Fashion may not recover from the pandemic, say local designers

Local fashion designer Lai Chan's show at Singapore Fashion Week 2017. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MERCURY MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS

SINGAPORE - The Singapore fashion scene is headed for trouble because of Covid-19 but veteran designers say the rot in the industry has been festering long before the pandemic struck.

The crisis has merely exposed flaws in the industry here. Designers interviewed listed unsustainable production capacities, high rents, and unimaginative designs as factors behind the slow death of an industry deemed largely non-essential.

Retired couturier Thomas Wee, 72, laments that the fashion scene in Singapore has "already been so boring prior to Covid-19".

Now lecturing part-time at Temasek Polytechnic, he says it lacks the buzz of the '80s - considered by many to be the golden age of Singapore fashion - when there were numerous fashion shows and glamorous window displays in department stores.

He had considered relaunching his haute couture label, but decided against it after observing the scene. "The market is so bleak that I just refuse to compete. Even after all this has abated, it will go back to that normal, boring stage. I cannot foresee anything bright."

Similarly, musician and fashion veteran Dick Lee, 63, believes "Singapore fashion has had a problem before Covid-19".

"The way things are going, I don't think there's a hopeful future for local fashion here."

Besides his work in music and theatre, Lee also founded the Society of Designing Arts (SODA) in 1984, the first formal effort to introduce local fashion designers.

There were few international or fast-fashion labels here then, just a few high-end brands, he recalls. Within two years, SODA took off and demand for young designers like Yang Derong and Daniel Yam poured in.

With no place for them to sell their designs, Lee set up Hemispheres in 1986 - a marketplace of sorts where each designer had his own booth.

He had asked the landlord of the Delfi Orchard building, where he had an office, if he could use a part of the vacant third floor, rent-free. The ongoing 1985 recession meant that "malls were tenant-less and there was a lot of empty shop space".

Thai-American fashion designer Thakoon at Singapore Fashion Week. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MERCURY MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS

For a while, it was a roaring success - until the '90s brought an influx of foreign brands into Singapore. The recession ended and the landlords took back the shop space. Then the 2000s heralded a new era of online stores and fast-fashion.

"Hemispheres was a project that was born out of an economic crisis; a disaster, kind of like this one," says Lee. "But the problem is now there is so much competition - and young designers emerging from Lasalle have no money to open brick-and-mortar."

Moreover, designers say the pandemic has changed what shoppers will want to buy from fashion labels in the future, perhaps at the expense of design.

"The circuit breaker has made everybody (used to being) home-bound," says Wee, adding that the surge in traffic physical retailers saw the first weekend of phase two was "anticipated".

"I believe many Singaporeans will have a different lifestyle moving forward.

"Give it another two weeks and traffic will die down. People will just buy what they 'need'."

Fashion designer Wykidd Song, who returned to the spotlight last year with his new label Akinn, notes a similar move away from trend-led designs to more seasonless styles, as more stay home.

"We realised the mood for dressing up to go to the office was changing, as the idea of 'work from home' was (becoming) more acceptable," says Song, 56. "We had to change our planned designs and come up with ones that were both suitable for the home office as well as running to the office for a quick errand."

Reflecting on his experience in retail during the Sars epidemic in 2003, when he had just opened his flagship Song+Kelly21 store at Forum Galleria, he adds: "Sars seemed like just a bad cold compared to Covid-19. This current pandemic has cast an unprecedented gloom I have never experienced.

"I think when the malls open up and the 'revenge buying' is done, there will be a true slump in mall shopping, and that slump will be here to stay."

Production woes

One glaring problem that has emerged from Covid-19 is the issue of stock and production.

Many are scrambling now to clear old inventory as a result of slowed sales, Wee observes. "They need to balance clearing stock with budgeting for the next launch or collection."

It is a problem that "will never be solved", he adds. The lack of a low-cost production base or organised group of sewers in Singapore means many designers have to outsource their production to factories in Sri Lanka and China. But often these require bulk orders, leading to oversupply.

Retired couturier Thomas Wee is now lecturing part-time at Temasek Polytechnic. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THOMAS WEE

"A lot of people depend on China to produce their designs, but China won't touch you with a 10-foot pole unless you can hit their minimum order," says Wee. While much of production is at a standstill now, he predicts an impending "bottleneck" in factories once retailers return and rush to produce new collections.

"Fashion is about how strong you are, from design to manufacturing. You can't be running to your neighbourhood tailor to make your pieces; they charge so much," adds the adjunct lecturer, who teaches pattern-drafting at Temasek Polytechnic.

"I see young designers selling their dresses for $400 to $600 - that was my ready-to-wear price (between $350 and $600). And if you're a nobody, who's going to pay that?"

Agreeing that "we don't have the factories to make ready-to-wear", Lee says it was one reason why international buyers eventually stopped supporting Singaporean fashion designers when they sold at fashion shows in the '90s.

"When people ordered, our designers couldn't fulfill the demand because either quantities were too low or we didn't have adequate production capabilities. It was annoying to the buyers at fashion shows."

The issue has persisted. But today, that means designers end up producing similar-looking collections in the same fabrics, or they lose out to fast-fashion retailers who offer more variety for cheaper, says Lee.

"I went into (multi-label retail store) Design Orchard and it's shocking, the standard of clothing stocked there. Things are so basic and there's no nice fabrication or nice finishing. You get so much better at Zara for less money - designs are more interesting and there's fast turnover of new styles.

"Choice now is so wide - we have every brand in the world here, from cheap to high-street or sportswear. As a young Singaporean designer, where and how would you fit into this whole retail environment?," he continues.

"We need to go back to our dressmaking days because that makes it unique."

Masks and virtual gimmicks not long-term solution

The pandemic has also led to debate on what is essential or not in fashion. In the interim, designers and local retail brands alike have turned to making masks.

Couturier Ann Teoh, who is in her 50s, believes it is the most essential thing designers can offer now. The fashion veteran known for her bridal couture recently started selling hand-stitched designer masks under her diffusion line At.titude by Ann Teoh.

"I never imagined I, a couturier, would one day be making and packing masks," she says.

She hopes, once Covid-19 passes, to "meet future demands with essential clothes" - seasonless items that look classic and last longer. "The model of ready-to-wear with racks and racks of clothes (in a standalone boutique) is not a sustainable business anymore. Too much money goes to landlords."

And making masks is not a long-term solution, say some.

Wee says: "I think it's definitely not realistic. What kind of quantity are they producing to make a profit margin? What will happen after Covid-19 has abated? Will the consumers keep the mask for another pandemic or keep them as ' collector items'?"

These are temporary solutions that distract from the real issues, such as the difficulty of gaining support locally and regionally. It was the main reason Ms Tjin Lee, 46, head honcho behind 11 fashion weeks in Singapore, decided to eventually exit the national runway show in 2017.

Malaysian designer Han Chong and Ms Tjin Lee, who organised 11 editions of the Singapore Fashion Week. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MERCURY MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS

"It had become very clear that our country was too small to support a world-class, private-sector funded fashion week," says Ms Lee, whose company Mercury Marketing & Communications organised the Singapore Fashion Festival in 2004 and 2008; Audi Fashion Festival Singapore from 2009 to 2014; and Singapore Fashion Week from 2015 to 2017.

For the last two editions of the festival, she had pivoted to featuring Asian designers as the main focus. "But it didn't translate well in terms of sponsorship funding and brand partnerships from local businesses," she says.

"Despite our best efforts to highlight local and Asian, the sponsors were more keen on international blockbuster content, and as Singapore Fashion Week was 80 to 90 per cent privately-funded, this became unsustainable."

She tried moving with the times, investing in Digital Fashion Week to see if online runway shows and virtual experiences could add value but found that did not translate well with a local and regional audience.

"The experience of seeing a fashion collection in real life cannot easily be replicated online."

Her team discussed the possibility of a joint Asia Fashion Week with regional organisers, but later decided against it.

"The biggest challenge in 2017 was that, despite our passion for supporting local and Asian designers, Asia wasn't all that interested in Asian designers as a whole," says Ms Lee.

"For local and Asian designers to thrive, their own home countries and region need to be supportive."

Rethinking savvy marketing for the future

Still, it is not all doom and gloom.

Predicting long-term disruption to the international fashion week schedule - as "the global industry is deep in soul-searching" about sustainability and the relevance of fashion - Ms Lee believes "fashion is a form of self-expression and culture, and will always survive".

"Perhaps while we're locked down (by borders) now, with a new love for local during these Covid-19 times, we can appreciate the local talent in our own backyard," she adds.

New breakthroughs in e-commerce will likely stay beyond the pandemic - but even so, brands should not get complacent, say designers. Fashion requires stamina and constant innovation "beyond just investing in the first three years", says Wee.

Believing much of the work lies in the hands of those in marketing and visual merchandising, he recommends bringing back small fashion shows staged in mall atriums to promote young designers, and siphoning off budget for pop-ups and adventurous fashion window displays.

Home-grown label Stolen at Singapore Fashion Week 2016. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MERCURY MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS

Landlords should also work together with retailers, say those interviewed. Rather than have vacant shop lots for the sake of not dipping below profits, they can consider more creative solutions to feature local fashion.

Lee and Wee both pointed to shopping mall Siam Centre in Bangkok as an example, where an entire floor is dedicated to local designers.

"Not because (the designers) have deep pockets or supporters, but because the malls are willing to take a risk to see who they can invest in," says Wee.

It is a destructive cycle if nobody makes the first move, he adds. "Right now there are no distinctive brands or designers on offer to give big companies the confidence to sponsor and invest in fashion. And if organisers can't get sponsors, they won't do anything."

While Lee too is not optimistic, he has a bold suggestion: Singapore designers could potentially stand out by specialising in Cruise collections. A newer concept in the fashion calendar, a Cruise collection is a mid-season capsule of resortwear, originally targeted at the elite who want to spend winter holidays at a summer destination.

"What do we have that is unique to us? Our tropical climate," says Lee. "It's contentious, but a Cruise collection could help us - it's doing a summery holiday collection in the middle of winter; and that's what we are."

"And also Cruise is only once a year - our designers can only manage (a big collection) once a year."

In the meantime, players in the industry can only sit tight and hope to ride out Covid-19. If designers and retailers were afraid to make moves before, they are only more risk-averse now.

"The government and people like TaFF (Textile and Fashion Federation) have given support many times over the years, but nobody has come out of it successfully - so I think they're very wary of doing another big thing," says Lee.

Wee adds: "I just hope that in the next two to three years, after Covid-19, there is a new breed of designers that will make me sit up and say 'wow, that's the future.'"

Will the luxury market survive?

The green-eyed talk of revenge buying at Hermes stores in China after the lockdowns were lifted in April has many wondering: Will the luxury market survive post-pandemic?

Most definitely, say local designers interviewed. They come with a premium that is hard to erode.

Backstage at the Jason Wu show at Singapore Fashion Week. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MERCURY MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS

"Luxury brands already have a DNA - all they need is to throw money into advertising and promotion," says retired couturier Thomas Wee, 72. "They will survive with or without the China market."

Designer Wykidd Song, 56, believes the luxury sector will come out "intact".

"After they close a few shops and have gone through their retrenchment, they will thrive because unlike fast fashion, they represent what creativity and fashion are at different taste levels," he says.

Despite widespread reports that a day after Hermes opened its flagship store in Guangzhou it recorded about S$3.8 million in sales, some are doubtful.

Couturier Ann Teoh believes that demand for luxury may stall for the next few years, as people recoup their losses from the recession.

"Very few people have made money from the pandemic, and can they sustain all these luxury labels? Even the rich are losing millions a day. Until they start to make money and gain confidence again, they won't spend."

In the meantime, luxury houses - a sector often regarded as being slow or resistant to e-commerce - have adapted to offering online services to woo customers. Roman jeweller Bvlgari launched an e-shop in May, complete with an e-concierge team to assist shoppers, and 3D product images and augmented reality for the brand's bags.

In June, Michael Kors launched a new Chat & Shop home shopping service, enabling shoppers to browse an e-catalogue of new arrivals before placing an order via e-mail.

And while luxury houses Chanel and Dior have chosen to retain a sense of elusiveness by not caving completely into e-commerce, they quickly launched e-concierges and home delivery services for their beauty arms.

Luxury or not, brands will benefit from having a premium, says Wee.

He adds: "The most important thing (I always tell my students) for a designer to do is make sure their work smells luxurious and spells 'designer'. It must have a premium, so when people buy them, they feel proud to have this label on their garment.

"When good times come back, luxury brands are not going to be affected. You'll see queues outside their doors again."

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