The store that brought ‘real fashion’ to Singapore: influencer Mae Tan on Surrender, and her love of menswear

Dover Street Market’s opening was a watershed for fashion in Singapore, but Mae Tan’s store paved its way. The 23-year-old reflects on Surrender’s history, why Singaporeans don’t invest in fashion, and why a bricks-and-mortar presence matters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 8:33am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 6:54pm

Despite its role as a global financial, and now even a diplomatic, centre, Singapore has always lagged behind other Asian cities – such as Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai – when it comes to fashion retailing.

Blame it on the constantly hot weather or the laid-back style of its denizens, but the city has yet to develop a strong fashion identity that can support a world-class shopping landscape. While there are plenty of malls, offering the top labels that you can find in major international hubs, multi-brand stores and independent boutiques are still hard to find.

In recent years, however, thanks to an influx of travellers from nearby countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and Vietnam, and the government’s focus on increasing the city state’s soft power, things have started to change.

The arrival last year of Dover Street Market, the uber-cool emporium with branches in fashion capitals such as London, New York and Tokyo, was a watershed moment. Fashion insiders in Hong Kong still wonder why the boutique chain passed it over in favour of the Lion City. Until Dover Street Market opened, the only shop in Singapore that offered an assortment of niche luxury and streetwear labels was Surrender, on the shopping thoroughfare of Orchard Road.

Surrender started out as a small menswear boutique inside Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, offering preppy menswear labels such as Thom Browne and APC. About four years ago, it went through a rebranding under current creative manager Mae Tan, whose family acquired it from its founder.

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Tan had worked at the original Surrender and is now in charge of a growing retail business, which also owns Japanese brand Christian Dada and distributes Off-White in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.

As soon as she took the reins of the enterprise, Tan revamped the store “to have a different take on fashion here in Singapore, which is normally very safe”, as the 23-year-old explains when we meet her in Singapore.

Clad in one of her signature tomboy outfits – a black sleeveless top cinched at the waist with a maxi belt, and paired with black palazzo pants and Margiela heels – Tan explains how she’s managed to raise the profile of the store and turn it into one of the region’s hottest retailers.

“Nobody really dares to do real fashion here in Singapore,” she says. “We wanted to change people’s mindsets and make them understand that it’s not just buying clothes but a lifestyle you’re buying into. The brands we carry have stories and content. They’re not the hugely popular brands but very niche, and we want to share their stories because there’s more than just big names.”

Household names such as Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton are indeed big draws among Singaporeans, who tend to invest in accessories rather than apparel and are not Surrender’s top clients.

“Most of our customers are foreigners: China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand are very strong markets for us,” says Tan. “Local clients are fewer because Singaporeans are very cautious about money. We were brought up to save for your house, your car, your children.

“Life is very expensive here so our local market is really small, but we don’t forget about them. We don’t get them to spend but still educate them about what’s happening in fashion outside Singapore and we invite them to take a look, and then it’s their choice if they want to make sacrifices and spend with us.

“To purchase something like that is an investment, but if you appreciate what goes into it maybe you’ll understand and decide to spend on something. If you think about it, only a few years ago no one would have bought a S$1,000 (US$735) pair of sneakers, but now people do.”

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Featuring a mix of Asian brands such as Visvim and Ambush and European ones such as Palm Angels and Marcelo Burlon in a gallery-like setting that displays artworks from the likes of Sterling Ruby, Surrender wouldn’t look out of place in Tokyo’s Aoyama or New York’s SoHo. It delivers a shopping experience that’s pretty much unparalleled in Singapore, which explains why Tan still believes in the power of bricks and mortar.

“Surrender is like an incubator for brands,” she says. “When you come to the store and hear the storytelling and try the clothes on it’s different. People forget how that feels when they buy online.

“When you come to Surrender you’re supposed to find something new. Our staff introduces you to new brands that are not here yet and we also try to do exclusive collections or pop-ups or installations to give the customers an experience.”

Those “big names” that dominate Singapore’s retail scene are also getting in on the action, trying to capitalise on the street cred and cool factor that a place like Surrender can offer. None other than Louis Vuitton took over Surrender last year for the launch of its collaboration with Japanese brand Fragments, which further cemented Tan’s role as an arbiter of cool.

When you come to Surrender you’re supposed to find something new. Our staff introduces you to new brands that are not here yet
Mae Tan

While Surrender may shun online sales, Tan herself has a strong social-media presence, which she leverages to raise the store’s profile.

“I connect with a lot of people and I can redirect them to Surrender, but many have this misconception that I’m only an influencer and don’t have a day job but I do,” she says. “I’m in the office every single day. It’s fun to handle both and to learn how to separate the two or combine them when needed.

“When I throw an event it helps because we do PR, marketing and events in-house, so my influencer thing comes in handy, as I can reach out to many people.”

When looking at the well-edited selection of pieces available at Surrender, it’s clear that Tan and her team have fully embraced the pivot towards streetwear and genderless clothing that has been the thing in fashion for quite a few seasons now, although Tan says that they were doing that long before labels such as Off-White became the epitome of cool.

It also reflects her personal style, which was informed by her upbringing. “I do like to dress up at night but I prefer pants, I’m definitely not a skirt girl. I can do full Gucci or Loewe and then go street. I’m very eclectic and I don’t feel that I have a specific style, but I do have a passion for menswear,” she says. “It started when I was working at Surrender and discovered Thom Browne and fell in love.

“I grew up with men: I have two brothers and all my cousins are boys. My mom only has brothers, so I’ve always felt more connected to guys. Because I hang out with guys so much I always watch guys dress up. My brother used to skate and I started with street style because my brother was into it, so it became an instinct for me.

“When I started working, I would ask myself, what would my brother wear? Or my guy friends or my father. I was putting myself in their shoes.”

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So how has the opening of Dover Street Market impacted the business? “Before they came here we had no competitor in Singapore and were very comfortable,” Tan says. “It’s a very small market and I know their team, so when they came we realised that it was going to be fun for us because finally we had someone to compete with, but it’s a healthy competition and a fun challenge.

“I encourage my team to go there and see and I have to say that it has good stuff too. It’s good that we have more drive to do something new.”