The Life Interview With Nelson Yap

The Life Interview with Benjamin Barker's Nelson Yap: Making it in menswear

The founder of Benjamin Barker focuses his fashion label on classic designs and workmanship, instead of chasing after trends

Despite the cool retail climate, it is still possible for a home-grown brand to thrive and be successful here. In fact, because of the lower rents, local menswear label Benjamin Barker opened two more stores in Singapore last year, at Tampines 1 and Jem shopping mall, taking its total to 10.

Last year, it generated $10 million in revenue, a 30 per cent jump from the previous year.

The label, which opened its first store in 2009, at Marina Square, is known for its range of classic and vintage-inspired men's accessories, shirts and suits, designed to fit the Asian build better. The brand is popular with men aged between 18 and 35. Prices range from $15.90 for accessories to $498 for suits.

It also has two stores in Melbourne, Australia, and is stocked at multi-label menswear boutique Pocket Square Clothing in Los Angeles.

Considering that Benjamin Barker's founder Nelson Yap, 35, originally wanted to be a film- maker, he is not doing too badly, especially in a competitive scene dominated by fast-fashion giants.

Then again, he does not consider Benjamin Barker to be a fast-fashion label blindly following runway trends. Instead, the label chooses to focus on evergreen classics.

When my wife and I were art students in Melbourne, she joked that she wouldn't go out with me if I were to become a businessman. I laughed and said I would never, ever become one.

MR NELSON YAP

Mr Yap says: "We focus on workmanship and how to cut a shirt better. We look at Japanese cutting techniques, such as sloping shoulders, that give a more tailored feel."

He also wanted an evergreen brand name. Benjamin, a biblical name meaning "son of the south", refers to his time spent in Melbourne. Barker is a type of leather.

Throughout the 90-minute interview held at a cafe in Capitol Piazza, Mr Yap drinks only water.

Dressed from head to toe in Benjamin Barker, save for his jeans from Japanese label Tomorrow- land, he describes his style as classic-vintage, one that is influenced by the late British-American actor Cary Grant.

But the dapper businessman says that starting a fashion label was not originally part of his life plan.

A film graduate from the University of Melbourne, who names the violent and wrenching Oldboy (2003) by South Korean director Park Chan Wook as one of his all- time favourite films, he harboured dreams of becoming a film-maker and was even approached by his teachers to stay on after graduation in 2005 to teach.

However, he returned to Singapore to help with his family's discount suit business at Telok Ayer before returning to Melbourne the following year with plans to work in the film industry. But realising that the family business was more than half a million dollars in debt, he decided to study accounting instead.

He says: "I had to do something more practical than film-making, so I did a master's in business IT and switched to accounting. I really struggled with that."

Six months later, he learnt that his father was ill with cancer and came home before he could finish his studies.

"My dad asked me to stay on and said not to worry. He was not the kind of person to show affection and that was the first time he started becoming much warmer. When he called me, it was the first time he told me that he loved me."

 Mr Nelson Yap and his parents (above) at his graduation in Melbourne, and on a vacation to Hong Kong last year with his wife and their daughters.
Mr Nelson Yap and his parents at his graduation in Melbourne. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NELSON YAP

It was a chance to repair his strained relationship with his father, a strict disciplinarian who devised "creative punishments" - such as kneeling on uncooked rice grains through the night or standing under a cold shower - for Mr Yap, his older brother and his younger sister.

The middle child was kicked out of the house no less than six times, mainly because of his love for skateboarding. "Dad hated my skateboarding image. I remember having to hide my skateboard outside the house."

His 60-year-old aunt, Ms Mary Yap, says: "Personality-wise, they are quite different. My brother was a very hot-tempered man while Nelson is full of passion."

Mr Yap describes his father as a hard man who, at age nine, dropped out of school to sell cigarettes and newspapers from door to door to support his six younger siblings.

As his parents were busy working, he spent a lot of time with his paternal grandparents at their two-room Housing Board flat in Tanglin Halt and says he has more fond memories of them than of his father.

"My father just didn't know how to show affection. I realised that he loved us all the while. I can see where he came from now that I'm a parent," says Mr Yap, who is married with three daughters.

Like his father, he says he is the disciplinarian in the family too, but he makes sure to always hug his children after correcting them.

And while school-going children looked forward to the June holidays, he and his siblings did not as they had to spend long hours in a warehouse assembling and packing for their father's artificial flower business.

If they were not at the warehouse, they would be cooped up at home, a condominium in Upper Thomson Road.

Looking on the bright side of things, he says: "It was great training for us. Now we are not afraid to get our hands dirty. And it's great training for entrepreneurs because you need to do whatever it takes."

His father died in 2007. Two years later, still saddled with debts while working at the family business, Mr Yap decided to start Benjamin Barker.

Perhaps the idea was seeded by his father's dress sense. "Dad was very fashionable with his long hair during the 1970s. He was always well-dressed and he dressed me and my siblings up whenever we went on holidays. We hated it - we looked like Korean pop stars."

The businessman, who lives in an HDB flat in Marine Parade, says: "At the time, I started the label as a way out to pay back the debt. I realised there was a gap in the market as I couldn't find clothes that were unique and showed personality, but were affordable."

Though he had seen and experienced some of the struggles of being an entrepreneur, it did not make starting his own business any easier.

"Even to this day, the business aspect is a challenge," he admits, professing that he is not good with numbers and sees himself more as a creative instead.

His sister Cindy, 30, has since taken over the family firm and turned it into a corporate uniform business. Their mother, who had been helping out with the business, retired last year. His brother Winston, 38, runs his own healthcare business.

Mr Yap lets on that he finds the fashion industry superficial and avoids fashion-related events.

"To me, I see it as a design company rather than a fashion or retail company. We try to design products and experiences which add value to people's lives, whether it's through having affordable products or helping customers express their personality or dress sharper for their wedding or a job."

As an entrepreneur, he says that having to travel often is one of the hardest parts of his job as it takes him away from his family.

He spent two-thirds of last year on the road, but is making a conscious effort to travel less. He now jets off once every three months for shorter trips, instead of being away for two months at a time.

 Mr Nelson Yap and his parents at his graduation in Melbourne, and on a vacation to Hong Kong last year with his wife and their daughters (above).
Mr Nelson Yap on a vacation to Hong Kong last year with his wife and their daughters. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NELSON YAP

Fortunately, he has an understanding and supportive wife, Dawn Hu, 36. They met at a Christian fellowship while they were students in Melbourne. They married in 2010 and she works full-time in a church.

"It's hard to be married to an entrepreneur. Almost every other week, she hears me saying I want to give up," he says. "If not for her, I would be struggling a lot more."

What he treasures is the daily routine of sending his older daughters, Zoey, five, and Hayley, three, to school. His youngest, Natalie, is just over a month old.

"The morning routine is nice. We always sing and dance in secret in the car or in the lift behind closed doors. I think my daughters have grown up to be very cheeky because of that."

His appreciation of family time does not mean he is slowing down on the business front, though.

In 2014, he opened multi-label store The Assembly Store with its neighbouring cafe at The Cathay.

Mr Yap, who used to work as a barista when he was in Melbourne, says: "(General manager of Benjamin Barker) Damien and I always had the vision of Benjamin Barker as a lifestyle brand. So after fashion, the next thing we wanted to do was F&B. Our dream is to open a boutique hotel, where we can combine retail, F&B and hospitality."

Mr Damien Tan, 40, says: "I always tell people that Nelson is able to see opportunities that we might not be able to see in the present moment. The past two years have been tough as the retail industry is facing headwinds and despite that, he's still looking to expand by identifying the gaps that have not been filled and expanding all his energy to ensure customers' expectations are met."

There are plans to open a three- storey flagship store in a central part of Singapore later this year, and two stores in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, will be opened by next year through franchisees.

Mr Yap is also looking at entering the Japanese market and opening an office in Seoul, saying it makes sense as the label already manufactures in South Korea.

"We're a young company and we want to be exciting," he says. "It's about being progressive in business. I cannot grow complacent. If the business doesn't grow, there wouldn't be new opportunities for my staff to step up to bigger roles."

When he hears he might have more in common with his father than he thinks, he ponders for a while before replying: "I think it could be I saw my dad as a businessman and I didn't want that. But I try to design it around my life. I do want to do all this, but my priority is still my family."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Menswear maven'. Print Edition | Subscribe