Her new role at the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) as lead curator and retail consultant sees her nurturing young design talents in Singapore

It is safe to say that Tina Tan-Leo has impeccable taste. Many know her as the fashion retailer who brought Gianni Versace to our shores in 1979. On the Italian brand’s first international outpost, she says, “I was very young when I brought Versace to Singapore. Everyone thought I was crazy as he was seen as too avant-garde and progressive then, but lo and behold, the brand’s legacy stands strong today.”

The fashionista earned her stripes as one of Singapore’s most respected figures in the fashion industry, and was responsible for bringing in over 70 international fashion labels, including Vera Wang, Roberto Cavalli and Manolo Blahnik, to name a few, to Singapore and the larger Southeast Asia region.

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In 2013, Tan-Leo co-founded private luxury shopping service Privato with her husband Lionel Leo. Together, they curate trunk shows and private shopping experiences for a VIP clientele, including high-net-worth individuals. Tan-Leo shares, “As a fashion expert, I get excited about the way things change in the industry every decade and I’m curious about how it is constantly evolving, together with the global movement that comes with it.”

Her passion for fashion naturally led her to her current role as lead curator and retail consultant at Singapore’s Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF). She officially started in October last year, but admits that she has been working with the federation for over three decades, serving as an unofficial adviser and luxury industry expert. This time, she leads a 20-strong team comprising sales floor assistants and management staff of Design Orchard, the integrated retail and incubation space under TaFF. This is where the team is equipped with effective merchandising and product knowledge, as well as skills to elevate the physical customer experience. These strengths combined, Tan-Leo explains, are essential in building a successful retail strategy to thrive in today’s competitive consumer climate. “The hardware (referring to retail space) can be very beautiful but the software (referring to the customer experience) must be good too; both elements go hand in hand.”

One of the changes that Tan-Leo has brought to Design Orchard during her five-month directorship is to reorganise the shop floor for better ease in navigating through product categories. She elaborates: “Customers who entered the shop in the past would first encounter a sea of products, which can be confusing to navigate. Today, we have introduced various interesting categories to pique their interest.”

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Designer wear is one of them. The range includes veteran designers such as Lai Chan and Thomas Wee, as well as their younger, up-and-coming industry counterparts. To give every label a fair chance of exposure, specially carved out pop-ups that boast modern accessories, homeware and trendy streetwear, among others, are also in the pipeline under her stewardship. “We want designers to make Design Orchard their home and main community space where they can also service their customers,” Tan‑Leo says. “And I know we can make it the best multi-brand concept store in Singapore as we have the support, strategic location and appealing brands to attract consumers.”

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Tan-Leo explains that the TaFF is committed to nurturing emerging, green and retail-ready homegrown brands, with Design Orchard as a platform to showcase and retail their original designs. It is currently home to three separate programmes, each curated to accelerate different areas of growth. These include strengthening their design and sharpening designers’ business acumens as they eventually scale their fashion lines to reach an international clientele.

Tan-Leo is perfectly situated to facilitate this, as she had achieved global success with her now-defunct contemporary fashion and accessories label Alldressedup, which in its heyday had dressed Hollywood A-list stars, including Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi, to name a few. Relating to her own experience, Tan-Leo says, “Nobody is perfect and all designers have to start somewhere. At TaFF, we seek to help identify brands with a unique voice to nurture as a starting point.”

Besides bringing a wealth of retail experience to the table, Tan-Leo also prides herself in understanding the nuances of navigating the complex fashion and retail industry. She hopes to bridge the gap by making sure that no designers are left out. “I’m able to negotiate and open the channels of communication: to be the voice for the younger generation of designers, yet also represent the interests of veteran players and government bodies. It’s important to reconcile the objectives of both sides in order to elevate our local brands and in the long run, transform Singapore into a fashion hub of the world.”

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