A fashionista with art and sole

A fashionista with art and sole
Mrs Eileen Bygrave was living the life of a tai tai in England when she decided to open a shoe shop. Among other things, it led to her becoming the first Asian retail director for fashion house Ferragamo in Europe. And yes, she is wearing a pair of Ferragamo shoes that is a prized collector’s item.
PHOTO: ST

It was the mid-1970s. Eileen Bygrave was happily settled in Lymington, a picturesque Georgian market town in south-east Britain, with her filmmaker husband and three young children.

For a while, life as an English tai tai was fun. "But coffee mornings soon got boring. I was looking for something to do," says the former student of Singapore Chinese Girls' School.

On the suggestion of a friend, she opened a little shoe shop called Coppelia to cater to the well-off wives of sailing enthusiasts who berthed their yachts at the coastal town with three marinas. Little did she know that the shop would change her life, and launch a colourful career in fashion.

Among other things, she went on to be Europe's first Asian retail director for Italian luxury giant Salvatore Ferragamo; she also opened the first Elizabeth Arden Red Door spa and salon in China.

Svelte, sassy and stylish, Mrs Bygrave, 72, lives in a tastefully furnished apartment in Jervois Road, filled with pictures of her family and late husband, friends and the Ferragamo family.

Her late father was a civil servant turned businessman, and her mother, a Hokkien housewife. She was the eldest of four children. One brother is a retired doctor, the other a university dean and her sister is a lawyer in the insurance industry.

Mrs Bygrave - whose Chinese name is Keng Siok Hian - grew up in a house with green glazed tiles in Emerald Hill Road, behind the old Singapore Chinese Girls' School which she attended.

After completing her O levels, she set off for London on a ship in 1959 to study advertising. "I had no notion what it was. I thought it might work for me because I was good in English and I liked sketching," she recalls over dry laksa and white wine in her home.

As no university offered courses in advertising, she ended up at the College of the Distributive Trades (now the London College of Communication) as its only Asian student. "It was a comprehensive marketing degree and covered everything - from law to design to advertising - over three years," she says.

She did extremely well and even won a copywriting competition in London. Her prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to an advertising conference in Brighton.

"One day, a reporter asked me what my Chinese name meant and I told them 'virtue' and 'chastity'. The next day, there was a picture of me in the conference bulletin with the headline: 'Are you Miss Virtue or Chastity today?'"

In her final year, she applied and got into one of London's top ad agencies, J. Walter Thompson, which also paid her fees.

"I told myself, 'Always start at the top'," she says with a grin. "I was put in the media department, doing market research." She also had a stint in the firm's TV production department where she learnt all about shooting cinema and TV commercials. "Television had just hit Singapore and I knew that it was the industry to be in."

London, she says, was a heady place for a young woman.

She dated a young politician who was later knighted, and lived in a bedsitter with a German journalist covering the Profumo affair - the scandal that ruined the political career of then Minister of War John Profumo, who had a fling with 19-year-old callgirl Christine Keeler.

"Those were the days of Mary Quant," she says, referring to the Welsh designer associated with the London youth movement of the 1960s and credited with introducing hot pants and mini skirts. "There were underground jazz clubs and you heard a lot of noise about The Beatles."

She returned to Singapore when she was 21 and found a job in the TV department of Grant Advertising, an American firm which counted Singer, Colgate Palmolive, Cold Storage and Esso among its clients.

She worked closely with English filmmaker Jack Bygrave, shooting commercials in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

"I did everything, I was chief cook and bottle washer," she quips.

The couple got married and she stopped working when he accepted a job offer from another ad firm, Pearl & Dean, in Bangkok where they lived for more than four years.

"The children came. My friend told me, 'For god's sake, why are you so productive?'," she recalls with a grin. Her children are now in their 40s.

In 1975, they moved to Britain and settled in Lymington.

That led to her shop Coppelia, selling shoes and accessories.

Although she had no experience in retail, she got hold of all the contacts she needed to stock her shop.

"I remember going to London to order from the Bally Swiss shop. They'd look at me. 'Who is this little upstart of a Chinese girl coming in to place orders?' And I'd always be the last to be served.

"But after a couple of seasons, I noticed I always got to place my orders first. I asked the manager, who told me, 'I noticed that everything you've selected are great sellers'. I guess I knew, from a woman's point of view, what worked and what didn't. I picked things that were red-hot."

The business did so well that she opened another shop in Romsey, a market town in Hampshire. Editors from magazines such as Harper's Bazaar and Queen would turn up and ask to see the proprietor.

"After a couple of seasons, I went to the source in Italy directly. My shoes came from the same factory that Manolo Blahnik orders his from," she says referring to the famous Spanish shoe designer. "I found myself sitting next to him. He was just starting to get famous targeting the society ladies of London. I had my own little target audience in Lymington."

While walking her dogs one day, she received a call from her old friend Balbina Wong, a former cosmetics salesgirl from Singapore who rose to become chief executive of Imaginex, a Hong Kong conglomerate that does distribution and brand management for luxury businesses. Ms Wong - then GM of Walton Brown, a subsidiary of Lane Crawford - cajoled her to go to Hong Kong to become the sales and marketing manager for cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden.

It seemed foolish to give up her two profitable shops and lovely white country cottage, but Mrs Bygrave took up the challenge and headed East in 1984.

The two women rolled up their sleeves and set out to open the first Elizabeth Arden Red Door salon and spa in a hotel in Xiamen, Guangzhou. They were also steering luxury brands like Gucci, Prada and Yves St Laurent into China.

China, in those days, was just beginning to open up.

"People thought we were mad. Some of the girls we hired came to work riding their bicycles from the fields. We had to groom them and give them haircuts, but they learnt very quickly," she says. A few years later, Ms Wong pitched for and successfully landed the deal to run the Salvatore Ferra- gamo franchise in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.

"I was touted as the shoe expert," Mrs Bygrave recalls with a laugh.

Over the next couple of years, the duo opened a clutch of Ferragamo stores in the three territories. Mrs Bygrave was responsible for coming up with many of the brand's training manuals. Their abilities so impressed the Ferragamos that they embraced them into their fold. In 1990, Ms Wong was sent to North America to run the company's flagship stores throughout the country.

Mrs Bygrave was chosen to be the brand's retail director in Europe and given a house and car. "It was a big job. They then had nine shops in Italy, one in Zurich, one in London and they were looking to expand to Paris," recalls Mrs Bygrave, whose husband often commuted from London to Florence to be with her.

Two years later, she returned to Hong Kong as general manager of Imaginex, helping to oversee Ferragamo's expansion in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

She returned to Singapore to be general manager for Lane Crawford, the Hong Kong department store which became the anchor tenant in Wheelock Place in 1995. The business was then battling sluggish economic conditions. A year later, she quit. The store closed down about eight months later in 1996.

Although she had several other offers, she decided to do something different. "I wanted to get away from money and do something creative," she says.

So she pitched the idea of a TV series on the fashion industry to the then Television Corporation of Singapore, now Mediacorp. Fashion Unlimited - which she executive produced - ran for one year on prime-time television and was hosted by former model Junita Simon.

She says: "It was a real come- down in salary. I remember the HR lady telling me, 'Something's not right. Last year, you were paying more tax as GM at Lane Crawford than your full salary here.'" Ms Wong persuaded her to return to Hong Kong in 1997 and she was managing director for Imaginex from then until 2002.

She returned to Florence, this time as Ferragamo's global communications consultant working on international campaigns, until 2004.

As her mother was getting on, she and her husband finally returned to Singapore in 2005.

She kept active by being a fashion and lifestyle consultant to firms keen on taking luxury brands to places like Vietnam. Tanglin Secondary School got her to write the syllabus and conduct a course on social graces for its students.

Li & Fung - which has the Ferragamo franchise in South-east Asia - lured her out of retirement in 2009 as its retail director. Over the next three years, she helped to set up Ferragamo stores in Marina Bay Sands and Paragon.

The grandmother of five is still very much on the go. Besides running her fashion consultancy, she manages Private Collectibles, a little boutique in Tanglin Mall, opened by her friend Ms Wong.

The merchandise - antiques, jewellery and silverware - comes mostly from the private collections of Ms Wong who has decided to trim down her estate. The sales proceeds go to charity, mostly different homes for the elderly.

"We have already given away $40,000, and will be giving away another sum next month," says Mrs Bygrave whose husband died three years ago.

She has had, she admits, quite a life.

Tucking into vanilla ice cream and poached plums, she quips: "Who would have thought a little shoe shop would one day lead me to lunch with the Ferragamos in their chateau?"

kimhoh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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