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Yes We Can Do Fashion!

18 January 2011

Jo Soh, of homegrown brand Hansel, says Singaporeans should be less prejudiced against local designers who really can do good fashion. - by Yip Min-ting

I caught Jo Soh at a very exciting time in her career – she had just opened her new flagship Hansel store at Mandarin Gallery, and will be debuting hello hansel, her ladies’ casual wear line. Comparing her new shop’s interior design with that of her year-old former shop at Stamford House, she says proudly: “It’s more polished.”

The same can be said of her business sense, which she honed over seven years at the helm of Hansel. The road has not been easy. When Ms Soh first launched her label in Singapore in November 2003, the local fashion industry was still in its infancy. She had trouble sourcing for manufacturers and materials, and support for local fashion brands was feeble. Relocating to Australia crossed her mind but she saw the huge potential here and stepped up boldly to the challenge “There is more room to develop my brand here, while it’s more competitive in the fashion capitals,” she says.

Her efforts have paid off: Today, Hansel is also sold in Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong and the United States. Apart from her sharp design skills, it helps that she is media-savvy: when Katy Perry was in Singapore in August 2010, Ms Soh sent a few outfits to the American singer. Perry ended up crashing a Melbourne high school formal wearing the Sequin Bustier Dress from the Paper Dolly collection, dragging the dress into the headlines.

Bottomline, not just Hemlines

One of Ms Soh’s nagging regrets is not setting up her own shop earlier. “I need to focus more on the business aspects of my brand,” she laments. In a fashion arena where money typically means more than art, she shows what the next generation of fashion designers needs to be: competent business managers who pay heed to the bottomline as much as to hemlines. This does not mean compromising on the creative vision. She has stuck resolutely to creating quirky and wearable clothes she would wear herself.

Aspiring designers would be glad to note that the local fashion landscape has become more conducive in the last few years – a fact Ms Soh acknowledges blithely. “There are now more local fashion brands, such as Raoul and all dressed up, to work for; more fashion degrees offered and initiatives like Asia Fashion Exchange and Parco next Next help to promote the local fashion industry and retain local talents.”

These have helped to breed up-and-coming designers. Local fashion blogs have also helped to raise visibility for local labels. Test Shoot Gallery, a fashion blog founded by local stylist Ashburn Eng, for example, often features local designers and their collections. “I think Singaporeans have become more accepting of local labels, though there’s still a prejudice. This needs to change, Singaporeans need to be aware that local designers are capable of creating good quality clothes and designs,” Ms Soh says.

No More Haji Lane

Despite crucial support by the government and private sectors, there are still obstacles for emerging designers. Rent is a major issue. “In cities like London, they have affordable quarters where designers can set up shop to sell their creations,” Ms Soh says. “Haji Lane used to be that kind of enclave but the rents have shot up and out of reach of many designers.”

There is also the lack of an active wholesale market for local brands. “Local stores usually stock local labels on consignment, while wholesale markets in many overseas cities are alive and kicking,” she says. The benefit of selling collections wholesale is that designers get paid upfront for their work, and their designs can reach more people.

Expanding overseas is another way to get a label noticed. Ms Soh advises getting an agent as they give better insight into the foreign market and locate the right distribution channels. “Each market is different. For example, the Japanese prefer clothing that is loose and has several layers, so within a collection, I make sure there’re different designs to cater to different markets. Having a brand presence in a fashion capital like Tokyo can also raise the cachet of your brand.”

Sustaining a fashion business sounds like a lot of work, and Ms Soh couldn’t agree more. “Having passion is very essential. It’s also a good idea to work for others before starting out on your own, so that you can learn the ropes and make connections.” When you are plucking pins off the workroom floor at 2am, only passion can keep you going.

Challenge Asks Singaporeans what they think of the local fashion industry

Local labels are struggling as there is little recognition and no platform to sell. They don’t take out big standalone boutiques and don’t advertise [so] they end up with a very niche group of clientele, or making made-to-measure. There’s hope, though, with more fashion courses offered and stores like Parco and Tangs offering dedicated enclaves.
Esther Phua, 36, fashion magazine editor

Most Singaporeans aren’t adventurous in their dressing. They tend to stick to familiar designers and high street brands. So unless you produce great flip-flops, it’s hard for local brands to catch on.
Yvonne Chee, 29, marketing executive

You need to be famous overseas before locals take note of you. There are
designers creating cutting-edge stuff like Kwodrent, and Woods and Woods, so there’s hope in terms of creative output.
YH Low, 36, copywriter

There are too many designers for women's wear! It’s probably a good idea for local designers to venture into men's wear or kids' wear as these are growing markets too.
Cheryl Tan, 32, finance executive

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