Check out these fashion gems tucked away in strata-titled malls

It can be challenging to run a business in a strata-titled mall, but some owners have risen to the occasion

The $50-million makeover of The Centrepoint has put a fresh sheen on the strata-titled shopping complex, an Orchard Road landmark of 33 years.

The mall now has a wider entrance after nearly 1½ years of renovations and shoppers can step into the basement directly from the street.

New food-and-beverage tenants include Honolulu Cafe from Hong Kong, Japanese speciality tendon restaurant Tensho By MOF and Chinese cuisine establishment Souper Tang.

The top floor has also been redesigned with a focus on wellness. The sixth level now includes mini- trampoline gym BBounce Studio, yoga studio Real Yoga and medical centre Healthway Medical.

Notably, another big change occurred when anchor tenant Robinsons moved out in May last year after 31 years.

Department store Metro took over as the new anchor tenant in November last year.

More tenants will take over their units progressively over the next few months while the remaining hoardings, a reminder of the revamp, will continue to disappear.

The facelift was officially completed in July this year.

The mall's last major change took place in 2006 when it added a 58,000 sq ft wing to the building. The extension cost $56 million.

On the need to renovate regularly, Ms Tan Hwee Cheng, senior centre manager of The Centrepoint, notes that the latest facelift is "part of our ongoing efforts to continually refresh our mall offerings to better suit today's changing consumer preferences".

"With the recent refurbishment works, we have seen an average increase of 38 per cent in monthly visitor traffic," she says.

While The Centrepoint is reaping dividends from the facelift, not all strata-titled malls are so fortunate.

These malls, where shop units are owned by multiple individuals, are often seen as rundown buildings in dire need of makeovers.

A management committee - made up of subsidiary proprietors to represent owners - is usually in charge of the running and maintenance of the development.

But having multiple stakeholders involved means that decisions on renovations, advertising and a united vision of the mall are often difficult to achieve.

The result? A mishmash of stores and a lacklustre building that pales in comparison with glitzy counterparts that are fully owned by real- estate investment trusts (Reits), such as Ion Orchard, Suntec City and Paragon.

Ms Tan declined to comment on the challenges that The Centrepoint management faced in getting owners on the same page and rolling out the renovations.

But Mrs Sunita Pawa, who owns boutique Angelique in The Centrepoint, says there were rumours among tenants of big changes happening at the mall for three years before the revamp started in May last year.

According to property market research company R'ST Research, there are about 80 strata-titled malls in Singapore. These include Lucky Plaza, Orchard Towers, Katong Shopping Centre and Peninsula Plaza.

Despite the struggles of running businesses in a strata-titled complex, there are some stores that have managed to thrive.

The Straits Times highlights four gems that have stayed vibrant with niche merchandise, exceptional service and attractive bargains.

Gowns for the curvy

Angelique founder Sunita Pawa (above) opened the boutique in The Centrepoint in 1997. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Mrs Sunita Pawa's made-to-measure boutique Angelique has been sequestered at The Centrepoint for almost two-thirds of the mall's 33 years.

Mrs Pawa, 56, who opened Angelique in 1997, says: "This mall is iconic. People think of this building when they think of Orchard Road."

Her boutique customises evening gowns that are lovingly handmade, formal dresses with delicate lace collars and vividly coloured cheongsam with ornate beaded details.

Each dress is designed by Ms Foo Yu May, 58, who has worked alongside Mrs Pawa from the start. The garments are drafted and sewn by four local and Chinese seamstresses, who sometimes work in the shop.

Surrounded by lace and sequins, they also pin embroidered floral trimmings onto dresses.

Two of the seamstresses, Singaporean Indian sisters in their 60s, do intricate beadwork, a self-taught skill they perfected over two decades.

Tiny beads in myriad colours are painstakingly sewn to create patterns. The result: elegant, shimmering highlights that add sophistication to an evening gown. A long gown costs between $400 and $2,000.

Angelique has not always focused on made-to-measure garments.Mrs Pawa started with casual, cotton womenswear from India. But in 2010, she pictured a new client - the mother of the bride or groom.

"We saw that there was a market for formal gowns for older women," she says. "Gown sizes are so small. So if a woman is bigger, it is difficult to find formal wear. I felt there was a need for bigger sizes for older, curvier women."

Realising that "every woman is a different size and shape" also meant that Mrs Pawa wanted dresses to be customisable.

Business has not been easy, however. Profits have dropped significantly since the strata-titled mall began renovations last year, which crimped shopper traffic.

Today, the store makes about 150 dresses a month. Mrs Pawa says the boutique has been breaking even and expects business to improve now that the renovations were completed in July.

The shop also moved in August last year from a unit nearer the back of the mall to the present, visible space closer to the main entrance.

She acknowledges that being in a strata-titled mall comes with some drawbacks and uncertainties.

"Before the renovation, we were hearing for a long time that they were going to demolish the whole building. I was scared. Maybe because this is a comfort zone for me.

"We also heard the renovation would happen in stages because many tenants didn't want the whole place being renovated at one go."

These rumours circulated for three years before the management called tenants together to inform them that the mall would be renovated, she recounts.

But the grandmother of two, whose husband works in consumer electronics, says she is very attached to the mall and she is positive that she will continue her business there.

"I've signed a contract for another 11/2 years and I'm looking forward to being here for a long time. I wouldn't know what to do with myself otherwise."

Second life for clothes

Two of Refash's founders, Mr Stephen Chong (left) and Mr Aloysius Sng, at the City Plaza outlet. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Through the quiet corridors of City Plaza, past wholesale shops strewn with bundles of clothes, there is a buzz every weekend on level three.

Customers, most in their teens and early 20s, lug their second-hand clothes here to the Refash store, or wait in line to enter and buy almost new items priced about 70 per cent off the original retail price.

With its rundown facade and musty interior, City Plaza in Geylang Road may not look appealing. But 10-month-old second-hand store Refash is pulling in customers to the 35-year-old mall where wholesale shops are dominant.

Founded by 28-year-old entrepreneur Aloysius Sng and three friends, the store has been so successful that it has grown from its original 200 sq ft retail space to a 1,500 sq ft store in just months.

The company takes up another 1,000 sq ft in the mall to store inventory.

Mr Sng says: "It is amazing. We can do $30,000 in revenue a month here easily. Everything we put up here sells well."

Refash also does not have to spend on inventory, since the merchandise is brought in by sellers.

Here is how it works: People who wish to sell their second-hand garb set up an account with the company. They leave their clothing at the store and pieces are sorted by quality and brand. Items that are accepted will be sold at the store, at about 50 to 70 per cent off the original retail price. Rejected pieces are returned to the sellers or recycled.

Sellers receive a cut of the sales. This ranges from 30 to 70 per cent, with a bigger cut if they sell more.

Mr Sng came up with the business model last year. At the time, he was running Ferris, a wholesale womenswear store at City Plaza he started in 2010. Ferris supplied and manufactured for local online brands such as The Tinsel Rack.

But business took a dive in recent years. "The blog shops sidestepped the middlemen and started buying directly from China and Bangkok," he says. "Shopper traffic also dropped a lot in the past few years here at City Plaza and most of the stores are not doing well. It is like a dead mall."

The Singapore Management University graduate decided to try something new and Refash was born.

He closed Ferris last year and officially launched Refash in January this year. There is also a pop-up store at The Cathay that opened earlier this year and recently renewed its six-month contract. Mr Sng says the City Plaza store contributes 50 per cent to total revenue, outdoing the pop-up and online sales.

Asked if there are downsides to being in a strata-titled mall, Mr Sng points out that there will never be mall-wide discounts and free parking. But the bachelor focuses on the benefits. "Rent is usually about 40 per cent cheaper than at a non- strata-titled mall."

Not having a strict developer in charge of the building is a plus, he feels. The retail space takes up about six units and he removed the walls between them. He thinks this would not have been easy at a non-strata- titled mall.

"I didn't bother to change the flooring between the units. They are all different colours. But it doesn't matter because this is what Refash is all about.

"Being in City Plaza has been a key factor that has helped us thrive."

Sign made with saga seeds

Run by Ms Poh Ah Yu, The Red Saga at Bukit Timah Plaza offers an eclectic mix of women's fashion and accessories. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

A black dress with printed red birds peeping through the sheer fabric and denim pants covered in patterns of little red-and-white slippers - these are a couple of the unique finds at The Red Saga.

The shop also displays 1980s- inspired mod dresses and vintage lace pieces.

The nine-year-old women's fashion and accessories store at Bukit Timah Plaza carries an eclectic mix of styles curated by Ms Poh Ah Yu, who is guided by her whim and fancy.

"I don't really have a fixed style. I just choose what I like," says the former financial adviser, who is in her 40s and runs the shop by herself. "I bring in minimal pieces to give customers exclusivity."

The clothes and accessories are imported from countries such as Japan, India and Thailand. Dresses range from $30 to $250 a piece.

Bukit Timah Plaza, a 39-year-old strata-titled mall, also has more than 20 childcare and educational centres that draw parents to the otherwise quiet complex.

The shop is named after saga seeds, which she started collecting in her 20s because she thought they looked like bleeding hearts and she liked their contrast of beauty and sadness.

She keeps a jar of seeds in the store, which President Tony Tan's wife, Mary, has noticed. Mrs Tan has bought accessories such as bracelets. "She even asked for a few of the saga seeds to give to her grandchildren because they are so difficult to find these days," says Ms Poh.

Married to an air-conditioner engineer, she was selling insurance for 15 years before opening the store, a risk that entailed a pay cut of about 60 per cent. The couple have a 25-year-old daughter.

The recent plunge in the retail industry has affected sales. Ms Poh says profit margins differ from month to month, but the store has managed to stay afloat.

She is determined to carry on. "This is my passion. My customers are like my friends and I will stay here as long as possible."

She chose to set up shop in a strata-titled mall because Orchard Road is "too busy" for her liking.

Though the poor ventilation in the mall means that the smell of cooking from neighbouring eateries sometimes drifts into her shop, her customers never complain.

The pros of being in a strata-titled mall include lower rent and not having to refurbish the store regularly, she points out.

Tenants in malls owned by real- estate investment trusts, or Reits, may be required to renovate their units every time they renew their leases, which is typically every three years.

She also enjoys flexibility with store decor. The shop's white signboard is adorned with saga seeds spelling out its name - something she doubts a non-strata-titled mall would approve.

"My husband and I spent hours gluing the seeds on one by one, until our backs ached. It belongs to us and it is one of a kind."

A 'Far East Plaza kid'

Mr Jebson Tan founder of The Corner Shop in Far East Plaza. ST PHOTO: DON CHI

Mr Jebson Tan, 39, is a "Far East Plaza Kid", but not in the conventional sense.

While most people who take pride in that monicker claim they spent their youth hanging out at the mall, Mr Tan can say he spent almost his entire working life in the 34-year-old shopping complex.

"I started working here when I was 23. I grew up here, you know," says the easy-going bachelor.

The Singaporean had jobs in advertising and retail merchandising before that. Then he worked at a couple of menswear stores at Far East Plaza before opening his own there in 2008.

The Corner Shop is a menswear store with a difference. Colourful graphic socks and quirky enamel pins sit beside vinyl records, while sneakers from Japanese cult label Losers share shelf space with mini potted plants. Vintage Vans T-shirts hang opposite a counter decorated with toys from McDonald's Happy Meals.

The 441 sq ft store has an effortless nostalgic vibe, helped along by the 1980s music from his record player.

About 20 per cent of the merchandise is on consignment, including watches from local label HyperGrand and tote bags from home- grown label Wheniwasfour. Mr Tan also buys from various labels from South Korea and Singapore.

T-shirts range from $39 to $189 a piece, while jackets and suits cost $189 to $289. He also sells his own line of shirts and pants, which he produces in limited quantities.

On why he fills his store with such different items, he says he has always visualised it this way, adding: "I practically live in this shop. I might as well make it a fun place to be in."

Though the store has seen profits drop 30 per cent from last year because of the downturn, he says loyal customers have kept it going. About 80 per cent are regulars.

Being at a strata-titled mall has its downsides. With no unifying thematic vision, the place is a miscellany of stores which can confuse shoppers. "You see stores constantly moving out or shutting down, especially in the last two years. Some stores survive only six months," he adds.

He also notes that strata-titled properties tend to be older buildings that seldom get upgrades.

But he is loyal to Far East Plaza. He recently renewed his lease by another year and is thinking of renting another unit for a men's hair salon.

His connection to the place is so strong that he has rejected offers to move.

Real estate company CapitaLand, which owns malls such as Ion Orchard and Bugis+, was willing to let him have his pick of its malls at an attractive rental rate.

Orchard Central, run by Far East Organization, offered him $20,000 for renovations if he was willing to move over.

"But I told them no. There is no way I could replicate what I've made here."

At Far East Plaza, not only are opening hours flexible, but the mix of stores can also be attractive, he contends.

"It's a labyrinth here. Every store is so different. That is both good and bad. The place has a life of its own."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline Check out these fashion gems tucked away in strata-titled malls. Subscribe