Singapore fashion labels go to Asia and beyond

Home-grown fashion brands are expanding to Asia and beyond by working with franchisees and opening stores-in-store

Singapore shoppers waltzing into department stores or malls in Asia will spy more and more home-grown brands on the racks.

Around Asia, and beyond, Singapore fashion labels are making an appearance in malls and department stores that seek to refresh their merchandise mix and entice their regular patrons with cosmopolitan and marketable Singapore brands.

These regional moves have also been propelled by tourists who discovered the brands while shopping in Singapore.

In recent years, Bangkok, Jakarta and Dubai have begun carrying womenswear label Beyond The Vines and contemporary fashion brand In Good Company.

Two Aeon malls in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, will each have a Benjamin Barker menswear store by next year. And Chinese shoppers in Shanghai can expect to deck themselves out in bespoke and ready-to- wear clothes from home-grown label Q Menswear soon.

The Mall Group, one of Thailand's largest mall operators, brought Beyond The Vines into the country through its luxury department store, Emporium, which is located in Khlong Toei district in Bangkok. The label's 650 sq ft store-in-store on the ground floor of Emporium opened last month.

Ms Pailin Umphuj, senior manager of business development at The Mall Group, says the company was impressed with the label's quality, design and affordability.

In Good Company, which designs fashion for women, men and children, is available overseas in Jakarta, Bangkok and Dubai. PHOTO: IN GOOD COMPANY

"We have shifted the direction of our fashion on the ground floor to be more affordable yet contemporary and fashionable,'' she says. "Beyond The Vines fits perfectly in this area."

Mr Daniel Chew, co-founder of Beyond The Vines, says the opportunity to take the label into an overseas market was exciting. The brand was approached by a few large retailers in Bangkok, but, ultimately, decided to work exclusively with The Mall Group as it felt the management team was genuinely helpful in assisting their expansion.

It also helps that Emporium is located near the Japanese and Korean expatriate community in Bangkok.

Mr Chew, 30, says: "As we have a good number of overseas orders from Japan, it made strategic business sense to be near the Japanese crowd in the area."

In Singapore, the label has two boutiques, in Mandarin Gallery in Orchard Road and Downtown Gallery in Shenton Way, and is also available at Tangs at Tang Plaza.

Meanwhile, four-year-old label In Good Company opened at Robinsons department store in Dubai in May, with another outlet in The SM Store in Makati City in Manila, the Philippines, to follow in September.

Q Menswear is in talks with two department stores in Shanghai to carry its collections. PHOTO: Q MENSWEAR

The brand is already available in three other overseas locations: at multi-label store Kapok in Hong Kong; at Emporium and Siam Paragon department stores in Bangkok, Thailand; and at Sogo, Seibu and Galeries Lafayette department stores in Jakarta, Indonesia. It first entered Indonesia in 2015.

Ms Jaclyn Teo, one of the four co-founders of In Good Company, declines to give sales and revenue figures, but says exports - not including e-commerce sales - have increased by 23 per cent year- on-year and that a lot of the company's expansion is organic.

The 39-year-old says: "We haven't gone to fairs or done a lot of advertising. Because Singapore is quite cosmopolitan, we get a lot of international travellers and buyers looking for new brands to buy for their own market."

Meanwhile, home-grown bespoke label Q Menswear opened its Shanghai office last month to kickstart its expansion in China.

Its founder Chong Han San, 35, was encouraged to enter the market after receiving a good response from buyers at Shanghai Fashion Week last year.

With plans to also sell his ready- to-wear line, q. menswear, in China, he is in talks with two department stores in Shanghai.

For others, the opportunity for expansion came through franchisees. Benjamin Barker's two stores in Cambodia will be opened by a local franchisee who is a regular customer of the label.

Up to one-fifth of the menswear brand's customers are tourists who write to the label inquiring if it is keen to open stores in their markets, says Mr Damien Tan, general manager of Benjamin Barker.

  • Venturing overseas

  • Beyond The Vines

    A contemporary womenswear label with simple designs such as plain pleated culottes and wrap tops. The look of the clothes is very "clean" - shirt buttons and zippers are usually concealed.

    In Singapore, the brand is available at Mandarin Gallery, Tangs at Tang Plaza and Downtown Gallery.

    In Thailand, it is available at Emporium department store in Bangkok.


    In Good Company

    Expect asymmetric hems, roomy cuts and that perfect amount of slouch in the womenswear, as well as abstract accessories such as a necklace with resin pieces artfully assembled to resemble a flower. This year, the label launched its men and boys designs.

    In Singapore, the brand is available at its Ion Orchard boutique and at Tangs at Tang Plaza. It is also carried at multi-label store Kapok.

    Overseas, it retails at five locations in Jakarta, including three Sogo department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Seibu.

    In Thailand, it is available at Emporium and Siam Paragon department stores in Bangkok while in the United Arab Emirates, it is carried by Robinsons in Dubai. It will open at The SM Store in Makati City in Manila, the Philippines, in September.


    Q Menswear

    Bespoke menswear brand Q Menswear launched its ready-to-wear arm, q. menswear, in July 2015. Its range of tailored shirts, jackets and pants comes with details such as coloured buttons and hand-pleats.

    The designs can be bought online or at the company's showroom at 116A Telok Ayer.

    While it does not have a store in China yet, it is in talks with two department stores in Shanghai.


    Benjamin Barker

    The menswear brand is known for its classic and vintage-inspired men's accessories, shirts and suits, which are designed for the Asian build.

    It has 10 stores in Singapore, including at Marina Square, Tampines 1 and Jem shopping mall. It has two stores in Melbourne, Australia, and is stocked at multi-label menswear boutique Pocket Square Clothing in Los Angeles, the United States.

    In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, its Aeon 1 store is slated to open by the end of this year, while the second store at Aeon 2 is scheduled to open next year.


Offering different styles in different markets

A French customer also recently expressed interest in opening a Benjamin Barker store in France.

But the eight-year-old home- grown label has its eyes set on first penetrating the markets of neighbouring Asian countries over the next two years, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

It created the lower-priced Green Label last year to cater to these markets as it noticed a lack of quality clothes at an attractive price point. Green Label shirts, which are also available in Singapore, start at $69.90 while the brand's core Blue Label shirts have prices starting at $89.90.

Mr Nelson Yap, 35, founder of Benjamin Barker, says: "We have a lot of inquiries about taking Benjamin Barker to those Asian markets and we think we can add value to their fashion scenes... instead of going to very developed countries and trying to compete."

Singapore shoe label Pazzion, which launched in 2002, is available in 10 countries worldwide, including South Korea and Vietnam. It first expanded to Thailand in 2005 through a department store buyer.

Last year, it opened two standalone stores in Malaysia - at Pavilion Shopping Mall in Kuala Lumpur and Vivacity Megamall in Kuching, Sarawak. There are plans to open in Doha, Qatar, by the fourth quarter of this year.

Pazzion founder Tom Ng says that most of the company's overseas franchisees approached them because the Singapore brand signals a certain level of quality and trust.

Another Singapore label that has expanded to six overseas territories, including Kuwait and Indonesia, through franchisees is bYSI, a womenswear brand that started in 1998.

Shoes and accessories label Charles & Keith is perhaps the poster boy of this overseas drive. It has more than 500 stores worldwide, with flagships in Beijing, Dubai and Seoul. Its first overseas store opened in Indonesia in 1998.

For most labels, opening a store-in-store in department stores is a good way to test the market by tapping the department store's existing customer base while keeping operational costs low. Expanding through franchisees also lowers the risk of investment.

"It's just a matter of cost," says Ms Teo of In Good Company, which had its first physical presence four years ago in Singapore at Tangs at Tang Plaza, where it is still located. It has a second store at Ion Orchard.

She adds: "You have that support being under the umbrella of a department store because it has its own marketing department that can generate marketing promotions.

"With any fashion start-up, the operational cost is a concern. If the retail leases were more affordable in Singapore, it would make it a lot easier for local brands to start out."

And instead of being shoved onto nondescript clothing racks with other brands, these home-grown labels are able to keep their brand identity by having their own space.

Beyond The Vines' signature pink branding and minimalist decor were kept at its Emporium store, despite it being co-designed with the department store to suit its customer base. There are pretty pink terrazzo columns and tables on plush lavender-grey carpets.

Dr Seshan Ramaswami, associate professor of marketing education at Singapore Management University, says it is important for brands to keep their image separate from that of the department store.

He says the best way is to "invest in keeping the brand's own image distinct, through its packaging and display and especially its advertising and consumer promotions".

He adds: "They need to ensure that their brand stands out in the minds of their target consumers."

However, fashion labels should not rush into having a store-in- store in a department store without first understanding their target audience.

Mr Amos Tan, senior lecturer and section head of marketing and retail at Singapore Polytechnic, says brands need to understand the behaviour of their target audience and have a business strategy that utilises both online and offline platforms.

He adds: "Regardless of retail format... you need to understand how consumers consume things and behave. There is a need to experientially engage consumers. The brand's e-commerce can serve as a form of convenience in the buying process."

While Beyond The Vines carries the same clothing selection in Bangkok as in Singapore, the overseas partners of In Good Company buy different styles to cater to their customers.

In Indonesia, Sogo department store customers tend to go for more conservative pieces, while those at Galeries Lafayette and Robinsons Dubai go for styles that are sleeveless or with design details such as cut-outs.

Indeed, Ms Teo of In Good Company says that the company plans to focus on its e-commerce platform in the next few years and increase its online overseas customers from 10 per cent to 30 per cent by improving return policies and customer service.

She says: "Now everyone needs to be an omni-channel retailer with click-and-mortar stores. It's so much easier to reach out to the market right now.

"You are not limited to just the retail malls. As long as you have connectivity, you are able to showcase your brand."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2017, with the headline Singapore fashion labels go to Asia and beyond. Subscribe