Strobe lights flash across the crowded room, leaping off neon-lit concrete walls and a sparkling disco ball that redirects rays onto the faces of patrons. The dance floor at Cherry Discotheque, which industry insiders refer to as a bright light rejuvenating the lacklustre local nightlife scene, is packed with happy feet shuffling and knees bouncing to heavy beats.
“Sha-Shabba Ranks, Sha-Sha-Shabba Ranks, Eight gold rings like I’m Sha-Shabba Ranks,” the millennial and Gen Z crowd chants along to the A$AP Ferg club anthem, a morse code that only the initiated will understand.
No one is more familiar with this language than the man who created the club, Earn Chen. Over the last 20 years, he’s built a business empire centred on youth culture. In the process, he has rewritten the codes of cool and redefined Singapore’s retail landscape with his luxe-streetwear emporia and, more recently, the F&B and nightlife scene with his establishments. His newest collaboration, which is with London shopping temple Dover Street Market that resulted in a Singapore outfit (the latter stocks togs from Cherry’s fashion line and Chen’s own label The Salvages), is yet another feather in his cap – or headband, his preferred ornament of late.
“I’ve always been confident about what I like. I’ve never felt that I truly fit in anywhere. My work is a representation of the kind of world that I want to live in,” says Chen, who’s been working with Hypebeast.com, the foremost authority on streetwear and street culture, to rebrand itself. “These spaces are also my refuge. Thankfully, some people get it.”
And by “some”, he really means generations. When he opened multi-label store Ambush in the late ’90s, he was one of the first to introduce cult streetwear brands such as Recon, Goodenough and Gimme Five to Singapore. Young people and fashion fanatics arrived in droves from all over the region to snap up limited pieces. What has ensued is a slew of projects that has dressed the region’s tastemakers and defined their hang-out spots.
“It’s a way of life – where you shop, the places you eat, the music you listen to, the movies you watch. As much as I hate using this word, it’s a lifestyle. I like to produce, whether it’s a brand, store, restaurant or a club – here’s my take on something, whatever it is. I’ve always liked the idea of different worlds colliding.”
The 45-year-old is the perfect embodiment of this mash-up. Applying old-world sensibilities to new world discoveries, Chen – his 26-year-old niece calls him Peter Pan – effortlessly navigates the complexities of cultures and generations. To keep up with the latest happenings, he needs to have his ear to the ground and you’d often find him sitting on the kerb outside Cherry, chatting with its young patrons. It is from this habit that he has forged friendships with 20 young people – aspiring designers and musicians – who look up to him as a mentor.
“I am here to make sure that they don’t have to repeat the same mistakes I did. For some time, I sidetracked from what I wanted to do. I became another person and wasn’t happy,” says Chen, who lets his young friends use his office as a space to create. “The youth culture has given much to me, so I want to give back to the community.”
“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT.”
His late father wanted him to be a doctor. “But he always found me sketching fashion, so he eventually stopped pushing me. My dad knew I was rebellious, and that I was the creative one (Chen has three older siblings). So he gave me the freedom to do what I wanted – I was privileged that way. He told me to let my work speak for itself, and his words continue to ring in my head.”
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
He was sent to Toronto, Canada, at 15 to study, but spent his time attending concerts instead. “I managed to get a fake ID and sneaked into clubs to watch musicians – such as Bjork, who was playing with her band, The Sugarcubes, in front of just 20 people. That was education for me. I was failing every semester and my parents (who owned agricultural and industrial businesses in China) found out. After four years, I came back for national service. I never finished school.”
In the ‘90s when fast fashion was invading our malls, Chen chose to open a boutique at Far East Plaza selling little-known brands. “At that age, you don’t think about profit and loss projections. You just go with gut feel. That’s the beauty of youth. You take one day at a time. If I sold a T-shirt, it was good enough.”
He’s having the last laugh now, as street culture influences dominate the runway – and especially with the recent collaboration between Supreme and Louis Vuitton, which throws out outdated notions of fashion hierarchy.
“Before streetwear became mainstream, I felt the suits would look at me and my dressing a bit funny. I think people now get it. These designers grew up in the same era as I did, and had similar influences. It’s a new wave – and, yes, I do feel a sense of satisfaction. I’m a school dropout. This has always been my way of life.”
CHEAP WARE, DON’T CARE
“For me right now, it’s not about wearing the most expensive or hyped up stuff. Material things don’t matter to me; they don’t represent me. It’s about what I like regardless of price, such as these Dickies 874 (pants), 1972 Nike Cortez (trainers), and the $2 headband I’m wearing today.”
KEEPING IT REAL
“All my friends have gone on to do something else or work in Shenton Way. Me? I’m still like that. I’m the persistent one who’s stayed the course.”
RIDING THE CUSP OF COOL
“I still listen to a lot of post-punk like Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, and Joy Division, because that’s my era. I guess I’m still rebellious in spirit. If something becomes popular, I’m not attracted to it anymore. It keeps me focused on what I want to do and not care about what others think. If they don’t understand, I don’t bother to explain. I’d rather express myself through my work, just as an artist expresses himself through his paintings.”
JOURNEY TO THE WEST
Chen’s headlining acts so far
Brings Crumpler to Singapore
After a friend introduced him to Aussie messenger bag brand Crumpler, Chen, convinced of its street cred and appeal, managed to persuade enough local retailers to stock it that he went on to bag sole distributorship. Crumpler was the ‘90s It bag; every youth wanted one. It also marked Chen’s impending dominion over the local streetwear scene.
Chen’s first multi-label store Ambush debuted at Far East Plaza. “I’d go there to breakdance when I was 12 and started hanging out there. Back then, there were no deliberate efforts to draw young people to the mall. Everything happened organically – a lot of young people gathered there,” says Chen. “So when I wanted to open a store, it had to be at Far East Plaza. Rent was also affordable.”
It was the first store of its kind to stock underground cult labels like Recon, Goodenough, Gimme Five, Subware, Generic Costumes, Project Dragon, SSUR and Invisible Man. Nike chose to stock limited edition kicks like Air Woven and Air Rifts there. Ambush also had the coveted Superfly, which Comme des Garcons designer Junya Watanabe designed with Nike.
Chen opened his second retail store Surrender at Far East Plaza – it later moved to Raffles Hotel Arcade – this time in partnership with British DJ supremo James Lavelle, who’s also known as the co-founder of cutting-edge electronic duo Unkle. It was the only store in South-east Asia where one could find coveted underground labels like Visvim and Neighborhood.
A new home for Ambush and Surrender
Ambush and Surrender moved to a shophouse along Devonshire Road. Besides stocking Japanese streetwear Original Fake, New York label Anything and London men’s streetwear Zoltar, the art gallery cum clothing store also copped House of Holland and Supreme.
Opens Salon by Surrender
After expanding to Shanghai and Jakarta, Chen opened Salon by Surrender at Marina Bay Sands. At the time, it was the only place that had labels such as Thom Browne, Maison Kitsune, Oliver Peoples and Band Of Outsiders. It also dropped an exclusive accessories collection by K-pop superstar G-Dragon and Japanese cult brand Ambush.
Shortly after this, Chen relinquished his stake to co-owner D’League, which is the distributor of Richard Mille in Asia. He says: “I wanted to take a break from fashion. Going to fashion week season after season can be tiring and, after a while, it wasn’t very inspiring. So I thought I’d get out for a while. Once you’re out of the industry, you think like an outsider. From there, it opened more windows for me.”
Lends his artistic vision to Potato Head Folk
Jason Gunawan and Ronald Akili of lifestyle group PTT Family, which owns Bali institution Potato Head Bali, invited Chen to collaborate on their Singapore outlet. They met when the pair visited Surrender previously. It was Chen’s first foray into the F&B scene. He says: “Even though I didn’t know anything about the industry, I thought, why not create a fashion line out of a restaurant (in 2015, it teamed up with Japanese streetwear brand Neighborhood to release a limited edition range of casual wear), or a dance club? It’s about creating brand culture.”
Opens Cherry Discotheque and The Salvages
In another uncharacteristic move, Chen set up hip-hop dance club Cherry Discotheque. “I want it to be a brand that’s beyond a club. When kids go in there, they feel like they belong. You hear them rapping to every lyric. I’m never worried about them buying more drinks. That’s secondary. I want Cherry to be a place where a community of youth can hang out without being judged for not buying bottles; a space where kids can go to because they don’t fit in anywhere else.”
He also launched clothing website The Salvages, which retails vintage collectibles, ranging from a never-been-worn 1976 Adidas track suit and 1967 Rolex Daytona to 1997 Helmut Lang parka and 2003 Raf Simons bondage jacket. It is his way of preserving fashion’s legacy and retelling the story behind these pieces. He says: “I want to put a value on fashion, like classic cars and watches.” Rap stars Kanye West and A$AP Rocky are said to be clients.
Starts a clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles
Besides working with Hypebeast.com to rebrand itself, Chen has started a clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles, where he is moving to permanently. Called Star Sam Fashion Apparel, the label aims to support budding designers and new brands. Chen says: “Just like how a record label signs on a new artist, we want to be a clothing label that looks after new designers.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Veronica Tay
ART DIRECTION Fazlie Hashim
STYLING Martin Wong
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT Sherman See-tho
GROOMING Sha Shamsi