Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Tuesday, February 20, 2001

The Corporatisation of Craft

Last December I met Louis, who owns Amor Meus, a boutique at Chijmes. I had first wandered aimlessly into his shop one lazy afternoon with Lisa and a few days later gone back to show him my fabric collection and asked him to design some clothes. We clicked quite readily. (Once in a while in your life you come across people like that - instant clicking)

Our conversation began on his home turf - clothes and fabric. But after two more visits we started talking endlessly about related merchandising, and later digressed to jogging, praying, home furnishing, his passion for frogs, lizards, toy soldiers and Barbie dolls, and my passion for bright colours and quirky designs….

I drove him nuts with my meticulous examination of every dart and crease on the mock ups his staff made, and worse, with my very strict "ban" on beads and glitter on my clothes. I wanted to tell him during fitting sessions (but decided not to confound him further) that whatever sparkle should come only from my eyes, whatever radiance only from my smile and whatever glow should be from my face, not from the dress or the beads on it. I want to be the one wearing the dress, not let the dress "wear" me. I enjoy the challenge of playing with fabric cut and texture creatively, and wanted this challenge met by Amor Meus.

Tactfully, Louis did not challenge my crazy challenge, but voiced his frustrations over the inability to discern quality, and poor taste, of some walk-in customers. And the lack of integrity and quality control so prevalent in the local fashion industry. Not to mention the stiff competition and bitchiness of retail business in Chijmes. He told me how price conscious many of his walk-in customers - many of whom tourists, given the locale of the boutique - are, sadly oblivious to quality differentiation. So much so that retailers slash prices at the expense of offering real quality fabric and workmanship, and in turn consumers seem to "benefit" from the low price but perpetuate the ignorance and myths surrounding fabric.

How I agree with every word he said. Listening to him, and seeing him joyfully showing me some of his creations, I can sense that he is one of the rare craftsmen today still passionate and proud about his craft, and not bowing to modern pressure of cutting corners and mass production. "Look at the beading on this - it wouldn't have been hand-stitched so beautifully without love!", he said, pointing to a gorgeous blouse.

But in today's world, money moves - or love? Everything reeks of tacky commercialism - from the "magical" Orchard Road Christmas lighting to the revival of festival celebrations to the carefully planned "themed" shops at Chijmes, right down to "fund-raising" events by high profile charitable organisations.

Although I lament with Louis over the woeful lack of enlightened consumers who appreciate quality, service and craftsmanship, at the same time I was bursting with ideas to boost his sales and make his boutique "big". The corporate me - with 12 years of tough corporate life specialising in PR - coping with deadlines and performance ratings, at the same time juggling bosses, clients and direct reports - could not help wanting to "recommend", "propose" and even "tell" him what he should do.

He should "focus" and target - does he want to service high-end customers and be the Gucci of silk fabrics? (That way he finds his niche and can build his reputation and not be disappointed with el cheapo's) Or does he want to be the Giordano of silk - mass, cheap and almost disposable? Does he want to service strictly bargain-hunting tourists or a more reliable group of loyal regulars?

Then he needs to find a niche and differentiate from the boutiques at Chijmes. Having a "Peranakan theme" as dictated by its management isn't enough - very few bother to find out the real differences in the prints between Thai and Cambodian silk, or the colours of true Peranakan porcelain vis a vis Chinese porcelain! You need to stand out - somehow.

And remember the power of the brand! He needs to "market" his boutique and create a brand personality! I even witnessed an actual case. A Japanese tourist walked in, fingered an exquisite blouse longingly, enquired its price, walked out to drag a bunch of friends to admire it, and when she finally learnt that it was made locally, (ie, not "made in Italy" like international brands such as Versace or Prada), decided against buying it. Even though, personally speaking, the piece was better made and more original than any branded, but mass-produced synthetic-fibred stuff that you find in the market these days. Just because it was half the price of any vulgarly expensive international-branded item doesn't mean it is not worth buying - in fact, the enlightened customer would be jumping for joy at the real value he has found in the item.

Next, he needs a marketing plan (Oh gosh - I had just vetted my Marketing colleague's bylined article on Marketing Budget and it was still fresh in my mind!) and - but of course - a sound PR campaign. Get a few interviews done in the fashion magazines and even in the lifestyle pages of Straits Times and Business Times. Yes, yes, yes, plan the story angle, do the key messages and talking points, identify a photo opportunity for the story ….my oh my - my head was spinning with excitement.

Now comes distribution channel - how about "buying a list" for direct mails? How about joint promotions with tourist publications? There are so many promotion ideas - other than merely giving discounts!

The whole idea boils down to - commercialise, commercialise. Or to give it a more sophisticated-sounding word - corporatise. Run a business (not a "boutique") and make it big, merge with other business partners, acquire them, issue franchises … or maybe regionalise and globalise later - the way Yeo Hiap Seng exports frozen fish balls even to a remote Chinese shop in Leicester, UK. (I remember feeling "patriotic" over a home-grown fish ball as a student in Leicester then!) Even La Salle School of Design students had to propose a marketing plan for regionalisation in their final year diploma project!

Before I could impose my ideas on poor Louis and confirm his suspicion that that I have a strong character (as he surmised during our conversations), I remembered my favourite designer Paul Smith's words during a recent interview he gave. When asked what he thought of fashion today, Paul Smith said, "I'm concerned because fashion is being dominated by large companies and a lot of it is very formulaic, run by marketing managers".

Ooops. I shut up in time. And I recalled the unhappy acquisition of Jil Sander by Prada, the ambitious acquisition of floundering Bally by U.S. investment company TPG (which incidentally also bought over Del Monte Food! So - fashion, an art, is now on the same plane as groceries - both churn wealth!), the talented lawyer - Domencio de Sole - who revitalised the Gucci brand….

These are shrewd businessmen who are experts at bulk negotiations, cold number crunching, marketing gizmos, sleek media campaigns, computerised tracking of P & L and sales, data-mining…

These are impatient men who spend time in the boardroom mapping out mergers and acquisitions strategies with dollar signs in their eyes, not at the workshop mapping out the beads over an organza blouse with loving eyes.

What can I, a sucker for luxurious silk and personalised, friendly service with a stubborn demand for authenticity and quality, do, despite my "strong character"? I would rather walk into a small boutique with no international name, but with an owner whose first name I can greet each time I amble in…. and chat about my fabric preference over a coffee he makes for me, and argue over our choice… and let him remind me that I already have one red dress too many. At least he remembers… and need not resort to his computer database to call up my specs and data. After all, I am a customer, not a number…..

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