“I find men extremely well-dressed here,” declared fashion maven Suzi Menkes at the run-up to an international luxury conference held at Capella Singapore a few months ago. As proof of her observation, she gestured to two impeccably dressed men seated in the front row. Both looked like they had stepped out of the pages of GQ with their fitted jackets and pocket squares. Not surprising, since both did indeed work for local glossies.
I wondered what Menkes, fashion editor of the International New York Times (formerly International Herald Tribune) and host of its annual luxury forum, would make of the singlet-clad men in sandals found at kopitiams, or coffee shops, here. Or the personal crusade of a friend of mine, a director of a high-end fashion retailer, to improve his fellow citizens’ dress sense. “Singaporean men have got to stop thinking that football jerseys constitute everyday wear,” he insists. “It’s embarrassing.”
But much as Singaporeans like to indulge in the national pastime of self-criticism, I have to admit that Menkes has a point. If, by well-dressed, we envision form-fitting, layered ensembles, we’ll have a hard time impressing people in sweltering Singapore. “You want to feel comfortable in the environment that you are in, otherwise no matter how fashionable something is, you won’t feel good,” Menkes clarified when I caught up with her later. “While I don’t think everybody wears a suit, they are in a combination of clothes that looks smart.” She had seen few people dressed from head to toe in one designer brand, for example.
The desire for professional advancement is a factor in her assessment, too. “It’s got to do with having a young population and people who want very much to succeed in the workplace and not thinking that torn jeans are going to take them anywhere.”
I can’t argue with that – there are few champions of grunge wear in this go-getting city. And, with the region’s rising affluence, high-end men’s fashion is expected to be in greater demand.
According to a Wealth-X and UBS World Ultra Wealth Report published last year, this little corner of the world is expected to be the sixth most popular country of residence for billionaires in six to eight years. By then, about 1,300 of these super rich will make the island their home. And Menkes acknowledged the growing importance of South-east Asia by setting the 13th edition of the luxury gathering in Singapore, putting the city in the same league as previous hosts – Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, New Delhi, London and Moscow.
Despite this, and the forum’s diverse themes – such as social responsibility, watches and jewellery, marketing and Asian designers – the subject that dominated the two-day event was China and Chinese consumers. Ermenegildo Zegna opened the talks with a discussion about the potential of China’s second- and third-tiered cities. The group’s venture into places like Chongqing, Wuhan and Changsha accounted for one third of its revenue in Asia.
The clear-eyed analysis of Jing Ulrich, JP Morgan Chase Bank’s managing director and vice-chairman of the Asia-Pacific, shed light on the rewards and pitfalls of grappling with the behemoth. The Chinese economy is worth £10 trillion (S$21 trillion). Its people gobble up 25 to 30 per cent of all luxury-goods sales, mostly on their travels to Europe, the US and Australia, to avoid domestic taxes that can increase the cost of an item by 60 per cent. This year, more than 100 million will travel overseas, 17 million more than two years ago. All this suggests that brands may do well to focus on enhancing their stores outside of China. Even when investing in the country, Ulrich urged caution before opening stores based on the population’s migratory patterns. Some cities turn out to be ghost towns.
The fact is, you can’t be exposed to luxury products without your tastes changing. Here’s an anecdote to illustrate: A high-flying Chinese businessman was so impressed by a suit worn by then US president Bill Clinton that he called the president’s office to track down the label, called the store, ordered two suits, found them comfortable, researched the brand, then proceeded to buy 35 per cent of the company. The man in question is Patrick Zhong, one of the co-founders of Fosun, a privately owned conglomerate worth US$28 billion (S$36 billion). The label is Caruso, headed by Umberto Angeloni. Both were at the forum to speak about their partnership.
Their story complements that of Shang Xia, another East-West match but one that was grown in China. Headed by Chinese designer Jiang Qiong Er, who hails from a family of artists, and backed by Hermes, the six-year-old brand combines Oriental materials and motifs with meticulous craftsmanship and elegant design in products that are at once cosmopolitan and Asian – tea sets with bamboo marquetry, cashmere felt coats made with techniques used to construct yurts. With stores in Shanghai, Beijing and Paris, Shang Xia is on its way to becoming known as the “Hermes of China”.
Amid this glittery line-up of the who’s who of the luxury-goods world, Singapore’s Ethan Koh was a welcome presence. The 26-year-old is the fourth generation of a Singapore family of tanners, but the first person to use the skins in his own designs, rather than selling them to major luxury brands, as was the path of his forefathers. LVMH has a majority share in the company.
True to his bespoke trade, London-based Koh had set up an open house in one of Capella’s suites. The processed skins – 95 per cent of which are crocodile, with the remaining being ostrich, lizard and python – were laid out like swatches on the coffee table. The colours were unique in tone – the orange a little too sombre, the yellow a bit too icy – to be fashionable. He evidently doesn’t follow Pantone recommendations for colours of the year, which, like emerald green and tangerine, often guide the colour palette of fashion. The shades in Koh’s arsenal were named jackfruit, blue ginger and Capella Sunset, inspired by the view from the hotel’s terrace bar, he told me. He wants to be authentic to his roots.
Started in 2011 after Koh graduated from London College of Fashion – he’s got a diploma in entrepreneurship from Ngee Ann Polytechnic – the brand encapsulates the elements of a bona fide luxury product.
These include a history of working with the materials to ensure craftsmanship (the bags are stitched in Italy after the skins are tanned); a story behind designs (one of Koh’s lines features a kite motif symbolising his father’s start in the business); a limited supply, with about 700 bags produced yearly; a branding that capitalises on whimsical details such as hedgehog and bumblebee clasps; and a bespoke service that works by word of mouth.
Said Koh: “I think, in a way, we are putting Asia on the map because when people talk about Asia, it’s all about mass-produced and mass-luxury.
I don’t think Asia is very known for couture but, if you think about it, we have so many amazing tailors and craftsmen – so why have we been in the shawdows for so many years? I think we have to start believing in ourselves and be proud of who we are and create a difference.” To any designer or entrepreneur reading this: Singapore is sure in need of spiffy designs for cool linen suits.