Caroline Issa speaks to Priscilla Ong about her disrupted London venture.

I met Priscilla last year, she was a year into living in London, but going back and forth to Singapore where her flagship store was a success story for the local Singapore fashion scene – a small brand with mega loyal customers for her pretty dresses and cheery prints. In early February, when I was visiting Singapore for Chinese New Year I went by her store and loved its chic vibe (made even more delicious by the addition of her new Japanese porcelain collection of homeware!). I was excited because I knew she was bringing her point of view to London's Notting Hill and was looking forward to seeing how it would translate. The tale that follows I will leave to Priscilla to share in her own words, but needless to say, we at Because have always supported independent fashion business in London and hope that this will spur you to support your local stores too... 

You found the perfect location, you spent time and money designing its interiors and then you opened! And how many days was it thereafter did you have to close? And then decide to totally stop the retail in London?

Our timeline was so brutal, it was borderline comedic. We signed the lease on 24th January 2020, and Opening Day was set for 19th March. With just over 2 years of prep and paperwork in the bag, these final weeks were for putting into motion the ideas, the bookings, the hypotheticals. I picked up the keys bright and early at 8am on a Monday, got a quick tutorial on how to work the shutters and within an hour, the wallpaper was going up and a grey undercoat was setting the stage for a black storefront refresh.

A spreadsheet meticulously tracked the multiple deliveries of inventory, furniture, retail fittings, plants, mannequins and we had timed arrivals to stagger over the next three days so that we could move in with minimal clutter. The black paint dried on Thursday, and on Friday, the signage guys arrived with ONG SHUNMUGAM in loose pieces and in stencil. That evening, I stared up at the sign and really felt it in my bones. From that day on, anyone walking past would come to a gradual stop and you could see them struggle to mouth the words before they went on their way. We giggled and pretended not to watch. On Sunday morning we dressed the mannequins and the reactions were swift. Women began to stop and peer in proper. Some barged in – even though it was clear we weren’t all systems go – and wanted to try stuff on. But the fitting rooms were only going up on Friday, would they mind coming back then? But that Friday would never come.

The wallpaper being applied in the store

By Monday, our end of Ledbury Road began to go quiet and 80% of tenants had voluntarily closed. On Tuesday, we had a second shipment of inventory and as the pellets were offloaded, I spotted the store opposite begin to vacate. We were carrying boxes through our door; they were carrying boxes out theirs. I watched as the staff hugged each other in tears and by the next morning, our neighbour was no more. Foot traffic trickled down to nothing and as I refreshed Twitter every hour, the conversations I had with the accountant, lawyers and PR all lead to the same premonition. The U.K. had not only squandered the lead time it once enjoyed, it was now losing control of real-time response. On Thursday, murmurs of a London lockdown were now bold headlines, no paper was going to wait for Downing Street to make news. I looked at Italy and France and knew what we were in for. We called the same guys that moved us in and booked the last available slot. It was only days ago that we had steamed every crease away, straightened out the rugs and dressed the windows, but pack up was what we did. Quietly, efficiently and with a trance-like quality, my colleagues and I had everything boxed overnight. There was nothing more to say. That Friday morning, the movers came and a Luton van was filled to the brim. There was no one on the street but us, nobody to offer comfort or help. I had got the keys on 9th March and just 11 days later, I would yank those shutters down for the last time.

An empty store

How did you make the difficult decision exactly to close the shop for good?
The lockdown of London collided so strongly with the start of our tenancy, crushing all crucial press and marketing activations for a new-to-market brand that naturally pivoted around the need for the experiential, for physical and social interactions, let alone the need for us to observe and understand who our London customers were to be. The few consultants I managed to get on the phone said the magic number was “6 months”. Hold on. Did that mean 6 months of overheads on an empty street? We hadn’t even had the chance to open our doors. Would rent be waived? Or reduced to reflect market realities? Would that holiday on business rates trickle down to us? Both agent and landlord struggled to answer. I found the silence chilling. As a young and an independent label, we don’t have the luxury of backers or deep pockets. We have been profitable with positive cash flow for years, but expanding to London couldn’t be about ego: it had to make commercial sense. In place were financial models and projections, so I knew that running that store on Ledbury Road meant we needed to hit some serious sales targets from the get go. Under no circumstances would our London outpost become a burden to our global operations, it would have to earn its keep. But the real blow was when the severe lack of testing and treatment became apparent.

Everything in storage

When the Singapore High Commission in London issued an advisory recommending all citizens to leave the U.K as soon as they could, that was the vote of no confidence I needed to hear to know it was over. I had flown 2 colleagues from Singapore to help me get the store going in the initial months. By the time we had moved in on Ledbury Road, they were struggling to get groceries and were entirely dependent on crowded trains to get to and from work. They were needlessly at risk, and I had to make a call. What was meant to be an enviable posting to one of the greatest cities in the world, eventually turned into a race to get them on the last available flights out of town.

What did you find magical about the store itself? And what did it convey well that was more or different to what online can offer your customers?
Ong Shunmugam London was manifested as a dedicated environment that would story-tell our particular narrative of contemporary Asian design through the retail touchpoints of touch, sight and sound. The basis was that we were likely to be the first Southeast Asian fashion brand to make such an independent entrance into the market, so we wanted to try and do this with clarity and help our audience navigate through this new world.

In keeping with our ideological departures from tired concepts and caricatures, the interiors resisted common signposting from Chinoiserie, Chintz and other Orientalist forms. No Buddha figurines, no pagodas, and certainly no Maharajahs on no elephants. Instead, we drew from the Ong Shunmugam flagship in Singapore and brought along postmodern design expressions, from the elegant use of warm hues of brown, terracotta, orange and yellow, to the considered appreciation of regionally indigenous materials like rattan, bamboo and cane, and a wicked playlist featuring some of the region’s slickest DJs. All disarming, but deliberately so.

A little bit of durian never hurt nobody!

What were you excited to bring to London and Notting Hill, and will you find ways to translate that experience in other mediums?
London has been my new home for 2 years. Liberated from expectations and routines, trying to grow the brand here from the ground up has been humbling at times, sometimes frightening, but always tingling with possibility. I suppose I was most excited about bringing our distinct edit of progressive Asian aesthetic to the one city that would be most up for it. The idea of talking about all the things we like to talk about – tradition without the baggage, symbolism beyond the implications – I’ve always felt that London is always culturally ready before anyone else.

This summer, we’re launching a dedicated e-commerce site for the U.K where everyone can shop all the collections, from womenswear to tableware, with domestic shipping rates kicking in.
We’ll find ways to get the word out, much of which will probably concentrate around social media. If the cards fall in place, online traction will whet appetite for what will be a proper comeback with the store reopening, slowly but surely. The ancillary plans we had in place to prong together with the Notting Hill launch; a press dinner at Laylow, hosted lunches at The Ledbury, a collaboration with illustrator Sabrina Percy, we’ll resuscitate them when it’s safe to do so. Meanwhile, we’re mapping out dates to shoot the campaign for our next collection here in London. If someone will please just keep the sun shining and the parks open!

The ground floor

How do you deal with disappointment? How long did it take you (if it's even measurable) to say "Right, onto the next", given all your amazing work raising money for charity, focusing back on your store in Singapore and collections, etc..
You would think that after 10 years of dancing around the bonfire that is fashion, putting out multiple fires with the same pair of hands, and doing whatever it is designers have to do to get from sampling to shop floor, would have shaped some pretty hardy coping mechanisms. But this really, really hurt.

The thing about being the boss is that you don’t really get downtime, no matter how bad it gets. In any crisis, your staff look to you for the slightest inclination of what might be and your cue cascades down, whether intended or not. In my case, it is only because of my exceptional team that I am able to remotely manage this business. Collectively, we’ve been scattered and stranded across 5 cities in lockdown or border closures (London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Kuala Lumpur) but against these odds, they are all fighting it out. I sulked for 2 weeks and then I owed it to them to pick myself up. If I had to single it out, the one thought that helped me come to terms with this is that in entrepreneurship, lies risk. And in risk, lies loss. In the grand scheme of relativity, I’ve had my share of good years. I just needed to keep that in mind.

The fitting rooms

What do you think will be the future of retail and connecting with your customers?
Believe it or not, I’m not one to say that retail is dead. I’m speaking of course from having run a flagship store in Singapore (high rents, high wages) for 9 years. I know this isn’t quite the formulaic way fashion brands operate in London, or at least how they get taken seriously. But think of all the things we’re up against; the discretionary nature of fashion consumption, the long gestation periods from design to actual sale, poor wholesale margins. If there ever was a time to adopt a direct-to-consumer model, I say it’s now.

If brands can divert their energy from buyers and showrooms to carving out their own monobrand ecosystem of customers, but think the omnichannel way (physical, digital, social, temporal), that could be the way to protect themselves cancelled orders or being exposed to a chain reaction beyond their control. As for physical retail, I think we can agree that there are only 2 things that will bring crowds back to stores: a vaccine and the wherewithal to spend. But if you stay with the data, market corrections will offer a natural window of opportunity to secure or renegotiate leases at far more reasonable rates. Fair enough, reopening doesn’t mean full recovery. But if shops can trim operating expenses and focus on inventory efficiency, they could make the numbers work.

The dining table

Also, I wouldn’t buy into polarised talk of physical vs digital, that’s just distraction. Some days you’ll want to shop from an app, other times you’ll only buy if you can touch or try. There will always be purchases that e-commerce cannot replicate as well and even the most digitally empowered shopper will shop relevantly. As a store owner, would you have non-negotiable safety standards for staff and customers? Could you consider operating by appointment only? How about repurposing a section of the store to fulfil online orders or click and collect options?

Connecting with customers, brand affinity, customer loyalty, meaningful purchasing: all these airy concepts, that have always been hard to pin down are, exactly the keys to holding on to post-pandemic revenue. I wish I had some playbook on modern pandemic consumption, but I’m simply telling my team this: if we’re trying to convince someone to spend money in a time of uncertainty, we need to understand the mental and emotional journey they’re making to get to the point of checkout. It’s not simply transactional anymore, every purchase goes through much more scrutiny and intention than before.

The emotional link between brand and customer should also flow the other way. If brands are struggling, transparency can help build empathy instead of frustration. Many people don’t understand the complex supply chain or backend risks that we deal with – I think this is a great time to educate. Everyone is rethinking the way they look at things. If we were once experience-rich but time-poor, how are we reflexively changing our lives? Now that we have a literally captive audience, what are brands doing with this attention? With fashion having found such a natural home on Instagram, that’s where most of the conversation will be. But the Ong Shunmugam customer is typically discreet, reflective and highly perceptive. So we’ll want to be sensitive not to seem opportunistic, or out-of-character. As with everything in life, it has to go beyond good optics.

Shop Ong Shunmguam here.

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