale faster and go global.”

While designers and labels have traditionally achieved this by scoring coveted spots in international fashion and trade shows to get the opportunity to meet buyers and overseas retailers, Lee says the digital revolution has made it easier for designers to make international connections.

“The digital revolution is in our favour,” she explains. “If the status quo remained, we would not be able to get out of Singapore. But there are now unprecedented ways to reach out to customers directly via social media and digital technology. People say brick-andmortar retail is dying but, hey, everybody is shopping online. What does this mean for Singapore? We can now deliver worldwide.”

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BROODING LOOK This Autumn style exemplifies the dark and striking style of designer Max Tan.

This is already happening. Although Raoul’s physical presence in Singapore is now limited to a small space at Robinsons The Heeren department store, the collections are still available for sale online. Next month, casual menswear label Sifr will move its retail operations entirely online, while in March, avant-garde designer Max Tan closed his boutique at Capitol Piazza after just one year, to focus on developing his brand’s digital retail platform.

Max, who revealed only that a “large part” of revenue was spent on operational costs for the boutique, says: “For my debut collection in
2010, digital channels have been very effective in promoting the label to the general masses outside Singapore. Given the tough retail climate in Singapore lately, I think it is essential for emerging designers to gain awareness not just with Singaporean consumers.”

Strategising for The Future

To encourage more designers to populate the digital space, this year’s Singapore Fashion Week will also incorporate an e-commerce microsite, in partnership with Zalora. Similar to the “see now, buy now” strategy of international labels Burberry and Tom Ford, Singapore designers who show at the event will be invited to make their collections immediately available for sale via this site.

(RELATED: Competitive e-commerce could mean your shopping is delivered in 30 minutes.)

With online revenue comprising 5 per cent of total sales for IGC – a statistic echoed by Sabrina Goh – it is clear that this is a forward-looking step with plenty of growth potential. Noting that e-commerce will ease the manpower issues that many retailers face, Teo acknowledges that this is a frontier that bodes well for up-and-coming designers.

“The Internet and social media has democratised advertising and has helped to level the playing field and made it a lot easier for little guys like us to reach out and be more accessible to an international audience,” she says. “We are also looking to increase this and attract more online shopping from international customers.”

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