Let's cut to the chase: Make an appointment to visit brand-spanking new Singapore label, Inventory, now. I have a thing for menswear tailoring. And I love a good local label. So when these two worlds collide, my interest is automatically piqued. But bolster this with savvy design details — think: traditional Gurkha-style waistbands on trousers, and modern rock aesthetics by way of zips and dull-nickel hardware — then I'm all ears.
Located on the second-floor of 21 Club Street — a walk-up that's only accessible through a private courtyard fed by hidden laneways — this hard-to-find atelier (but aren't the best always a little off the grid?) offers made-to-measure and bespoke garments for both men and women; though the later is largely built off their menswear heritage and design ethos. Founded by sisters Olivia (the left-brain creative) and Amanda Lin (the right-brain number cruncher and brand manager), I chat to the duo about the genesis of their label, their dreams of success, and the logic of doing bespoke for Millennials.
Firstly, what was the inspiration behind Inventory — why did you launch the label?
Olivia Lin: Actually we've been thinking about it since we were 15, to be honest. So like 13 years ago.
Amanda Lin: We're young, but we're no longer getting younger. I didn't want to look back when I'm older and think, "Oh shit, I didn't get to do what I wanted to do."
Olivia, you're the lead creative behind this brand. And you have a background in menswear tailoring, working under Singapore tailors that were trained on Savile Row. How has this impacted on the merchandise available at Inventory?
Olivia Lin: I understudied with three tailors and learnt how to make shirts, trousers and jackets. So it's very important for me to carry on the traditions of bespoke tailoring, because it's a dying art. Like, nobody knows how to cut these things anymore. And then I also want to take it further because most people don't know how to make, let's say, a denim jacket. But if you study the origins of shirt-making, you're able to figure out how to make these items, based on a shirt pattern. So with me, I just want to push it — towards a more interesting and exciting direction. I don't want to do the same suits, pants, and shirts.
Where do you source your materials from?
Olivia Lin: Japan and Italy, mainly. Sometimes from the UK but those are mainly for suits. And we try and go for more lightweight and breathable fabrics because it's so hot in Singapore! We don't carry things like flannel, because it absolutely doesn't work here.
A lot of Singaporean designers have come and gone. What is your plan to make sure that your business is sustainable?
Olivia Lin: I would say that the most important thing is to keep your overheads low. And one of the reasons why we did made-to-measure and bespoke is to avoid having dead stock. So with that, we decided we didn't want to offer ready-to-wear. Whether it's in Singapore, Paris or London, most people are adopting a ready-to-wear approach when they start up their label.
Right, you have to do a lot of pieces, a lot of options. And they don't sell out always.
Olivia Lin: Yes, exactly. Or like, you know, with a very traditional setup, it's that you create maybe 50 pieces, you put them on a runway, but the buyers only actually pick maybe — let's just say it's a really really good day — 25 pieces. That's like another 25 going to waste. So that wastage is definitely something we want to avoid. It's better for the environment, and better for the bottom line as well.
IF I GET TO DRESS THE HORRORS OR THE KILLS, THAT WOULD BE THE ULTIMATE GOALSo you're taking more of the slower approach. Is it safe to say you don't have many external investors?
Olivia Lin: We're huge fans of Comme des Garçons, and Rei Kawakubo actually once said that you need to be financially stable, and you need to know that your money is going the right places, and you have to be very financially independent. So that also means that you don't get too many investors on board, because they actually curtail your creativity. They tell you what to do, and at the end of the day you, don't get to do what you want to do. So we don't want to get investors on board because we feel that if they don't have the same vision, things are going to go awry.
Amanda looks after the branding, marketing and business side of Inventory. It's good that, as sisters, you have one that is the creative, and another that is the business focused. A lot of designers fail because they lack commercial acumen.
Olivia Lin: Exactly. So we always do a review, like maybe every fortnight? We try and look at the sales figures regularly. So we're able to, you know, know exactly what to do next. I think in today's world, you have to be savvy, and honestly as a creative, I cannot be expected to do all the sums, all the time. I can't do everything myself.
Let's talk about your clothes. So you offer apparel for both men and women. And, for your debut offering, you have five or six foundational pieces for each sex. What is the thinking behind this?
Olivia Lin: For menswear and womenswear, we created garments that we find our friends and ourselves packing whenever we go on holiday. These are the items that are relevant for all occasions — whether it's a gig, or a proper meeting, in any country in the world. Whether it's Paris or Copenhagen, you need a denim jacket and you need a blazer. You need a great white shirt tucked into really good trousers. A pair of jeans for casual days.
So they're kind of staples, but separates that you can mix-and-match, effortlessly. And your colour palette is quite muted - blacks, whites, blues, and greys.
Amanda Lin: We actually did a bit of market research, and talked to loads and loads of people — whether it's retailers or wholesale buyers — and found that men love their blues, blacks, as well as olive green. So these are the items we have. And even women tend to gravitate to these base colours.
Why the name Inventory?
Olivia Lin: We want to create an inventory of items that we think you want to wear forever.
Amanda Lin: Things that you keep because they're so good, and that you might even pass down to future generations. So yeah, an inventory of everyday staples.
It makes sense to start with staples, but what about subsequent seasons when your customers want more options? Also, what happens when someone comes in and requests for something outrageous like pink polka dots and zebra stripes?
Olivia Lin: There comes a point where you say no, but as much as possible you steer them away from colours and designs that don't match your brand. Inventory is for people looking for longevity. So in 50 years time, pink polka dots stripes and zebra stripes aren't going to cut it.
I only raise it because your pieces remind me of another local label, Biro Company. And you know, they started offering garments very similar to yours, but recently, they're pushing their boundaries to offer something different and new. Their USP is different to yours: Everything they do is made in Japan, and they start their design process by looking at the fabric first, before deciding on what to create. But people are starting to ask: "What's next?"
Olivia Lin: For sure. In subsequent seasons, we will probably look at adding different details as well as trying different fabrics. Not in the Biro style, but for example, offering historical details such as Gurkha-style closures on our denim jeans. So we're actually looking back to see what is needed in the future, and then find a way to re-appropriate it to make it relevant. In our current offering, we also have a lot of zips...
For that punk and rock edge.
Olivia Lin: Yep, so we're looking at playing with little details and embellishments.
I think less is more. I feel with menswear, you really don't need to do that much. You could just change the buttons, and that is enough, you know what I mean?
Olivia Lin: Yes, totally.
Amanda Lin: My sister is a bit more adventurous when it comes to design. But I'm the one who is a bit simpler in that sense, so I tend to rein her in. Yeah, like maybe this is too loud or too much for a shirt. Our partnership is one of balance.
You're label is brand-spanking new. It literally just started over a month ago on 26 July. In your mind, when will you be successful? It is a quantitative sales goal or something more qualitative, like when someone you admire wears your product?
Olivia Lin: Well, if we were able to dress The Horrors that would be great. We're very big on music. We are actually dressing local band Tomgirl for their gigs.
What's their music like?
Olivia Lin: They call it noir rock, so it's really dark. I'm also a huge fan of The Kills. So if I get to dress The Horrors or The Kills, that would be the ultimate goal. Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart are some of my biggest influences.
Amanda Lin: So we bring a bit of rock-and-roll into our collections. And you know, when you think of bespoke, you think of something intimidating, stuffy and inaccessible. So we want to change that.
What is the price range of your products?
Amanda Lin: It starts at $220 for a shirt, all the way up to about $400 for a jacket.
I'm a fan of your collarless bomber. How much does that retail for?
Amanda Lin: The collarless bomber is about $280 to $300 depending on the fabric chosen.
For both men's and women's?
Amanda Lin: Yeah actually, during our campaign shoot for our launch collection, we wanted to give people the idea that menswear is not strictly just for guys. Women can wear that bomber too.
True, everything is super androgynous now. Tell me about the fitting process at Inventory. If I come in to get a shirt, how long would that take and how many fittings?
Olivia Lin: On the first fitting, you will take two hours for a consultation, where you will be measured up and taken through the fabrics. There is usually one more fitting to make minor adjustments, but on average, you will wait approximately three weeks for the shirt after the first fitting.
What about a blazer?
Olivia Lin: That will probably take six to eight weeks. From beginning to end.
For a music-loving Millennial, which is your target market, that is a long time. Are you looking at ways to shorten that process?
Olivia Lin: Actually I do everything in-house, so if someone wants something really fast, I can cut and fit in a matter of a week. And I can have it made in another week. So we can have it ready in two weeks. But it doesn't get better than that because everything is hand-sewn. So they've got to understand that it takes time. We want to make it simple and fast for them without compromising on quality.
How much does digital play a role? Can people order garments online and get that sent to them after their first consultation?
Amanda Lin: We don't have an interactive interface at the moment. But after their initial consultation, customers can simply email us if they want another shirt, and we can process that for them.
Olivia Lin: Every single pattern I cut is archived, and if a person wants to reorder, all I have to do is recut it in the new fabric that they've selected. But, you know, people enjoy the experience of coming down and trying things on. It's very encouraging that our initial customers absolutely love that process.
Amanda Lin: That's the beauty of bespoke, I guess.
Olivia Lin: Maybe it's got something to do with the slow living movement? It's coming back, people appreciate that you take the time to make things of quality. So they're willing to wait and, maybe you know, the quick digital thing, they understand that it doesn't apply to bespoke tailoring.
Inventory is located at 21 Club Street, #02-11 (phone number +65 9697 2663).
The store is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11am to 7pm. Appointments are recommended.
Check back every Monday for another @MusingMutley column from Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Buro 24/7 Singapore. For more columns from @MusingMutley, click here.
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