Mandeep Chopra helped build Singapore’s sneaker culture with Limited Edt brand

Mandeep Chopra, the man behind Singapore's first dedicated sneaker boutique, saw potential in the athleisure trend

For millennials, the global sneaker culture, valued at a stratospheric US$55 billion (S$73.9 billion), is the ultimate commodifier of cool.

Young footwear fans rolling out sleeping bags to get in line for limited-edition kicks when they launch has become the norm around the world, especially for celebrity-driven collaborations such as Kanye West's Adidas Yeezy Boost collections.

It may seem all hype to the sartorially unaware, another passing fad that youngsters will soon tire of. But for Mr Mandeep Chopra, 40, managing director of Sports Fashion which is the parent company behind well-known home-grown sports merchandise and apparel business Weston Corporation, watching the sneaker culture blossom in Singapore feels like a small personal victory: a testament to his nearly 14-year effort to cultivate a community of sneakerheads here.

He is the brains behind niche sneaker brand Limited Edt - Singapore's first dedicated sneaker boutique, which opened in Queensway Shopping Centre in 2003 - and he saw the potential in the athleisure trend long before it became the fashion mainstay that it is today.

When asked about the turning points in his journey to promote the sneaker subculture in Singapore, Mr Chopra, the third-generation scion of family-run Weston Corporation, recalls an instance in August 2003 when the line for a pair of $209 limited-edition Nike shoes stretched from their store on the first floor of Queensway to the second floor of the shopping centre.

"Given that queues for sneakers were practically unheard of at the time, the interest in the 100 pairs of limited-edition shoes, which sold out in 15 minutes, even took me by surprise," he recalls with a laugh.

I'm always trying to find ways to make the shopping experience more interactive, educational and exciting because that evolution is necessary if we want to stay relevant in this digital age.

MR MANDEEP CHOPRA on his refusal to rest on his laurels

"That's when I realised to my relief that the demand for sneakers - though undoubtedly niche at the time - was there. It is still a milestone that makes me proud."

That pride is well placed, given that the Limited Edt brand today has nine stores across the island, at locations such as Queensway Shopping Centre, Peninsula Shopping Centre, 313@Somerset and Marina Bay Sands.

Nearly 400,000 people follow the brand's Facebook page, which is regularly updated with the newest products being brought into their stores.

At their newest store, Limited Edt Underground, which opened in 313@Somerset in May, there is a constant buzz of customers, be it a weekday or weekend.

On a Tuesday evening at 6pm, there are nearly 30 people perusing the cool, backlit shelves and keeping the edgy, tattooed shop attendants on their toes.

In one corner, a teenage girl in a green fringed crop top and matching shorts is asking a shop attendant for her size in a pair of Adidas wedge-heel sneakers.

Next to her, a skater boy is admiring a pair of retro-style Nike Air Max shoes in a mirror.

Across the store, a Caucasian tourist and his girlfriend are excitedly gesturing towards a pair of printed Asics, a picture of which they have on their Instagram account.

For Mr Chopra, being able to provide a spectrum of customers with a diverse range of sneakers - from trendy kicks to designer collaborations - has been one of the hardest yet most rewarding parts of his journey so far.

"When we started Limited Edt back in 2003, convincing brands to release coveted collections in small markets like Singapore was an uphill task," he says earnestly.

"Though we've come a long way since then, trying to get the right products and pushing for Singapore as a viable market is something I still continue to do - perhaps even more so in this globalised world."

His is a passion that is unmistakable and, in some ways, unsurprising, given his family's business pedigree. His grandfather started Weston Corporation in 1949, selling general sports equipment such as bats and rackets at a shophouse on Bras Basah.

The company, which moved to Peninsula Shopping Centre in the 1980s, today has a stronghold at sporting goods hub Queensway Shopping Centre and has become synonymous with quality football merchandise and apparel.

As a whole, the family business manages a range of 29 stores across the island.

For Mr Chopra, being an avid sports fan from a young age meant that joining the family business, after he graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in business, was an unspoken decision.

"Even though I would sometimes help out at the stores throughout my childhood, I was never explicitly told by my dad that I was expected to join the business," the older of two sons says, citing his father as one of his biggest inspirations.

His mother and wife are homemakers and his younger brother manages the football-focused Weston Corporation stores.

Instead, for the father of an eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, the move seemed an obvious transition, especially since he was a sports fan who grew up playing team sports. From tennis and track and field to basketball and soccer, he was on numerous school teams during his time at St Stephen's Primary, St Patrick's Secondary and later at Victoria Junior College.

The perks of having a family business that focused on sports merchandise also meant that he grew up with a wardrobe full of jerseys and matching shoes to boot.

Creating a love for sneakers

He recalls with a smile: "I wasn't allowed to just walk in and take what I liked, but because I played a lot of sports, I spent a lot of my youth convincing my dad I needed a jersey or a specific pair of shoes to play my games. The matching gear look was my thing back then."

Still, when it came time for him to join the family business in 2000, Mr Chopra was not given the option to play the boss' son card.

Instead, he started from "ground zero" - by working the shop floor at their store in Queensway.

He paid his dues like any other shop assistant, serving customers six days a week and, in turn, learning the ropes about merchandising, pricing and the general retail business.

The 11/2 years he spent on the shop floor was one of his steepest learning curves, but he enjoyed the time immensely.

"The interaction and connection with customers every day was fantastic - it kept me on my toes and up to date on everything from the latest trends to the most popular merchandise."

Thanks to these interactions, he began to realise that there was a small but definitive demand for niche sneakers - kicks that were not only being purchased to be worn for sport, but also as fashion statements for those keen on a street-style look.

A keen sneakerhead, Mr Chopra decided in 2002 to convince his father to open a dedicated sneaker boutique - a complete change from the general sports retail shops that the family business had been running since 1949.

What he had in mind at the time was a upscale store with a lifestyle edge - one that not only offered unique "retro" style athleisure shoes that were unavailable elsewhere, but also looked much more upmarket than the other busy shoe stores in Queensway.

And though Mr Chopra admits that his father took a while to convince, the senior Chopra eventually supported his son 100 per cent, even overlooking the more technical elements such as the construction of the store.

In 2003, after a $100,000 investment and Mr Chopra's input on the look and branding, the first Limited Edt store opened at Queensway - offering slick interiors and unique kicks that could not be found elsewhere on the island.

Unfortunately, the take-up for the sneakers was not as rapid as he had hoped.

"At the time, sneaker culture was very much in its infancy and perhaps it did not help that the store had a museum-like feel to it and looked quite intimidating and completely out of place in Queensway," he recalls.

"Being the early 2000s, we also did not have social media and had to rely on word-of-mouth to get the news out about the store."

Much to his relief, within three months of opening, the crowds finally came and, within a year, he had recouped his initial investment.

Not one to rest on his laurels, he worked tirelessly to cultivate knowledge about the sneaker subculture - putting together mailing lists, carefully sourcing internationally for unique shoes, participating actively in online forums and holding numerous product launches, events and exhibitions at the store to educate customers about limited-edition sneakers.

IT engineer George Cho, 46, who was on one of those early mailing lists, remembers finally getting his hands on the first pair of coveted limited-edition Nikes from the store in 2004.

"For the first time, it was possible to look at a wide range of retro sneakers in Singapore instead of having to go overseas to America or Tokyo to get them," the sneakerhead with more than 30 pairs of shoes recalls.

"At that time, the Limited Edt store at Queensway was a sanctuary for sneaker fans like myself - the kind of store I would visit every month to peruse new pairs to add to my collection."

With the demand for sneakers on the uptick, in 2005, Mr Chopra found himself convincing his father once again - this time to venture outside their strongholds at Peninsula Shopping Centre and Queensway and set up their next store in Singapore's prime shopping belt: Orchard Road.

Besides taking the family business to the next level, he knew a store in Orchard Road would heighten the profile of the Limited Edt brand and resonate with a wider range of consumers.

In 2005, with the family's blessings, the first Limited Edt Vault store launched in Heeren. This was followed by another store at 313@Somerset in 2009.

And though the Heeren store has since closed, the brand now operates four stores at 313@Somerset and another more upmarket store, Limited Edt Chamber, featuring designer sneaker collaborations by the likes of Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens and Jeremy Scott, at the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.

The shoes offered by the brand range from $119 to $179 at Limited Edt Underground, and upwards of $500 at Limited Edt Chamber.

The rapid expansion over the past 13 years has not been for the sake of expansion. Instead, each new store is geared to cater to a specific customer - be it basket- ballers looking for the latest Nike Air Jordans or fashion mavens on the hunt for Belgian fashion designer Raf Simmon's sneaker collaboration with Adidas.

"For me as a retail business owner, it's essential to constantly innovate and improve the shopping experience for my customers," the East Coast resident says, letting on that he is also seriously considering expanding in South-east Asia within the next year.

"I want my brands to be synonymous with sneaker culture and, for that, it's important that each store feel accessible and cater specifically to what customers are looking for."

His desire to be at the forefront of sneaker culture in Singapore can also be seen by the many collaborations Limited Edt has done since 2008, both in-house and with home-grown designers and top global brands such as Puma, Reebok, Adidas, New Balance, Vans and Asics.

The collaborations which have been sold at Limited Edt stores have been worn by the likes of singer Justin Bieber. Actor Samuel L. Jackson wore the brand's Adidas Superstar collaboration at the MTV Music awards earlier this year.

At the end of the day, it is this transition from building a local sneaker culture to now creating his own products that Mr Chopra considers one of his biggest achievements.

"Sure, it's great to have helped create a love for sneakers in Singapore, but getting a chance to put Singaporean designers and the Limited Edt brand on the global fashion map?

"There is nothing quite like it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Sneaker boss one step ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe