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How Boutique Fairs grew from a single room to taking up multiple levels at the F1 Pit Building

Founder Charlotte Cain shares about the bi-annual pop-up's success.

IN 2002, long before pop-ups became part of the current vernacular, Danish expatriate Charlotte Cain and two friends started  something they simply called – a fair. They took up a room at Fort Canning Centre where Mrs Cain, 59, an active potter, wanted to sell her ceramics and meet her customers. The trio also found several like-minded vendors to take part.

Today, pottery has taken a back seat, as Mrs Cain now runs the most anticipated Boutique Fairs Singapore – the biannual pop-up that saw 25,000 people attending its recent March edition. Millennials make up nearly half of the shoppers, with locals, expats and tourists caught up in the shopping fun.

Its upcoming Gifting-themed features more than 300 vendors ranging from fashion to food and homeware.

From one room at the F1 Pit Building a few years ago, Boutiques is now spread across the entire second and third levels.

For one who is nowhere close to being a shopaholic, Mrs Cain seems to have hit on a winning retail formula at a time when the general shopping landscape is in its most challenging era. If she has a magic formula, it has something to do with her support of local talent, and her uncanny ability to spot creatives with that X-factor, such as Max Tan, one of her favourite fashion designers.

 

When you first started, there were only 17 vendors, which was hard enough to find. These days, you have a long waitlist of interested vendors. for an event that only happens twice a year, why has Boutiques been so successful?

It all boils down to the curation, which I have done myself since the beginning and that will not change. Curation is very important, it is an instinct and a gut feeling. I know what I’m looking for. It is hard for me to put it down in words, but some things just speak to me. But I do look for designers that have a strong brand and original and creative design. I receive over 1000 applicants, and I ask that they send me their story, images of their branding, and visual merchandise. If they have a strong social responsibility programme, that’s even better, as I also want Boutiques to be a platform that wakes people up.

I believe that the Boutiques shopper looks for what I’m personally looking for. I like visiting smaller shops that showcase indie designs. And customers who come know that there will be new independent designers to discover, and returning designers will always have something new they are launching exclusively at the fair.

(Related: New boutique art fair S.E.A. Focus to develop regional art ecosystem)

When did you realise that Boutiques could be a viable business?

It was very much an organic journey. But I firmly believe that it could materialise because of the amount of talent that Singapore has. I wouldn’t have continued Boutiques if I had to bring in overseas designers. Save for one or two brands, every other brand is either a local or Singapore-based business. We can’t be what we are today without the talent that Singapore has. There’s much good stuff out there. Even if I were to bring Boutiques overseas, which won’t be happening so soon, it will still be about showcasing Singaporean designers.

I can’t reveal how much vendors pay for a space, but Boutiques is a good place to meet their customers, even for established brands who may have their own stores elsewhere. It is important for these designers to be able to meet their customers, talk to them, share their stories and get feedback. We’ve had instances where the designer couldn’t be present, and their sales were affected.

 

Boutiques also sponsors charities, non-profit organisations, volunteer welfare organisations, and social enterprises at each edition. Why do you do that?

Perhaps it is my nature to give back. We tend to live in a bubble, and I’ve realised that many Singaporeans and expats aren’t fully aware that there are people in Singapore who need help. That’s why we sponsor charities. At Boutiques you can shop, and it’s true we don’t need to buy so much stuff. But by visiting these sponsored booths, visitors can learn how to volunteer with and/or support these organisations.

 

You’ve run Boutiques for 17 years, what keeps you going?

I love meeting passionate designers, and I get a kick of inviting a new brand, and seeing these vendors grow. Designers need to know more than just creating but how to sell themselves. I’ve seen designers who start off being reclusive, but after giving them feedback and advice and seeing their confident faces the next day, makes my day. I’ve also seen designers who literally sell their products from a suitcase, and have gone on to open their own shops or have been spotted by department store merchandisers. There have also been vendors who met at Boutiques and have gone on to start collaborations. Many of the vendors are also women, and it is heartening to hear stories of how being at Boutiques have helped them feel more empowered, that they are doing more than running a small business.

 

What plans do you have for future editions?

I’ve been asked to make Boutiques more frequent, but I do want to have enough brands to showcase at each edition. We started as a one-day affair, and now it has expanded to four days, so maybe there’s the possibility of extending it. And there’s still space at the F1 Pit Building, so there is room for other programmes. I hope to organise an exhibition for young art students, or a show featuring works of fashion students. I feel it is important to give students an opportunity to have a dialogue with people, afterall, we were students once. My other dreams include creating an incubator program, or having young students do an apprenticeship with existing designers.

(Related: Tableware sets from renowned fashion brands)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.