The world knows Singapore as a vibrant destination and bustling business hub. But let's not forget what makes this nation tick: our people. These are the stories from the series Little Red Book, featuring aspiring Singaporean individuals who have taken their dreams to an international stage.
Who: Denise Lee, founder of Alala athletic wear
Where: New York City
Her passion: Designing quality and fashionable athleisure wear that can be worn from the gym to the streets
Behind the successful label of Alala, a global activewear brand, is savvy Singaporean businesswoman Denise Lee. Her brand is inspired by the bustling and energetic cities of Singapore and New York City, whose women are always on the go.
Its range, made from performance fabrics, is built for efficiency and versatility, and aims to represent a message of confidence and strength. “[They can] be worn all day, from going to morning yoga class, to work in the afternoon, to picking up your kids after school, all the way through to meeting your friends for dinner,” says Denise.
Her own lifestyle is not unlike the Alala ideal she designs for. On any given day, you might find her overseeing a scheduled photoshoot at one moment and critiquing the new season’s design the next.
Life in another city
Fashion and entrepreneurship were always a part of her Singaporean upbringing . Her father was an independent garment manufacturer and her mother, an interior designer. Alala is a blend of those sensibilities, buoyed by sheer grit.
She left Singapore when she was 19 for Northwestern University in Chicago. After graduating, she went on to business school at New York University before working at Armani Exchange as an assistant marketing manager.
Her next job: a three-year stint as the right-hand woman of entrepreneur Chris Burch, co-founder of fashion label Tory Burch, as well as US retail brands, C. Wonder and Poppin.
Armed with know-how of what it takes to launch a brand, sustain it and make it profitable, she’s driven Alala to success. The label has an online store — alalastyle.com — and is also at more than 100 stockists, including major US retailers Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus. The sweat-wicking workout wear is also a favourite of celebrities from Jessica Alba to Naomi Watts.
Living alone in a foreign city like New York was initially challenging. “I didn’t recognise all the TV show and music references my friends were making. But as time went on, I found my group and made connections, which were what truly made me comfortable being in New York.”
The scariest part for Denise was jumping off the precipice of the familiar into the unknown. “I gained a lot of confidence from the people around me – my parents, the rest of my family, my former boss. They all encouraged me to pursue my passion and to live my dream, and I think having them behind me was what helped me take that leap.”
“Most people don’t realise how difficult it is to start your own business. It is a rollercoaster every day, every hour, and it takes a certain level of confidence and mental strength.”
She constantly strives for the next level of excellence but has her feet firmly rooted in reality. “The journey of getting here over the last four years has been incredible, and I cherish every moment. But I wouldn’t say that I feel like I’ve accomplished my dream yet.”
More than being remembered as a great business woman, she says, what would give her the most joy would be to make her mark as a leader who nurtured her team - the people who worked with her to help make her passion possible.
Who: Tat Tong, chart-topping record producer and songwriter
Where: Los Angeles and Singapore
His passion: Creating commercial pop music
While his start in music may have begun ordinarily, with lessons at the age of four, producer-songwriter Tat Tong’s journey since then has been anything but conventional.
As he progressed from piano to organ and music composition classes, he was also excelling at math and science. By the time he was nine, he was dabbling in computer programming, so when it came time to pick a degree course, he chose to enroll in Computer Science at Cornell University, a degree he completed on the SAF Merit Scholarship.
However, Tat did not give up on his music. At Cornell University, he joined the Glee club, an all-male a cappella group Last Call, singing pop covers. “We’d sell our a cappella album, and a friend and I took on recording duties for our group. I had no formal background… I went online on YouTube and forums, and between that and experimentation, I taught myself recording.”
During his six-year bond with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), he started writing original songs. When his bond ended in 2011, he became “a kind of musical odd-job labourer”, trying everything from being a wedding pianist to teaching music arrangement at the School of Music and the Arts (SOMA). Sharing his original compositions on local music forum soft.sg, he says: “I just wanted people to hear my songs.”
Home is many places
For Tat, home is many places. He is based in Los Angeles and Singapore and occasionally jets off to Taipei and Beijing. That mark of adaptability and openness has helped him put his stamp across the world.
“Singapore is global. I think our comfort with being this global all the time is something we take for granted over here, but when you live overseas you start realising that.”
“Being able to speak English well has given me the US and UK markets, and being able to speak Chinese well has given me Beijing and Taipei…I bring an international perspective to everything I do.”
Serendipitously, Singaporean music company Touch Music Publishing found Tat’s demo on a forum, and invited him to work with them. He caught the attention of Universal Music Publishing Asia, and was signed in 2011. It gave him his big break: co-writing The City Is In Love for Taiwanese pop singer Show Luo.
The chart-topper was certified five times platinum in Taiwan, and featured in major advertising campaigns for brands including PepsiCo and 7-Eleven. It also caught the attention of scouts at Universal, and they engaged him to co-write and co-produce Australian YouTube star Troye Sivan’s 2014 single Happy Little Pill. The song charted at #1 on iTunes and the Billboard chart, making Tat the first Singaporean to have an entry in the Top 10 of Billboard 200.
This year, his dance track with K-pop band SHINee, Tell Me Your Name, will be featured in the SHINee World 2017 FIVE tour, and on their upcoming album.
To add to his accomplishments, he co-writes in Chinese, Spanish and English as one half of production and songwriting team The Swaggernautz, with Cuban-American artist-writer Jovany Javier. The pair, together with DJ Declan Ee, also form “live” electronic music act Trouze, which in 2016 notched a Billboard Dance Top 20 hit “Age Of Innocence” with Elephante and Damon Sharpe.
“There are so many paths and new possibilities, new mountains to climb,” he says. “I would like to be remembered, when this is all over, as someone who came from a small country but managed to have a much bigger impact on people around the world.”