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Local brands get physical
SELF-HELP gurus are fond of sound bites such as "adversity is opportunity in disguise". Such words of new age-y wisdom seem to form the mantra of homegrown designers who are opening brick-and-mortar stores just as international brands are shuttering theirs. As many as five Singaporean designers have bitten the proverbial bullet - namely, rent - to create a home for their wares. Unperturbed by the many storefronts shrouded behind hoardings in empty malls, and imported brands such as New Look, Celio and Lowry's Farm making their exits, local labels are upping their retail presence during a massive retail slowdown.
"Now is the perfect time for us, as it's very much part of our plan to go international, and this was one of the milestones that we'd set for ourselves to make a significant mark on the global stage," says jewellery designer Choo Yilin, who will officially open her first Orchard Road boutique in Mandarin Gallery next month.
"What we're incredibly proud of is how we've managed to grow year on year, doubling revenues every year since 2013. We're set to double revenues again this year, in the midst of this economic downturn."
Founded in 2008, the eponymous brand of modern jade jewellery and contemporary wedding jewellery can also be found in a standalone Joo Chiat shophouse boutique. Total company revenue "lies comfortably in the seven-digit range", according to a brand press release. Expanding into a new store within Singapore's main shopping strip allows the brand to create a different experience for a wider range of customers. Besides, more malls also recognise the need to diversify their tenant mix to include not just global names but more creative, independent labels.
"Every tenant, big or small, plays a part in the overall offering at Mandarin Gallery," says Claudia Chua, senior marketing manager for retail, marketing and leasing, OUE Limited (owner of Mandarin Gallery). "International brands on the shopfront continue to offer consumers, especially tourists, a sense of familiarity. This is the first step to draw them in, and invite them to discover the emerging brands and retailers the mall has to offer."
Ms Choo isn't the only jewellery maven to have expanded her retail presence. Carolyn Kan, who designs her own Carrie K line of artisanal jewellery, has also unveiled a permanent space for her multi-label retail venture, Keepers. Formerly a 16-month-long pop-up space located at the junction of Orchard and Cairnhill Roads, the boutique that showcases artisanal homegrown products is now located at the National Design Centre.
Says Ms Kan, who shares the space with her own jewellery studio and a yacht design consultancy: "I've always looked at challenges as a catalyst to better solutions. And this is how we have approached the current one: Banding together as a collective has helped spotlight Singapore designers, artists and artisans in a way that we could never have managed individually."
Bucking the trend of focusing their efforts online, the brands that invest in a physical store generally need that all-important face time (not of the Apple video call variety) with customers to share more about their ethos and craftsmanship, allowing shoppers to touch and feel their products.
"A standalone boutique is incredibly important and pivotal to nurturing personal relationships with our clients," adds Ms Choo, whose e-commerce site accounted for 10 per cent of total sales when launched last year. "We realised how face-to-face interactions were crucial in communicating the brand touchpoints in a way that e-commerce couldn't. We could curate and create one-of-a-kind experiences in our standalone shophouse in Joo Chiat, distinct to the Choo Yilin brand, that being in a department store or doing a pop-up couldn't convey."
For homegrown furniture brand Scene Shang, which opened its first flagship store in April within the heritage district of Kampong Glam, a boutique creates an entire environment that expresses the spirit of the brand.
"Scene Shang has always been about creating an atmosphere and experience of culture; an appreciation for beautiful things," explains Pamela Ting, one of the brand's founders. "With a store, you're able to create that for the customer."
Known for contemporary pieces inspired by classical Chinese design elements and heritage, the brand's first boutique mirrors the layout of traditional Chinese architecture. A dark wooden footpath leads to an internal courtyard with an indoor tree planted beneath a glass skylight. The idea was to bring the brand founders' appreciation of classical Chinese gardens into the store. The courtyard area, which also features a four-petal plum shaped wall, will be used for workshops, exhibitions and installations throughout the year.
Beyond being bolstered by sheer optimism, homegrown players are also taking the plunge with opening a store during a downturn possibly because of pragmatism. In good times, staggering rents would prove a major obstacle for a small local business looking to set up shop. However, rental rates have dropped, with prime retail rents in the Orchard and suburban markets contracting by 5 per cent in the first quarter of this year, quarter-on-quarter, according to Savills World Research Report on the retail sector. This makes the barrier to entry for indie brands a little lower.
"A few designers have taken advantage of lower rentals to set up," notes Ms Kan. "However, the lower traffic and soft retail market makes it a zero sum game."
Less prohibitive rentals are just one part of the equation when it comes to running a successful business. Apart from simply being a point of sale, Keepers runs joint events with the brands it showcases. These help build an ever-growing community of shoppers with the addition of each new artisan or designer's own customer database, while allowing shoppers to meet each maker in person to learn about the products.
"Lower rental rates definitely help us reduce our overheads but above all, having a good landlord is key," adds Ms Ting. "It has to be someone who understands the realities of a local startup, its growth curves and is willing to believe in you, and not just seeing your relationship as transactional."
Apparel brands are also taking the opportunity to venture into physical stores, including Singaporean contemporary womenswear label Ong Shunmugam, which is opening its first flagship and second boutique in the Chip Bee Gardens neighbourhood. Its first atelier, with limited opening hours for walk-in shoppers, is located in Raffles Place.
Meanwhile, Mandarin Gallery has been hosting a series of pop-ups called The Gallery Experience that included local apparel brands Beyond The Vines and Individual Expression, while welcoming new tenants such as Michael Kors and Victoria's Secret into its tenant mix. Womenswear brand Beyond The Vines has since taken a permanent boutique space in the mall.
"What we are seeing now is an evolution in the retail scene in tandem with changing consumer habits," adds Ms Chua. "Consumers are no longer satisfied with your usual mix of big brands and product offerings but are seeking something more unique, more tailored to their personal styles. This has softened the market to allow emerging designers to enter the scene."
As for shopaholics, this new development of local brands breaking into new spaces means greater variety on the retail front, and more reasons to take a break from online shopping and venture back into good ol' boutiques.