What’s the real measure of a tastemaker in today’s social media saturated world? Over 100K followers, be it on Twitter, Instagram or Youtube? Impressive – yet hardly a breakthrough. Drawing a new generation of cool kids and vintage ones alike to an old school hip-hop club night after night after night? Now that’s an achievement that can’t be backspaced away.
Cherry Discotheque is the latest slam-dunk in Earn Chen’s perfect game. Chen is an ace shooter: a strategic entrepreneur who has traded up one cult business after another. His career charts his personal journey as much as the evolution of subculture cool in Singapore over the past 20 years.
When multi-label boutique Ambush opened in 1999, the hole in the wall in Far East Plaza brought streetwear’s finest into our fashion-scape for the first time with cult brands ranging from Gimme5 to Goodenough UK. It was the punk antidote to the Mango and Zara megastores across the road. Four years later, Surrender at Raffles Hotel Arcade offered an alternative, grittier perspective on the Japan-mania of the day. In a pre-e-commerce era, it was the only store in South-east Asia to carry the likes of Visvim and Neighbourhood. Chen’s talent for founding insider hotspots made it inevitable that before the next decade was up, he would not only be dressing Singapore’s tastemakers, but also masterminding the look and vibe of their favourite haunts.
The man I meet on a Saturday evening in September is not quite the brash mogul I had expected. His Instagram account (@earnchen) is intimidatingly fashionable in a Virgil Abloh-meets-Andre Saraiva kind of way: pictures of Kerouac-esque road trips and charmed sojourns in cities such as Bali and Los Angeles, and him chilling with some of pop culture’s hippest and often most influential (garage/disco music pioneer DJ Harvey, Kitsune co-founder Gildas Loaec, G-freakin-Dragon).
In person, however, he is pleasantly low-key and modest. I’m 10 minutes early, but only realise that he’s already seated at a table opposite when he texts that he has arrived. Chen manages to be distinctive without calling attention to himself. His outfit – a signature baggy T-shirt tucked into loose slacks – is simple but purposefully styled. The black coffee, and carrot and ginger juice he orders is more akin to breakfast, but for Chen, I guess, the day is just beginning.
Chen currently splits most of his energy between two of Singapore’s most notable after-hours spots. Potato Head Folk, launched in 2014, has become as much of an institution as its legendary Bali sister. As creative director, Chen transposed the boho-meets-hipster magic of the beach club to a heritage Chinatown shophouse. Snagging a table – be it at the self-service gourmet burger joint on the ground level, dining room and lounge on the second and third floor, or alfresco rooftop bar – requires some manoeuvring on any given day. Meanwhile, Cherry, which he consults for, is the young dynamo rejuvenating the night scene.
“It’s about time Singapore had a club like Cherry,” says Priya Dewan, founder and director of music booking agency Feedback Asia. “Hip-hop is currently having one of its best eras, and that should be celebrated, but it’s very under-represented in Singapore despite its growing popularity.” Local filmmaker Jacky Lee – a regular – concurs, echoing that a club like Cherry is long overdue. “There are many hip-hop nights in various clubs, but they’re pretty generic and play a lot of pop and ’80s throwbacks,” he says. “Cherry goes the extra mile. Its interior, branding and music are all on point.”
This synergy is the surest sign of Chen’s hand in the mix. Whether he is kitting out a boutique, restaurant or club, his approach is to tell a story. “I like to give a character to whatever I do, so we decided to create the persona of this girl for the club. She loves hip-hop of course, but she’s also got style, is a little bit naughty in a fun way, and just loves to dance,” he says. His girlfriend, fashion designer Nicolette Yip, came up with the name “Cherry”.
Like all the hottest girls, Cherry oozes attitude. Her radioactive neon signs, plastered across pink walls, have made her the most Instagrammable (and Instagrammed) club in town. Explaining the brainwave behind the branding genius, Chen says: “We had a limited budget, so I said ‘Let’s strip down everything, and play with lights and colour.’ Paint doesn’t cost much, and whatever colour you pick, it’s the same price.”
He relates how a customer told him that the splashes of colour are in sync with “vapourwave”, a surreal retro style that’s all the rage now. “I didn’t even realise there was a name for it!” he laughs. “I looked it up on Wikipedia and it’s a style, right down to the music. The kids came up with the term, but I’ve lived it! These are the colours that I grew up with in the ’80s. They’re tacky and no one uses them, but I think they’re cool.”
The punk energy and inspirations that characterise Chen’s projects are rooted in his unconventional ’80s adolescence. He recalls breakdancing, riding his BMX bike, and discovering Brit rock at 12. He left home for high school in Canada at 15, but not before procuring a fake ID. “It was the best thing that happened to me as a 15-year-old Asian kid. I got to watch a lot of bands, and that was my passion. I even saw Bjork performing in a small pub with about 20 other people when she was in The Sugarcubes.”
Chen didn’t end up graduating, but he did get an education: “I would skip classes, and just go to record stores and gigs. That was school for me.” The fun years, however, were followed by lean years. “I didn’t qualify to do much more than data entry. My first job paid me $800 before CPF!” he laughs. “Every day, I would take the bus to work and think, ‘Man, I really need to do my own thing’.”
Opportunity finally came in the form of a humble messenger bag. A friend had introduced him to Crumpler, a bag made from truck tarpaulin canvas, diving suit thread, and seat buckles. It had street cred and was touted as being able to “carry a slab of beer”. He pulled together just enough to purchase 12 styles as samples, then proceeded to convince enough local stores to carry the now-iconic Australian label that he was awarded the sole distributorship.
It gave him a foot in the door, kicking open a business empire that has since grown to include underground boutiques, a hipster dining destination, and a lead hand in the hottest hip-hop club right now. Though the paint on the walls of Cherry has barely dried, the question now is: Where is an entrepreneur who has consistently surfed the biggest waves in cult culture headed next?
An hour into our interview, I realise that it would be impossible to condense all the details of Chen’s colourful journey into a single story. Instead, I ask him what drives him. The answer is simple: authenticity. It’s the common thread across all his ventures and at the heart of his latest: e-commerce platform The Salvages, which he’s been developing over the past year.
Launched end-September, it features collectible vintage by fashion’s iconoclasts, ranging from 2003 Raf Simons to 1997 Helmut Lang. “How the world works today is just not as it should be,” he explains. “Back in the ’80s and ’90s, a designer would present a show, the photographers would shoot it, then the looks would appear in the magazines and stores a few months later. It made sense. Today, collections that have taken months to create are all over social media and in fast fashion chains instantly. It’s killing fashion, and destroying our environment.”
The Salvages is Chen’s rally to claw back the integrity in the industry. “This is my take on fashion today. The pace is relentless, there’s overproduction, and the trends are all references to the past. So why buy a remake or knock-off when you can buy the original?”
It’s also the first time that Chen is not tapping into the zeitgeist, but changing it from within. “I’m in my 40s now. The last 20 years have given me an understanding of what’s happening not only in fashion, music and lifestyle, but across our culture.” The punk ideals that set him on his path have matured into a simple yet highly effective plan.
A few days later, I get a text from Chen. It reads: “You asked me if I feel out of place and like I don’t fit in? Every day.” And this, I realise, is what makes him such an acute observer, masterful cultural entrepreneur, and a leading man for our times.
Like this? Meet the man behind hip Singapore hangouts like Loof and Tanjong Beach Club, watch this video to find out what went down at our Female GP 2016 party at Cherry Discotheque and check out the top 10 bars in Asia.