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TAFF's Semun Ho on the challenges of S'pore fashion
SEMUN HO IS not what you might call a “fashionista”. She may be the CEO of the Textile And Fashion Federation (TAFF), a Singapore organisation spearheading various initiatives to help the local fashion scene. But her fashion sense is extremely practical: Her dresses should be comfortable, understated and “relatable”. Her preferred shoes are block heels. Her accessories should be fuss-free.
For years, she worked in the tech sector in various capacities: She was the regional director of Motorola, and then the Executive Director at SGTech, which provides business outreach and opportunities for local tech companies. She knew the ins and outs of the tech world.
But in 2018, she decided to make the switch to fashion. She took on the highest position in TAFF because she felt she could make a difference with her tech experience. Like so many creative and lifestyle industries here, the fashion industry suffers from high overheads, low volumes, tough competition and a small local market that hampers scalability. Ms Ho thought that she could help young designers employ technology to help build their brands and expand them beyond Singapore.
For the photo shoot, she picked an all-Singapore ensemble – dress by The Missing Piece, cardigan by Ying The Label and necklace by Carrie K – as a show of further support.
How would you describe the chances of survival for a young designer?
It's very tough. So many things need to be in place before they can find some level of success or stability. At TAFF, we help young designers with four things – resources, networking, capability development and go-to-market. We give them as much information as they need, introduce them to experts who can offer advice, hold workshops to up their capabilities, and so on… But one of the things that I’ve observed is that, compared to the tech industry, the fashion industry has far fewer venture capitalists. And that’s a big issue because, without money pouring in, it’s hard to move the wheel.
Why are there so few VCs for fashion?
Fashion is tough because you can make pretty things for one season. But then the next season comes and you have to make new pretty things. So it’s hard to consistently produce things that catch the consumer’s attention. If big brands like Marc Jacobs can sometimes suffer setbacks, even when they have an entire machinery behind them, from researching to marketing, imagine how tough it is for our Singapore brands… We tell our young designers that they need to have a good brand and product, but they also need to infuse them with technology, concepts of sustainability, and a strong Asian cultural narrative to give their product more context and longevity.
Are costs for a fashion startup higher than that of a tech startup? Fashion seems to require a lot more money, what with material costs, showcases, models, a preferably centrally-located shop space, and so on.
In the traditional sense of launching a fashion brand, you’re right – it can be very expensive because of these factors. But these days we have a lot of things going digital. You could actually do 3D design first, then use a Kickstarter model where you put up your design and see how many people really want to buy it, then produce it after you have some gauge of demand… With tech startups, the challenges are different because adoption is so difficult. Sure, you can create the app and persuade people to download it. But whether people use it regularly and make it a part of their lives is another matter.
One of the biggest issues that affects fashion designers here is how small the market here is. How are you helping designers to scale up and find their footing outside of Singapore?
From the outset, we tell our designers not to think about the Singapore market as the definitive market; we tell them to think about the world. Before Covid-19 struck, we were working with the government to have pop-ups in various countries such as Indonesia and China... But still, the challenges of going international are manifold. There are regulations that we need to deal with, as well as cultural barriers. We need to synchronise and calibrate our speed and expectations with the local culture. And there’s the possibility that people may not appreciate our product and aesthetics. So there are various levels of complexity.
One success story we had in recent years is the brand Aijek by Danelle Woo. Aijek was stocked at major department stores in the United States, such as Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus. But last year she announced that she was burnt out and wanted to step away from the business to spend more time with her family... So scaling up is a very hard thing to do. Often, these young designers are their own creative directors, financial controllers, sales and marketing department, and other positions rolled into one.
I’m assuming they can’t hire more help because of their thin margins. But is there a way for TAFF to step in and offer some form of centralised backend services for them, so that the designers can focus more on the creative work?
We had thought about the possibility of offering shared services. But it’s hard for TAFF to do that because that’s a business model on its own. What we hope to do is perhaps act as an aggregator. We can approach companies that offer these services and say: ‘We have a group of young companies. Perhaps you can give us a better deal because you can sign up all of them in one go’... But that’s something we’re still looking at.
Global fashion is grappling with very big issues these days, such as sustainability and inclusivity. How do you see your young designers tackling them?
I would say that when it comes to sustainability, some of them are taking steps to look at material and processes that are more sustainable – though the issue is a complicated one and constantly evolving. As for inclusivity, I think Asia at this time is still relatively more conservative compared to the West, so I don’t see many young designers tackling them. That said, that doesn't mean we are not sensitive to them.
What would you say are some key qualities a Singapore designer needs to have in order to succeed?
I would say tenacity and grit. The hunger to learn and absorb as much information and ideas as possible, because that would give the person not just the impetus to create but also uncover their own blind spots. I would say the ability to make decisions and delegate responsibility. Obviously there are a lot of other things I could mention, but to be organisationally successful, these qualities are key. As for the fashion itself, I think having a strong narrative and being able to tell a unique story are very important.