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.
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.