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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Join the Club

Club 21, arguably Singapore's most successful fashion retailer, goes online.
The Straits Times - September 7, 2012
By: Gladys Chung
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Join the Club Photographer ASHLEIGH SIM; Styling and art direction Club 21; Hair JACK KONG, from UrbanHair, B1-02 The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, using Aveda; Make-up BENEDICT CHOO (9682-9590), using M.A.C;Model MARGARET WHITE, from Upfront Models; Clothes Peter Pilot

To mark its 40th anniversary, home-grown multi-label luxury retailer Club 21 will expand its empire by launching the Club 21 eShop later this month to rival British designer e-tailer Net-A-Porter.

For starters, the eShop will ship to seven countries - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Here's how it intends to beat its competitors: a membership loyalty programme; a free shipping and returns policy; free alterations in Singapore, Bangkok and Jakarta; comparable prices with those charged in-store and by other e-stores; and same-day delivery for orders placed by noon.

The eShop also promises more variety. Boasting 40 high-end and edgy brands from Lanvin to Rick Owens Lilies, only 25 per cent of the offerings will overlap with those sold in the stores. In addition, some brands will be available only online, such as Irish label Sharon Wauchob. On why Club 21 is late to the e-commerce game, Ms Linda Locke, its marketing director, says: "We think there's still growth potential for an online business, especially in countries such as Brunei, where luxury fashion is not so easily accessible."

The rising costs of real estate and a hunger for a more rapid expansion also fuelled the move.

The privately owned retailer, which is famously tight-lipped, declines to reveal sales and growth figures. But it says the number of Club 21 stores in Asia Pacific has grown from 100 in 2003 to 250 this year.

Overall, Club 21 currently manages more than 250 brands across some 400 stores in 10 countries. including China, Japan and the United States.

Most recently, it added French brand Carven to its stable - the first Carven store in South-east Asia opened in Ion Orchard earlier this week.

Next month, it will open the first South-east Asian Mulberry flagship store in Mandarin Gallery.

MAKING FASHION HISTORY

The online store marks a new chapter in Club 21's ever-evolving business model.

Four other main components make up the fashion empire: multi-label retail stores that serve as incubators for upcoming brands; stand-alone stores for brands with growth potential; a "vertical integration" model that entails production, distribution and retail development; and wholesale distribution.

The multi-label approach is deeply rooted in Club 21's colourful history.

In 1972, Mrs Christina Ong took over the reins of Club 21 - initially a men's tailoring business - from her husband, Mr Ong Beng Seng, then the director of an insurance firm. She quickly turned the boutique into one of Singapore's first and most successful multi-label womenswear stores, travelling to Europe to handpick stylish pieces for the well-heeled set.

Some of the first brands she stocked at Club 21 were Jean Muir and Ossie Clark from Britain.

Today, the retailer has eight multi-label boutiques in Bangkok and Singapore and another two will open in Kuala Lumpur by the end of the year.

Mrs Ong has forged a reputation as a shrewd retailer with an acute sense of what would appeal to consumers.

In 1981, she opened the first franchised Yves Saint Laurent boutique in South-east Asia. A flurry of stand-alone brand-name stores in Singapore soon followed, including Giorgio Armani and MaxMara, to meet the growing demand for designer goods.

In 1988, Club 21 opened Bulgari in London, the first franchised store in the world for the Italian jeweller. The store marked Club 21's first overseas venture.

By then, Mrs Ong was also making a name for herself as a daring investor and first mover in opening international franchises of household Italian luxury brands such as the Armani labels.

Today, the Armani stores here and in Kuala Lumpur remain under Club 21.

It also operates 37 brands - most of them franchises - such as Alexander Wang and Marc Jacobs, through stand-alone stores in the Asia-Pacific region.

Fashion consultant Cat Ong, a former fashion writer for The Straits Times, says Club 21 was always the retailer with the "cutting edge".

She had her first fill of "modernist" designers such as Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander at Club 21 in the 1980s. Unlike the other multi-label retailers at the time, such as Glamourette and Man & His Woman, "Club 21 brought in designers that made the headlines", Ms Ong adds.

"They were game-changing and trend-setting names that redefined how you wore clothes and changed the retail landscape."

HARDCORE FASHION

A lesser-known but integral part of Club 21's growth is what it calls its "vertical integration" businesses. This involves the production, distribution and retailing of three diffusion lines - A/X Armani Exchange, ck Calvin Klein and DKNY Jeans - that started in 1994, 2004 and 2007 respectively.

The highly successful deals were secured through Mrs Ong's close relationships with designers Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.

"She has marketed the brands for them and developed the relationships over time in the course of her business," says Ms Locke.

Through Club 21's franchisee partners, the three lines are sold globally. A/X now has over 230 stores and an online boutique. By the end of this year, ck Calvin Klein will be stocked in 200 stores in Asia Pacific and DKNY Jeans will be sold in 142 stores around the world.

Club 21 also does wholesale distribution for certain brands and markets, such as Armani Collezione, Armani Jeans and Emporio Armani underwear in Britain.

Mrs Ong's most recent coup is in turning around the fortunes of British leathergoods marque Mulberry. In 2000, when the brand's business was hit hard by the strong sterling, she and Mr Ong bought a 41.7 per cent stake in the company for £7.6 million. This has since grown to a majority stake of 56.3 per cent. Today, Mulberry is one of the most profitable British brands. Its revenue this year stands at £168.5 million (S$333.5 million), up 38 per cent from £121.6 million last year.

It has not always been a smooth ride for Club 21 though.

Amid the Asian economic turmoil in 1998, it lost its foothold in the 11 Prada and Miu Miu stores in Britain, Singapore and Thailand.

It bounced back quickly and in 2005, it ventured into the tech business with a 10,000 sq ft iShop in Orchard Cathay Cineleisure, then Asia's largest authorised Apple reseller. But it closed in 2009 due to the economic downturn and increased competition from other Apple resellers.

Still, Club 21 has always managed to find its feet. As Ms Ong says: "While other retail businesses came and went over the years, Mrs Ong has gone from strength to strength.

"If necessary, she'd buy the brand herself. She will always be on the map as long as she wants to run the business; she will always be able to get the next Calvin Klein and Donna Karan."

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