Nothing escapes Chris Chong’s notice. Not even a small banana USB key ring whose presence at the Fendi store in Ion Orchard is being dwarfed by the large bag it is hanging off from, amid the riot of colours, textures and motifs that compete for one’s attention incessantly.
Retail is about the details, says CapitaLand Retail’s deputy managing director. “Retail has to be fun and interesting. Otherwise, you cannot get people to part with their money.”
The Italian house is one of his favourite shopping haunts, which might appear to be an interesting choice for the engineer by training. After all, its loud and playful designs seem out of place in a corporate high-flyer’s wardrobe. “Men in the corporate world are becoming more adventurous in their work attire. We have to recognise that times have changed. It’s about what’s appropriate and relevant,” says the 45-year-old, who, until May this year, was the chief executive of Orchard Turn Developments, which manages Ion Orchard.
Today, he’s paired a dark blue Dolce & Gabbana shirt with floral print and Calvin Klein jeans, with sneakers and a clutch from Fendi’s popular Monster Eyes collection. On one wrist lies a Bottega Veneta bangle and, on the other, a recently acquired Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711 in steel.
“The new rich are wearing sneakers and jeans. The staff in watch stores are feeling disconnected because they cannot relate. That’s why I’m always asking these luxury brands about their uniforms and the image they are projecting. I’ve even suggested to brand executives to change their staff uniforms. Otherwise, you’re not speaking the language of your new audience.”
His own sense of style – and of what’s appropriate and relevant – was developed when he spent 10 years studying and working in France. “From my observation, there was generally an expectation to be dressed a certain way, depending on occasion. So from then on, I became more conscious. On my first trip to London from Paris, I was wearing leather shoes with jeans – which was the norm in Paris – whereas my friends who were studying in the UK were wearing casual sneakers. And no one in France wore slippers, even in summer.”
“Fashion is meant to be a talking point. Dressing up makes life more interesting.”
Chong takes us to Dior Homme to show us what he’s got for this photo shoot. It’s a black silk shirt with red roses against a gunmetal grey background. He prefers monochromatic hues and tends to gravitate towards nature and floral prints. “Cut and fit are very important, but we don’t pay enough attention to them in Singapore,” he says. “I think men have been quite inspired by the sneaker trend. The look is no longer so stiff and structured. People are looking for outfits that can take them from work to play.”
“Fashion is meant to be a talking point. Dressing up makes life more interesting.”
BRAVE NEW (RETAIL) WORLD
Earlier, as we were waiting for the shops to open, we started discussing the state of retail over breakfast tea and scones. Retail is dead; long live retail – reports can’t seem to make up their minds about the state of shopping. One thing is for sure: The bots are not about to replace physical stores any time soon. The need for human interaction, Chong believes, is why brick and mortar is here to stay.
“I don’t know anyone who can relate a memorable online shopping experience. Do you remember where you were, and the weather outside? E-commerce is still a passive, one-sided activity,” says Chong, whose online purchases are mostly for travel arrangements.
“But you will always remember the time you hit the mall with your friends after exams, or when you had a promotion and bought a special outfit. That is ‘unAmazonable’. It’s about the memory. It’s the whole process of being delighted. I truly believe in retail therapy. I like checking out malls simply because I like to see what’s new and interesting. I need to see, touch, and compare.”
As if to underscore his point, we pop over to popular South Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster, another of his favourites. It is the epitome of what he has emphasised in this interview: experience. The brightly, fluorescent lit store is a visual feast of curious art installations that follow the theme of samsara, which means reincarnation in Sanskrit, and reference 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy about salvation.
Data proves Chong’s point. According to the Department of Statistics, which recently started to publish the percentage of Singapore’s e-commerce transactions, online retail sales made up 4.1 per cent of June’s total estimated sales value of $3.9 billion.
New retail will see technology enhancing one’s experience in a physical store. Could this be what’s to come in two months, when Chong unveils a new shopping concept at Plaza Singapura? He declines to reveal more, only to share his vision of retail utopia.
He says: “Just like the banks, stores need to have offline presence too. In future, most stores should come with omnichannel capabilities. A unified inventory is important. I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘I am purely an online shopper’ and vice versa. The future is certainly a hybrid. Boundaries between different products have been broken up. It will be about how different brands come together and are being presented together.
“Why do we need five cashiers when you can just pay online, since the inventory is unified? Or maybe I’ll be able to order a drink at Starbucks and it will be ready for pickup by the time I get to the store. That is the kind of convenience we’re looking at. It’s always about the customers. People won’t come back to the store for its technology. What is the experience?”
As we exit Gentle Monster, he points to the floor where two rows of dolls are rotating in a trance-like state. “Some people find this eerie. When the store first opened, many said this is how new retail should be,” says Chong, referring to the unique store decor beyond the product display. Indeed, the store takes up 4,000 sq ft of retail space, much of it dedicated to installations.
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At the entrance, a boy runs past the storefront only to be stopped in his tracks by a panel of tassel bunches jiggling rhythmically. “Wow, what’s that?” he exclaims, transfixed by the hypnotic shimmying, before he is hauled out of his daze by his parents’ voices.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
If it weren’t for former Economic Development Board (EDB) chairman Philip Yeo, Chong’s career might have taken a different route. You see, it was Yeo who urged Chong, an EDB scholar, to further his studies in France, instead of the UK or the US.
“He was chairing the scholarship panel and saw that I had studied the French language, so he asked if I wanted to go there,” recalls Chong, who picked up French during his Raffles Institution years. “He said it was romantic and that I’d enjoy it.”
Chong would go on to spend a decade studying and working in France, the latter as part of an EDB unit to connect Singapore businesses to French interests. Here are his four takeaways.
Unlike his peers who had opted for the UK or the US and gained direct entry into a university, Chong spent two years in preparatory school before being admitted into one of France’s elite engineering institutes. “You’d literally spend one month just taking the national exams, which are very similar to China’s gaokao. There were both written and oral tests, even for maths – and the questions did not even have numbers!” he recalls with a chuckle.
“I didn’t know about this gruelling process before I left. Honestly, many years later, I still have nightmares about failing an exam. Some days were depressing. If I had known, I might have had second thoughts. Then again, you cannot live life twice. You must have a certain level of resilience.”
There is no easy way out. “My friends who studied in the UK or the US were allowed the use of a dictionary, because English wasn’t their first language,” Chong says. “In France, there’s no concession. You’re known only by an index number.”
DON’T REST ON YOUR LAURELS
Complacency has no place in a fast-moving world. In other words, lead or be led. “In Singapore, we feel very privileged – even entitled. I thought my maths was good, until I went to France,” he says. “In the past, Europe was referred to as the Old World. But look at it today. It’s certainly not lagging. China was known as the sleeping giant, but it’s now a leader in so many ways. We risk being the sleeping dwarf if we don’t catch up.”
If there’s one thing Singaporeans can learn from the French, it is to not take life so seriously. “I guess that’s the whole point, right?” Chong says. “I know from the outside, it looks like a big mess all the time, and nothing works. There’s order in chaos, and how do you work in chaos?”
“People need a balance between being structured and prescriptive, versus laissez-faire, and somehow get the results too. That’s why the French will have that one-up in design. They challenge rules and are open-minded about what works and what doesn’t. They are more daring.”