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Mon, May 21, 2012
The Business Times
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Indie designers, cult brands catching on in Singapore
by Tan Teck Heng and Aaron Tan

No one likes getting caught wearing the same thing as another person at a party or in the streets - it's the reason why the fashion-conscious are always going out of their way to seek out indie designers or bespoke outfits.

It can be exhausting hunting for pieces that are a little left of centre especially when you don't know where to start, and that's where pop-up 'flea markets' come in.

These are collaborations between indie outfits which are nothing like the ones on Sungei Road or Little India.

Some prefer to be called "fashion trade shows", others are labelled "artisan events", but really, what they all have in common are quirky, eclectic and well-made goods (or even food) from small cult brands.

And the best part? They are all in one place at the same time, so shoppers get all the charm of Haji Lane under one (more often than not, air-conditioned) roof.

While the trend has been around in cities like Melbourne and Vancouver for quite a while now, it's only just catching on here, according to co-founder Ang Joo Kiat of flea market organiser Public Garden.

But "there's definitely an increase in interest towards original works created by local artists and designers," he says.

"This could be due to the influx of mass-produced designs currently in the market, causing consumers to crave for well-designed products that are limited in edition," he continues.

Agrees Antoinette Wong, co-founder of independent publisher and gallery ship The Little Drom Store: "Consumers are much more sophisticated these days. Anything mass produced indirectly, means a lack of individuality and self expression.

"I believe we are in this era where people are not just into the physical products, but also into the whole buying experience, concept, and lifestyle," continues Ms Wong.

But the real value of these collaboratives is that patrons and designers get to interact, which is what fuels the indie wave.

Says founder of web-based bakery MilkBar Sandra Liao: "Patrons want to meet the creators of the artisanal products, and hear their views - it's not as cold as a transaction over a counter.

"That's what makes flea markets, boutique hotels, and small restaurants so appealing!" she observes.

Agrees founder of artisan jeweller Carrie K. Carolyn Kan: "People who like artisanal products tend to be interested in the pieces, and want to know how it's different, how we make it, why we craft it," and at such fleas, "there's time to tell them our story," she says.

That's why Ms Kan started a quarterly collaborative event known as the Keepers series, where she features indie artisanal labels she's scouted herself.

It's also a chance to educate consumers: "If you don't know why something is good, then you can't tell good quality from bad; if you're in the know, then you have choices," she says.

What's more, such collaboratives are great for designers who lack business savvy.

"A lot of independent artisans don't have this opportunity, because they are located in spaces that are out of the way, or they are by appointment only," says Ms Kan.

"Also, they may be really passionate about their craft, but you have to look at it from a commercial point of view as well," advises Ms Kan.

"You can have a wonderful product, but if it's not scalable, and you can't sell enough to buy yourself a bowl of chicken rice, you're in trouble".

And it's not just for local designers. Jamil and Alia Juma of Canadian fashion label Juma are taking part in Blueprint Emporium running this weekend, which is part of Asia Fashion Exchange (AFX).

They are one of over 200 local and foreign emerging labels at the show, and the event is held annually to "enable these brands to test-bed their designs, reach new interested audiences, get direct customer feedback, while benefiting from the extensive marketing and PR that accompanies the event," says project director Tracy Phillips.

"It also enables labels who take part in the Blueprint trade show to have a means for cost recovery, not to mention access to the numerous buyers and media who are here for Blueprint, as well as AFX as a whole," Ms Phillips continues.

It's not often that designers get such a lucky break, but local indie labels today are seeing more support from larger organisations or mentors who have the technical and commercial know-how.

And it's important because such collaborations are "a testimony of success stories behind the passion of the various creators," says Drom's Ms Wong.

"We are not limited by our capabilities but by our dreams and visions; when there's a will, there's a way".




                                                 (Photo: Stolen)

Presented by Lee Hwa Jewellery Suntec Singapore 
May 19 to 20, 11am to 8pm

Ten years ago, Jamil Juma was an investment strategist with an engineering degree at a hedge fund firm, but today he's in business with fashion designer sister Alia Juma.

While the career switch was less lucrative initially (which is obvious considering he was the Wall Street one-per cent), he's now making more than his days in the finance industry because the label is going places - literally.

The globetrotting siblings are looking to set up their first storefronts at three potential locations in China.

It was not always this smooth sailing for them. When they went into the US market in 2009, the recession hit.

"It was tough," Ms Juma states plainly.

"We were ready, we had a great collection, then half the city got laid off in New York, and we were just like 'oh my god,'" adds Mr Juma.

But their resort and tribal-inspired pieces sold and they survived, because they did wholesales to luxe multi-label stores instead of starting their own storefronts.

And it's also events like BLUEPRINT Emporium - a two-day fashion fair under the umbrella of AFX that features over 200 local and foreign indie labels - that allow indie labels like Juma to test the waters at overseas markets before taking the plunge.

Such collaborations are also a bonus for local labels like Stolen.

Says founder and designer Elyn Wong (above, left) : "Even though it's been six years now, Stolen isn't paying the bills at all - at this moment it can't support my lifestyle".

That's why she's still working full-time at an advertising firm - which she enjoys - and stays up till 5am when she's inspired to work on a collection.

"I wanted to do something that was totally my own," says Ms Wong, who's also a mixed media installation artist in her spare time.

"In advertising, we have to go through two other people before our ideas go through," says Ms Wong.

"After a while it starts to erode your self-esteem; you start questioning, 'am I really good?' so I wanted some balance from that".

Many indie designers like Ms Wong may have great products, but there's no way they can go full-time or afford the overheads of a storefront.

That's why on top of just selling at multi-labels like White Room and Black Markets, Ms Wong is keen to take part in fairs like BLUEPRINT to gain greater exposure.

"I'm hoping to reach out more to the world through events like this," says Ms Wong.

"In fact, my plans this year are to push Stolen overseas - Australia, actually," and she's already speaking to the relevant people, she says.

So look out for her structured pieces with great walk-away appeal - the backless tops ($149) and dresses ($249) feature origami-inspired details.

And what's next on the cards for Stolen? "I want to try to get to Paris Fashion Week, along with the Singapore troop," says Ms Wong.




                                        (Photo: Carrie K, Ed et al)

Keepers III: Tailored To Gentlemen 
Carrie K Atelier 
136 Bukit Timah Road 
May 26, 2pm to 7pm

When it comes to shopping, men generally like it fast.

That's why Keepers III: Tailored to Gentlemen - a pop-up event featuring indie brands which are usually by appointment only - is the perfect pit stop for the man in a hurry.

Hosted by artisanal jewellery label Carrie K, the collaboration spotlights the brand's own handcrafted cufflinks and masculine accessories, and also includes Ed et Al's bespoked shoes ($280 for ready-to-wear designs) and J Myers' artisanal leather goods (black tote at $460 and watch strap at $280).

And as hungry men are angry men, there's also champagne from Lollapalooza and ice cream by Creamier in two masculine flavours (because real men don't eat fruity sorbets).

The flavours - Affogato Stout with Tahitian Vanilla and Dark Chocolate with Hand-Smoked Peppercorns - will be launched by the outfit, which avoids processed ingredients and insists on using local fresh produce as far as possible.

The latter flavour is a must-try: while spice and chocolate confectionery is getting increasingly common, Creamier's blend is subtler than the usual chilli-chocolate flavours.

That's because the peppers are hand-smoked over lapsang souchang, a premium black tea sourced from Wuyi, China.

The Keepers series is all part of Carrie K's founder Carolyn Kan's philosophy.

"I was looking to start an event that will help build the community of people who really appreciate well-crafted artisanal goods, and at the same time, to introduce the designers themselves," she says.

The ex-managing director of advertising firm M&C Saatchi took a year off from work in 2008 to tick items off her bucket list, but the detour turned into a second career instead.

"I ended up in Florence and met this silversmith who taught me his craft," she says.

"It was one of those surreal experiences, when I made my first ring - the rain had just stopped, the sun was shining through ... it was a moment, and I knew I wanted to be a silversmith!"

"In Singapore we're used to fast fashion and disposable goods," continues Ms Kan, "whereas over there they do things slowly and give their crafting a lot of thought".

That's why Ms Kan now sells single cufflinks, because clients have given feedback that they always lose just one side of the pair.

The quirky Chroma Rainbow Pebbles design for instance come with amethyst, green onyx, rose quartz, or blue agate ($168 for a pair or half the price for one), and are meant to be mixed and matched.

Carrie K. has also been picked up by Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, whose multi-label concept store Make One's Mark (MOM) will be the label's sole distributor in Japan.

It's a lucky break like this which keeps indie designers going, especially when upkeeping a storefront is out of the question.

"It's really difficult to get to the level of distribution I'm looking at," says Ms Kan, "but you have to find ways to grow and scale".




                                                (Photo: MilkBar)


Bakeries and cupcake stores may be springing up like mushrooms, but Sandra Liao of confectionary outfit MilkBar refuses to open up a storefront and continues baking out of her own kitchen instead.

That's because she believes in small-batch baking and handmixing her pastries.

"Something always takes a beating when you start scaling," she says, "and if you ask me, I'd rather be proud of what I put out there than compromise on quality than earn more and say stupid things like 'people can't tell the difference'".

It's a mom-and-pop philosophy which pervades the entire brand - you see, a "milk bar" is the Australian equivalent of a mamak store, which may also sell homemade food.

For small businesses like MilkBar, getting the word out can be difficult, so Ms Liao banks on collaborations with other indie establishments for publicity, along with venues for a pop-up store, the right kind of patrons and positioning.

She first launched MilkBar at fashion photographer Warren Wee's studio, and worked with New York-styled eatery Club Street Social as well as indie flea organiser Public Garden.

Coming up is a collaboration this July - incidentally Milkbar's first anniversary - with international home appliances company Smeg.

"I use a Smeg oven, so MilkBar was really born through Smeg like a bun in an oven!" quips Ms Liao.

She may hold an engineering degree, but Ms Liao insists on traditional methods and handmixes her pastries.

"I believe in using some technology as well, but there must be some parts of baking which requires a human touch," says Ms Liao.

"For example, pastries are temperamental and heat introduced to the butter is a huge factor in the final product," she says, "and machines introduce too much warmth."

And it's not just the techniques that are going back to basics - Ms Liao believes in hunting down traditional recipes.

"You must understand the soul of the original recipe first and make it," she says.

"Trying to move away from it immediately just spells disaster: there's no heritage, no basis, and the original is made famous for a reason!"

That's why her brownies have walnuts and apricot glaze in them - it stays true to the original by Chicago's Palmer House Hotel.

Ms Liao is also experimenting with recipes for Victoria Sponge Cake, a traditional English dessert.

But there are also edgier sweets for the adventurous. Try the chocolate salted butter caramel tart ($8), or the maple cupcake ($52 for a dozen), which tastes like a pancake brunch on a dewy Sunday morning.

It's little wonder why Ms Liao takes her craft so seriously - she gave up a lucrative stint as an account manager with Cisco Systems to pursue her dream.

It was her father who inspired the career switch to the baker-founder of MilkBar.

"This is a dedication to my dad, and a reminder to do the things we love," she says.

"My father passed away last year, and it got me thinking: 'life is really short, maybe I need to go out more and try this out.'"




                                  (Photo: Tiramisuzi, Susan Stack)


The Little Dröm Store 
7 Ann Siang Hill

Indie designers get their day at this year's Public Flea Garden Market, which guarantees a treasure trove of vintage and non-mainstream products.

The flea market starts on May 18 and it will be held at the Festival Village over the three weekends of the Singapore Arts Festival.

"Part of the draw of a flea market is the uncertainty of what you will be able to find as you shop, and Public Garden has this element of surprise as vendors have a limited space and it is up to them to decide what to bring," says Ang Joo Kiat of Public Gardens, who co-founded the company with partner Tan Wang Qing.

One of the labels involved in this flea market would be The Little Drom Store, which will be setting up shop on the last weekend.

"The Little Drom Store aspires to bring people from all creative walks of life, to promote and share their work with the rest of the world," says its co-founder Antoinette Wong, a former graphic designer.

She adds that "we hope to seek out these non-mainstream creators, to create more public awareness of their very often hidden creativity and works".

The Little Drom Store provides "a platform for alternative shopping, away from the usual mega malls and brands."

The store sells accessories and paper goods by creators which are "quirky and original".

Some of their items include cloth bags ($22), canvas and cotton bags ($150) and acrylic and fabric necklaces in collaboration with other artists like Vice & Vanity ($85-$115).

More than just showcasing their work at the event, Ms Wong adds that "we hope this creates a bigger awareness of the creative scene we have here. Many have commented that Singapore is boring and flat, but we beg to differ, and that is why we do what we do."

Another designer, who will be kickstarting the flea market this weekend is Susan Stack, owner of Tiramisuzi.

The former handbag designer from New York reveals that her products have strong Japanese influences and reflects her fascination with the Asian culture.

Her handicrafts range from acrylic robot figurines ($20) to ceramic "lucky poop" ($3 each, 2 for $5).

Stack says her products are "quirky, funky - a big theme of my handicrafts is humour."

She does everything herself, from designing, creating and marketing her products.

Her aim in joining this year's flea market would be to sell her products but more importantly, networking among the rest of the independent labels participating in this event.

"I sign up for such events not so much as to seek a profit but rather to communicate with people and educate them about my work. I believe that such events help publicise indie artists' works and provide a medium to advertise by word of mouth," says Ms Stack.


The Public Garden Flea Market is on from May 18 to June 2, on Fridays 7pm - midnight, Saturdays and Sundays 5pm - midnight. Log on to for more information.

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This article was first published in The Business Times.

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