Women that rock

SINGAPORE - As much as the homegrown style industry bemoans a lack of support for local labels, one sector of the market is shining brighter than any other - fashion jewellery. Often made by women for women, baubles that are proudly designed and created in Singapore are embraced by even the snootiest of stylemeisters.

"The majority of my customers used to be from overseas, but over the past year or two the market here has become more supportive of local independent labels," says US-born, Singapore-based designer Mandy Wu, who creates hard-edged, urban designs for her eponymous brand.

"I believe it is in good part due to the exposure and support my label has received from the local media in recent years. It also helped greatly that many of our customers have become evangelists for the label, sharing it with their friends and on social media platforms."

In the last four years, at least 20 new brands by female designers have emerged here, many of which are highly recognisable due to their in-your-face, sometimes rocker chic aesthetics.

Trixie Khong, a self-taught jewellery maker, has seen her brand By Invite Only expand from a jewellery-making hobby during her days as a chemistry student at Temasek Polytechnic to a full-fledged business, working with other craftsmen to supply enough designs for her 17 online and brick-and-mortar stockists around the world. Her designs often feature gobstopper-sized crystals or stones in their organic state.

"I think women are starting to be more open and have more courage in dressing up and looking good at work or play," says Ms Khong. "It is also more than just a commodity now, fashion jewellery reflects one's lifestyle and, in certain ways, the larger community, especially for brands that have established a strong network on social media."

Indeed, the prevalence of social media style sites has ignited a more style-conscious generation of Singaporeans. Another jewellery designer, Elaine Tan, observes that personal style addicts are more likely to seek out unique buys that have not been on heavy rotation on their Instagram feed or blog. While the brainchild behind homegrown brand Amado Gudek believes local shoppers are as likely to buy clothing from a homegrown brand as they would jewellery, she explains that fashion designers compete with chain clothing retailers while jewellery makers enjoy more niche demand.

"People don't want to be caught wearing the same clothes all the time in photos posted online, so their purchase cycle for clothing is much faster, and hence their budget per piece is lower," says the designer. "Which may also mean that they turn to fast fashion labels like H&M and Zara. With jewellery, it is slightly different as most of the local jewellers are in the fine artisan jewellery segment and not competing in the same segment as fast fashion accessories."

The #OOTD (outfit of the day) phenomenon has also spawned in many a selfie-obsessed fashionista a more adventurous sense of style that is likelier to go viral, which in turn supports the creators of bold baubles. Amado Gudek pieces, for example, are chunky mini-sculptures, such as 3D-printed stainless steel rings cast in a clear, environmentally friendly bioresin.

"I think that the jewellery market has evolved tremendously over the last few decades as a result of women buying jewellery for themselves," says Carolyn Kan, the designer behind jewellery brand Carrie K. "Many women now seek out alternatives to traditional jewellery designs and that has worked to our strengths because we create playfully provocative, artisan-crafted jewellery that challenges traditional notions of what makes something precious and desired."

On a practical level, starting a jewellery business could also be less of a challenge than unveiling a clothing label.

"From logistics like storage space, shipping of products and import/export, jewellery stocks take up significantly less space and are easier than clothing," says Ms Khong. "It also requires less capital to start. I guess, in a way, the barrier of entry is very low and with social media and having platforms like Shopify, we don't even need to spend thousands of dollars to start displaying products for sale."

The designer adds that the price of jewellery on average is also significantly less than a dress from a local designer brand. Besides, it is a great gifting option, with almost 30 per cent of By Invite Only sales stemming from gift purchases, especially during the Christmas shopping period.

However, senior lecturer from the Department of 3D Design at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), Desmond John Chin, believes it's harder to make it in the ornaments business than it appears.

"It is a very small and competitive market in Singapore and the jewellery brands have to expand beyond the local market through online retail and participating in overseas fairs," says Mr Chin, who also notes that sourcing for gems and experienced craftsmen are other challenges faced by independent designers. "It will not be an easy journey as they have to push themselves to come up with unique designs with their signature flair, as well as managing the business."

Nafa runs a full-time diploma course as well as part-time certificate course in jewellery design.

For example, to satisfy demand, Ms Kan, who attended NAFA's part-time course, has been scaling the business by building a team and an atelier to craft her collections for Carrie K. The brand is also available in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, US, Italy and Australia. She now hires eight staff and has launched her first fine jewellery collection, which bears the brand's tongue-in-cheek ethos - think safety pin rings paved with diamonds, black diamonds or sapphires.

The growing interest in homegrown makers has led Ms Kan to organise an annual showcase of artisans called Keepers. Earlier this year, she rounded up fellow entrepreneurs like the folks behind Panama hat retailer Hat of Cain and personalised stationery letterpress The Gentleman's Press, and will be hosting the 12th edition of the event on Aug 30.

"I believe that there is a small but growing number of people who are looking for alternatives to cookie-cutter designs and value quality over quantity," adds Ms Kan, who is currently working with the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFf), with the support of Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Spring Singapore, to run a Keepers: Singapore Designers Collective pop-up on Orchard Road next year.

This article was first published on August 9, 2014.
Get The Business Times for more stories.