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How bespoke design is staying in the game during the Covid-19 pandemic

As the retail market slumps during the pandemic, some made-to-measure Singapore designers are getting a boost from supportive regular clients.

In these challenging times, a long-term relationship is everything in business. Local designers and artisans are staying afloat – or even thriving – through new commissions by loyal customers who want to help them weather the storm. Though they cannot meet due to social distancing rules, both parties are quickly adapting to digital platforms. They discuss ideas and proposals on WhatsApp and Zoom, and proceed with the work on the basis of trust. We talk to local bespoke creatives whose online businesses have flourished despite the pandemic.

 

Caratell

Jewellery designer Michael Koh leaves nothing to chance. When proposing a design for a commissioned piece, he sends and requests a lot of information to and from each client. He asks for images of their ears, necks, jawlines, fingers or any other body part to be adorned by the piece. He then sends via WhatsApp several illustrations of suggested designs, and videos of the gemstones arranged accurately in mock-ups.

“I would even pick the right music to play in the background to create the mood of the piece. All these help the client visualise the design thoroughly,” says the founder of award-winning jewellery store Caratell.

“What’s most important is that there is complete communication about what she or he wants, which is so important in keeping the relationship going through this circuit breaker.”

His approach has worked so well that online orders have jumped by 20 per cent. In fact, Mr Koh often finds himself staying up till 3am to discuss the finer points of design with his clients. “During this crisis, I find some of my clients sleeping later than usual. So I’m happy to take their calls at all hours. The most important thing is to be ready to serve the customer when she sends you a message online – even in the wee hours.”

Like most retail stores, Caratell has had to shutter since April. With the lockdown now extended into June, more longtime patrons have reached out to him to commission new work, so as to help him tide over the crisis.

His newly revamped website now includes information about gems and lapidary techniques, which in turn have elicited fresh enquiries from new prospective customers.

One longtime client, YC Chan, needed to bespoke jewellery for her youngest daughter’s upcoming wedding. She says: “I had difficulty visualising the completed product without looking at the actual piece – such as its size, colour and how the piece would look when wearing it. Michael resolved this by taking pictures in a way that reflected the accurate size of the jewellery. And Achillea, his wife, modelled the earrings to help visualise how the item would look like when worn.”

Another longtime client, Lillian Lee, commissioned a pair of earrings and a ring cum pendant for her eldest daughter’s upcoming wedding. “We haven’t even discussed the price yet. We’ve only talked about the main stone being peridot, the birthstone of my daughter. But he’s started work on it.”

Ms Lee’s son also decided to commission Caratell to create a jewellery piece for his girlfriend. “My children have become so accustomed to me referring to Michael as my friend that they too have started cultivating a relationship with him. Even my mother became a fan, after Michael took what was then her old and worthless seeming set of pearls and turned them into a brand new necklace, ring and earrings. Her eyes popped when she saw them.”

Mr Koh says: ”By taking the business online, I’ve been able to retain my staff and keep them busy and morale up. We know that once this is over, we will emerge stronger than before.”

(Related: Cult jewellery brand Alighieri receives Queen Elizabeth II award for British design)

 

Palola

THIS week, women’s shoe brand Palola debuts a remote fitting kit. For just S$30, Palola will courier any four pairs of flats, pumps and/or loafers for you to try, plus a complete selection of leather swatches. If you decide to order a pair according to your specifications, that S$30 will be waived. And you’ll be presented with a new pair of customised shoes soon after the circuit breaker ends, as a way of celebrating.

This new service, along with Palola’s previous offer of charging ready-to-wear prices for made-to-order shoes, has been welcomed by its customers. Palola’s co-founder and head shoemaker Josh Leong says: “Through these and other offers, we’ve been able to recover 50 per cent of our business. We’ve been able to retain our 10-strong staff and continue paying salaries – and keep everyone’s spirits up. At the same time, we’ve been able to deepen our relationship with our existing customers, even though we’re not able to meet them face-to-face.”

Most women who have jumped on these offers are existing customers, who have long been impressed by the quality of Palola’s shoes. Civil servant Clara Chan, for instance, has been buying Palola shoes since 2016 when she chanced upon them at Boutique Fairs Singapore. She says: “Firstly, Josh is so personable. He genuinely cares about the quality of his shoes and his customers’ well being. Secondly, because I have unusual-shaped feet – one is half a size bigger than the other – Palola’s made-to-order has been a lifesaver; I finally have shoes that I can wear on long work trips.”

“So when Josh sent out the e-mail and SMS asking us to support Palola during this Covid-19 storm, it was no-brainer for me. I’m in a position to help because I still have a job. And when Josh made the assurance too than he was doing this so he can keep his staff, there was just no way I wasn’t going to help.”

Ms Chan ordered a new pair of neutral coloured pumps suitable for work, adding to the five Palola pairs in different colours she already owns. And though the wait for the new pair will be longer than usual due to the changed circumstances, she doesn’t mind. She says: “Ordering it was also my way of lifting my spirits up in these dark times. Now I have something to look forward to in the months ahead.”

Mr Leong, who also makes bespoke men’s shoes, says: “Obviously it’s stressful as a business owner right now. And it doesn’t help that we don’t know when exactly we’ll be able to reopen and operate again. But we can either throw our hands up in the air and surrender to the impact of Covid-19. Or we can be creative, innovate and find opportunity in crisis – and that’s what we’ve done.”

Ms Chan adds: “This is the time for Singaporeans to try and help one another. For my part, I’ve also been trying to support other Singapore brands, such as Lechelle Petite handmade earrings and Lark & Peony cheongsams.”

(Related: What Chanel’s tweed would look like if it were high jewellery)

 

Nicolas Laville Couture

French couture designer Nicolas Laville expected 2020 to be a good year for brides. After all, while clients came to see him in 2019, they were already making their plans.

Then came the coronavirus outbreak, and with the government announcing circuit breaker measures, weddings could no longer be held. Couples began postponing their weddings, and in the process, the deadline for the design for the bridal gowns.

Mr Laville came to Singapore six years ago, and soon launched NL Couture. He initially focused on haute couture evening gowns, but after three years in the business, he decided to branch out into bridal wear too. Now, the latter makes up nearly 70 per cent of his business.

“The approach with the client is the same, but more challenging as I’m given the task to make the perfect dress.”

He charges from S$2,500 to S$5,500 for a bespoke bridal gown and a haute couture evening dress can cost from S$8,000.

Requests for customised wedding dresses started slowing down in February. In March, Mr Laville had only two appointments – one was for a fitting and the other for him to present his sketches to the client. There have been no new orders since, but his current customers are still staying with him and he is working on four gowns in various stages of production.

“I work alone, from the research to the sketching, sourcing, sewing and embellishing, and now I have more time to focus on each project. I’ve always believed in quality over quantity,” says Mr Laville.

One loyal supporter is Camille Meigney, who does sales support at a Danish MNC. Ms Meigney had planned to get married in July but the pandemic has forced her to delay her wedding until next year, with no fixed date in sight.

Mr Laville designed for Ms Meigney a mermaid-shaped gown, with an off-shoulder top and a plunging V neckline at the back. The gown still needs a bit more work, but for now Mr Laville has safely vacuumed-packed it away.

The two still regularly communicate over WhatsApp. “We met at a gallery event, and Nicolas was the first designer who fully understood what I wanted in my bridal gown,” says Ms Meigney. “I love his work and am 100 per cent confident that the final result will be exactly what I’m looking for despite us not being able to meet up during this time.”

Since visits to Mr Laville’s atelier at Spottiswoode Park are not possible for now, he has been relying on WhatsApp and video calls to stay in touch with his clients. He admits that discussing ideas via a video call “is strange, as a big part of designing for someone is understanding the person, and things are not really translating through a camera,” but he takes it in his stride, and is counting down to the days when he can meet his clients in person.

Having face to face meetings with clients is important, especially in the third stage of production, during prototype fitting. “The bride will try on a sample, usually made of white cotton so she can visualise where we are heading with the design before cutting in the final materials. This stage is crucial as the adjustments are final. We decide on plenty of details at this point, which is technically impossible to do via a laptop or a phone,” says Mr Laville.

His clients regularly update him on their change of dates mostly because “they worry that their dresses might not be ready on time if their weddings can be held earlier,” he says. “But that’s not a worry for me, I do work pretty fast and based on past experiences, I am able to deliver a dress within a week if needed.”

He welcomes new orders for evening gowns from returning clients, as he keeps all their measurements and their basic patterns. For new clients, he says it can be quite tricky as taking measurements can be challenging. “Unless the client knows how to take her measurements, but for a bespoke gown, there are 20 different ones to be taken.”

He says that for now, new clients can put together a Pinterest board of their favourite gowns, so that he has an idea of what they like. “Even though 80 per cent of the ideas pinned are not what suits the bride, it helps me with my job of making sure that brides will look their best on their big day,” he says.

(Related: Jewellery specialist and heritage arts patron Edmond Chin on the importance of history)

 

Ying The Label

When fashion designer Phuay Li Ying launched her customisation service in April, she was surprised to see how popular it was, despite customers not being able to try on the clothes in person. “People will turn to online shopping when the stores are still closed, and personalisation is a refreshing concept that allows customers to create something of their own,” says Ms Phuay, founder of Ying the Label.

“We launched it during the circuit breaker period, and didn’t expect a huge number of sales. However, what we realised was there were a surge of questions coming in and also new customers clicking into the feature. About 40 per cent of our sales is for a customised piece. That is quite a huge percentage to us, especially when we cannot allow appointments during this period,” she says.

Pre-Covid days, she would also accept personalised orders. Now, through the website, customers can choose to either personalise a dress, a cape, or both. They first pick a floral design of their choice, and a material such as crepe, duchess satin or shantung silk. Then they choose where they want to place their prints and the colour. A dress costs S$550 while a cape costs S$300.

Size-wise, customers can choose from standard sizes, or alternatively, Ms Phuay and her team are happy to do a Zoom call to advise customers on how to take their own measurements.

Ms Phuay says that most of the conversations with customers have been done through phone calls, emails and text messages, and she’s not had problems communicating. “We have had questions mostly on sizing and fit; but we also get questions on how varied our customisations are; material options; when can they come down for appointments; when are we adding more silhouettes and also timeline of the customisations,” she says.

Her team then churns out personalised digital files for each customer. There are usually two to three options to choose from, based on discussions between the two parties.

Besides the dresses and capes, Ms Phuay is also offering bespoke kimonos, where customers have a wide variety of prints and background colours to choose from. A personalised kimono costs S$400.

In addition, Ms Phuay has also started to work with Spanish shoe brand Badt & Co, on personalised shoes, featuring four floral designs that Ms Phuay has painted. Customers are sent shoe samples for them to try on for size. Next they select a floral design, and Ms Phuay will handpaint them on their shoes.

“I wanted to show that we as artisans are able to work from home and still provide amazing products to our customers. Every piece is different with unique touches, and it makes customers very happy because they look forward to owning something special,” she says. The customised shoes cost S$290.

One regular customer is fertility specialist Dr Ann Tan, who has a customised dress and cape from the label. “Those were done last year, so I thought of customising a toga top and pants for this year. I like her prints and am always supportive of local talent. We discuss over phone calls and text messages,” says Dr Tan.

(Related: Classic jewellery design meets watches with the Maillon de Cartier women’s collection)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.