Despite brutal competition, Singapore’s fashion industry experiences a rebirth
April 20, 2012 by Terence LEE
Globalization has dealt local fashion labels a bad hand.
It used to be that fashion designers in Singapore could fill a niche between mass market apparel from the department stores and expensive luxury brands.
David Wang, vice president of the Textile & Fashion Federation (TaFf), lived in that era. As a local fashion pioneer in the 80′s, the runway for him to maneuver was much wider. Global brands like Topshop, Uniqlo, and H&M were not around to compete for the Singaporean’s fashion budget.
But the times changed.
“During my time, Singaporeans had pride in local brands. The good old days are gone. Now they look at price,” he says, “they’re very practical. If they look at a dress from a local designer that’s $399, they won’t support her. They’d rather go to H&M to pick up an entirely new wardrobe.”
While there’s a lot of hullabaloo these days about the power of e-commerce as a powerful, superlative, enabler for startups, David cautions that the Internet’s low barrier of entry results in more competition. Some blogshops, for example, offer cutthroat prices for their items.
In the face of such a brutal environment, PARCO next NEXT was started in 2010 to prop up the local fashion scene. It is a fashion incubator that picks promising fashion designers and puts them under an 18-month training and mentorship program to learn the ropes of being a successful fashion entrepreneur. They’re incubating the third batch.
What sets PARCO next NEXT apart from counterparts in countries like Korea, London, and the United States is their strong emphasis on retail: Incubatees are given a free storefront in the PARCO department store at Millenia Walk throughout the course of the program, renovated to reflect their branding.
The fashion designers are required to clock eight hours a week on the shopping floor, not so that they can become “cheap sales staff”, but because they would be able to understand customers and get better feedback.
This incubator has gotten such a strong reputation that delegations from Southeast Asia have come to learn about it. In fact, fashion designers from other countries wish they have something like this in their homelands.
But setting up PARCO next NEXT wasn’t easy. It required funding from the government, expertise from an industry body like TaFf, and also retail space from a wealthy private company like PARCO, based in Japan.
The government initially thought fashion was a sunset industry, but reassessed after reviewing the figures, says David, who is the incubator’s project advisor. They pledged funding through SPRING Singapore, a government agency that promotes enterprise.
Next came the challenging task of finding a retail partner. They considered many locations, and even approached Orchard Central, a mall along the Orchard Road belt.
“When it first opened, TaFf sent someone one to ask for space. We wanted a huge space for the incubator, but they said ‘oh, we don’t have the space for you, can you go opposite and look at Meridian?’”
“Can you imagine?” he adds animatedly, “luckily I wasn’t there, otherwise I’d slap the lady. She was just looking at the computer screen, and didn’t even look at my girl’s face, one of TaFf’s managers. Meridian is full of those sleazy massage parlors!”
Young fashion labels find it hard to enter prime shopping spaces, and David cites cases of discrimination against Singapore brands. Even well-known ones, like m)phosis, are not exempt. It was once asked to relocate one of its branches to a less prominent part of the mall to make way for a more well-known label.”
“International brands find it easier to negotiate for rental space. For example, Wing Tai Group can easily ask for five shop spaces for their different brands. New brands, on the other hand, usually start with one outlet and see how it goes. They lack financial clout,” says David.
These things happen because malls and department stores prefer having strong, international brands to local ones. They are less risky than an untested local label and more likely to push sales with their advertising and promotions budget, as well as powerful branding and economies of scale. It’s all about profits.
“The only times when they come knocking on our door is is during the recession, or when the mall is dying,” he says.
Eventually, they settled on PARCO as a home for the incubator. PARCO at that time wanted to re-enter Singapore again after successfully developing and selling off Bugis Junction, a shopping mall.
In recent years, the tide appears to be slowly turning. Ignored by the mainstream media in the past, indie fashion labels have become the latest media darlings.
A new crop of promising fashion designers are now starting to make their mark, inspired by the rise of Singapore-born and London-based fashion designer Ashley Isham, who has dressed celebrities like Lady Gaga.
Consider Max Tan, who did not do so well in Singapore initially but found favor among fashionistas in Europe and the United States. He recently started a new, more budget-conscious line, hoping to win the Singapore market.
There are many worth mentioning, but one more I’ll highlight is Pauline Lim, whose ready-to-wear designer clothing have been featured in fashion events like Blueprint, Fantasia, and the Audi Fashion Festival.
Max and Pauline are former incubatees at PARCO next NEXT. To enter the program, Pauline had to attend panel interview consisting of fashion industry veterans as well as executives from SPRING and PARCO Singapore. Participants must submit a business plans as well as produce samples and sketches of their works.
Going through the bootcamp has helped her strike a balance between creativity and commercial viability in her collections. This fine line is something David harps on time and again during our interview.
Consider a designer that is crazy about doing jumpsuits. Although trendy, it is a slow-moving item as it is difficult to put on and too casual for work. So, instead of creating a collection consisting of only jumpsuits, the designer will be advised to have only two jumpsuit items.
“It’s like investing money. Don’t put them on something that is a slow-moving item. Reinvest into dresses,” he says.
Joining PARCO next NEXT has also benefited Pauline by giving her a lot of exposure as a result of the incubator’s marketing efforts. Along with other labels, her items recently made an appearance at a pop-up store in PARCO Shibuya in Tokyo, Japan.
Two current incubatees from the third batch are Samuel Wong from evenodd, a YES! Startup-funded men’s wear label, and Joy Ng from Quainthood, a contemporary fashion label for women. Both will be presenting their collections at the upcoming PARCO next Next fashion show at the Audi Fashion Festival.
They started their stint in October, together with 23 designers. At the workshops, they were taught the entire production process that goes behind a collection, how to recognize facbrics as well as do do drafting and sowing. They are even guided on determining the selling prices of items.
Every incubatee is paired with two mentors to provide the individual attention and specific advice that the workshops cannot give.
Despite the nascent success experienced by these incubatees, David admits that not all who enter the program do well. Although talent is crucial, hard work and determination matter as well.
He recalls two talented fashion designers he took under his wings. They went on divergent paths. Both did badly after debuting their first collections, but while one picked up the pieces and refined her concept, the other fell into depression.
“Her first collection bombed. She insisted on doing olive green and brown, but Asian women don’t like that. It was too complicated and difficult to understand, you’d need a perfect model’s body to pull it off. She got so depressed that she didn’t want to meet her mentors. Blocked them off on Facebook and just gave up.”
In the end, she did not come up with anymore designs. Her first collection was left on the selves for a year, unsold.
Certainly, there will always be casualties in entrepreneurship; people who don’t suit the cut and thrust of the startup world. But the future looks promising for this new wave of fashion designers.
With the influx of mass market global brands to Singapore, people are craving for individuality and seeking pieces that are off-the-beaten path. While Singaporeans are known to be sloppy dressers, that is slowly and surely changing.
While it’s true that globalization has made competition more intense, it has opened up new opportunities as well. Fashion designers like Max Tan are getting discovered very quickly due to social media and the rise of niche online media outlets. Contrast this with David’s experience: It took him five years to get his stuff on store shelves, and another five to go international.
The emergence of online retailers is also a noteworthy development. Zalora has been aggressively pursuing local brands, and while they charge high consignment rates, they claim it is due to the costs of offering a premium service to customers.
Other online retailers like Actually and A Curious Tee Pee are also doing the heavy lifting of online marketing and promotions for these young labels, allowing designers to focus more on what they do best: Coming up with wearable apparel.
No doubt, globalization has caused production and manufacturing facilities to shift to China and Hong Kong, drastically increasing raising the financial barrier for young labels who want to source for materials. But these limitations can be overcome with some creativity.
David highlights Samuel from evenodd as an example. He uses simple cotton in many of his items, but adds details to basic items to make it pop. He is also collaborating with an artist to create bird prints and print it on ordinary fabrics.
“Our edge against these global competitors is really our creativity, and how we work around the limitations and challenge ourselves as designers,” says David.
Photos: PARCO next NEXT
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About The Author
Terence LEE - Editor
Terence writes mainly about technology trends and startups in Asia. He believes in crafting smart content: Not just a regurgitation of text, but well thought-out pieces that serve the reader using a combination of data, design, narratives, analysis, and visual impact. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, Straits Times, Today, and The Online Citizen. He also co-founded NewNation.sg, a satirical news site covering Singapore affairs. Engage him on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Terence LEE