IF THE numerous photos posted on social media are anything to go by, Singaporeans love weekend markets. At the recent Express Art Market organised by The Local People, over 35,000 people turned up at the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station for an afternoon of browsing through quirky finds from various vendors, while enjoying an outdoor concert or two.
The proliferation of markets is such that there is one nearly every weekend. And they are more Haji Lane than Sungei Road - gone are the second-hand clothes or dusty gadgets, with artisans and local craftsmen taking their place. In keeping with Sunday brunches at the latest hip eatery, visitors expect a carnival mix of fringe events ranging from DJ sets to gourmet food trucks.
The first to focus exclusively on indie artists and designers was MAAD by the Red Dot Design Museum, started in 2006. MAAD's organiser Elvin Seah reports that they have since grown from 30 to 100 vendors, with monthly markets.
"Shoppers are paying more attention to different avenues, seeking products and services which are better customised to their needs," says Mr Seah, who adds that flea markets are no longer associated with second hand items but better quality artisanal products.
These local and regional cult brands began making regular appearances at other weekend markets such as Public Garden, which started in 2011. More organisers then jumped on the bandwagon, such as Naiise from 2013, and The Local People from 2014.
The latter two in fact started life as online stores, but both saw the demand for offline retail concepts. Cheryl Yong, public relations and buying manager for Naiise, explains: "Consumers want to engage with designs and interact with products in person to understand them better. The temporary concept of a pop-up store also adds novelty."
But with increasing competition, flea markets are fighting to stand out by curating their vendors and keeping things fresh. The Local People aims for 80 per cent new labels at each market, says co-founder Lu Yawen. "We give priority to new and local brands, especially those by art students, because we want to encourage the next generation of artists."
Keeping up with trends is important too, says The Retro Factory's Gary Tan: "There's been a real resurgence of vinyl records among audiophiles recently, and at our first fair, we had a booth that sold vinyls and it made more than S$3,000." That's 10 times the sales of the least popular booth, he reveals.
While many organisers are focusing on homegrown brands, Megafash invites regional ones as well, so customers aren't faced with the same few local vendors. Their catalogue comprises 300 brands with half from Singapore. Local artisans may "understand the taste and preferences of Singaporeans better", says co-founder Ngeow Jiawen, but "it's exciting to be able to shop for products that are otherwise only available at say, Chatuchak".
Other factors such as "the music, the decor, the vibe, all play a part in helping to draw regular crowds", she adds. This explains why Megafash chose Lepark for their Big N Breezy bazaar last year. Lepark is a tapas bar and events space located on the rooftop carpark of People's Park Complex.
Lepark's gritty underground appeal is not the only draw for market organisers. Co-founder Carmen Low explains that her other arts curation company, Getai Group, amps up events with electronic or live music, art jam sessions, live painting, or art installations. "We try to work with different spectrums of the local and regional creative industries, so our projects are always multi-dimensional," says Ms Low.
But building an experience isn't down to organisers alone; the onus is also on vendors to refresh their inventory every now and then - something that is naturally happening as the scene develops.
"I often see many makers here unable to commit full-time to perfecting their products or the customer experience, but this is changing as the younger generation is slightly less averse to risk," observes Ms Low. Take Faridah Yusuf for instance. The 31-year-old founder of Freda D Parfum, who has been a regular vendor at MAAD for a year and a half, is a strong believer of constantly updating her collection. She grew from six to 12 fragrances after just two years of operations, and has since added products such as massage candles and body lotions. "All these products weren't in the plan, but you can't be monotonous; you grow with the consumers according to what they want," says Ms Faridah.
Some new entrants also see the value in face-to-face interactions for product development. That was Fung Kwok Pan's intention when his two-month-old business, Artless Goods, took part in its first market with Megafash earlier this year. "It is an avenue to experiment and get direct feedback from our customers. From there, we can adjust prices, streamline production processes and decide which products are worth the effort to streamline in the first place," he says.
Given the anaemic retail sector due to high overheads and labour crunch, flea markets might be the way to go for emerging brands. New venues are also jumping on board this trend, some of whom are sympathetic to local makers and their struggles.
For instance, co-working space The Pavilion @ Far East Square has dedicated a 5,700 square foot space for pop-up events. Launched since January, they intend to host at least four flea markets a year, and offer 25 per cent discounts on rentals (up to S$3,800 for a full day) to events which support the creative industries or which are socially meaningful.
The space is managed by non-profit arts firm The Rice Company Limited, and promoting flea or art markets gels with their vision, says director of centre management Lynne Kok.
The non-profit outfit also promotes local works internationally through platforms such as Spotlight Singapore and Asia On The Edge, and plans to bring pop-ups overseas.
Live music venues such as 555 Villa Thai in Changi are also joining in. The beer garden boasts a 37,000 sq ft space suitable for weekend markets and workshops. "We intend to provide the space to local creatives at a very low cost, and in turn, vendors can provide our customers with diverse content," says co-founder Joseph Zhang. He hopes that flea markets will appeal to families that tend to visit the Changi area for its tranquillity and proximity to the beach.
Some flea markets have become so popular that they are moving into semi-permanent spaces. For instance, Togetherly, in collaboration with Workshop Element (W.E.), will be taking over a 12,000 sq ft space at Isetan, Wisma Atria from April 20 to June 30.
It may seem counterintuitive that flea markets - first touted as edgy, alternative retail experiences - are now returning to the mainstream shopping mall. However, Togetherly's Wendy Ng cites accessibility of location and exposure to the masses as key advantages. She adds: "Markets are also restrictive in terms of setup space; now, our vendors and labels get to showcase their wares in a boutique setting."
Flea markets can also draw foot traffic to more remote locations. Come mid-May, Edible Garden City hopes to add some buzz to Hort Park. The urban farming collective's 8,600 sq ft space will host up to 30 micro-enterprises related to food and gardening.
"These booths are between a pop-up market stall and a brick-and-mortar shop," says co-founder Rob Pearce. "We want to take away a bit of that burden from people who are trying to start interesting small businesses, so they don't have to deal with the logistics, and we can provide the manpower to sell the products."
He adds: "You get some really great collaborations in pop-ups because it's usually cheaper or rent-free, so you haven't got the usual commercial pressures. We want to capture that spirit of a pop-up market."
Edible Garden City at Hort Park
LOVE the energy of pop-up markets, but don't particularly enjoy the inconvenience of constantly setting up and tearing down booths? You're not alone. Rob Pearce of the local urban farmers collective Edible Garden City is tired of it too.
He has organised a couple of pop-up markets over the last two years (such as Nong at People's Park Complex, and The Growell Pop Up at Rowell Road), and while he enjoys the collaborative energy that comes from such temporary set-ups, the logistics can be a nightmare.
That's why Edible Garden City is setting up a new 8,600 sq ft space at Hort Park, which can host up to 30 different vendors under a sheltered structure. These vendors are likely to be people who want a more permanent space than a pop-up market, but can't afford to sign a two-year lease, says Mr Pearce. The space will soft-launch on May 15, with a few workshops and at least 10 vendors to begin with.
"We're excited about the ideas and collaborations that will spark from having these vendors in one place. We want to be a kind of community hub for the gardening industry, where people can share knowledge and best practices, to grow the whole Singapore industry," he says.
Naturally, the main focus will be food and gardening businesses, and some of the people who have already signed up include Aerospring Gardens - a local company selling vertical garden structures, a cold-brew coffee business, and a honey-making social enterprise from Rwanda.
"We're looking for vendors who are ideally local, doing organic products, or are social enterprises. But equally we don't want to be too strict and restrict people's creativity, so if we see potential, we're open to supporting them," says Mr Pearce.
Eventually, the idea is to not only run one-off workshops, but also do in-depth courses under an arm called Open Farm School, as well as set up their own cafe selling simple fare such as coffee, cakes, and sandwiches, hopefully using produce from their own gardens.
Says Mr Pearce: "Edible Gardens also started in Hort Park, when the previous occupant introduced (my co-founder Bjorn Low) and me. A few years later, here we are, ready to take over the whole space. Small connections like that can grow into something so much bigger with some support, and we want to be able to return the favour."
WHEN Gary Tan started his Facebook group Retro Factory late last year, he didn't expect to have more than 300 members in just a few months.
He says: "In places like the USA and Europe, people have a real appreciation for all things vintage. Unfortunately, in Singapore young people don't really understand the importance of preserving old things. There's a lack of a foundation there."
The 47-year-old's passion for vintage items was inspired by his father. "My father worked for the Eastman Kodak company for about 25 years, so he had all these vintage cameras. When I was six years old, I remember he started taking me for rides along what's now the East Coast Parkway in his Triumph Spitfire or Sunbeam Alpine classic cars, and we'd just watch the fishermen for hours," he says.
His own collection grew when he moved to Melbourne for his studies in 1990, and he found himself collecting old record players, neckties, and even bought and sold over 50 classic cars during the six years he spent in Australia.
Mr Tan says: "But when I returned to Singapore, the challenge was finding the space to store and display my collection, and I realised I couldn't be the only one with that problem."
When he saw the level of interest among other vintage collectors in his group, he decided they needed a place to display and sell their treasures. They held their first flea market on Jan 31 this year, which saw over 1,000 attendees and 22 vendors. The least-successful stall saw a profit of S$250 while the stall that sold vinyl records made around S$3,000 "because there's been a resurgence in vinyl lately".
The focus of the market isn't just on the pieces for sale, of which vinyl records, gramophones, vintage cameras, and old typewriters are but a few - ranging in price from S$3 for a record to S$800 for a 100-year-old typewriter - but also features swing dancers, jazz music, and gourmet food.
The second market was held at the end of March this year, and saw about 300 attendees as it was held in a boutique location. Mr Tan hopes to hold these markets monthly, or at least, every two months.
He explains: "I've never wanted to just hang around at flea markets in Singapore. It's more that I walk through them and then leave. That's why I wanted to create a market with an authentic atmosphere, so people stay and enjoy a drink or two because they're enjoying themselves. Not just because they want to buy something cheap."
This article was first published on April 2, 2016.
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