updated 12 Jul 2011, 15:56
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Mon, Mar 21, 2011
The Business Times
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Designed in Singapore
by Melissa Lwee

Marina Milburn

ARMED with a fashion degree, Marina Milburn had always wanted to be a designer and coming from the UK - often regarded as one of the epicentres of fashion - she could easily have become one in her home country. And yet, it took a move halfway across the world to Singapore before her dream came true. "I did a fashion degree in the UK and from there worked within the industry but not designing straight away - more on the PR front - but I always hoped that one day I would be able to design my own pieces," says Ms Milburn, who, 10 days after a blissful honeymoon, moved to Singapore in August 2009 with her husband who works in the shipping industry.

"I had long harboured ambitions of setting up my own business and saw a perfect gap in the market here for unique yet well-priced clothing. I set up Ribbon and Roses (an online store that sells her dresses, kaftans and jewellery) four months after arriving here." Since then, her business has grown from strength to strength.

In the short time that she's run the business, her affordable designs - which range from dresses costing upwards of $90 to kaftans upwards of $100 - are not just being sold on the Ribbon and Roses website, but also at various local multi-label boutiques such as Trixilini, Antipodean and the weekend store Nana and Bird.

She's even expanded beyond Singapore - stockists in the UK and The Datai, a resort in Langkawi, have picked up her kaftans.

To keep things fresh and up to date, Ms Milburn says that she adds new pieces to the website on a regular basis and that they are stocked in small quantities so they are unique with things moving on a "first come first serve basis".

She adds: "A lot of customers e-mail me, saying they have an event to go to and need an outfit so can I help and we put together some looks for them, add the jewellery and bags . . . It's a personal service for the less confident shopper which I love doing."

Ms Milburn is quick to point out that being in Singapore has been great for her. Not only is Singapore a remarkably efficient place, it has also afforded her the chance to travel within the region.

"It's been a fantastic opportunity to do some travelling to get ideas and source for fabrics and embroiderers within Asia," notices Ms Milburn. "Being in Singapore has enabled me to have a solid base to travel from, a supportive clientele that is enthusiastic about the Ribbon and Roses brand and that is what inspires me to create and come up with new designs."

Looking ahead, Ms Milburn is keen to expand the business even though the new mother has a little one to cater to as well now.

"I am always thinking of the future and how to expand the business. I am lucky that quite a few wholesale opportunities have arisen so I will be following these as well as multi-tasking with a newborn baby who arrived last Friday," she concludes.

"It would be naive to think there are no challenges running a small company. However, if you do something you truly enjoy and are enthusiastic about, then that is half the battle won!"

Michael Fiebrich

AMERICAN designer Michael Fiebrich came to Singapore on a mere two year contract 17 years ago but hasn't left since.

"I've been here so long, I think of myself as a Singaporean too," he says. "In many ways, I kind of feel like I grew up here as a designer as most of my career was spent here. I started right out of college with a hotel design firm based in Texas (where I'm from), moved out here with the Asian projects and stayed." In the time that he's been here, he has built quite a name for himself as a hotel and interior designer both locally and internationally, even going on to start his eponymous design firm which is based in Admiralty East.

However, it wasn't until about five years ago, that Mr Fiebrich went back to his "first love" and started to venture into product design covering a range of lighting and home accessories.

"When I first graduated with an architectural degree from the University of Texas, I thought I was going to be a product designer but then I got a real job," he laughs.

"Actually, the main reason why I started working on products was necessity. Until fairly recently, Singapore was pretty limited in terms of furniture brands, lighting and even fabrics. There was no shortage of Asian furniture or artifacts but if you wanted something a bit more bespoke or more international in feel, the options were limited."

A self-described "eclectic designer", Mr Fiebrich - who currently has stockists in Jakarta and Singapore in the form of Vanilla Home - reveals that he first started out designing a range of lights which he mainly sold to the clients who hired him as an interior designer and then expanded his range to include home accessories as well. He often works with blown glass and crystals with his works ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 and is in the process of producing a furniture line.

Mr Fiebrich adds that one of the best things about living in Singapore is the ability to travel and reach out to the rest of the region, something which is very important to any designer.

"I often feel that in the US or even in Europe, it's very insular and inward-focused and people don't tend to look outside their own culture," he says. "I don't look at Singapore as a bubble as I could be in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Bali, so many places in a very short flight. So I don't see it as a small market but rather as a bigger doorway to the rest of Asia."

Having jumped on the product design bandwagon, Mr Fiebrich reveals that he would like to grow this aspect of his business. "I think my name is known internationally as an interior designer but not yet as product designer and that's something that I'm going to work on this year," he concludes.

"I think design in Singapore is still in its infancy, and there are only a handful of product designers working out of here. It's a market with great demand that isn't over-saturated with supply. At the moment it's a great place to be a product designer."

Steve Lawler

TO multi-disciplinary designer Steve Lawler, products weren't quite in his business plan, but now that some of his creations have been flying off the shelves, it looks like the products are here to stay.

"I began as an interactive designer and went back into painting and printing as a reaction to the overuse of the computer - creating products was a natural evolution from there," says Mr Lawler, the creative director at Kult, a boutique agency in Singapore.

"It was not a business plan but something which grew through collaborations and experiences."

On top of the prints that Mr Lawler - who goes by the moniker Mojoko - has become well known for, he has since produced a range of items from laptop sleeves to lamps and tote bags to vases that can be found at stockists such as A Thousand Tales and Loft (both located at Haji Lane), Blackmarket and Vue Privee Gallery that is currently showing his work in an exhibition called Pretty Grotesque.

Born in Iran, but raised in Hong Kong, Mr Lawler is a British national who moved to Singapore eight years ago because it is "tropical and productive and the only place in the world with that good balance". Living in Asia, he adds, is full of surprises which have influenced his work.

"From the old to the new, there is amazing typography, packaging, craftsmanship, detailing on buildings. All around Singapore you have signs written in Tamil, Bahasa, English and Chinese (and it is a) fierce mix of cultures that gives birth to a slew of hybrid ideas," he says.

"It is important to think internationally when conceiving projects, to ensure a high standard of work, whilst keeping one eye on local culture and sensitivities." Unlike other aspiring designers who often lament that the local market is too small to sustain their business, Mr Lawler believes that Singapore's size can be an asset, particularly when it comes to communication.

"(Singapore) only has a few mainstream media channels to reach almost the whole population, unlike many other countries where thousands of channels exist, making it more complex," he says.

"Yes, we intend to expand but it is not my highest priority. I am more concerned with making quality products and concentrating on refining the production process first before branching out and going big."

He is quick to add, however, that while there has been an "undeniable growth" in various creative industries here, there is still room to grow.

"Very few firms or collectives dabble in non-commercial experimental projects, so the rate of innovation is unsurprisingly slow in these sectors. Other industries seem to thrive here, especially in the area of medicine and science," he concludes. "There is still space for so many more new interesting projects, especially in the fields of graphic design, interactive design, curation and publishing."

Sue Ten

STARTING a design business is never an easy thing, even less so when your husband travels frequently for work and you're a mother of two little girls. Being in Singapore however, has allowed Australian (but Singapore-born) jewellery designer Sue Ten to juggle both a thriving label Firehorse and her family life - a feat that she feels she would never have managed elsewhere. "I would never have been able to start Firehorse in 2007 if I were living anywhere else," declares Ms Ten who moved back here five and a half years ago.

"For a working mother like me, Singapore is a great place to start a business from home because childcare and help are much more affordable and readily available here than anywhere else in the world, which is great because I don't have to worry so much about housekeeping and I can go out for meetings when I need to."

She adds that Singapore may be a small market, but its size really works in her favour.

"Being a small place means that it's much easier to make connections here. I've noticed that people in Singapore really stand out in that they always mean what they say. If they say they're going to introduce your business to someone they will do it. It is a trait that I really appreciate and it really makes it easier when you're trying to launch a new business," she says.

The super working mum's lifestyle is the main driving factor behind her design philosophy which is to create "wearable luxury".

"I get up at six in the morning to take my kids to school and really, when it comes to jewellery, all I want is something that I can just throw on to wear for a parent-teacher meeting, but formal enough for a business meeting but yet nice enough for a cocktail at night," she explains adding that the name Firehorse is derived from her Chinese astrological sign.

"I don't have time to go home and change and I believe that a lot of women are like me. Which is why the idea behind my jewellery is to make wearable, everyday jewellery that translates well from day to night. The Firehorse tag line is: "Adornment for the Modern Woman". We make jewellery for the independent, multi-tasking, free-spirited woman. It has to be glamorous and elegant but also practical and above all, wearable. I really think that customers are looking for this type of value-for-money propositions."

For the moment, on top of stockists in Japan, Ms Ten mainly sells to private customers and through trunk shows both here and in London. She has also created a special collection for home specialist store Vanilla Home which, unlike her polished signature range, features unfaceted gemstones and will further develop the bespoke side of her business.

Not content to rest on her laurels, for the coming year, she will be more actively marketing her range of exotic skin - crocodile and ostrich - bags as well. "Exotic skin bags in Singapore tend to be very expensive and they are usually designed to be taken out at lunch and put on the table but that completely defeats the purpose for me," she concludes.

"If I'm going to pay a good price for a bag then I want to be able to use it everyday. My range of bags are good quality but they're also soft, relaxed and practical enough so that you can throw all your make up, gym clothes and kids' stuff in there."

With her practical approach and her line of affordable luxury, it's no wonder that Ms Ten's Firehorse is off to a running start.

Georgina Ohlsson

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JEWELLERY designer Georgina Ohlsson may have first started creating her own bling to wear when she was living in Beijing more than seven years ago, but it wasn't until she and her consultant husband moved to Singapore that it occurred to her to turn her hobby into a proper business.

"We moved to Singapore about four years ago and I would wear all the pieces that I had designed and got produced while I was living in China. Friends would admire them and ask me where I got them and I would tell them that I designed them," recalls the Australian-born Ms Ohlsson.

"A few friends suggested I turn it into a business about two years ago. I did a little open house with about 80 pieces just to test things out and they pretty much sold out in just a few hours. It was then that I realised there was a real market for my kind of jewellery."

Ms Ohlsson's "kind of jewellery" is best described as resort-style jewellery made out of beads. They roughly range between $80 and $400 (with the majority under $200) so they have the added benefit of being extremely affordable. "Even then, sometimes, some ladies ask me why they have to pay so much for beads," she comments.

"I have to explain to them that not only do I use good quality beads, but also that the production of each piece of jewellery is very labour intensive because the beads are all double knotted for extra durability and to make them fall better on the wearer. I personally select all the beads and supervise the production of each piece before they can actually be sold. I also only do a limited number of each design."

Living in Singapore, she says, is exceedingly helpful for a bead-oriented business like hers as it is easy for her to fly out to various places in the region such as Thailand and Cambodia where she can hunt for supplies and inspiration. "On top of the location benefit that Singapore offers, the weather here helps because my look is quite resort-like and the lack of seasons in Singapore is great in the sense that I don't have to reinvent my designs every season and there is a ready market of buyers for my work," she explains.

"This has also helped me focus on creating a strong signature look for myself which I feel is really important as my business grows. It's bold, textured and colourful which often reminds people of their stay in Asia.

"Singapore also has a very tightly knit community and I am very grateful for all the support and encouragement I have had from my husband, friends and associates in growing my business."

A mother of two, Ms Ohlsson works from a studio at home and mainly sells to private customers from there and at selected fairs in Singapore. She is stocked at Vanilla Home and The Children's Showcase at Loewen Gardens as well as some small boutiques in Australia, but reveals that a website and stockists in America are in the pipeline for the next six months.

"My first and foremost role is a wife and a mother," she concludes. "However, this is my business and I really do want to take it further. Business in the last year grew 50 per cent from the year before so I do see a lot of potential in it, but all this would never have happened if we hadn't moved to Singapore."


This article was first published in The Business Times.

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