If there is a man behind every great woman, then the man behind Singapore’s most famous lifestyle queen Cynthia Chua is Jerry De Souza. Since the early 2000s, the two best friends conspired to shake up Singapore’s lifestyle scene with what were then unconventional offerings – Brazilian waxing services (Strip), thin crust pizza (Skinny Pizza), Singapore-style French café (Tiong Bahru Bakery), Australian-style brunch and specialty coffee (Forty Hands), and male grooming services (We Need A Hero).
Ms Chua’s two companies, Spa Esprit and Wonderscape, have grown into an S$95 million empire with 16 F&B and beauty brands across the world. All the while Mr De Souza worked behind-the-scenes, first as her creative director, and then brand director, helping her realise the concept and direction of each brand. His profound understanding of taste, design, fashion and culture helped create some of the trendiest-looking retail and F&B stores here and in cities such as London and New York.
Mr De Souza, 49, recently stepped away from the role to become an independent creative director in New York City. Having just got married there, he now works with the Spa Esprit Group as an external contractor on interior design and ad hoc projects such as campaign and product design.
When and how did you meet Cynthia? How have your personal friendship and professional relationship evolved over the years?
I met Cynthia when I was running my own fashion business called Oppt Shop which was reviewed in a local magazine. She read about me and came to meet me. It was surreal when I met her – we spoke all day and all night and it almost felt like I have known her all my life. And the rest is history, really. She is my partner-in-crime, she loves when people hate, and when you feel like the whole world is against you, she is right there by your side. She is the sole source of light in the dark, and that alone can be so beautiful.
For years, you took charge of the design, marketing and sometimes menu of Spa Esprit’s portfolio of businesses. Where did you get your ideas from? And how do you decide which are the ones that would get the attention of consumers?
My design ideas are never about grabbing attention, but being fully committed to the vision for the brand. While Cynthia’s guidance shaped my design, it was through our extensive travels together that allowed me to draw inspiration from the things we saw and experienced along the way. My designs were then reflective of the raw originality each concept possessed, which would naturally command the consumer’s attention and respect.
What is your approach to deciding whether an idea is working or not, and when to let go of something that isn’t working?
Every idea I’ve come up with has been a labour of love, and it has never been easy for me to push an original idea through – from timeline to design to fabrication, right down to each and every step in between has been a hurdle due to cost or time constraints. If I didn’t love what I do, I would have given up long ago. Instead I waged the wars I had to wage and won them over one step at a time.
What would you consider to be among your biggest achievements for the Spa Esprit Group?
It’s not my style to look back and bask in a job well done, or reminisce over the greatest hits. As soon as I’m done with a design, I’m over it and looking forward to newer, bigger and better things. Even when I do resolve and look back at my work, it’s always to lament over if I could have done a better job. I’m very cynical like that. But if I had to pick one project that left an impression, it’d have to be the Ministry of Waxing – Covent Garden on Neal Street, London. Each salon has its own separate identity, and for that, I drew inspiration from the Empress Dowager and the Forbidden City palace in Beijing.
Ten years ago, you were quoted as saying: “Consumers get bored very easily these days.” This was before the rise of Instagram and TikTok. What do you think consumers want from their lifestyle experiences today?
I try to stay out of it as best as I can. I’m hardly driven by what’s trending with the masses. Instead, I choose to follow my heart and wherever it may take me is where you will find me. We’re lucky to have clients who have always loved what we do and are always loyal to us.
If you could remake Singapore’s retail or lifestyle scene, how might you improve upon it?
Funny you would ask. Cynthia and I just had this exact same conversation not too long ago. The way we buy and consume needs to change. We are overpaying for products and merchandise while underpaying manufacturers and production. There has to be transparency before everything else.
Now that you’re based in New York, what’s in the pipeline for you?
I am a full-time employee of the NYC franchise. And I’m currently contributing interior design ideas on another extension of Tiong Bahru Bakery that’s slated later this year. It wouldn’t just be another bakery. But then again, Tiong Bahru Bakery hasn’t just been a bakery for some time now – we’ve had the Safari, and recently the Diner. I can’t reveal much, but in the same spirit as the first Tiong Bahru Bakery in Eng Hoon, this would be a true celebration of the neighbourhood. As for plans in New York, there are so many ideas in my head – but this year I aim to do less but more epic projects.
Where is home for you in New York?
I live in Manhattan, in the Lower East Side. It’s a small apartment dotted with knick knacks and full of character. My home is my personal sanctuary and my bed is literally everything. I recently got married here, though the wedding reception won’t be till late summer. We’re planning for our honeymoon in Greenland.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.