The Life Interview with Peter Kor: Fashion deep in his bones

It was painful for designer Peter Kor to wind up his first clothing venture, but that did not stop him from investing his retirement funds for a fresh foray into fashion

On the stark white walls of veteran fashion designer Peter Kor’s shop is a painted landscape of mountains – the textured artwork in muted shades of black, brown and green standing out beautifully against an all-white background.

This may appear to be a deliberate interior design choice, since the Chinese calligraphy-style landscape is reminiscent of Kor’s design aesthetic – bold, strong and Oriental.

In truth, the landscape is crafted from the raw original walls of the shop house building in 15 Purvis Street, something Kor noticed only because the paint was peeling off when he took over the space in 2010.

The 65-year-old says: “I had a very small renovation budget so I thought, why not incorporate the peeling paint in a way that looks beautiful and organic? “It just took an architect friend to come in and do some free form painting to turn ugliness into a focal point of my store.”

His airy 800 sq ft boutique – filled with meticulously crafted dresses, separates and modern cheongsams in luxe fabrics such as lace and brocade – exemplifies how Kor has always been a gutsy man ready to make the most out of a difficult situation.

Being a good designer inherently requires you to be restless. Being hard-working and committed goes without saying, but being restless? That is what constantly fuels your curiosity and creativity. Once you settle, that's when you get complacent.
PETER KOR on what makes a good designer

This is the man who, at age 55, decided to focus on the uphill task of creating his own eponymous brand. This, after enduring the painful process of winding up a two decade- old business that designed and produced ready-to-wear clothing lines for department stores such as Isetan and Metro.

“Most people get their retirement savings and also retire their big dreams,” the singleton quips when asked about his decision to chase his passion late in life. “I’m just the crazy sort who decided to take the plunge at 55.”

In March last year, he took another big step by taking on a partner for the first time since starting his own line in 2005. Now working with private equity firm Keppel Bay Partners, plans are in the pipeline to expand his ready-to-wear offerings and take the brand overseas in the near future.

But despite his longevity in an increasingly challenging retail environment that is seeing fewer home-grown labels, Kor readily admits he would not be where he is today if not for his thick skin and a strong stomach for failure.

“Mine is definitely not a story of a business that has always been on the up and up,” he says candidly. “This journey has been anything but a fairy tale.”

Born in Singapore to Shanghainese parents, he attributes his headstrong nature to his somewhat privileged childhood – the result of being the youngest of seven siblings. His parents spoilt him.

His father was a furniture contractor who moved here in the 1920s, while his housewife mother was a first-generation Shanghainese Singaporean.

“I was a picky kid. Not only did I dress myself and have special food prepared for me, but I was also allowed to attend a Chinese medium school even though my family was English-educated,” the Maris Stella High School alumnus says.

“My liberal upbringing meant I grew to have a mind of my own, especially because I didn’t like being bossed around by my siblings.”

Though he enjoyed getting his way, being the youngest had its downside. For one thing, the large age gap between him and his older siblings meant he found it hard to be understood by his family, making him an emotional and sensitive child – one whose mood was easily affected, even by the weather.

“It made me quite reserved and serious. I didn’t really enjoy watching cartoons like other kids. In many ways, I was quite an old soul.”

He channelled his emotions through his love of art and drawing, doodling in exercise books from young – so much so that when he was ready to work after national service, he knew he wanted a job in the creative field, despite not knowing what that entailed at the time.

Shelving his dream to attend art school in London as that would place a financial burden on his aged parents, the then 23-year-old decided to look for a job that would help him get a foot into the art or design industry.

Without any experience or formal training, however, the pickings were slim and he could land a job only as a style book illustrator in a fashion design company that created designs for in-house and private labels.

He was tasked to painstakingly draw each design of clothing that the company was creating before filing his work, so the drawings could be used for reference later.

"It was tedious work because everything had to be drawn manually. But to be honest, I loved every minute of it. This was in the early 1970s - consumerism was booming and the fashion and design scene was opening up in big ways. I was just grateful for the opportunity and exposure to the industry."

His enthusiasm was so apparent that his boss made him her personal assistant one month into the job. No longer a lowly illustrator, he was thrown into the deep end and got the chance to learn about every aspect of fashion design - from making patterns to dyeing lining. He worked tirelessly to hone the craft.

When the company closed 10 months into his stint, he knew he was not ready to give up his new- found love for fashion design.

He decided on a whim to partner a head buyer from a Singapore department store and the two of them started their own design and production business, naming it Bianca, after fashion icon Bianca Jagger of Studio 54 fame.

"I put in all the money I had saved from 10 months of working and, just like that, at age 25, I became a business owner. It was scary, but so exciting," he recalls. "We could either sink or swim. I chose to swim."

And swim they did, snagging big ready-to-wear design accounts for in-house and private labels at department stores such as Isetan and Metro, almost from the get-go.

Within a year, he made enough money to buy back shares in his company worth his initial investment of about $3,000.

But more than financial success, the venture proved to be a fresh opportunity for him to hone his craft - learning through interactions with top management and buyers at department stores about the need for finesse and the importance of detail.

"I was constantly drawing new designs and dyed my own buttons and linings late into the night. Those 15-hour days offered a real hands-on learning experience, the sort you can never have at school."

Within two decades, the business grew from a start-up with 10 staff to a thriving business with its own 10,000 sq ft factory that produced all their designs.

By then, Kor had also built a reputation as a designer, with most stores allowing him to infuse his own style into pieces instead of dictating their preferences.

Things seemed to be on the up and up. But then the financial crisis of 1997 hit and the business, which had just expanded aggressively the year before, went into a tailspin.

With retail affected badly, the business took a hard hit and never recovered. Within the year, it folded.

Kor is quiet when he speaks of that time, the disappointment of the experience still discernible in his voice.

"We had so many debts left to pay and bank commitments to fulfil, it was such a painful experience. How ironic, right? Sometimes, closing a business can end up costing more than starting one."

It took nearly 10 years for him to recover from the setbacks that rippled from the closure of Bianca. Without the option of restarting the business, he had to take on other consultancy jobs to keep afloat.

It was one of these consultancy jobs that led him to China, where he got his first taste of the emerging Chinese market.

While living and working there for 11/2 years as a consultant in the early 2000s, he fell in love with its abundance of raw materials - often in quantities he had never seen in Singapore.

"In a way, recovering from a closing business was what ended up sparking my desire to go back to design," he says. "I was so inspired by the fabrics I had seen and knew it was time to head home. Only this time, I knew I wanted to build my own brand. I no longer wanted to design for other people."

Using a "six-figure" sum from his retirement savings, the Peter Kor brand was born in 2005, resting on his somewhat idealistic notion that if he "made good products, people will come".

Unsurprisingly, that was not how things turned out. Even though the response to his first show at Singapore Fashion Week in 2005 was highly positive, with the numerous overseas consultants noticing him and the fashion media writing rave reviews about his meticulously crafted pieces, this did not translate into dollars and cents for Kor.

"Because I didn't know how to sell my brand, I was solely relying on my loyal customer base from back in the day to survive," he recalls. "I was just good at designing clothes, but what I didn't realise was that design without brand marketing is just a recipe for disaster."

The brand got some financial reprieve in 2009, when Tangs offered it a counter space for five years - bringing in steady business, giving the brand more exposure and lending itself as an alternative place for customers to buy his clothes other than at his boutique.

But the real turning point came early last year - thanks to a serendipitous visit to the store from a loyal customer, Ms Angel Wu.

While she was browsing the store, the two got to talking and built up a fast friendship.

During one of their conversations, Ms Wu, a partner at private equity firm Keppel Bay Partners, proposed a tie-up between the brand and her company, as a means to take the Peter Kor line to new heights.

For Ms Wu, the partnership has been an opportunity to not only invest in a home-grown business with ample potential, but also to help an entrepreneur and friend who is tirelessly passionate and talented.

For Kor, it has meant more.

"I've turned down numerous partnership offers in the past, but this one was different because it gave both sides a chance to focus on our strengths," he says.

"I got a chance to focus on design and to leave marketing and branding to the experts. Getting a chance to do what I love while simultaneously growing the brand is a dream come true."

Long-time customer Geetha Raja, 49, an IT manager, says: "Peter Kor is a local label that not only makes fantastic pieces with high quality fabrics, but also offers a unique design aesthetic that helps you stand out in the workplace.

"I've bought so many of his pieces that they continue to be staples in my wardrobe. I believe it's high time the brand gets on the radar of more women who crave quality clothing."

Despite effusive praise from customers and the successful partnership deal, Kor, who lives in a condominium in Bartley, does not intend to rest on his laurels.

Apart from relaunching the brand in January with a wider set of contemporary ready-to-wear pieces, he has also launched the Peter Kor Signature range, which presents bespoke pieces for the discerning customer. Prices for the ready-to- wear line range from $199 to $599 and the bespoke line starts at $600.

Plans are also under way to expand the brand overseas within the next two years - starting in South-east Asia and then going beyond Asia.

Watching Kor flit around the store, adjusting racks and showing off subtle design details in his dresses, it is apparent that he has no intention of slowing down.

"I still get tired of my own designs very easily, which is what keeps me going," the self-confessed workaholic says, adding that the only way he can completely relax is to escape from the country for four-week holidays every three years.

"Being hard-working is just a fundamental aspect of staying in this industry. What you really need is a true love for what you do - a love you can feel deep in your bones."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'Fashion deep in his bones'. Print Edition | Subscribe