Singapore design is having a moment. For too long, the country’s homegrown brands have lived in the shadows of their international counterparts. But today, all signs point to a reversal as more Designed-in-Singapore and Made-in-Singapore brands step into the spotlight — and onto the world stage.
In the fickle world of fashion, customers may flock to a brand for its design aesthetic but it takes consistent quality, clear value and savvy business acumen to keep them coming back. Inside takes a closer look at how three homegrown brands are doing it.
Bag it with Charles & Keith
Charles & Keith may have started out in the business of ladies’ footwear, but it has been attracting global attention for its bags, thanks to British actress Maisie Williams. The Games of Thrones star stepped onto the red carpet of the 2016 Emmy Awards in Los Angeles toting the brand’s Evening Wristlet (S$39.90) bag in black. She later swopped this for a white Prism Minaudiere clutch (S$89.90), also from Charles & Keith, for the HBO Emmy after-party. Both were quickly sold out on Charles & Keith’s online store, which ships to over 40 countries in the world including the United States.
It is unlikely that brothers Charles Wong and Keith Wong ever expected their creations to grace a Hollywood red carpet event when they were learning the ropes at their parents’ small shoe shop in the 1990s. After striking out on their own in 1996, they quickly saw potential for the brand to grow overseas. Just four years later, they moved into neighbouring Southeast Asian markets. The Middle East was next, starting with Dubai in 2004.
“One of the most challenging business decisions was to further expand the business outside the Asia Pacific region,” said Chief Executive Officer Charles Wong in a published interview. “At that time, we had no experience operating the business outside the Asia-Pacific region and it was difficult to gauge if the business would take off. The seasonal and cultural difference added to the list of challenges we had entering that market. Also, as our shoes were made to fit the Asian feet which are smaller than our Middle Eastern and European counterparts, it was a risk that we took.”
The risk has clearly paid off as Charles & Keith has, at last count, close to 400 stores in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
While the brand worked to expand its global presence, it also diversified its product portfolio to include bags and accessories such as belts, sunglasses, costume jewellery and tech accessories. At present, an estimated 20 to 30 designs are added to their concept stores weekly.
With such success under its belt, it is little wonder that Charles & Keith caught the eye of the world’s biggest luxury group by sales, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. In 2010, the company’s private equity arm, L Capital Asia, bought a 20% stake in the brand at a reported cost of S$30 million. With this support, Charles & Keith has continued its overseas expansion into high-potential markets like China, and looks set to continue blazing a trail in the world of fashion.
Step out in style with MDS Collections
While Charles & Keith has been making international headlines, another homegrown brand has been quietly making waves overseas. MDS Collections, with over a dozen retail stores in Singapore and a growing brick-and-mortar presence in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Japan, began as an online fashion store with a very modest start-up capital of S$3,000.
The brand enjoyed the advantages that came with being a pioneer in the e-commerce scene back in 2006 but it soon became clear that jostling for mindshare — and wallet-share — in a marketplace crowded with bigger local and overseas brands would be no easy feat.
"What we assumed would sell well did not meet expectations, and the products we thought wouldn't sell well became top-sellers," revealed Director Joe Phua in a 2015 interview. "I've learnt that observing and listening carefully to what your customers want is the key to increase sales conversion."
It turned to trend reports, competitive analyses and in-house data mining for design inspiration. By taking its lead from customer preferences and buying patterns, and adopting an affordable fast-fashion philosophy, MDS Collections won the hearts of customers in as many as 165 countries by 2011. Today, MDS Collections launches some 70 new designs a week to delight shoppers.
In Assuredly Good Company
The youngest and perhaps most buzzworthy label on our list is IN GOOD COMPANY (IGC), a modern contemporary Singapore label created by four friends. The co-founders, all in their 30s, crossed paths at the now-defunct brand Alldressedup before deciding to launch their own venture in 2012.
“[We] saw the potential of banding together with something that we would not have been able to pull off on our own individually,” says Sven Tan, who leads the label’s creative vision with Kane Tan.
With a clear creative vision of “clothes in a blend of simple aesthetics with good quality and at affordable price points”, IGC choose s to develop its textiles directly with specialist mills and maintains an in-house sample room in Singapore. After almost three years, the brand turned heads, once again, with the unveiling of its first concept store at ION Orchard.
The sprawling 3,300 square foot space oozes the same minimalist chic that the brand’s capsule collections are known for. Carrying a complete womenswear line, accessories as well as a Mini Me collection (miniature versions of the brand’s signature styles, meant for girls aged three to eight), the boutique is also home to a deli-style café — the result of a delicious collaboration with the popular Plain Vanilla Bakery.
The multi-concept space is envisioned as “an alternative retail lifestyle destination” and, going by the enthusiastic reception it has received to date, the brand may well have succeeded.
While it has quickly established a sizeable local following, IGC remains admittedly selective when presented with overseas growth opportunities. In July 2015, it allowed cult destination store Kapok in Hong Kong to stock its collections and, later, entered an agreement with stockists Sogo and Galleries Lafayette in Jakarta, Indonesia. It may be understated but IGC has certainly made the fashion world sit up and take notice.
Shop with us:Charles & Keith
IN GOOD COMPANY