Along a quaint stretch of shophouses in Greenwood Avenue off Bukit Timah Road, through a door that reads “April Issue”, and up a short flight of stairs to the second floor, customers browse through a tightly curated selection of regional labels in a space that looks more like a chic apartment than a store. There’s a room with a plush couch and large framed mirror where more premium brands like Malaysian designer Khoon Hooi’s namesake label, known for modern cocktail numbers, are displayed. There’s another that’s big enough for a single bed – it’s the fitting room. There’s even a cosy kitchenette with a dining table (Coffee? Tea? Just want to chill out?).
Welcome to Shopthemag’s showroom, where every visitor can shop like a VIP: no crowds (residential location aside, most customers are regulars and know of it via word of mouth or its e-store); attentive service (the team’s office is on site so there’s always someone to tend to you); hard-to-find or exclusive labels, and perks like meet-the-designer sessions, all in an intimate setting. Shopthemag began as an online boutique in 2010 out of an industrial estate in Bukit Merah, but its founders Corrine Ng and Gwendolyn Kum opened the space in March because customers were asking if they could visit to try on the clothes.
“We would have women trying on $2,000 gowns hanging next to cartons,” says Ng. “No one complained, but we didn’t feel it was swanky enough an environment for people to come in. We wanted people to be more comfortable and the space to feel more upmarket.”
If trunk shows are ad hoc affairs, where brands and retailers invite selected customers to preview and shop the latest or exclusive merchandise, think of showroom shopping as the same thing – except you don’t have to wait for an event to be created, and you don’t need to be top-tier client, press or buyer (usually the only folks who get access to a showroom). Simply make an appointment or, in some cases, drop in.
Glamour Inc. – a vintage specialist and representative of emerging British, European and local labels – has been letting customers browse its eclectic inventory via appointment since opening in the early 2000s. First, it’s a good way to promote its stable of brands. Second, co-founders Cary Cheng and Dorothy Augustine are big on creating a “bespoke shopping” experience – both worked at now defunct multi-label luxury boutique Glamourette and have been serving high-society clients for decades. At press time, it was moving out of its Eng Hoon Street premises and looking for a smaller place, but Cheng assures that the service will stay. “We were the first to offer it and, for a long time, the only one to,” he says. “Retail has changed so much, but there will always be customers who want to shop the personalised way, and to feel and touch the products.”
It’s for this very reason that the concept is picking up again: Enter the era of the not-just-an-e-shop. Apart from Shopthemag, at least two other retailers with an online presence have opened their showrooms or workspaces to consumers this year. Curated Editions – a tie-up between the namesake accessories e-tailer, local jeweller Edge Of Ember, and The Fashion Benefit, which focuses on sustainable pieces – did so in Amoy Street in March. Multi-label boutique Apres Five followed at Mohamed Sultan Road two months later.
It all makes sense, with the cost of running a traditional store here on the high side, and the amount of stock carried by these retailers usually low for both practical and exclusivity reasons (selling out of the same space you work in = lower overheads). But these companies are also realising that nothing beats shopping the old-school way, especially when the labels they carry tend to be up-and-coming or under-the-radar.
Says Loh Tann-Ling, co-owner of Apres Five: “Customers are not so familiar with some brands and their sizing, so they often want to try them before purchasing them.”
Shopthemag’s Ng adds that online shopping just isn’t as big here as it is in places like the US, with local customers still preferring to be able to “walk out with their purchases”, particularly when they’re priced at a premium. (It’s a trend she sees with items priced about $800 and up, she says.)
Even when the environment is no-frills, the personal touch still triumphs. Says Curated Editions co-owner Angie Lai-Tay: “Here, customers shop while we’re working, and they see our products without the fancy packaging – sometimes they’re still in their packing boxes – but they won’t get the feeling of being watched like a hawk by sales staff… At the same time, they get dedicated service when they want it. Who else knows the product better than we do?”
SHOPTHEMAG (71A Hillcrest Road)
Who’s behind it (from left): Marketing executive Samantha Tan, associate styling director Desmond Lim, co-founder Corrine Ng and associate creative director Furquan Saini (co-founder Gwendolyn Kum was not at the shoot)
What’s in store: High-end Asian designers (up to $4,000 for a gown) from globally renowned names like the Katy Perry-endorsed Manish Arora from India, to under-the-radar types like Malaysia’s Man Chien, an artist who uses clothes as canvas (for Fall, she hand-paints maxi dresses and hand-felts wool details). There’s also a selection of Australian bridge labels (from $89) like Cameo and Finders Keepers, known for their modern, flirty aesthetic.
Why visit: It’s the place to discover regional labels now, with a tight curation that focuses on sophisticated design and quality – something often lacking in other pro-Asian fashion efforts here. The showroom perks are also pretty awesome: meet-the-designer sessions, professional styling advice (on request), and a cool, cosy vibe that’ll make you not want to leave. Open 10am-7pm Mondays to Fridays, or call 6498-6353 for weekend/after-hour appointments.
APRES FIVE (#03-01, 8 Mohamed Sultan Road)
Who’s behind it (from left): Co-owners Loh Tann-Ling, who also runs multi-label wedding atelier The Prelude Bridal on the main floor, and Caryn Lim, founder of eco-friendly children’s wear retailer Be Green Bebe
What’s in store: Bridge brands ($80-$800) for day and night dressing hailing mostly from the US – think breezy yet elegant maxis from Los Angeles label Townsen, and relaxed, neutral-coloured jumpers and separates from New York-based Addison.
Why visit: It’s like shopping at the contemporary fashion section of an American department store with luxury service – the whole place, designed like a cool loft, is yours, and the staff are on hand to recommend buys. Call 6221-4982 for appointments.
CURATED EDITIONS (#04-00, 115 Amoy Street)
Who’s behind it (from left): Lynette Ong, designer behind ethical jewellery brand Edge Of Ember; Jane Ong, founder of The Fashion Benefit, which carries sustainable labels; and Angie Lai-Tay, owner of multi-label accessories boutique Curated Editions
What’s in store: Everything you’d imagine Californian cool girls like Kate Bosworth would geek out over – socially conscious, everyday-perfect jewellery, dresses and separates (from $30) from Edge Of Ember and The Fashion Benefit; and edgy accessories labels (up to $6,000) from Curated Editions, like Vita Fede from Los Angeles, that’s loved by the Hollywood It girl set.
Why visit: There’s no hipper place to shop at in the CBD area during lunch hour – pop in 11am-3pm weekdays. For other times, e-mail for an appointment (firstname.lastname@example.org).
GLAMOUR INC. (Call 9637-1211 for appointments)
Who’s behind it (from left): Directors Dorothy Augustine and Cary Cheng, who worked at the now-defunct Glamourette, one of the first local retailers to bring in high-end European labels since the ’50s
What’s in store: Apart from an impressive vintage collection on consignment from Cheng, and Augustine’s equally impressive network of high-society clients, expect the latest from up-and-coming Singaporean, European and British names (from $200 for accessories and from $800 for clothes). The company works with the British High Commission on the Best Of British (BOB) initiative that brings UK brands to Asian retailers, and reportedly introduced KTZ and Mary Katrantzou to the local scene.
Why visit: As industry veterans, Cheng and Augustine have amassed a museum-worthy vintage selection (they actually source for museums) that dates as far back as the ’60s. They are also consultants to emerging brands, which means you’ll get to see pieces before they’re revealed to public. Just be sure to make an appointment first – availability can vary according to seasons.
This article was originally published in Female November 2014.