Cover (Photo: Facebook/Club 21)

On its 50th anniversary, three fashion mavens reflect on Club 21’s legacy—and why the homegrown multi-label retailer hasn’t gone out of style

If Singapore billionaire business tycoon Ong Beng Seng had his way, Club 21 would never have become the fashion retail behemoth that it is today. He had intended for that first store, which opened in Tanglin Shopping Centre in 1972, to be a tailor shop. But when the tailor he had hired turned down the job at the last minute, Ong’s wife Christina Ong took over and changed everything.

She filled Club 21 with clothes from British fashion labels Ossie Clark and Jeff Banks, which were enlivening London’s street style then with vibrant patterns and glamorous silhouettes. These were clothes that Ong herself was wearing at the time. Pretty soon, thanks to her, so were other women in Singapore.

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Throughout the 1980s, Club 21 would serve as a vessel for European luxury fashion brands to find their footing in Asia, opening franchised boutiques for Saint Laurent, Valentino, Prada, Giorgio Armani, and more, around the region.

“It’s easy to forget that decades ago, the top fashion brands of today weren’t exactly global,” says Club 21 chief operating officer Howe Chegne, in an e-mail interview with Tatler Singapore. “They weren’t in Asia, and they didn’t know where to start. They needed a partner to help them open free-standing stores in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, and even London. Club 21 was that partner.”

Those standalone stores demonstrated Ong’s keen business sense. But it is Club 21’s multi-label boutiques, with its distinctive curation of cult labels and emerging designers, that reflected her tastes— and tremendously shaped how people in Singapore dressed.

A FASHION EDUCATION

“Club 21 most definitely gave me a first-hand fashion education,” says jewellery designer Lynn Ban, whose collections have been offered at the retailer’s boutiques. “I discovered my love of fashion at an early age from shopping there with my mum. I grew up with Club 21 in the ’90s, discovering designs from John Galliano, Helmut Lang and Azzedine Alaïa.”

This was all before the prevalence of the internet, which has allowed fashion enthusiasts to easily uncover smaller, independent fashion labels via social media apps like Instagram and TikTok, or shop their designs through an online retailer.

“Club 21 was the first to offer emerging designers, exposing Singaporeans to fashion that is fresh and exciting, instead of the usual luxury brands,” shares Karin Tan, a commercial and editorial stylist who has worked in the local fashion industry for over 12 years. “They were bold enough to bring in brands that were relatively niche so that they could grow a fanbase here.”

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Indeed, Club 21 has fuelled an appetite for cult fashion that allowed Singaporeans to experiment with their style. Followers of the Belgian-based group Antwerp Six, for example, could find the avant-garde designs of Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck and even honorary member Maison Margiela upon the retailer’s racks.

For other shoppers, Club 21 has fostered their passion for Japanese designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe and Comme des Garçons—a relationship that often lasts for years.

“I buy a Comme des Garçons runway look from Club 21 every season,” reveals Ban. “My most memorable purchases from them are two looks from the fall/winter 2016 collection. The collection combined abstract armour with heavy upholstery and floral jacquard—empowering, but feminine at the same time. I couldn’t decide on just one look!”

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CLUB CONNECTION

It’s that sense of connection that has made Club 21 a sacrosanct fashion institution here. “I remember buying my first pair of Rick Owens Geobasket sneakers after lusting for it for a good five to eight years,” shares Tan. “Thankfully, Club 21 stocks Rick Owens; it’s where I had my first-hand experience with the brand.”

Tan compares Club 21 to a playground, where fashion lovers can “have fun and try on many exciting and new brands”. He adds that the retailer’s diverse curation has allowed him to cement his own style, name-checking Noir Kei Ninomiya, Cecilie Bahnsen and Molly Goddard as brands that he discovered through its stores.

“Just like Paris had their Colette, Singapore has Club 21,” says Yao Xin, referring to the now-defunct fashion concept store that emphasised newness and put a spotlight on emerging labels. Xin, a personal shopper, frequently finds herself at Club 21 boutiques when sourcing for unique brands that are “very much what my clients appreciates the most”.

Xin explains, “Club 21 offers shoppers an alternative option, something that’s in between fast fashion labels like Zara and Uniqlo, and luxury fashion brands. You get to discover interesting pieces that nobody else has.”

These interesting pieces may come in the form of a cut-out dress by London-based designer Nensi Dojaka; an asymmetrical skirt by Japanese brand Sacai; or a shirt from homegrown fashion label The Salvages. All of these can be found at Club 21’s boutique at Voco Orchard hotel that opened this year.

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The store is the latest incarnation of Blackjack, Club 21’s streetwear space that first launched in 1996—a decade before the likes of Supreme, Off-White and other hype-driven fashion labels became familiar names to Singaporeans. Blackjack served as Club 21’s radar of cool, offering a home for emerging and experimental fashion labels from Europe, Japan and the US. Club 21’s store at Voco Orchard will preserve that spirit, while championing fashion brands from closer to home.

“One of our key strategies for the future is to keep looking out for raw talent that we can get behind,” shares Chegne. “Asia’s fashion scene is going to continue to be dominated by international names, but we believe there is going to be place for new, authentic, Asia-led brands. Club 21 will continue to distill the best of what’s out there and bring it to our Asian customers.”

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