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Singapore designers try new retail concepts to stand out from competition

Local fashion labels add special touches such as art installations and open workspaces to make their brick-and-mortar stores stand out.

Shop at Singapore designer GinLee’s new showroom at the National Design Centre and you will probably see her draping material on a mannequin, studying her inspiration sketches or working on her sewing machine.

Feel free to pepper her with questions on the origin of her eponymous womenswear label or how to style one of her signature minimalist silk dresses and tops.

She says: “We find that there is an increasing demand to showcase the clothes and also what happens behind the scenes.”
Apart from having shoppers meet the line’s other designers, the 38-year-old also plans to organise design workshops for the public.

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The label was founded five years ago in Tel Aviv, Israel, where Lee’s husband, the brand’s visual merchandiser, is from. The Tel Aviv store is still operating and a livestream feed will soon give shoppers in Singapore a peek at what happens there. Lee shuttles between Tel Aviv and Singapore.

Lee, whose showroom GinLee Studio opened last Saturday, says: “I don’t want this showroom to be too commercialised, I want it to have an edge… Fashion is moving too fast, everything is too much of a copy. Every mall carries the same labels, but people do want things to be more personalised and not mass-produced.”

A new way of shopping is emerging here, driven by home-grown designers such as Lee, who are determined to stand out from mass-market brands in an increasingly challenging retail market.

The smell of wood and citrus wafts through Singapore women’s wear label Beyond The Vines’ new store at Mandarin Gallery. Its designers, married couple Daniel Chew, 29, and Rebecca Ting, 28, worked with a professional perfume-maker to create the bergamot and mandarin scent, which they felt embodied their brand’s image: unpredictable, refreshing and not overly feminine.

Home-grown artists are contracted to come up with new installations every six months for the 650 sq ft store’s window facade. The label’s retail assistant doubles as a stylist for customers who want fashion tips.

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Launched online in May last year, Beyond The Vines experimented with a pop-up brick-and-mortar store in January. The temporary outfit was so successful that it became permanent in June. And shoppers keep on coming. The label – known for its chic and minimalist tops, dresses and jumpsuits – has been reporting month-on-month growth of 10 to 15 per cent since January.

  • Home-grown artists are contracted to come up with new installations every six months for Singapore womenswear label Beyond The Vines' new store at Mandarin Gallery.
Chew says that the brand now releases 24 styles a month, double the 12 it used to release each month before the pop-up at Mandarin Gallery. He says: “To survive and do well now, it cannot be about the product only. Shopping has to be a more holistic experience. It has to be about engaging shoppers’ senses, from the concocted scent and feel of the fabrics to the viewing of art installations and hearing the specially put together playlist of songs.”

Ong Shunmugam by local designer Priscilla Shunmugam also opened a new behind-the-scenes concept store at Chip Bee Gardens last month. Through a glass window, customers can watch tailors and designers at work in the combined retail and working space.

(Related: Priscilla Shunmugam takes Asian fashion to the world stage.)

Over at In Good Company’s store at Ion Orchard, shoppers can have a cup of coffee at the in-store cafe by home-grown Plain Vanilla Bakery. The womenswear brand – known for its minimalist, tailored separates, dresses and bold necklaces – also offers a curated range of other products, including sunglasses by London-based eyewear label Massada.

Jaclyn Teo, 37, one of the brand’s four co-founders, says: “We’ve always wanted to offer more than just clothes and build a space where we ourselves would want to spend more time in and for people to gather. It is these touches that help In Good Company offer more to its customers.”

The almost-four-year-old brand debuted at the now-defunct multi-label fashion boutique Front Row in December 2012 before launching its own e-commerce store a month later. The Ion Orchard store opened in August last year. Although she declines to reveal figures, she says sales for Singapore have been “right on target” and that its store at Tangs has performed “just as well as” the one at Ion.

Singapore designer Sabrina Goh’s shop at Capitol Piazza holds workshops for customers and sells items such as Singapore company Frank Skincare’s organic skincare range. It opened in September last year. Other products include wooden bags, soap and home perfume diffusers specially curated from countries such as Thailand and New Zealand.

Goh, 31, says: “We introduce to and educate customers on the productswe carry. We also conduct workshops such as skincare workshops with Frank Skincare and tea appreciation classes with Amuse Tea. I feel that as a designer, I should educate the consumer on the design process.”

Another store with a similar approach is veteran fashion designer Thomas Wee’s outlet Maison Thomas Wee, which opened in November at Mandarin Gallery.

Samuel Tan, course manager of Temasek Polytechnic’s diploma in retail management, says “risk factors are definitely there” with the opening of new stores in the weak retail climate. However, he thinks the approach that these home-grown labels are taking will work as “the stores are more attractive”.

But offering alternative retail experiences is not the be all and end all. Sarah Lim, retail expert and senior lecturer of Singapore Polytechnic, emphasises that homegrown retailers should be mindful of their financial resources and timing.

It has been a difficult year for retail, with well-known local labels such as M)phosis throwing in the towel in the face of high rents, slower demand and competition from major highstreet giants such as H&M, Zara and Uniqlo. Their exits have been a sombre reminder for Nelson Yap, founder and managing director of smart-casual menswear brand Benjamin Barker.

Although the brand recently opened two new stores – at Tampines 1 mall in June and Jurong’s Jem in August – it is sticking to traditional retailing for now. Yap, 34, says: “I’m quite risk averse. It’s about timing, not compromising and doing things practically.” The company, with 10 stores here and two in Australia, is on track to chalk up sales of $10 million this year.

Retailers should also aim to have “a shared vision” with their landlords, as well as open-dialogue, says Patrina Tan, senior vice-president of retail, marketing and leasing at OUE Limited, which manages Mandarin Gallery. “Home-grown brands have to look out for mall developers that share the same vision as them. It has to be more than a transactional relationship, especially given the competitive retail scene.”

She adds that the rent was waived for Beyond The Vines during the time the company had to renovate its unit. “We focus more on building a sustainable partnership based on the needs of our tenants and shoppers. This opens up many different ways of working together that go beyond a straight-up rental negotiation.”

For example, in December last year, the mall worked with Beyond The Vines on customised workshops for shoppers.

Shoppers are enjoying the new way of shopping. Eileen Keh, 35, marketing and communications manager for an international fashion brand, has been a fan of In Good Company since its launch in 2013. She has about 20 pieces of the label’s clothing and thinks its store location at Ion is a “very good move”.

“The cafe at the store is a great place to take a quick break after shopping. I’ve also met friends for lunch there to get their opinion on a few pieces from In Good Company before buying them,” she says.

Adapted from The Straits Times.