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Urban, The Straits Times
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Room for local labels
by Leslie Kay Lim

Singapore - Two months ago, home-grown department store Robinsons opened its 85,000 sq ft outlet at Jem and, along with it, a dedicated space for local emerging fashion labels.

The 1,049 sq ft space stocks six brands - Cruise, Foreword, Light by Sabrina Goh, Mu, Pauline Ning and Odds by Reckless Ericka - and is a first-time concept for the 155-year-old retailer. Previously, Robinsons carried local labels such as Embre and Yin & Yang, but these were stocked alongside international labels, such as Oasis and Basic House, on its women's floor.

On why the company decided to open a dedicated section for emerging local labels, Robinsons Singapore managing director Franz Kraatz tells Urban: "These labels had a healthy following before coming into Robinsons Jem and our shoppers were ready for something new."

But are they really? When Urban was there during a recent Saturday night, there were few shoppers perusing the racks at the local label space. The area saw no more than 15 shoppers walk through it during the peak shopping hour at the bustling, newly opened mall, even though the rest of Robinsons had more foot traffic. Mr Kraatz cautions that "it is still too preliminary to assess the performance of the local label section; nevertheless, it is in keeping with our expectations".

Brands stocked at the local space seem to have varying experiences so far. Declining to reveal sales figures, designer Nic Wong, 40, whose Cruise line is carried there, says that "sales have been encouraging and above our expectations and forecast". On the other hand, Foreword designer Evelyn Ng, 26, notes that her brand has sold only between five and 10 pieces each month. "It's below expectations. I believe it can be better," she says.

Dedicated Space

Robinsons' dedicated space is the latest effort in recent years by a department store to create a platform for local emerging labels. Parco at Millenia Walk created Parco Next Next in 2010, a designer incubation programme and 6,000 sq ft retail space at Millenia Walk.

It is a collaboration between Parco Singapore and the Textile and Fashion Federation Singapore, with support from government agency Spring Singapore.

Despite the support, foot traffic there has been sparse. Local designer Samuel Wong of Evenodd says that, on average, he sells about 40pieces per month there.

As Parco Next Next is his flagship outlet and stocks his full range, it brings in his regulars and accounts for half of his sales. Evenodd is also stocked at Tangs Orchard and Blackmarket No. 2, which make up the other half of sales.

"You can actually count the number of people who visit our Parco Next Next space, you don't even need a clicker," says the 27-year-old on the lack of visitors.

"If there are five customers in one day, I would be grateful."

While Parco Next Next and Robinsons are experiencing challenges in drawing the crowds, it seems like smaller, multi-label boutiques stocking emerging local brands are faring better.

Since 2010, niche retail spaces such as Threadbare & Squirrel at Bali Lane and Nana & Bird at Tiong Bahru have opened, offering either a majority of local wares or headlining home-grown brands.

Older multi-label boutiques that have long supported local labels, such as Egg3, have also added new outlets, which carry just as many local labels.

Local label Weekend Sundries, which launched at the end of last year, has been stocked at Threadbare & Squirrel and multi-label boutique Eclecticism since April, and multi-label pop-up Hook & Union since May.

Says its designer Michelle Chan, 30: "Multi-label boutiques are more receptive and supportive of emerging local labels and their shoppers are more interested in the unique."

The label has also been stocked at Robinsons Jem since last month, but the multi-label stores account for about 80 per cent of her sales, which hit the high four figures. The label also has an online store.

Smaller shops have the edge

One advantage that smaller multi-label shops have over department stores is that they offer a more tightly curated selection of brands and, in turn, a more cohesive and appealing shopping experience.

Mr Wong, whose labels Cruise and Saturday are stocked at Robinsons Jem, Isetan Scotts and Tangs Orchard, as well as at his stand-alone store Saturday and multi-label boutique Rockstar by Soon Lee, observes: "Some local retailers, including department stores, like to group local brands together without considering the brand positioning and quality of the clothes because they see local designers in the same context."

In contrast, smaller boutiques can handpick certain styles that work for the overall branding of the store.

Ms Georgina Koh, the 31-year-old co-owner of Nana & Bird, says: "We don't really distinguish if it's a local brand or not; rather it should have a strong look that we feel adds to the store and be well made."

Out of the roughly 20 labels the store carries, seven are home-grown, such as Aijek by Danelle Woo and Yumumu by Yilin Lu. Designer Sven Tan, 35, of local brand In Good Company, agrees that product selection is crucial in a multi-label store's appeal. "It doesn't matter whether it's international or local so long as the labels sit well next to one another," he says. In Good Company is stocked at high-end multi-label boutique Front Row.

Smaller boutiques also have the added advantage of more interaction with shoppers, especially in terms of educating them about what local fashion has to offer, says Threadbare & Squirrel's co-owner Adrian Ang, 32.

"With consistent education of customers on our part and a growing acceptance that local brands do have something to bring to the table - whether it's a particular design aesthetic or price points, we've started seeing customers specifically come in looking for local labels," he says.

Threadbare & Squirrel stocks more than 30 local brands, which make up more than 80 per cent of the store's line-up. He says sales of local labels have increased by 25per cent to 30 per cent annually since 2010.

Old and new challenges

But whether their brands are stocked in department stores or multi-label boutiques, designers say the local retail landscape is still rife with old and new challenges. Aside from the perennial problems of high rental and production costs, local labels suffer from a perception problem. Many shoppers equate "local" with "cheap" and "lower quality".

Designer Gilda Su, 30, of local label Revasseur, says: "The first time I sold some goods at Blueprint Emporium, one woman said to me, 'But you're only a Singaporean, why is this so expensive?'" Blueprint Emporium is the shopping component of the yearly Blueprint fashion trade show.

Products from Revasseur are priced from $69 for a T-shirt to $449 for a coat, well within the usual price range for local labels, where items on average retail from about $50 to around $500.

Perhaps the biggest competition to local labels comes from the influx of international high-street brands to the market. Relocation consultant Edmund Cheong, 31, who is a fan of high-street brands, such as Zara and Uniqlo, and not of local labels, says: "Local labels seem to make clothes that are more edgy and avant-garde, which really isn't my style. If they made simpler pieces, I would be more likely to buy local."

Management trainee Jaclyn Hsu, 25, agrees. She says high-street brands are wearable and competitively priced. "Local designers' pieces tend to be very unique, statement pieces and I prefer more basic items that can be mixed and matched easily," she says.

Ms Sarah Lim, a senior retail lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic, agrees that local designs can be a little inaccessible to the man on the street. She says: "In trying to be perceived as unique, some local designers tend to alienate their products from shoppers by being too avant-garde."

She suggests that designers create a mix of avant-garde pieces and more accessible designs to "let shoppers see that their designs are wearable and fashionable".

She says: "It may be a slow process to create recognition and acceptance, but local brands are like the souls of the country. We need our own identity and it can be greatly reinforced through local brands."

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