Chris Koh has had some 27 years in the fashion and retail industry and has seen trends and brands come and go. Some are lucky enough to withstand the test of time. But for others, mere government help soon gives way to a lack of eyes and wallets from the private sector. These brands disappear after two, maybe three seasons, without the power and knowledge to turn their fate around.

Fashion business conference Asia Fashion Summit (AFS) is into its fifth year this May and Koh, honorary president of the Textiles and Fashion Federation (Singapore) (TaFf), believes the event has helped empower the Singapore fashion brands of today. A boost of street cred and clever retail marketing has led to labels such as Depression and SATURDAY garnering cult followings. Koh espouses innovativeness and openness and hopes the yearly summit imposes these values on Singapore designers looking for a place in the market.

“Fashion is dynamic. People want to keep up with what is developing within the fashion arena in technology, market development and innovative retail trends. It is not just industry demand fuelling the return of AFS every year. The industry’s own dynamism gives AFS something new to deliver every year,” opines Koh in a phone interview with Popspoken.

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The three-day conference gathers top industry players regionally and globally to conduct keynotes, panel discussions, moderated interviews and workshops for attendees — most of them designers, merchandisers and buyers. It is a chance, according to Koh, for fashion professionals to re-strategise with a view towards “the rest of the world”.

“We have to be open to innovation and advancement. If you close your door and do what you think is best, you will fall behind,” stresses Koh.

This year, AFS is looking East. The rise of South Korea as a cultural confluence of fashion and pop culture cannot be ignored; examining the dynamism of the Korean retail industry is the first topic on the AFS 2014 agenda. But why are we dissecting a culture completely unrelated to Singapore, with its garish styles and Samsung-like engineered pop culture sphere?

“Nothing will be exclusive to a particular country, unless development of fashion there is closed-door just for buyers. Korea’s success is not exclusive to them. What they do successfully will affect movement and design concepts will affect everyone in industry. There must be a lot of pulling factors and Korea has done that,” Koh emphasises the emphasis on the land of K-Pop.

Another trend of late is in e-commerce, with a recent Wall Street Journal article eschewing the brick-and-mortar physical store as more of a “showroom” for the actual purchase that happens online. Koh believes confidence in online buying will increase with e-tailers insisting on consistency and quality to ensure first-time buyers come back to the same website.

Will the physical store go away, though? “Brick-and-mortar goes in hand with e-commerce. As you grow bigger, you will find that you always need a physical store to grow your market share — people want to try your clothes first. Brick-and-mortar business will be affected but a combination of online sales will make business grow. Cutting off a channel will affect your business,” Koh believes.

For a business conference packed to the rafters with glitzy names and titles (think WGSN, LVMH and Lotte), the small-time boutique owner might feel underrepresented on the keynote stage. However, Koh believes pulling in big names not only allows fashion insiders to have a taste of their judgement in direction, but also understand the big brand’s struggles during developmental phases.

“Founders don’t come and tell everyone what they are now. Talking about development phases will allow small players to resonate well with the big brands,” affirms Koh.

Chris Koh

Chris Koh

Singapore fashion’s rise and fall (and subsequent rise)

Walk through Robinsons’ flagship departmental store in Orchard and you will notice a section specially crafted out for local designers. A sign proudly displays the brands’ logos and the capitalised phrase “SINGAPORE DESIGNERS”. Koh is hopeful the retailer’s new direction can push the way for retailers and malls here to seek a different value proposition rather than hosting the same old fast-fashion store.

“Robinsons’ section of local designers is in line with what Singapore is trying to push — we need to have something different. No major retailers have yet to put up a big, concerted effort to promote Singapore fashion. Tourists want to buy local rather than Louis Vuitton. Where do they go for that? They wouldn’t know where to go unless you have an iconic location to get that sort of variety,” says Koh.

Koh acknowledges the efforts of TaFf in opening up the playing field for Singapore designers. Besides pushing them to show at overseas fashion weeks and tradeshows, they examine the supply chain of the label and emphasise on the brand’s scalability efforts — is the brand able to keep up with more stockists?

“If Singapore designers want to attract investments, they have to grow with the international market to get a big base and a lot of scalability. It’s not just the money (one needs to) show overseas — it’s the effort one puts in sampling, price points et cetera,” says Koh, who suggests having more strategic business partners to think of these areas.

It is not just designers here who have a lot more to improve on. Koh laments the lack of support from the private investment scene, especially from investors who do not understand the fashion cycle and are looking for companies who can scale fast.

“Because of our small Singapore market, brands don’t have the size. Investors want an exit clause within three to five years; they want the company to scale fast. In the Singapore market, you will never scale big enough to provide investors sufficient volume. That is the main problem,” Koh advocates investors to relook their investment strategies for a unique fashion industry situation in Singapore.

“Retailers also need to have the mindset of looking at the future in securing potential talent. A retailer’s starting point has to be nurturing a designer rather than just milking the brand for profit. There has to be a mix of designers and experimentalism,” Koh eggs on retailers and malls to make big strides here to differentiate and invest in Singapore designers who may end up as big names regionally.

Things are looking up now. Many designers here are finding success locally and overseas — Koh highlights success stories in Ong Shunmugam, Carrie K, Max Tan and Pauline Ning. It seems that, for the first time, the Audi Fashion Festival is making an uncharacteristically big move to place Singapore designers in primetime show belts. The fashion week is also showing the largest number of local designers this year.

“Local retailers will want these brands in their store because they have some kind of success story. Quite a few designers here are able to begin scaling. They may now look towards getting private investors’ attention,” says Koh.

AFS may just be that platform for buzzed-about brands to bridge the gap between attention garnered and securing the next deal. Koh says networking is key; AFS is not just a platform for knowledge acquisition.

“You listen from the industry but the networks that you make with speakers and participants, those relationships will last a lifetime.”

“If you come to a conference just for knowledge, you have only achieved half your objectives. Talk to people, speakers and exchange contacts. If you want to learn more about the business, your relationships will give tremendous value. Come here and meet the gurus and your industry peers that are able to help you in the future,” says Koh.

Asia Fashion Summit happens from 15-17 May at Suntec Convention & Exhibition Centre.

Image of Chris Koh & AFS: Asia Fashion Summit, featured photo from Popspoken