As the second-generation head of fashion retailer and distributor FJ Benjamin, it is no surprise that Douglas Benjamin is knowledgeable about all things style-related. However, given the restrained appearance of the father of four, who is often clad in quiet suits and shirts, it is somewhat unexpected to discover that he has a passion for killer heels.
While taking The Peak through the expansive 8,000 sq ft space of his latest venture, Avenue on 3, the CEO, 59, brims with enthusiasm. Having opened in April on the third floor of Paragon Shopping Centre, the “experiential lifestyle concept store” comprises luxury shoe and handbag retail, beauty retail and treatments, a cafe, a champagne and caviar bar, and an artisanal chocolatier.
At the shoe section, Benjamin frequently stops to coo over designs by the high-end brands stocked at Avenue on 3: These include Aquazurra mules with stiletto heels adorned with a shimmering disco ball (“so darling”), sparkling Rene Caovilla sandals with twining ankle straps (“for Cinderella”), and golden Casadei sandals with a large flower (“so beautiful, with the diamantes”).
He proudly declares, “Every pair is purchased for a reason. We’ve got all the best shoe brands in the world — Sergio Rossi, Aquazurra, Giuseppe Zanotti, Gianvito Rossi, and so on. The stock is all ours; we did not skimp and save on buying.”
A life in retail
This shoe lover is no stranger to luxury and fashion retail. FJ Benjamin Holdings, founded by his father Frank in 1959, currently operates 148 stores in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It has long-standing partnerships to manage brands such as Guess, La Senza, Marc Jacobs, Faure le Page, and Pretty Ballerinas in the region. In recent years, the company has also entered the beauty and wellness space via partnerships with Dr Barbara Sturm and MZ Skin.
Avenue on 3 is not Benjamin’s first high-end multi-label retail venture. The group was also behind the multi-label stores Rachel B (Ngee Ann City) and Inez (Paragon Shopping Centre). “But I’ve always wanted to do something that was not just about bags, shoes, or clothes but multi-sensorial and experiential,” he says.
The path leading to Avenue on 3 has had its challenges, of course. For instance, the space that Paragon Shopping Centre offered him was 50 per cent larger than what he originally had in mind. “I was actually looking for about 5,000 sq ft,” he says with a chuckle, adding, “But when this came up, I thought, ‘Why not? Go big or go home.’”
Discoveries and diversions
Spread across several shop spaces that are not bound by front walls and doors, Avenue on 3 is designed for discovery, as one might experience when wandering the streets of a foreign city. Benjamin recalls, “I remember when I was younger and walking down Rue Saint-Honore or Via Montenapoleone. There were all these individual, small brands, each offering something new and different. It occurred to me that walking around here is like being on an avenue where you have shops to your left and to your right, which you discover as you go. That’s why we called it Avenue on 3.”
And it offers plenty of diversions for shoppers of all stripes. Customers come looking for shoes or bags and end up having lunch or tea as well. Because of the mall’s proximity to private medical facilities, it also sees many customers who pop in for a cup of coffee — Avenue on 3 has its own exclusive blend, developed in partnership with a New Zealand company — while waiting for their appointments. Then there are those who visit in search of the beauty brands exclusively distributed by the company or treats by Lebanese chocolatier Patchi.
The variety of goods and services helps to attract different demographics and serves as a great leveller. Says Benjamin, “It’s very democratic and accessible. You can come here and have a $5 cup of coffee, buy a $2,000 pair of shoes, or have an express manicure for $20. I’m trying to create a community around this place because there are so many things to do.”
All for one, one for all
Even as Benjamin looks to build a community, he has a community rallying around him as well. For instance, Avenue on 3’ s upcoming collaborative pop-ups include one with a tailoring brand and one with a car company, which came about thanks to introductions by friends and acquaintances.
While his wife Odile — who co-founded the now-defunct fashion label Raoul with him in 2002 — no longer works at FJ Benjamin, she is a fount of “ideas and opinions”. “And it’s not just her,” says Benjamin, with a laugh. “Everyone is like, ‘Why don’t you do this?’, ‘Why don’t you do that?’, or ‘Hey, I was in Paris last week, and I saw this great brand.’ If I showed you the number of WhatsApp messages from people all over the world sharing their suggestions, there would be no end to it.”
Benjamin certainly isn’t complaining about his exploding inbox, though: “There are so many big, multinational companies coming in now, and people still want a local company to succeed. Everyone feels like they own a bit of this place, which is why they’re all giving their ideas and suggestions. It’s beautiful.”