The Ups and Downs of Being an Emerging Designer in Singapore

And why we're not hearing about them in the west.
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Dhani Mau
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And why we're not hearing about them in the west.

Singapore has already established itself as a destination for fashion. Its main retail stretch, Orchard Road, is littered with every European luxury brand you've ever heard of -- many of which have multiple boutiques on the same block. Fast-fashion stores like Zara, Topshop, Uniqlo and H&M are also quite ubiquitous.

In recent years, a number of high-end fashion brands from Europe and the U.S. have come to Singapore to host lavish events. In 2013 alone, Chanel showed its resort collection and staged its "Little Black Jacket" exhibition, and Carolina Herrera, Tsumori Chisato, Peter Pilotto and Hussein Chalayan all showed up for the annual Asia Fashion Exchange (AFX) -- a week-long event in May which includes Audi Fashion Festival (like a standard fashion week, with runway shows by local and international designers, held in a tent), Blueprint (a tradeshow a la Coterie or MAGIC), Audi Star Creation (Singapore's answer to "Project Runway") and Asia Fashion Summit, a business-focused conference.  This year Calvin Klein (the brand) and Victoria Beckham (the person) came to Singapore to host events, followed by Prabal Gurung and Oscar de la Renta, who showed at this May's AFX.

While Chanel's resort show was still a trade event, limited largely to international guests and press, most of the events these luxury multi-nationals have hosted in Singapore have been designed to grab the attention of local shoppers. At each annual Audi Fashion Festival, for example, the public has been invited to purchase tickets to see a show from a designer like Oscar de la Renta or Peter Pilotto (who typically show collections that have already made their debuts elsewhere). For designers, that's a big draw -- Singapore is home to some of the wealthiest individuals in the world, and most of the design brands who show already have a customer base there.

Singapore clearly has a thriving luxury retail business, but does it really have a fashion industry of its own? When we hear about Singapore in a fashion context, it's usually about western brands going there, not so much the other way around.

AFX, with some help from Singapore's government, hopes to change that. Its tradeshow pillar, Blueprint, is a private and public sector initiative spearheaded by the Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore (TaFf) with support from the Singapore Tourism Board and other government agencies. Around 200 brands participated in this year's show, about 40 percent of them from Singapore and the rest from overseas countries -- primarily other parts of Asia. More than 350 buyers were expected to attend. It's part of a movement to promote Singapore as Asia's foremost fashion hub.

In fact, this sort of re-branding goes back to shortly after Singapore became an independent country, which was only 50 years ago. Callia Chua, group director of TaFf, tells us that the organization launched when U.S. and European brands started outsourcing fashion production and Singapore became one of the major hubs. However, most of those manufacturers eventually began to relocate to other Asian countries.

"That's when we started to look at our business model and started to change into providing design," says Chua. There was only one problem: "We started to realize we don't have many talents." So, the textile organization merged with a design council to become the Textile and Fashion Federation, which began recruiting members from design centers and then looking at designers' business models to see how they could work together and where they needed help. It also began working with other agencies, as well as private partners and consultants with fashion experience, to help make Blueprint legitimately useful to designers, and attractive to buyers and media. Blueprint also encourages designers to help and collaborate with one another, Chua says.

Indeed, there is a lot of support being put in place -- much of it underwritten by the government -- for local designers to get off the ground in Singapore. Designers can apply for grants to cover much of their operating costs to show at Blueprint, for example. Funds are also handed out to cover up to half of designers' sample production costs.

Of course, the Singapore government and TaFf don't only want Singaporean designers to succeed locally: A big part of their goal is to support local labels' growth overseas. Thus, there are also initiatives in places to bring designers to trade shows in New York and Paris. "We do pre-season [here at Blueprint] for May, but for fall/winter, spring/summer, I bring my designers to New York, I bring my designers to Paris. We continue to communicate our brands to the buyers where it's relevant," says Chua. "We no longer work like the old days where we sit here and wait for the buyers to come, so if they want to come we welcome them but if they don't come, we bring our brands to them."

So why then, with all this support -- and in a country known for attracting hordes of shoppers with money to burn -- aren't we seeing or hearing about any Singaporean designers making it in the west?

A look from Ong Shunmugam's fall 2014 collection. Photo: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty

A look from Ong Shunmugam's fall 2014 collection. Photo: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty

As much as these organizations want local designers to succeed and expand, there are some pretty significant hurdles. One is the fact that there are no production or manufacturing resources in Singapore. "In terms of producing fashion, it's really challenging," says Singaporean designer Priscilla Shunmugam, whose label Ong Shunmugam is succeeding better than most local labels. "Costs are really high, overheads are really high and we just don't have a skilled workforce. We don't have supporting industries like textile factories, seamstresses, people who do zippers, so it really is very, very challenging to produce fashion here."

Designers in Singapore are therefore forced to outsource. Fortunately, countries with strong manufacturing centers, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, aren't too far away. Burgeoning Singapore-based handbag designer Ling Wu, for example, produces her exotic skin accessories in Indonesia. A few brands I met with had specifically chosen to work with marginalized populations in countries like Cambodia and Vietnam to produce their goods.

Still, outsourcing can be challenging when you're truly a fledgling label, as factories often require large minimums on orders. It also makes it more difficult for designers to keep a close eye on what's being manufactured.

Another challenge can be the weather. Since Singapore doesn't have a winter, many designers who start by selling to Singapore buyers can have a hard time attracting international buyers who want fall/winter collections.

There's also the simple fact that Singapore's fashion scene is so new. There aren't yet many people looking at Singapore as a place to spot new talent. There's not a Parsons or a Central St. Martin's churning out future stars.

So is it possible for a Singaporean designer to make it? A few labels have begun to break out, but it's been a slow process.

One of the country's buzziest brands is called Depression (a bit of a tongue-in-cheek name -- the designers are very positive). Designers Andrew Loh and Kenny Lim launched the line eight years ago, but have only started gaining international attention over the past three to four years, thanks in part to TaFf and Blueprint. "They started knocking on our doors and said, 'You should start showing this to a bigger audience,'" says Lim. In addition to showing at Audi Fashion Festival and Blueprint, they've also done Seoul Fashion Week and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Malaysia. Solestruck in Portland and Wut Berlin in Tokyo have become big supporters. The designers attribute their success to "50 percent passion and 50 percent hard work" and making sure they stand out when new brands are popping up every day.

A look from Depression's spring 2014 collection. Photo: Courtesy

A look from Depression's spring 2014 collection. Photo: Courtesy

Shunmugam and Wu, whom we mentioned earlier in this article, also attribute much of their success to going to events and trade shows outside of Singapore, and finding distributors in countries like Korea and Japan.

The secret seems to be a combination of being smart and business-savvy, taking things slow, having a unique brand identity and simply being passionate.

But while Shunmugam says Singapore is a good base for her now, she feels that may not always be the case. "[The brand is] in a good place right now but as we try to grow the brand internationally, I think it might change. Singapore does have its limitations and not just in the production sense, but also talking about a serious industry. We don't have that here. So I imagine the bigger I grow and the further I want to go, it might not be the place, I might outgrow it."

But given the support and encouragement young creatives are enjoying in Singapore, there may be no shortage of emerging designers to take her place.

Disclosure: Representatives for Blueprint tradeshow, part of Asia Fashion Exchange, paid for my trip to Singapore to cover these events.

Top: Singapore Fashion Week. Photo: Courtesy