Benjamin Barker: Founder Nelson Yap shares the secrets of his success with his tailoring and suiting business
A cut above the rest
Benjamin Barker is a name that's become synonymous with affordable, fashionable, well-fitted shirts and suiting since its inception in 2009. With a presence that's expanded across Singapore and even to the land Down Under, its founder Nelson Yap has ironically, chosen to shy away from the limelight.
Set to release a new range of everyday wear embodying Yap's own personal style come mid-September (B by Benjamin Barker), I've managed to get the man himself out of hiding for a candid conversation over cuppa. Here, get to know the pure functionality behind their new line of casualwear, the meticulous groundwork taken to achieve that seamless off-the-rack fit, and all in all, the chronicles of Singapore's very own menswear success.
Well Nelson, let's start, as most stories do, at the beginning. How did Benjamin Barker come to be?
Benjamin Barker came about after two years of helping out with the family business of selling suits from a warehouse. I realised I just couldn't make that work. It was very hard to change anything within the company and so, I talked to my mum about starting my own label, and doing things the way I wanted to. Within the Singapore market at the time, I realised that there really weren't many affordable menswear brands around. There were a lot of luxury labels, and then those without deep pockets tended to shop at stores such as Zara and G2000. Don't get me wrong, Zara is good and in fact I still buy Zara myself, but my vision was to create a brand which was just as price competitive, while also focusing a lot more on construction, fit and material.
Given that you were a new entrant to the market in 2009, and that was a pretty economically treacherous time, did you feel like you were taking a huge risk?
Oh, most definitely it was a risk, but menswear was the only thing I knew how to do. It really was imperative that the brand was able to find that sweet spot in the market that nobody else was really occupying. To tell the truth, we only had enough capital to survive the first two or three months and so, it really was make or break. Thankfully, since our opening month of that first store in Marina Square, there turned out to be a demand for what we were selling and we were able to generate enough revenue to grow.
From a business point of view, the company has grown since then — today, Benjamin Barker has eight stores with two more opening later this year — but, how has it grown creatively?
At the beginning, we were very focused on executive wear and we also decided that starting off by selling staples would be the safest thing to do. As we grew though, our products developed more of a personality. My chief designer, who's now based in Melbourne, has a background in high end brands and bespoke. When she came in, she added some of her own character as well as a lot of small quirky details to our clothes. As far as I go, I like to keep things simple, focusing more on functionality and practicality, so it's a pretty perfect marriage.
Now, seven years later and despite all our product developments, our price point is exactly the same. However, from starting off working with a factory in China, now we source our fabrics predominantly from Europe or Japan. Almost half our fabrics these days come from the latter, as well as many of our accessories, vintage patches and wooden buttons.
Has it all been smooth sailing thus far?
Actually, it was really hard to find factories that would partner with us initially. There's a lot of work that goes into making our clothes and a lot of little details that many dismissed as too difficult. Even though we're selling products at a mid-range price point, it takes double the time to make our shirts than for any other brand, so factories in China and Vietnam weren't willing to take our business as they could earn the same amount in half the time producing other items. It was imperative that we found a manufacturer that took pride in making products and building a relationship, and believe me, that took a while to find!
You mention that all the small quirky additions and attention to detail sets Benjamin Barker apart, but your brand imagery and store design is also pretty unique.
Oh, thanks! One of the parts I love most about building a brand is telling a story. I did a degree in film and photography, so I've always been passionate about telling a story through visuals. When we launched the first campaign, I took the opportunity to have some fun with storytelling, featuring models with their suits on fire or walking on water. So yeah, we're selling staples, but we're doing it in an interesting way and with a story behind it.
In terms of the stores, I wanted to go with the idea that walking into a Benjamin Barker store is like walking into somebody's house. I find that when a lot of brands open a new store, they all tend to look the same. Whereas, I try to bring personalty and character into my stores and make them feel a lot more homely by filling them with curiosities and keepsakes. In our Cineleisure store for example, there's a typewriter from the '60s that a man in London used to propose to his wife. Most people don't know that, but for me, it adds to the sprit of the store and when you walk in, and you don't just see another run-of-the-mill space.
Aside from your store interiors, the other aspect Benjamin Barker is well known for is the cut and fit of its suits and shirts. Can you tell us more about that?
We definitely prefer to focus on classic styles rather than just what's currently trending. Our shirt line is constructed using the heritage European style of tailoring, but it's then cut to a Japanese fit. I had always wondered why Japanese suits, even off-the-rack, tended to fit the Asian body so perfectly; never being too tight or too loose. So we toured Japan, tore their suits and shirts apart, and learnt how they cut their clothes differently, right down to the angles of their curves.
We also have a tailoring arm in Cineleisure, and as I got more into that, I learnt a lot and carried that knowledge into trying to create a range that was a good fit between tailoring and traditional ready-to-wear. Obviously, tailoring is something I would do for special occasions, and it reaches a certain clientele, but my aim was to create a range of well fitted ready-to-wear pieces that's accessible to the masses.
If most of your off-the-rack styles are created for an Asian fit, did you then have to change the cutting when you entered the Australian market?
Interestingly, we did start off by creating a new classic fit for Australians, but we soon realised that our Japanese fit actually sold a lot better over there as well. We have a lot of clients — both Asian or Caucasian — who are of a smaller size and often come to us complaining that they usually have to tailor their clothes because nothing fits. Once they tried on our Japanese-fit suits though, they were amazed that for the very first time they could buy their clothing without having any alterations done. So ultimately, now our Australian stores have gone back to stocking what we're best known for.
Did the seasonal weather over in Australia, as compared to the eternal summer in Singapore, affect your shop plans over there?
Most definitely. We had to do a lot of research into the types of fabrics that are most suitable for different seasons of the year. In fact, we actually created a winter range purely for the Australian market and that will soon be introduced in Singapore through the B by Benjamin Barker sub-label. To start things off, we'll be releasing pieces over here based on the Australian seasons, so expect to see a lot of autumnal designs such as bomber jackets and puffer jackets hitting shores soon.
Well, speaking of B by Benjamin Barker, do tell us more about the range.
B by Benjamin Barker is different from our normal range because it's more casual, but it's also a lot more seasonal. Honestly, this was something that I've always wanted to do. Despite what people might think, I'm not always a suit and shirt person — I really love music and also skateboarding and snowboarding. All of these aspects of my life, I've put into B by Benjamin Barker. A lot of sports tops for example, never have compartments to store your phone while you're jogging, so I wanted to create a line that was both functional, but at the same time, stylish.
I've also noticed that a lot of people in Singapore like to wear T-shirts with suit jackets, but not every T-shirt you buy on the high street is well suited for that purpose. B by Benjamin Barker will solve that with a range perfect for putting under a blazer when it's too hot to wear a proper shirt.
Basically, my own personal style is quite minimalist and I've tried to inject that into the new range, so look out for clean and classic casuals with a specific focus on functionality — those little details can make all the difference.
B by Benjamin Barker will be available at Benjamin Barker, #03-01, Orchard Cineleisure, The Assembly Store, #01-22, The Cathay, and also, all stores in Australia.
Tailoring services are only available at Benjamin Barker's Orchard Cineleisure store. Visit BenjaminBarker.co for store listings islandwide.