This menswear label inspired by Singapore's Duxton neighbourhood is exactly what we need
More than basics
Dustin Ramos and Iris Sangalang are probably two of the most cheerful people you'll meet. It was just 10am when the couple had us chuckling at their effervescent story-telling and tongue-in-cheek remarks; needless to say, they'd probably be even more of a riot if we swapped coffee for evening drinks. But short of a G&T or three and nestled in their showroom instead of a bar, it was a morning to remember regardless — one well spent getting to know the ins-and-outs of their latest endeavour.
You see, Ramos and Sangalang are also behind the concept cafe and store Monument Lifestyle located along Duxton Road, and it was only a matter of time before their sunny dispositions earned them the rep of your friendly neighbourhood coffee and clothing purveyors. From there, they've parlayed these experiences and their well-earned camaraderie in the community into a line of basics for men. A brand with heart, inspired by the people they've met, and of course, christened after the neighbourhood.
At first glance, Duxton is unassuming; it offers T-shirts, henleys and a smattering of Hawaiian-inspired prints milled in Japan and Los Angeles. What's curious lies within. Each garment style has been designed with the aforementioned people of Duxton in mind, prompting Ramos and Sangalang to cut their cloth for five distinct personalities monikered Adam, Henry, Justin, Mikey and Rich. The pieces bear labels of not just names, but also captions born of the couple's witty observations of said characters.
In a candid chat below, we dig deeper into their unique brand proposition and, the rather insane range of colours they've launched Duxton with.
How did you two meet?
Iris Sangalang: We met in college, at a summer programme before starting university when we were 17 years old. We've been together forever!
When it comes to work, what is the dynamic like?
Dustin Ramos: I think it worked out quite well. A lot of people thought we were crazy for wanting to do something together, but I think in terms of division of labour, Iris tends to have more of the grander vision — the forward-thinking. I tend to focus more on the day-to-day operations. We balance each other out.
Iris: Our personalities are the exact opposite so it works really well in terms of running a team and making sure everything gets done.
As Monument Lifestyle is a multi-disciplinary store, what made you decide to launch a clothing brand and not anything else?
Iris: We always knew that we wanted to go into creating our line from the beginning of Monument, but in terms of the exact focus and direction, we wanted to take our time to understand our clientele, our demographic, better. We have really, really friendly customers that give us feedback. Two years ago, we did a charity event where 100% of the profit went to the Children's Cancer Foundation and we got local business owners to be involved in it. They tried on the clothes at Monument — we bring in great clothes! — but it doesn't mean all of them can pull it off. I think seeing all these executives feel vulnerable or unsure if they look a little fat... it was an experience that made us think that we had to do this. We realised that we want to create a line that makes men feel confident; that they'd never have to double check. Just put it on, go out the door, and be confident for the rest of their day.
What really stood out was that you launched the brand with such a wide range of colours. Why was that important to you?
Dustin: When we were working with our creative team in Los Angeles, they talk about what they would wear everyday. Really, it's very much a uniform of only a certain colour and jeans. Their daily closet is just filled with the same colour. We thought that here in Singapore, guys tend to want to stand out a little more, but still have that sense of confidence.
Iris: We made a very pointed decision that we wanted to become the go-to for men when it comes to colours. It is a little crazy because even our entire design team and manufacturers asked us if we were sure we wanted to do this. Usually brands come out with four to five colours per season because it's very costly and time consuming, but we do about 20 to 25 each season.
I can just imagine the stock you'd have to keep!
Iris: Absolutely, it's very ballsy. It's definitely a production in terms of understanding if these colours work, but we wanted to make sure that regardless of the event you're going to — whether it's Valentine's Day or rooting for your favourite soccer team — that you have a colour you know you can go to, and already be familiar with the fit and structure of that piece. Every season we'll roll out new colours.
"Singapore breeds a culture of travel and going outside of the country, so a lot of people will go away during the weekend and they're quite adventurous. I think the colour [pink] goes with the attitude of Singapore in this sense."
Which ones have your customers been gravitating towards?
Iris: The colours that our design team thought wouldn't work (laughs)!
Dustin: I think the Blue Steel's done pretty well.
Iris: The pink does exceptionally well in Singapore. Like exceptionally. We have two pinks and we're really invested in the colour as you can see. Our design team asked if we were sure and we said that we'd give it a go. Alice, who ran retail at Monument, loves pink and she said we had to. She knows the clientele and absolutely, they go straight for the pink — it doesn't matter if they're local or expat.
Maybe it is something about Singapore.
Dustin: I think guys feel more adventurous here for some reason, or want to step outside their comfort zone.
Iris: Singapore breeds a culture of travel and going outside of the country, so a lot of people will go away during the weekend and they're quite adventurous. I think the colour goes with the attitude of Singapore in this sense. But yes, it's surprising, and for our team in LA? It blew their minds.
How long was the Duxton brand and clothing in the making?
Dustin: It was probably about three years now since we kicked off Monument in terms of renovation and getting it started. Since we started that, we were already thinking ahead. Mostly Iris, who was already thinking of doing our own line. It was just a matter of having a space to do some of the market research naturally.
Iris: We come from a start-up environment where you think about the big picture but you execute it fast. If something fails, you realise it quite soon and you iterate and iterate till it keeps going. So, it's not our backgrounds at all to do F&B or retail, but we understand that when you do something, you have to be surrounded by people who know every detail that you don't.
Can you give us an example?
Iris: When we first started three years ago, we got a design team and people who had been in the fashion industry for several years, and know exactly what they're talking about. They advise us. They guide us through the whole process to make sure that we're not just a random brick-and-mortar that no one knows about. It's been an amazing process. Going into our first mill, everything looked the same, but we'd be on Facetime with our design team and tell them what we think and they'd tell us what they think. This is what it really is; we had folks guiding us along the entire process and now we feel like, yeah, let me tell you about that fabric (laughs).
"Seeing these executives feel vulnerable or unsure if they look a little fat made us think that we had to do this. We realised that we want to create a line that makes men feel confident; that they'd never have to double check."
You've envisioned five personalities for the brand inspired by real people you met in the Duxton neighbourhood. Tell us more about that.
Dustin: Jesse [in our lookbook] is one of our regular customers downstairs at Monument and he gave us a lot of feedback in terms of how stuff felt and what he looked for. In fact, when we rolled out the 'Justin' shirt, he tried it out with his very own garment test. He'd basically wear it to the gym, leave it in his bag, and take it out the next day and wear it again. He's said that if he feels comfortable enough, and that the fabric doesn't stink or look too wrinkled, then that's a keeper for him.
Iris: I think what's unique about having a coffee shop downstairs is that it's kind of like a barber shop where people just tell you their life stories without asking. It was cool to see people doing random things in life and not be afraid. I think it's also Singapore — it invites people to start their own businesses wherever you come from, and experiment in your life wherever you are. I think our brand gravitates towards this road too. There's this guy Alex who runs a music company, but is also a professional wingsuiter. He breaks records and is such an inspiration to us. He was drawn to Singapore and really wanted to be here, and the first job he took when he arrived was a hotel receptionist. Now he's really successful and that's what it's about for us: capturing your dreams and going for it.
What do you think about men's style in Singapore, or that of Duxton?
Iris: I think people here are much more confident in what they wear. It's definitely louder and more colourful. One of our regulars had described it very well. He said men can't really go crazy with their bottoms, and in Singapore, they like to use their tops as a form of expression — whether it's a bright colour or in the detail. It's very Singaporean he said, and it's why our shirts work!
Do you intend on going into bottoms?
Iris: After our first year, absolutely. We wanted to concentrate and stay in our lane of tops for the first year and then slowly develop bottoms. We've also been asked to do collaborations, so I think we'll explore that, as we will bottoms. We want to make sure we know what we're doing exactly with our tops first. Next season, we'll have 21 colours.
Dustin: And new body types.
Iris: Yeah, and we're introducing a long sleeve. Our inspiration is Portland, Oregon, and it's named after the lumberjack guy so it's called 'Jack'.
"I think what's unique about having a coffee shop downstairs is that it's kind of like a barber shop where people just tell you their life stories without asking."
If you had to engage in a bit of favouritism, what are your three choice pieces?
Dustin: For 'Mikey', it's the digital print. I feel like the colours complement my skin tone.
Iris: You also did your own test when we were in Bali. He wore the shirt every single day, and it still looked great.
Rachel (Duxton brand's PR): Did you wash it?
Iris: Well, it does say on the label for 'Mikey' not to use your nose as an indicator of how clean the shirt is! Well for me, I like the black 'Mikey' shirt. It goes really well at night with pants, and shorts for brunch. It's really universal.
Dustin: The next one is going to be the Dinosaur colour. This was one that made our team go, "Who wears brown?" And me too. When I see a brown shirt on the rack, I'm probably not going to try it on, but we had our models shoot with it and whether they were light-skinned or dark-skinned, it looked great.
Iris: Our models were Asian, white and black guys, and they all looked amazing in brown. It was surprising. I like this olive green one because the colour stands out on all men. Doesn't matter if they're old or young.
Dustin: I kind of want to say pink next. I think it's a colour that's not too casual or formal either.
Iris: Go on, say it. You are literally wearing it right now! You know he didn't wear so much pink till we came to Singapore. Dustin, you did not have pink in your closet before.
Dustin: We were in New York City before this and it was a lot more black.
Iris: My last pick would have to be the off-white just because it's a basic. We debated for a long time whether we would do an optic white or an off-white. Our design team asked if we'd ever looked at people's teeth as off-white is the natural colour of teeth so naturally, most would want it to match. That's why we chose this colour. We debated about it forever; it was a week-long conversation about teeth and off-white versus optic, but then it [off-white] looked really nice on so I was like, okay, you win. For this one. We are going to have an optic white option in our next collection (laughs).
Duxton clothing is available at 74B Duxton Road, Singapore.