As an undergraduate, it was easy to pick up knowledge on what to wear and where to shop because I worked part-time as a musician in the hotels. Besides, there were my Arts/Social Science Faculty undergraduate friends who took to the cat-walk as fashion models, writing for HER WORLD magazine or part-timing as tour coordinators. We used our “talents” to earn our pocket-money and to pay the university course fees. There were times when we felt not quite sure whether we were undergraduates first or last, given the amount of time we spent away from the campus.
You find yourself easily exposed to the designer labels like Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani, instead of the mainstream ARROW or LEVIS brand. For young working ladies, there was London-trained Julia T.W. of Fashion Lodge/Miss Lodge who popularized the pillbox hat with veil in Singapore. And Celia Low with her house brand called “Celia” at Centerpoint.
Photo 1: Black is the fashion at ISETAN (c 1980)
After graduation, we went different directions but only two of my male friends made it into the retail industry whilst one close female friend made it to Cathay Pacific airline in Hong Kong. Last week, I met the two guys who first joined ISETAN and C K TANGS as merchandise- buyers. They are still with the same company and have witnessed some of the most “brutal wars” of the retailing business in the past 30+ years. Now what exactly would I like to talk about shopping in Singapore?
In the 1980s, there were a couple of international department stores that challenged “local boys” like METRO, Robinson’s, Marks & Spencer, John Littles, OG, Emporium and CK Tang.
Have you heard of Printemps, Tokyu or Galleries Lafayett?
Printemps was located at the Le Meridien Singapore Hotel in Orchard Road. Japan’s Tokyu was at Marina Square, and French store, Galleries Lafayett had two outlets in Liat Tower and Goldhill Square.
Galleries Lafayett at Liat Towers on Orchard Rd, 1987
Did you know ISETAN began at the Hotel Apollo Annex in Havelock Road? There was a DAIMARU in Liang Court. MITSUKOSHI of Japan had an outlet in the Tanjong Katong Complex.
Many of the foreign retailer stores could not survive the economic downturn in the 1980s. The first to bear the brunt was Hong Kong-owned Singapore Shui Hing’s; it closed down in 1983. Local retailers like Mohan’s Department Store on the ground-floor of Orchard Shopping Center and Peter Chew’s at Supreme House fell victims to the 1985 economic crisis and never recovered.
Photo 2: METRO Store at Supreme House (c 1974)
A decade earlier, Robina which opened in 1974 at Robina House, Shenton Way (now #1 Shenton) and a branch at The Orchard, was the first to close in the late 1970s. Robina’s main business line was ship-building through Robin Dockyard and it had other business interests through a company called Robin Information Systems, which distributed Hitachi Computers.
Shui Hing is one foreign retailer I cannot forget for two reasons; the first was its catchy jingle I heard over the radio when I drove to the office each morning at 7.45. Secondly, Shui Hing not only offered branded goods but a New York shopping experience.
Photo 3: Singapore Shui Hing ( c1983)
What is the New York shopping experience?
To many Singaporeans, this was so different shopping at METRO and Robinson’s. The store was modeled along Sears Roebuck, a giant American retail chain, hired American management staff, named its departments after New York streets and offered 80% products from the U.S. (something very unheard of in those days). It was so Americanized there was even the Statute of Liberty paraded on the ground floor of the store. It was actually a life-sized mannequin dressed in white satin holding a flaming torch from one of the top Singapore modeling agencies.
There’s one impression I got at this store: everything had to be big – XXL or thick in the wallet. Everything from its smallest attaché kit to golf bags had a distinctive look, good enough to make a strong statement. It was also pricey – the cheapest was at $50 for a toiletries kit. The store only accepted AMEX card, not even DINERS CLUB. VISA had not yet been introduced into Singapore.
For me I liked their leather goods department but I could buy one when Shui Hing’s held its closing-down sale in 1983. Before that, I could only admire its collection of leather bags and luggage – dual shade colors of burgundy and cognac. For me the alluring part was the smell of high-quality leather. At the closing-down sale, I picked up my favorite burgundy brief case for $100/- and promptly charged it to the AMEX card. When I first spotted that brief case, it was priced at $780, so this was indeed a good deal. It was either high retailer mark-up or it was genuine Milan leather product.
Now here’s a question. Where was Shui Hing located? Clue: This building still exists down in Orchard Road.