Edwin Low doesn’t care if you don’t know his name. Just remember Supermama, the name of his store which he named for the high-achieving mother of his two children, Mei Ling. And his Singapore Icons plates – his signature line of Japanese-made, Singapore-designed ceramics that have vaulted Supermama into the forefront of Singapore designers.
The now familiar blue and white plates are understated tributes to Singapore icons – HDB flats; tembusu trees; the Merlion; there’s even a crying Lee Kuan Yew – appealing to our national pride without being all kitsch about it.
Low’s tale is almost folklore in the local design industry. The 36-year-old was a designer high on passion but low on business luck; always within a hair’s breadth of insolvency until a chance meeting with Japanese porcelain maker Kihara changed both their fortunes.
Supermama’s USP is now high grade ceramics, almost haiku-like in their spare, thoughtful aesthetic, sold at super-realistic prices. Singaporeans love them. Corporate gift-giving companies buy them in bulk and in customised designs. Japanese housewives are big fans – snapping up the One Singapore plates as the de rigueur farewell token before going home for good.
Serendipity has served you well in your career, but you can’t always expect to be in the right place at the right time. You still need good business instincts. So how does a design graduate develop business acumen?
I don’t know, I just go ahead and do it. But I do take calculated risks. For example, I tie my product launches with nation-led events, which lets me cash in on twice the crowd. When I open a new store, it’s with the bare minimum of resources. I don’t do any big shoutouts – at most I tell friends and associates about it through social media. I’m going to open a pop-up store in Orchard Central soon for three months. This will be the first time that Supermama is opening in a mall. If the response is good, I’ll give it an extra push, but if not, so be it. I try not to lose too much money with each venture.
You’ve worked with the Japanese closely for three years now. They’re not known to be the most flexible people. What have you learnt from them, and what Japanese traits should we emulate?
I can say the usual, such as the deep sense of pride in their work, and their high standards of quality control. But what really strikes me the most is the passion in everything they do. If they come from a family of porcelain makers, you can really feel it – it’s just in their blood to make porcelain. I know of some younger Japanese makers who would quit their jobs to join the family business just so it doesn’t die. Family legacy means a lot to them.
They don’t just think about themselves. If a company were to close down, so many jobs are on the line. They’d rather hold on and find ways to keep the business going. The Japanese – those that I’ve met – have a great sense of responsibility. I have a Japanese partner that I work with, and he helps me with the translation when we’re dealing with the Japanese makers. I’ve been taking Japanese lessons, but no, I wouldn’t try talking to the makers in Japanese. Why? I don’t want to harm the relationship that I have with my partner. He has been a great help to me, and without him, Supermama would not be what it is today. It’s a Japanese thing – it’s about building strong and long-term relationships, not short-term or making a quick buck. When the Kihara folks came down to the Supermama shop, they were impressed with what I’ve done for their brand. I asked if they were proud, and they said yes. This makes for a good collaboration. They’ve been very kind in letting me use their best kilns, and if I need to complete a special project in one month, they gladly help me out. You can’t get this kind of partnership without building a relationship.
How often do you visit Japan, and what do you like most about it?
Just this year alone, I’ve been seven times, and have three more trips planned till the end of the year. It’s mostly work-related; I go to look at my products and the prototypes. When I get the chance, I stay on longer, but I’m always looking forward to coming home to my family.That said, I feel at home when I’m in Japan, especially when I’m on my own there. It’s the only time that I can take a real break from work. The Japanese environment is one that I hope Supermama can be in one day. By that I mean I’d like to see Singapore’s retail scene being more like Japan’s.
Supermama’s early years were tough. Would you say you’re successful now?
Supermama started raking in profits only last year – our fourth year. We’ve been seeing losses this year, but I would still consider Supermama successful. Even if I closed it after a year, I would still call it a success. It has been an amazing journey, and I’ve learnt so much. I’ve learnt to be content with what I have. I feel very happy. Supermama has done so much for the local community.
Your Instagram handle is Superduperpapa. Is that a reflection of your own super-duperness?
I chose Superduperpapa only because Superpapa was already taken. I don’t think I’m super-duper in any way. But for me, family always comes first. If there is a day that either of my kids (Donna, eight, and Toby, six) complain that I am not spending enough time with them, I will close Supermama immediately and get a regular job.
Adapted from The Business Times.