updated 24 Dec 2010, 03:48
user id password
Wed, Jun 09, 2010
The Business Times
Email Print Decrease text size Increase text size
Project retail
by Melissa Lwee

IT was supposed to be a noble, and novel, idea. Give budding local fashion designers with more talent than money a platform to showcase their designs and sell them. By so doing, the designers are literally given free shop space and a chance to find out what it's like to run their own boutiques.

 That was the premise behind the Fashion Incubator Programme by PARCO Marina Bay at Millenia Walk - a project that the Japanese mall operator developed with the help of Spring Singapore and the Textile & Fashion Federation (Taff) to push Singapore's fashion aspirations a little further.

Under this scheme, which was announced a year ago, 25 emerging designers were picked and given 18 months of intensive training - including working with industry mentors, attending workshops and going on overseas site visits. In April this year, the PARCO next NEXT Fashion Incubator Zone - taking up 6,000 sq ft of prime retail space within the new PARCO Marina Bay - opened its doors to the buying public. They are there until March 2011, when some designers will have their contracts renewed while the remaining will be replaced with the second batch of new incubatees.

As a pioneer project, the industry's eyes are on next NEXT to see if the idea can be commercially viable and whether there is room for more in the market. While two months aren't a long time, it's enough to give some indication of its long-term viability.

So far, says Shuichi Hidaka, PARCO's managing director, the results are more or less in line with expectations. Some labels are selling better than others but that is because they are new to the market, he says. Also, 'The next NEXT designers are doing roughly half as well as the other (more commonly known) tenants on the same floor,' he adds. Naturally, he continues, those that are doing well tend to be the labels which offer more accessible designs at affordable prices.

One of the success stories is Priscilla Tan, who, after joining the programme has seen her label Chalk's portfolio increase from six styles to 20 and her production up by 30 per cent. Thanks to the economies of scale that she has managed to achieve - she has five other stockists - Tan has managed to keep her prices rather friendly from $99 for a top to $219 for a dress. 'My policy is to keep to prices that I myself can afford,' she explains. 'I wouldn't want to design stuff that I myself cannot buy.'

The programme, she says, has been instrumental to her success because it made it affordable for her to own her own retail space (PARCO takes a cut from their sales but doesn't charge them a base rent) which in turn allows her to interact with customers. 'I realised that my customer base is bigger than I thought it was. I get a lot of cool teachers buying my clothes and even grandmothers have shopped with me so it has really opened my eyes,' she says. 'Also I now have a better idea how to tweak my designs in the future.'

Agrees Joanne Loh, who similarly didn't expect to find her steetwear label un-covered appealing to older customers. Now, she understands her customers better. Last month, she managed to sell more than 40 pieces, exceeding her initial expectation of selling one item per day.

'There were times where I was advised by my mentors and customers to make some changes to the designs to make them more commercially viable. I didn't think they would sell but surprisingly, they did, so I'm definitely more open to suggestions now,' she says.

Then again, Loh is not alone in her struggles to balance commerce and creativity. Many - if not all - of these 25 enterprising designers are finding that balance as they go along. 'I think that many of us young designers tend to be more idealistic in nature,' muses Pang Ai Mei whose slightly avant-garde label MAE PANG has attracted the attention of local and Malaysian buyers and press alike. 'I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing because having a clear point of view as to what your label stands for is very important. The challenge however, is how you distil your abstract or more complicated ideas to make them more commercial.'

On her part, for example, though she will still keep her more complicated designs on the rack - 'because people who are looking for complications are willing to pay a premium for them' - she is looking at producing more designs that are simpler, easier to wear and more affordable.

Cost considerations

Cost is a big concern for these designers, who have found it difficult to price themselves lower because their smaller production numbers mean higher costs. As a result, designers such as Terry Yeo have had to turn to producers in Vietnam and Malaysia to keep the costs lower for his menswear label Bedlamite.

Pauline Lim, who has found it a challenge finding the right people to handle the complicated designs for her eponymous label, is looking at simplifying part of her collection to make them more commercially friendly while retaining her statement pieces. Both are currently looking for additional stockists so as to lower costs through greater economies of scale.

Given the challenges of hosting these designers, many would argue that PARCO is taking a huge financial risk but the Japanese mall maintains that it is a long-term investment. 'We have a similar programme in Japan and some of the designers that we have hosted have gone on to make it big and then became our tenants,' reveals Mr Hidaka. 'While we are hoping that the same will happen in Singapore, we don't expect this to happen in the short term. For the moment, our aim is to help grow the businesses of these young designers. The financial benefits, I believe will follow in due time.'

Taff's vice-president and advisor for the programme David Wang also points out that the experience gained in the past year or so has likewise taught them to be more discerning when it comes to choosing incubatees.

'There is one, for example, who takes advantage of the space given and uses it as a dumping ground - we're now very wary of designers like that,' he admits. 'We're all still learning and the programme can still be improved but I think that PARCO is really a pioneer in this aspect and a lot of malls who now realise the importance of new to market brands - be it F&B or fashion - will be looking to see if they replicate next NEXT in some way.'

Paragon, for one, looks to be the next in line, with its own version of a concept store called Raffles Privato, which stocks designs by seven graduates from Raffles Design Institute Singapore. It opened its doors last month.

But PARCO remains unfazed by any perceived competition. 'We are really thinking of ourselves as part of a larger fashion industry,' concludes Mr Hidaka. 'If the industry grows, we can have a share of that so we don't really mind if other malls follow suit because ultimately, grooming young talent, is always a good thing.'

This article was first published in The Business Times.

readers' comments

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co. Regn. No. 198402868E. All rights reserved.