FROM buffalo shoe horns to bespoke wingtips and summer suits in window pane checks, Jay Gatsby would have little trouble getting his sartorial fix in 2013 Singapore. With the slew of new boutiques offering a regular dose of fashionable threads and accoutrements to the gent with a Gatsbyian-sized wallet, Singaporean men could well become style rivals to their rakish European peers.
"The Singaporean male travels a lot and is very tech savvy: He reads blogs and has a wife who dresses beautifully, so it is only natural that he wants to shine in his own limelight," said Brent Craggs, general manager of the Uomo Group of luxury menswear boutiques. "Here, wealth can also be displayed without fear of being robbed or ridiculed."
Since 2010, Uomo's multi-label store Uomo Collezioni and standalone emporiums have been stocked with items ranging from $300 for a silk tie to $3,000 for a hand-tailored Italian suit or even $150,000 for limited-edition accessories made from crocodile skin and diamonds. Located at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (MBS), the group's five boutiques are anchor tenants in a soon-to-be-unveiled, new-to-market luxury menswear section in the mall.
Uomo's French and Italian wares are not the only male-centric lust-haves commanding stratospheric prices. Over at newly-launched Boat Quay boutique FiftyFive, a bespoke suit by homegrown haberdasher Kevin Seah costs from $3,000 to upwards of $5,000. Mr Seah adds that sales for his bespoke suits have doubled since he started three years ago. "Perhaps the idea of a perfectly fitted suit made from quality textiles is still novel, explaining why there's a boom in the market," said Irwin Lim, who, along with Mr Seah and custom shoemaker Edwin Neo, started the mixed-brand menswear shop late last month. "The general public is only just beginning to understand the importance of quality over brand, which we at Fiftyfive want to impart, one bag, shoe and blazer at a time."
Like their female counterparts, men can't seem to own enough shoes, with the need for a pair of leather derbys, wingtips, oxfords, brogues and sneakers to cover every occasion. "For us at Alessandro Shoes, we decided some years ago to do away entirely with the ladies collection and cater specifically for men," said Aveline Kok, brand manager of Djien, which also distributes luxury Italian menswear footwear brands such as Moreschi and Cesare Paciotti. "Some brands that were previously ladies-skewed now have an almost 50-50 focus on men's and women's pieces. That's a pretty telling sign." The priciest item in her stable? A $4,888 crocodile skin, by order-only shoe by Moreschi.
But when surrounded by cubicle dwellers in ill-fitting shirts and off-the-rack suits, one wonders who exactly is this dapper clientele contributing to the bottom lines of such purveyors of premium menswear.
For Stan Lee, founder of year-old multi-label menswear boutique Swagger, the target audience is mainly PMEBs (professionals, managers, executives and businessmen) across all industries and a wide income range. "However, we also have a large pool of customers who are from the design, creative and fashion industry," he adds. Mr Lee, who launched the boutique to "not only carry a well curated collection of menswear and products but also promote a renaissance of the 'gentleman'," explains that business has been steadily on the rise through word of mouth, despite being located away from shopping districts on Ann Siang Road.
Despite being located right within the CBD, Mr Seah claims that FiftyFive's clientele ranges from students to professionals. "There is no real target customer profile except that they all want to pursue a certain image and dress, and that transcends vocation and age," says the womenswear-trained designer who also creates evening and bridal gowns.
Thanks to its location at the MBS integrated resort, the Uomo Group enjoys a broad range of customers - including casino high rollers - at its stores. "We have many of Singapore's most fashionable gentleman shop with us, but I also consider Indonesians and Malaysians to be among our local clientele," says Mr Craggs. "We have myriad clients who shop with us from China, India, Bangladesh, Russia, Australia and greater Europe; many of whom visit our boutiques at least six times a year."
This resurgence of the immaculately-dressed male reflects a greater global trend of menswear bolstering luxury market sales. The growth of the luxury menswear market is twice that of womenswear, at about 14 per cent a year, according to management consulting firm Bain & Company. And fashion houses such as Hermes and Coach have also unveiled men's only boutiques to cater to the all-important, loyal male customer. But for style watchers here, the question is, how have men evolved from practically living in their polyester pleated pants to engaging in discourses on five versus six-button suits?
"The proliferation of fashion on the Internet has been integral to this trend. Online fashion blogs and websites have made trends more accessible," says Mr Lee. "We have definitely spotted the rise of an increasingly fashion-literate menwear customer, who come into the store knowing what they want. Popular media has also influenced the way men dress with TV programmes such as Mad Men and K-pop."
Similarly, Ms Kok attributes the newfound sophistication of Singaporean men to fashion coverage on the Net: "Social media provides access that we've never had before. Today, you can watch live 'from the front row' of any major men's fashion show right in your living room. There is also so much more content related to men's fashion and style, with men's Fashion Weeks covered as major events in both print and online."
But as much as shoppers here have grown in levels of sophistication, most retailers noted that customers still tend to favour established labels over lesser-known marques. "A big challenge faced by luxury retailers is that Asian clients are very brand-conscious," says Mr Craggs, who stocks labels such as Billionaire Couture, Brioni and Stefano Ricci. "Luxury brands with long established histories do not necessarily have as strong a focus on marketing as global retail groups. More education and time are required to establish niche brands."
This also means that upscale menswear boutiques have to provide personalised advice and experiences to win over the affluent male customer. The private VIP suite, for example, at the Uomo Collezioni boutique allows customers to pick out handmade shoes in exotic skins, diamond-studded belt buckles or custom handmade diamond, ruby sapphire or platinum cufflinks. Over at Swagger, customers receive personalised styling tips and regulars enjoy private sale and preview events.
As for Mr Seah, nothing beats bespoke tailoring when it comes to one-on-one service. "No ready-to-wear outfit allows for the level of personalisation that bespoke has to offer. They practically choose the cloth, trims and buttons and enjoy the whole process knowing that they have the only piece."