You wouldn't notice brothers Keng How and Kage Chong in a crowd. The gents are well-dressed — seated in our pop-up store to discuss an exclusive T-shirt design for Buro 24/7 Singapore, they're handsomely attired in tailored oxfords and broken-in dark denim jeans — but due to their unassuming demeanor, preferring to hang back and observe rather than wax lyrical about design inspirations or elbow-in their opinion on the importance of social media, they're a rare breed in today's ostensibly gregarious and digitally savvy brood of fashion designers.
"We just focus on the clothes," says Keng How, the older of the two brothers when I point out their laid-back nature. "The craftsmanship speaks for itself." And, to their credit, this has been the brand's competitive advantage from the start.
With a focus on quality fabrication — from yarn-dyed Nishijin-Ori textiles to raw Selvedge denim — each Biro garment is made in Japan to exacting standards. The result? Smart menswear (that transcends trends) for the discerning consumer.
As we welcome Biro Company to the Buro pop-up store (say that 10 times fast), we chat to the boys about the genesis of their brand, their latest collection, and being invited to the Liberty Fashion Fair in New York, which takes place later this month.
Norman Tan: Why the name 'Biro'?
Keng How: [laughs] That's a really long story actually.
Kage: Just make it the short version.
Keng How: We used to have an online street brand called 'Fanatic'...
Kage: That's the long version.
Keng How: [laughs] Because I think the long version is more appealing. Anyway, back then, we had the name 'Fabrication' in mind, but felt that it sounded too mechanical and engineered. So, just for fun, we played with an anagram of the word 'fabrication' and came up with 'Fanatic Biro'. And then we started using 'Fanatic' as a brand name for almost a year for the graphic tees we were designing. But after a while, we felt that the whole street tee thing was overdone and wanted to go in a new direction. So we went back to the original anagram and used the word 'Biro', which is an old school term for ballpoint pens. We felt that it really suits our philosophy and everything that we do — for every idea to materialise, it comes from pen and paper, which is then manufactured using very exclusive tools by Japanese artisans, resulting in the brand Biro.
You're right Kage, that is a long story. But it also highlights the USP of your brand — that it all starts with research and development in fabrications before thinking about design. You guys start from the supply side first.
Kage: We wanted to focus on quality menswear. On cut-and-sew garments. On a full range of menswear that was largely trans-seasonal. So it all starts with finding a fabric that we like, before deciding what to craft from that denim or yarn-dyed cloth.
Do you sketch on paper, or you do it digitally, straight away?
Kage: We do rough sketches on paper first. It might just be an outline of the general shape, and notes on why this item should be in the collection.
Was it hard to find quality production partners? I know a lot of local designers can't secure the top factories because they can't do a big production run due to the small population size of Singapore.
Kage: It was difficult, but when I was visiting those factories, I was mainly just trying to understand how they worked. To educate myself about the process. But in Japan it was a bit different. They didn't reject you if you weren't going to order a 10,000 production run. It was more relational. Going out to lunch with these mill owners and gaining their trust.
Do you both speak Japanese?
Keng How: Kage does a little bit.
Kage: So it's more of like, "Do you like me?" thing. And then we'd go to the factory afterwards and talk terms. Most of the mills we work with are small batch mills anyway, so that worked in our favour.
WE WANT TO STUDY THE BLUEPRINT OF A GARMENT — WHAT DO WE RESPECT, WHAT DO WE CHANGE — BEFORE WE ACTUALLY MANUFACTURE IT.
I know you guys don't do seasonal collections, but rather drop a handful of pieces every few months?
Keng How: Yes. We're aiming to introduce about 10 new pieces every three months.
How do you decide on the 10 new items? Is it a collection of bottoms, tops and jackets?
Kage: It depends. We are only trying to do something that we are good at. For the current collection stocked at the Buro pop-up store, we called it 'Transcendence' because it's the first collection with outerwear. It is pushing ahead of what we have been doing. There is an olive green gabardine trench coat that we are calling the 'Supreme Coat', and a Selvedge denim trucker jacket called the 'Hey Day Denim Jacket'. We're also thinking about doing sports jackets next.
So that's coming up in the next drop?
Kage: Not in the next drop; maybe in about two years or so. We want to study the blueprint of a garment — what do we respect, what do we change — before we actually manufacture it. We can't just do like, a hat or a shoe without first really understanding what we want to do.
Yup. So nail it, and do it really well, before moving on. Which is why you started with T-shirts and jeans first?
Kage: Yeah. T-shirts, jeans, shirts.
Keng How: And we had it really simple because we wanted show the craftsmanship and the workmanship behind each product.
Biro is two years old. What has been your best-seller to date?
Keng How: The Nishijin-Ori T-shirt. That one sold out. For the third collection that we are now stocking at the pop-up store, we reproduced it in a different colourway. It's also selling fast at our other outlets. So maybe that will be one of the main items that we will keep reproducing.
Why do you think it's been a best-seller? Is it because of the fabric?
Kage: I think so. It's softer, and it's yarn-dyed before being woven into a fabric. So you can actually see the irregularity of the colour in the T-shirt. It has more of a natural look. And that fabric finisher is one of the best in the whole of Japan. Everyone is talking about his finishing.
Keng How: Nishijin-Ori is actually a part of Kyoto.
Kage: And they're famous for kimono dye.
Keng How: So the method is the same as kimono dyeing, and the colour fastness is amazing.
Tell me about the cotton Oxford shirt you're wearing.
Keng How: It's a Selvedge Oxford. These are all loomed on old Japanese machines, so the production line is much more expensive. But the fabric has a character, it's not flat due to natural irregularities.
And your jeans are Selvedge denim?
Kage: All the denim we use is Selvedge. And this particular pair is by Nihon Menpu, which literally translates to 'Japanese fabric'; that is the company's name. They're a family-owned denim maker that's committed to always improving their fabric. You can see that the denim is not entirely blue, it's blue and white...
There's flecks of white and grey?
Kage: Yes. That's what makes their fabric stand out, and that's what makes the whole look different. Our new Hey Day Denim Jacket is made from this fabric. But instead of vintage silver buttons, which would be expected, we decided to use black hardware to modernise the look.
It needs to have a twist. For those who are unfamiliar with Selvedge denim, how would you explain it in layman's terms?
Keng How: Selvedge denim is made from old traditional looms that create denim with a 'self-edge'. That is, the fabric has a woven strip at the edge of the roll to prevent it from unraveling. So a jacket or pair of jeans made from Selvedge denim is stronger.
When you design or create something from the fabric, who do you have in mind? Who is the Biro gentleman?
Kage: I think that, most of the time, we design for ourselves.
What about common sources of inspiration?
Kage: We're influenced by everything we read, because we have a lot of magazines —Japanese magazines, architecture magazines.
Keng How: Sometimes I'm influenced by just people watching. Or somebody getting out of a vintage car, that whole image.
How did you come up with the Biro x Buro 24/7 T-shirt?
Keng How: As you know, it was a very comfortable collaboration between our two brands. Not too skewed towards Buro, and not too skewed towards Biro.
Kage: It is a grey marle top with a ribbed crew neck collar with the letters '247' printed on the chest pocket — for people always on-the-go. And it has a longer curved hem at the back.
It's a versatile and unisex top that's great by itself or layered.
Keng How: And because it's cotton jersey, it's perfect for Singapore's weather.
Lastly, tell me about being invited to show at the Liberty Fair in New York.
Keng How: We're honoured to have been invited. It's one of the biggest menswear trade shows in the world. It takes place between 26 to 28 Jan in New York and we'll be showing our latest collection alongside other established brands like Schott NYC, New Balance and Miansai.
BIRO COMPANY AT THE BURO POP-UP STORE
The latest collection by Biro Company is now available at the Buro pop-up store from now until Sunday 17 January 2016.
Meet the designers: Swing by the pop-up store on Tuesday 12 January at 6.30pm to meet Keng How and Kage Chong, enjoy drinks and canapés, and take advantage of exclusive promotions for one-night only.
The Buro pop-up store is located at 6 Scotts Road, Scotts Square #01-06/07.
Open daily from 10am to 10pm till 31 March 2016 (Tel: 6443 4771).