Soft Power: Who were Singapore's top influencers in 2015?

Soft Power: Who were Singapore's top influencers in 2015?

Not just a numbers game

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Getty Images

Forget Instagram following. In a time when the number of followers and likes seemingly equate to influence, we sniff out five individuals who've steered the wheels that have rocked 2015 without a need to fit into a square

This story is nothing new. You see it in the final issues in web and print publishing each year: A list of the most influential people of the year. Time has near-perfected this in their Time 100, a list that's religiously referred to and included in bios. Across the categories they call Titans, Pioneers, Leaders, Artists and Icons, their recent list includes the likes of love-'em-or-hate-'em couple Kanye and Kim Kardashian West, girl squad collector Taylor Swift, and designers Alexander Wang and Diane Von Furstenberg.

Listicles as such can both unify and divide, and are prone to praise or backlash. After Glamour magazine's Women of the Year awards crowned Caitlyn Jenner as one of their honorees in November last year, the husband of a policewoman who died a hero in 9/11 returned his wife's posthumous award to rid her of the association. Glamour has since stood by their decision, commenting that the awards "recognize women with a variety of backgrounds and experiences."

So what makes a person truly influential? Our hearts tell us one thing, but the modern world tells us another. After all, isn't it the time of the digital influencer — or is it? On social media, a person can post a flat lay of items he or she's been nudged to use by the brands who've sent them, and be "blessed" (as some would call it) with thousands of likes. Comments follow suit: "#goals", "YASSS", "want" — all citing desire to be the person, or be the person in possession of said flat lay items. It's a lot of pressure on that influencer, to the point where some have publicly declared their intentions to leave their throne (here's looking at you, Kylie Jenner).

At Buro 24/7 Singapore, we'd like to think we're a bit old school. Sure, we're susceptible to the occasional humble-brags, flat lays and all things bright, light and contemporary (oops — we've revealed our aesthetic), but when we scroll through our social media accounts, we've noticed that the people who've really influenced us this year hardly show up on our feeds. Even when they do, it's a refreshingly personal one void of sponsorships or subtle branding.

These individuals hold their weight offline, in areas that truly connect:
(a) Carmen Low rejuvenates old spaces and reminds us time and again how important our local heritage is;
(b) Timothy De Cotta has been championing local music since he started out, believing in local talent and pushing musicians to the mainstream;
(c) Debra Langley supports young talents in fashion design, building and advising brands from the ground up; 
(d) Alwyn Chong feeds the lust of beauty junkies looking for an exclusive alternative, reviving the beauty retail experience; and
(e) Brenda Kang brings the past to the present with vintage jewellery that holds decades of history.

So the next time you prepare for a night out — whether it's your choice of venue, outfit and bling-bling, to the scent you dab on your wrists — take a second to realise that your choices might just have been swayed with the help of these movers and shakers. 


Carmen Low

You've seen her: Behind the counter at Lepark and Afterglow, or hanging around at music and arts events such as the recent Silent Night at Mandarin Gallery, which combined a silent yoga and silent disco across two days.

On socials: 339 followers on the privatised @carmewawa, where she describes herself as "Dreamer & calligrapher of @afterglowsg @leparksg @getaisoul".

In person: One of the head honchos of Lepark and The Getai Group — a collective curating art and music events — Carmen Low and her team have been at the forefront of performing arts in Singapore. She's taken the underground over ground (quite literally) with rooftop venue Lepark, which has been host to events championing local music, film screenings, bazaars and wellness sessions. She's been a key individual in reviving the sleepy nook of People Park's Complex into a buzzy, youthful watering hole; although she's shared that the occasional oldie-but-goodie comes to visit for a round of beer.

"She'll never turn away or look down on anything original from this island," comments Timothy De Cotta, musician and partner of the Getai Group. "She is a passionate Chinatown kid, with keen focus on making Chinatown a centre for the arts."

Even the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has recognised her efforts for the past year. An STB representative shared that Low's contribution to the area will be documented in the revamped Chinatown Heritage Centre, which will open later this month.

What's next: We're looking forward to Getai Soul, a new edition of the Getai series that will centre on soul-influenced sounds from Singapore and the region. Low's also looking at bringing Lepark's signature events out of their venue, and she'll continue to look into new spaces she can revitalise — one of them is Pearl's Hill City Park, so stay tuned.


Tim De Cotta

You've seen him: Introducing or opening for musicians — in the past two months, he's opened for the album launches of fellow local musicians Inch Chua and .gif.

On socials: 1,713 followers on @timdecotta, where he also lists the bands he's in; namely, TAJ and L.A.B. He's also part of instrumental fusion-rock band neoDominatrix.

In person: Singer-songwriter, producer, programmer, teacher — Timothy De Cotta has been one of them at some point, and collectively all in one single person. After leaving hip-hop band SIXX, he's released solo material under his own name and debuted an EP as part of the band TAJ. He's toured Japan last year with L.A.B., and rumour has it that neoDominatrix might come out of the shadows after a two-year hiatus. After meeting Low of Lepark at Esplanade during TAJ's performance, an idea floated to hold a mini local music festival with five bands: Spacedays, Disco Hue, .gif, TAJ and The Good Life Project. As a result, Getai Electronica was born in February last year, which drew close to 1,000 people on a rooftop in Chinatown. This led to the set up of the Getai Group, which has since produced more events bringing local bands of multiple disciplines together.

Fellow musician Deon Toh calls De Cotta a Swiss army knife of the local music scene. "Tim's reinvented himself over the years, wearing multiple hats," he comments. "He's taught me to continually renew myself, but to stay true to the principles of why we started in the first place — something that can be easily lost when we work hard to reach for our goals."

What's next: Look out for the release of Warrior EP in late March, a collection of songs he described as angsty, political and socially-aware. Along with Low, they're also prepping for Getai Soul. 


Debra Langley

You've seen her: On the selection and mentorship panel for various fashion programmes such as Fashion Futures associated with Singapore Fashion Week in partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and Harper's Bazaar Singapore Asia NewGen Fashion Designer Award.

On socials: She doesn't have a public Instagram or Twitter, but she does have a LinkedIn profile with over 500 connections.

In person: Working behind-the-scenes, Debra Langley's been instrumental in deciding what local designer you're wearing or rooting for. Previously the President of DKNY JEANS International, she leverages her vast experience in retail and commerce to work informally and formally with local brands through the Fashion Futures 1.0 programme, and is also a judge for the Harper's Bazaar Asia New Generation Program. A global strategic alliance between Singapore Fashion Week and the CFDA, Fashion Futures is a long-term business development programme — including design direction, creating a business plan, production, retail, and social media — that supports both established and emerging local designers who have demonstrated the talent and business acumen to take their brand to the global level.

Her own consulting business, Coraggio, acts as a mentor to young talents looking to make a name in the fashion industry. Currently, she's working with a startup womenswear brand (to be announced early this year) that's developing an accessible collection with a design aesthetic suitable for sizes 4 through to 14 or higher.

What's next: Langley's on this year's Fashion Futures 2.0 programme, which will take place during Singapore Fashion Week 2016. She's also currently in talks with individuals on organisations on improving infrastructure to support the internationalisation of local designers — an issue that's close to her heart.

"The right kind of support can lead to very real action that could manifest in different ways," Langley shares. "Maybe an incubator-type structure similar to what we see in tech that helps designers to commercialise through access to visiting experts and a robust fabric library; gives guidance on building powerful brand propositions; provides feedback on quality and production; and introduces new innovation in design, technology, social media and retail."


Alwyn Chong

You've seen him: At the re-opening of the escentials store and opening of Gallery & Co. at the National Gallery last November.

On socials: 882 followers on @alwyn.chong, where he shares that he's "Experiencing Cultures: Capturing Moments Photographer".

In person: Alwyn Chong's the owner and managing director of escentials, known for its range of exclusive skincare and fragrance brands such as Serge Lutens, Annick Goutal, Le Labo and Maison Francis Kurkdjian. He also heads retail strategy at F&B and retail outlet, Gallery & Co. Recently, The Guardian listed Gallery & Co. as one of the 10 best museum shops around the world. In November last year, a major launch of Swedish fragrance house, Byredo, at his escentials store excited the cult brand's followers. An exciting revamp at their Paragon outlet last month elevated the beauty lover's experience even further, introducing a Fragrance Library and Vanity Zone, allowing shoppers to experience a complimentary fragrance consultation in the former.

"It was one of the first retailers to offer niche and independent skincare and fragrance labels in an intimate, upmarket retail environment, at a time when the industry trend was moving towards more unknown and less commercial brands," says Marianne Wee-Slater, veteran beauty journalist and director of Bolt Industries. "I think that the new boutique concept will be less intimidating for shoppers who are curious to explore the niche and cult beauty brands that they have."

What's next: escentials will bring in Diptyque's limited edition capsule collection with French designer Olympia Le-Tan in February, just in time for Valentine's Day. It's reported that an escentials e-commerce site is in the pipeline as well, which will feature an e-magazine with beauty, fashion and lifestyle content.


Brenda Kang

You've seen her: Hunting out rare and beautiful jewels in various jewellery fairs all over the world — more specifically, pieces from yesteryear that tell compelling stories.

On socials: 
Her company, @revivaljewels has 1,893 followers, and describes itself as "The First Vintage Jewellery Salon in Singapore".

In person:
 Brenda Kang's the woman behind Singapore's first dedicated vintage jewels and objects retailer. They source jewellery on clients' requests, perform private re-selling, take in items on consignment and act as an agent on seller's behalf. You'd trust her — she knows all the right contacts from her 15 years working at Christie's in New York, Geneva, Paris, Hong Kong and China. She doesn't just attend jewellery fairs to source; small auctions around America and Europe also tickle her fancy.

Drawing from her curated collections, she's helped Singapore's who's who accessorise and accentuate their public and private collections with items from smaller jewellery houses such as Rene Boivin, Suzanne Belperron and Jar — in fact, Revival is the only salon carrying these signed pieces here in Singapore. Vintage pieces from Cartier, Chaumet and Mauboussin (among others) are also in her vault, all exquisite pieces of wearable art that hail from Victorian to Retro periods. One of her standout items includes a bracelet from the collection of Elizabeth Taylor herself, dating back to 1967. 

Revival Jewels was born after Kang saw a void in sourcing and acquiring vintage jewellery in Singapore. Her service is personalised, discreet and dedicated, and she'll go through great lengths to suss out the best for her clients. Through passion, experience and industry knowledge, she's shaping the alternative to usual mass produced offerings available in the market, and her clients agree.

Fellow fine jewellery collector, Dr Jade Kua, an emergency medicine doctor and vice-president of the Association of Women Doctors Singapore is a regular. "I'm interested in the stories behind the creation of my jewellery, be it the origins of the simply set gemstones, or the inspiration that drove the design of intricate pieces," she shares. "Revival has a lovely range of antique and vintage jewellery including beautiful brooches."

"Her pieces appeal more for a love of design, art and fashion than just bling factor," gushes Tan Mei-Zee, designer confectionary artisan and former fashion journalist.

What's next: Revival's working on opening an office in Hong Kong and eventually in New York. They're also expanding their in-house design, the Inscribed Love Letter series, to include charms, bracelets and cuffs. One to watch.