Of late, the area around the Katong precinct has undergone a renewal: more hip cafes are popping up, while art jam studios and speciality stores have sprouted to add to the buzz in this once quaint enclave. One of the kids around the vicinity that has caught our attention is Neighbor – the recently rebranded retail arm of creative studio Tell Your Children, which produces visual content for the likes of Nike, Apple and Prada.
As a self-described “small, slow growing, self-improving” store, Neighbor, situated on 188-8 Tanjong Katong Road, curates a pool of local and regional fashion and lifestyle brands that emphasise quality work and craftsmanship. Then, there are its altruistic efforts in championing the local independent creative and design community – something it does by giving artists carte blanche to present their works in-store, either via installations on the retail floor or through the window display that faces the Tanjong Katong thoroughfare.
Currently, that prime real estate is taken up by a nostalgic ’90s-tinged installation by Atom Incorporated (it’s Tell Your Children’s new media platform that experiments with and explores a variety of topics such as hip-hop and the natural environment. Previous names which have occupied the spot included visual artist Nicholas Ong and ceramic brand Budding Buds. Up next on the Neighbor roster that is worth checking out: a tie-up with a local ceramic artist to launch some “fun” pieces in Dec – primed for the gifting season. Ahead, we sat down with Lydia Yang, the space’s art director to find out more about the store and the good work that it does.
Lydia Yang, art director of Neighbor
FEMALE: We want to start off by asking if you could share more about the origins of Neighbor.
Lydia Yang (LY): We just rebranded in July 2021 to Neighbor. We used to be called By Appointment Only. That was our first trial of a store set-up. We’re housed in our creative studio, Tell Your Children. Neighbor is an entity of Tell Your Children and functions as a store and retail arm.
We decided to do the store because we have merchandise that we’re producing in-house and all our friends we know in the creative industry have merchandise as well. It was a no-brainer to transform the front area of the studio to become a store because we have a really nice display. It’s this huge glass window that lets a lot of light in. [You can] get some really nice morning light!
We decided to carve [the store] out from scratch. We had some of the bare bones, like shelving and even the racks from existing retail friends that we know who either moved out of their locations or they had extra parts. We put together a store out of our connections. It’s a very DIY spirit… we hand-painted our store signs and DIY-ed our tile table too! I guess this store came about very organically and because we had much to sell and a really nice storefront, we decided to just do it.
Just make art on windows, like this installation by artist Nicholas Ong last September at the store.
FEMALE: We noticed that Neighbor is big on slow growth and self-improvement. Tell us more about the philosophy behind that and how that informs the work you do.
LY: I’m mainly the one behind the store and all its ins and outs. I have some support from my team, but I am the creative director and curator of most of our brands. From a personal standpoint, I value a ‘less is more’ philosophy. I wanted to start out lean with select brands that value the craft and the work that they put into their products.
We support wanting to grow a small number of brands rather than bringing in something that’s too [mass produced], having too many brands on board and not having the time to break things down and dive deeper into what the brands do. We wanted to focus more on putting on each brand and giving the brand more spotlight rather than to have too many brands. It would be a little bit diluted that way.
FEMALE: We see that you stock brands like the planet-friendly undergarment brand The Mori Club and vintage thrift brand Death Threads. Is that under Tell Your Children or Neighbor?
LY: Death Threads is not under us, but they recently moved into this space. It definitely complements what we’re trying to go for, which is to shop small and to shop in a sustainable manner.
FEMALE: So that’s how you curate the brands that you decide to stock?
LY: Yeah, it would be. I value when creators and brands don’t produce on a [massive scale]. They value the craft that they put in and most of the products are handmade, [for instance] we have this brand that does like handmade plush toys. She takes fabrics that are either scrap or repurposed to create this real plush. Not for all her products, but some of them I think.
How about the latest Tell Your Children merch?
FEMALE: What’s in the works for Neighbor in the upcoming months?
LY: We have some collaborations down the line. We’re in talks with some of our existing brands to run collaborations, like this bead necklace brand that we carry, Noontide & Night. The designer is more like a hobby creator – [the founders of] most of the brands that we carry do have full-time jobs and their craft is like a side gig for them. We love to support people who do these things as well. We have a collaboration with Noontide & Night coming up soon and something coming out with Bungle Jym, the plushy brand, as well. We had a really successful Christmas market last year so we’re trying to recreate one this year as well.
FEMALE: Exciting! It’s never too early for Christmas.
LY: Especially now, having the experience of running a Christmas market [has taught us that we] actually have to plan really early because we want to prep and give our potential vendors time to work on new or exclusive products for the event. It’s fun to think about Christmas so early.
FEMALE: Since you’re called Neighbor, what’s the best thing about being in the Katong enclave and your neighbours here?
LY: That’s a good question. We’re housed in a sort of residential block; the first level of this block is mostly shops and services like the Korean barbecue place down the road and massage parlour right beside us. We’ve been here for quite a few years and it’s been nice to be part of the community.
We used to chat with people who live above us. We made friends and they would come in [the store]. There’s this particular family – this couple and their daughter – and I think their job is to dog walk. They would come in and bring their dogs. We also know people living upstairs who will pop in once in a while. Sometimes, if they wanna grab a gift for a friend’s birthday, they’ll just come in and grab T-shirts.
Neighbor is distinguished by its natural light and airy vibes.
FEMALE: You’ve been in this space for quite a couple years, right? How has the pandemic changed anything about the way you do business?
LY: We had to close due to Covid-19 for a bit. Before that, we were still ‘By Appointment Only’. It was only after Covid-19 that we rebranded and refreshed the store. Before that, visits were, like our name, by appointment only. But now we open over the weekends because of manpower and our capacity. This helps us to have a bit more of a consistent operating schedule so people know when to make plans to come in.
FEMALE: Are there any plans to move beyond Tanjong Katong in the future?
LY: Hmm, we’ve been here for quite a while and we did consider moving our entire studio and store space to somewhere else for a change of environment, but the plans are still up in the air. Our lease ends next March, but we can choose to renew it. We’ve carved out a little space for ourselves here, so I honestly feel like I’d want us to stay here for as long as we can.
FEMALE: Yeah, it’s a lovely neighbourhood so I can see why. What’s your favourite part about it?
LY: There’s a lot of food around and it’s also a growing area, right? Joo Chiat is now becoming really popular. Katong is a bit more muted, but there’s still traffic and people coming through. They have to make their way out to this neighbourhood. It’s not somewhere that they can bounce off from, say, cafe hopping or whatever. So we appreciate everyone who comes down because it’s an effort. We have people coming from the West as well, and we really appreciate it! It’s nice when our customers tell us they intentionally made the trip to check out the store and support us.
Just some craft hanging around: spot the artwork by Aaah House and mask chain by Noontide & Night.
FEMALE: Who or what inspires you to do what you do with Neighbor?
LY: It’s been my long-time dream to run a store and to curate it from start to finish, even the furniture, the fixtures and the visual merchandising. There’s so much to learn and to experiment with having a store as a medium and a canvas because being a creative myself, I feel like I’m past the stage of doing digital creative work and traditional creative work.
Having a space to work with is so different. There are just so many possibilities. We carve out a space on the window display and sometimes even any part of the store to do an art installation roster. We have artists coming in, or rather we approach artists, bi-monthly to work on installations in the store that gives them the platform and space to be creative.
FEMALE: Do you have any themes, topics, or types of art that you feature?
LY: No, it’s quite open. We just want the artists to have free play using a window display, with the main road being right beside the store and having cars go by.
When you travel on the bus, the window display acts as a good visual canvas for the regular commute on Tanjong Katong Road. It stands out from everything else. We want to be the sore thumb of the row of shophouses that usually just shout out what they really are. For us, we’re an ever-changing space and ever-improving.
FEMALE: What’s one thing that you want people to take away every time they visit the store?
LY: A fresh experience, a place where they can really see the works of local creators and even creators around the region. Neighbor has a bit more of a unique offering and it’s a space where people can experience art. Hopefully, with the workshops and events, we have down the line, that will offer a different experience [from other stores].
FEMALE: What workshops do you have down the line?
LY: So, we don’t have anything specific planned yet, but we did do one with Bungle Jym recently. She was so kind as to teach how to form a plush from scratch. I thought that was really awesome. It’s her product, right? For her to be able to share it with her customers and people who are keen to make one themselves – that’s pretty cool.
FEMALE: Looking forward to what’s next for Neighbor. So… final question here. Is Neighbor a good neighbour?
LY: Oh gosh, we sure hope so! I wouldn’t wanna say yes or no, but that would be up to our neighbours. We haven’t gotten many – or any – complaints yet, so I think we’re okay.