How 4 Singapore fashion brands grew stronger during the pandemic
The founders of Love, Bonito, The Missing Piece, Yacht 21 and Ong Shunmugam shared how they pivoted and stayed on top of their game despite disruptions.
A year-and-a-half ago, COVID-19 shook the world and irrevocably changed life as we knew it. For four of Singapore’s most established and well-loved fashion brands, survival was paramount, with jobs and livelihoods on the line. And with people staying home and not going out or into their offices, things did not look good for fashion retail.
But these labels didn’t just survive – they thrived. With much difficulty and struggle, undoubtedly, but all of them launched amazing new collections, came up with fresh offerings and look to be coming out of this bigger, better and stronger.
How did they do it? CNA Lifestyle checked in on them.
There’s a lot at stake for Singapore’s top fast fashion label, with five sprawling stores in major retail malls here; shops in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia; a huge e-commerce presence; and growing influence in regional and international markets such as Philippines, China, Australia and the US.
But where many fashion brands saw empty stores and declining sales, Love, Bonito managed to increase their market share last year, in the thick of the pandemic.
Co-founder Rachel Lim said it could be attributed to their traction in several international markets, namely the US, Philippines and Hong Kong.
“We started our journey in Singapore in 2010 and have evolved into a global brand, with international businesses representing 40 per cent of our online revenue,” she said.
“This has definitely been a challenging period for us. But as our stronghold has always been in e-commerce, we are grateful to be able to consistently achieve strong month-on-month growth trends, despite many of our key markets experiencing lockdown.”
While workwear used to be our strong suit, we knew that work-from-home was here to stay, and pivoted to designing relevant home and comfort wear, which birthed our Loungewear line.
An agile approach and willingness to change the gameplan early on in the pandemic put Love, Bonito in good stead.
“We rejigged our omnichannel efforts to place more emphasis on online vs in-store outreach, and were able to navigate the supply chain process to make key decisions to tweak our categories for the second half of 2020,” said Lim.
“While workwear used to be our strong suit, we knew that work-from-home was here to stay, and pivoted to designing relevant home and comfort wear, which birthed our Loungewear line.”
A strong sense of community, loyalty and pure brand love probably helped as well. If you only had to buy a few outfits in the past year, chances are you’d purchase from a brand whose ethos resonated with you. Which is why Lim works so hard on Love, Bonito’s brand purpose.
“I knew we did not just exist to sell womenswear, but that through the brand, women would be empowered to have the confidence to become the best version of ourselves,” she told CNA Lifestyle.
“We understood our community who are now at home juggling multiple roles and continuously engage them through our LBCommunity+ loyalty programme and social media channels, to share relevant resources and knowledge platforms, helping them engage with family members or to simply destress.”
Pandemic or not, Love, Bonito is forging forward. Lim revealed they’re on an exciting trajectory and plan to invest more in new markets, which includes the US and Japan, along with new verticals within the business to further solidify their mission to empower the modern Asian women.
Also, shopping-starved fashionistas want revenge. Lim said: “As soon as restrictions were lifted, customers were heading back to the stores and we saw a spike in sales, a phenomenon industry folks would term as ‘revenge shopping’.”
Available at https://www.lovebonito.com/sg/.
THE MISSING PIECE
From a brand that made modern cheongsams for style-conscious women during Chinese New Year to having their collections fly off the shelves at any time of the year, The Missing Piece has grown into one of Singapore’s beloved boutique fashion labels, sought after for their flattering frocks with the signature waist cut-outs.
If it weren't for the pandemic, we wouldn't have had the Home range and the swimwear and shoe line.
Pre-pandemic, their CNY collections would completely sell out. Like everyone else, the brand experienced a slowdown during the COVID-19 crisis, but owner Fock Ee-ling (who has a PhD in medical research) told us the brand has still managed steady growth the last few years.
And although plans to grow into Indonesia and hold a pop-up there were shelved, there has been no need to cut staff or close down stores.
“Early on in the pandemic, we decided to adjust our business plan and explore new areas for growth within Singapore and our current customer base instead of trying to grow in the region,” said Dr Fock.
“We started producing masks and exploring new product extensions and product lines which we wouldn't have explored otherwise. We started a TMP Home line, collaborated with Pink Salt to come up with a unique swimwear line, and developed our own shoe and accessory line.”
Like all other fashion labels, which remained profitable throughout the crisis, the brand had to be agile enough to quickly pivot. And this meant tweaking designs and focusing more on everyday wear.
Even though their Chinese New Year collection earlier this year was in peril, as no one knew if we would be allowed to visit our family and friends, Dr Fock pushed on.
“We still went ahead and developed our biggest CNY collection to date, but focused more on casual pieces in more formal fabrics that were unique, comfortable and wearable even outside of CNY,” she said. “This proved to be the right decision for us.”
“This pandemic period was not wasted time,” said Dr Fock. “If it weren't for the pandemic, we wouldn't have had the Home range and the swimwear and shoe line. We are also looking forward to opening our new store at Cluny Court in August, and are building another CNY collection which we can be proud of. I would love to explore some international collaborations down the road.”
Available at https://iwantthemissingpiece.com/.
An urban resort wear label for work and play, with four retail stores and two stockists in Singapore, Yacht 21 started with physical stores in 2009 before going online in 2013 as demand for their easy-breezy holiday dresses and comfy workwear grew.
But with everyone’s travel plans cancelled for a year and a half now, founder Jarenis Ho explained that her brand had to move away from promoting travel-friendly collections meant for vacations and pivot to designing functional fuss-free pieces to help their customers adapt to changing lifestyles.
Her brand had to move away from promoting travel-friendly collections meant for vacations and pivot to designing functional fuss-free pieces to help their customers adapt to changing lifestyles.
“Our retail stores did better before COVID-19, but our online sales picked up during the pandemic. It was difficult when all our retail locations had to stay closed for months during the ‘circuit breaker’, but I’m glad we managed to pull through as a team and everyone’s jobs were saved. We put more effort into selling online and in the process, discovered different ways to promote our brand via content creation.”
Like many fashion brands, Ho acknowledged that the pandemic has changed style preferences and shopping habits, perhaps forever.
“People are more open to shopping online, and working from home has changed the way people dress for work. Restrictions on social activities have made us all cultivate new habits and lifestyles and all this is bringing about new mindsets that may be irreversible.”
Available at https://www.yacht21.co/.
How can a designer label specialising in statement occasion wear survive a season where there are precious few occasions to dress up for?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And perhaps it was instinct or luck, but Priscilla Shunmugam, designer of high-end cheongsams and frocks that cost upwards of S$500, put out her homewear line called Suvarnabumi in December 2019, just before COVID-19 became a trending keyword.
Sales of her Asian-inspired tableware were good, as lockdowns meant fewer OOTDs and more at-home culinary shots. Since then, she has launched another Suvarnabumi collection of modern rattan furniture, and a colourful series of plates and cushions called Tropicana. A more affordable and casual diffusion clothing line called OM also pushed sales, along with fun collabs.
She has launched another Suvarnabumi collection of modern rattan furniture, and a colourful series of plates and cushions called Tropicana.
The brand also had its usual Chinese New Year collections of elevated cheongsams in 2020 and this year, Shunmugam worked on the 2021 cheongsam collection in London, where she has been based for the last few years, with the pieces made in Singapore.
“At the backend, we are definitely challenged in many ways, and continue to foresee more glitches to come. Our supply chains are all impacted, logistics is a nightmare and we just can’t be as efficient as we once were,” she shared.
“But quite surprisingly, we are posting record revenue figures. The past four collections we’ve launched have all surpassed expectations. We are struggling at the back but everything is smooth sailing at the front.”
Being disciplined with their books and maintaining a positive cash flow for many years also helped the brand stay healthy and retain staff. Despite all that, Shunmugam said: “COVID-19 threw the worst possible blow at us when we were forced to close our London store before we could even open it officially. Two years of planning and spreadsheets gone – just like that. We lost not just money, but a meaningful dream.”
The London store remains closed until the situation stabilises, and Priscilla will now be based in Singapore for the next two years, where she will run things from her by-appointment-only Atelier Ong Shunmugam at Chip Bee Gardens. Her customer base is still 90 per cent local, and 10 per cent international.
“Because my work and my life are so intricately woven, I can’t quite separate the lessons from the pandemic, but I know I’ve had to learn to let go – of things I cannot control, cannot change or cannot foresee,” she said.
“I have had the time and headspace to get back into ‘discovery mode’ again, and look around my immediate surroundings with fresh eyes. Nothing will ever be the same again – that’s probably the best lesson COVID-19 has taught me.”
Available at https://ongshunmugam.com/.