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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Bagging rights

Home-grown bag labels are gaining popularity as they are unique, well-made and reasonably-priced
The Straits Times - November 11, 2011
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Bagging rights

Good news, bag lovers. There are now more options for you.

Your closet is probably filled with designer It bags from Louis Vuitton and Prada, but it is time to make room also for Calliope, Gracious Aires, Ling Wu, Pachelbel and Tessere.

While these local bag brands have been around for the past few years, they have largely been under the radar. Now, however, they are getting the attention they deserve.

Says Mr Alvin Cher, a local fashion blogger more commonly known as Bagaholicboy: 'More Singaporeans are gradually coming round to supporting local designers. They understand the value of design versus brand names.

'If they feel the items are well-made and beautiful, they will pay for them.'

One such shopper is Ms Julia Tan, who owns about seven bags from local labels Ling Wu, Calliope and Ethan K.

While she has many designer bags, the 27-year-old lawyer says she gets the most compliments when she carries one from the local labels.

'I suppose it?s because not many have heard of these brands. To me, the most important thing is that the bags are well-made and they make a statement,' she says.

Indeed, Singaporean shoppers are now more willing to look beyond the usual big names to validate their status.

What they are looking for, says Ms Tan Ee Ling, are unique items that reflect their personality and style.

The managing director of local bag label Tessere says: 'Singaporeans are discerning shoppers. They want to be different.'

Founded in 2007, Tessere offers bags made of hand-woven snakeskin. It also creates bags from other luxe materials such as springbok hide, pony hair and fox fur. The brand is stocked at Robinsons, OG and Metro department stores.

Ms Bina Maniar-Goh, co-owner of accessories boutique Quintessential which stocks Ling Wu bags, believes local labels have what it takes to compete with established brands because the bags are 'well-made, well-designed and, best of all, reasonably priced'.

'You have to be prepared to pay at least $1,000 for a branded bag. It will probably be made of canvas and you can be sure that other people will also have that same bag,' she notes.

Local designers, however, have the advantage of creating something different and in limited quantities and their bags are priced from $100 to $700.

Ms Jo Soh, designer of home-grown label Hansel and owner of The Hansel Shop, which stocks Calliope, agrees.

'The bags are well-made and the designs, while simple, play with bright colours for punch.'

Mr Giuseppe Spinelli, head of fashion at Raffles Design Institute, observes that most successful local bag labels carve out a niche by offering quality bags at relatively lower prices.

'Luxe materials such as snakeskin are readily available from Malaysia or Indonesia and that?s what the local designers can offer -a bit of luxe at competitive prices.'

He notes that the up-and-coming designers are trained in design -most of them are graduates of local institutions or international fashion schools such as Central Saint Martins in London.

He says: 'They understand trends and construction better because that?s what they have been learning in school. It helps in the creative process.'

But using exotic skin alone is not enough to guarantee success.

Mr Ethan Koh, designer of Singapore bag label Ethan K, says: 'Everyone is now doing exotic skin bags but what makes a designer stand out are the details. For instance, my animal-shaped clasps make my bags look different.'

Known for its crocodile and lizard skin bags and clutches, Ethan K will be stocked at London?s Harrods from next week -a first for a Singaporean label (see page 14).

However, while local bag brands are gaining fans, most Singaporeans remain sceptical and unadventurous, preferring instead to pay extra to get at least an entry-level branded bag.

Bag designer Goh Ling Ling of Ling Wu wishes more Singaporeans would break out of the herd mentality.

'Walk down the street and you?ll find many girls carrying something from, say, Kate Spade,' she says.

'Some even carry the same model. I don?t understand why they want to blend in when they can stand out.'

One way to counter this attitude is for designers to develop a closer relationship with their customers to forge brand loyalty, says Mr Koh.

'Clients want to feel close to the designer -they want to know where I shop and where I have lunch. So I treat them like friends and educate them on what it takes to make a quality bag. That is important,' he says.

Gracious Aires

After graduating from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 2000, Ms Grace Guo (below), 35, started work at a local interior design company.

With countless meetings and a hectic schedule, the self-proclaimed bagaholic was relegated to carrying boring document bags.

She says: 'I wanted a bag that fitted my lifestyle - something trendy yet practical for the working woman. At that time, there were no local bag labels that I thought were worth buying.'

So, she left her interior design job in 2004 to launch her own line of bags, Gracious Aires. She started from a pushcart stall in Raffles City that year.

Designed in Singapore by Ms Guo and made in South Korea, each bag is produced in limited quantities of 20 to 100, depending on the style.

To stand out, she offers some bags in bold, rich colours such as teal, purple and bright pink, in addition to variations in safer, darker colours.

Keeping the number small is key, she says.

'Women don't want to have the same bags as others. They want to be different and stand out.'

The tagline for her designs is designer bags without the designer price tags, which has worked for the label in the last seven years.

Ms Guo attributes the popularity of her bags, priced from $106.90 to $599.90, to their accessibility.

'Our bags are affordable and are made from quality materials such as lambskin and calf leather.'

Pitched at working women aged between 25 and 45, it now boasts three standalone stores in Far East Plaza, Orchard Central and Raffles City.

Her best-selling style is the classic Semi-Ball bag, a $169 hobo bag that is good for both work and play.

Since launching the design in 2009, she has rolled out at least six variations of the bag in different colours and materials.

Gracious Aires also introduces at least four new designs every two weeks.

This 'fast-fashion' model, she says, sets the label apart from other well-established luxury brands, which launch new collections every six months.

'I'm always inspired by something and looking to better my designs. It is what local brands need to do to have an edge over the luxury labels,' she says.

Ling Wu

Designing bags was something Ms Goh Ling Ling (below), 37, had always wanted to do since she was a kid digging through her mother?s vast collection of vintage bags and accessories.

But as her family owned a company that made lingerie, she decided to choose the path of least resistance when it came time to start her designing career.

After she graduated from the prestigious Central Saint Martins School of Design in London in 1993, she returned to Singapore and worked for eight years in the family business as a designer.

During that time, she launched Fling, her own lingerie label which had a standalone store at The Heeren from 1999 to 2009.

But after 10 years with Fling, she decided to pack it up to pursue her passion for designing bags.

Says Ms Goh: 'At that time, I had just had my second child and tending to the shop while taking care of my children was time-consuming. I wanted to do something different.'

Not having a boutique to run, she explains, lets her spend more time at home.

So, in 2009, she launched Ling Wu, which caters to bag lovers who are not slaves to ever-changing trends.

The Ling Wu customer, says Ms Goh, is well-travelled, not a fashion victim and does not buy into the 'branded bags are the best' mentality.

'You should buy a bag because you feel a connection with it or with the design and not just because it?s branded,' she says.

Since then, her sleek yet edgy bags, made of lambskin and python skin, have been making waves among those in the know.

Priced between $98 for wallets and $680 for a lambskin hobo bag, her creations are stocked at five boutiques here - The Society of Black Sheep at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Blackmarket No. 2 at Orchard Central, A Curious Teepee at *Scape, Quintessential at Pacific Plaza as well as online bags and accessories retailer, Doorstep Luxury.

Each bag is handmade in a small workshop in Jakarta and comes in about 10 pieces per design.

To promote her label overseas, Ms Goh has attended several trade shows around the world.

Last month, she took part in the Tranoi Trade Show, a platform for up-and-coming designers during Paris Fashion Week, and received positive responses from international buyers wanting to stock her bags in their boutiques.

Since the trade show, Ling Wu has secured new stockists in boutiques in Dubai, Cairo, Paris and Berlin. The label was previously stocked in Tokyo and Singapore.

Ms Goh would also like to explore new markets.

But she notes: 'I do want to keep in control of the size of the brand and am focused on maintaining quality over quantity.


Animal lovers with a penchant for fashionable bags can thank Ms Karen Cheng for offering them stylish totes with a conscience.

After she embraced veganism four years ago, she decided to quit her job as a chief designer at a local leather bags company.

Designing bags has been her passion since she graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1990.

Leaving her job after 17 years was a tough decision for the 41-year-old mother of two daughters.

But she says: 'I could not bring myself to use animal products and it was very hypocritical of me to be a vegan and be designing leather bags.'

Earlier this year, she decided to create Pachelbel, a line of vegan handbags she could carry without guilt.

'I wanted to show consumers that you don't have to use real leather to create classic bags,' she says.

Vegan fashion products are free of any animal involvement. Her bags, priced between $100 and $520, are made of materials such as nylon, jacquard and faux polyurethane leather.

Pachelbel bags also appeal to the Singaporean woman?s desire for practical yet stylish bags.

Says Ms Cheng: 'Most women here want a bag with many compartments that does not compromise on style. Our bags are roomy yet sleek, perfect for working women on the go.'

The three-month-old label has a store at Suntec City Mall.

While she declines to reveal figures, Ms Cheng says sales have been growing steadily.

'Many of our customers don?t know what vegan fashion is and are surprised when they find out that our bags are not made of animal leather,' she says.

'That?s a good thing because it creates awareness about our cause.'


Singapore women are sophisticated and discerning, says Ms Tan Ee Ling (below), the managing director of home-grown bag label Tessere.

'They can recognise a good product that is beautiful and different and don?t always follow the herd blindly,'she adds.

This observation comes from 30 years of experience in the industry as managing director of Craftsmark, a local company which distributes European bag labels such as Picard and Jane Shilton here.

While working there, Ms Tan saw how foreign labels often did not cater to the needs of the working Singaporean woman.

For instance, she says women here prefer bags with zips or fasteners so their items are stored more securely.

'The imported brands were designed for markets like the United States and Europe. So we started to give input on their designs and to ask them to make changes.?

Eventually, she says, Craftsmark realised that it was investing 'a lot of time and resources to tweak the designs for other brands?.

'It was a natural progression to launch our own brand,'she says.

Tessere, which means 'weave'in Italian, was launched in 2007 and is targeted at the 'confident, self-assured woman with an eye for beauty and who is not afraid to express herself?.

Designed and developed by a team of Singapore designers, the bags are handmade by craftsmen in China, Bangladesh and Italy using exotic skins such as snakeskin and springbok hide. Some use fox fur and pony hair.

Prices for the small leather goods range from $39 for a keycase to $149 for a large wallet, while prices for the bags range from $209 to $759.



Versace remixed