Singapore streetwear survivor rides style’s new popularity and expands to trendy Chengdu, China
Flesh Imp stayed under the radar for most of its 18-year history, preferring collaborations with the likes of rapper ShiGGa Shay and model Rebecca Tan to hyping its name. With streetwear back in vogue, the brand is growing
Just like the rest of the world, streetwear has taken Singapore by storm.
Graphic T-shirts, oversized hoodies and track pants as well as Balenciaga Triple S sneakers, bags with Off-White’s signature industrial yellow belt strap and, of course, anything by Supreme are what the stylish are sporting on the streets.
To meet shoppers’ demand, a slew of new stores offer cult luxury streetwear, including multi-label boutiques Dover Street Market and Surrender, as well as an Off-White shop. What many do not know – or have forgotten – is that two decades ago, before this hype about high-end streetwear, the urban, utilitarian aesthetic was already hugely popular among Singaporean youth.
In the late 1990s and early noughties, teenagers influenced by the skateboarding, graffiti and hip hop subcultures would flock to malls such as Far East Plaza and The Heeren, where home-grown stores such as the now-defunct 77th Street offered wide-legged Alien Workshop jeans and chunky silver accessories.
Alongside international brands such as Stussy and Quiksilver was a local streetwear label called Flesh Imp, known for its graphic T-shirts packaged in styrofoam and cling wrap, like meat sold in supermarkets.
Today, most of these names barely register on the radar of the style-conscious. In fact, Flesh Imp, which might just be Singapore’s sole surviving streetwear brand from this era, has mostly fallen out of mainstream consciousness – although it has remained a staple among the indie music and creative communities.
But as the brand celebrates its 18th anniversary this year, it looks like its fortunes are changing now shoppers have embraced streetwear again. Its latest collection features unisex separates, such as short-sleeved dinosaur-motif shirts, printed bomber jackets and botanical-patterned, oversized jersey tops, all of which would go quite nicely with those Balenciaga sneakers or Off-White bags.
Flesh Imp was founded in 2000 by managing director Vincent Quek and director Nicholas Cho, who have big plans for their brand.
Although Flesh Imp has scaled down its presence in Singapore – it has a single 1,800 square foot (167 square metre) store in Cineleisure Orchard, down from five outlets in prime malls during its heyday – it has been launching in countries around the region.
It is available in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan and Hong Kong through e-commerce platforms such as Zalora, Lazada, Shopee and Zilingo, and made a foray into China last year via VIP.com.
Up next is a flagship boutique in Chengdu, which is slated to open next July.
Being a Singapore brand, says Cho, has been a boon when breaking into the China market, which has been very receptive. Cho says: “Singapore has built a brand for the country. The moment customers hear that Flesh Imp is from Singapore, they will say Stefanie Sun or JJ Lin. That has given us an advantage.”
The brand’s revenue in China is projected to reach S$10 million (US$7.3 million) by the end of 2019 through online sales via Tmall, Jingdong and VIP.
To ensure its products stand up to international scrutiny, Flesh Imp has gone to great lengths to elevate its products, such as by “swapping more premium quality materials and better finishings”, says Quek.
The duo are designing an autumn/winter collection featuring cold-weather apparel for the China market for the first time, and they aim to ensure that price points, which range from S$29 for a T-shirt to S$189 for a jacket, remain accessible, something that has been part of their credo since the brand’s founding.
“We had this conversation about increasing our prices just to match (those of international brands) but we want to continue to provide clothes that are affordable yet trendy and relevant to our audience,” says Cho. “Not everyone can afford a Gucci or Off-White every month, but I think it will be possible to buy something from Flesh Imp frequently,” he says.
It helps that they have a knack for churning out trendy yet wearable designs, such as checkerboard jersey tops and comfy jogger pants that integrate easily with one’s wardrobe.
Long-time fans like Cordelia Low, founder of a talent management company, who has been wearing the brand for a decade, says: “I find Flesh Imp unique because the designers integrate international trends and local vibes into their collections. Their designs are versatile and the looks are very easy to pull off.”
While many streetwear brands today rely on generating hype to drive sales, Cho and Quek say they would rather not “ride the hype bandwagon”. Instead, their strategy to ensure the brand’s longevity is to cultivate a youth-driven network through partnerships with local personalities.
“We’ve always been growing this culture by supporting local artists and working with up-and-coming ones. This is how we hope to elevate both artists and the brand together,” says Cho.
Flesh Imp was one of the first brands to reach out to rapper ShiGGa Shay when he was a fledgling artiste posting videos on YouTube. Not only did it sponsor his clothing, it also invited him to make appearances and perform.
Today, its factory produces ShiGGa Shay’s merchandise and Flesh Imp will be launching a capsule collection in collaboration with the singer. Three other capsule collections with local personalities Rebecca Tan, a model, actor-singer Benjamin Kheng and actor Wang Weiliang, are expected to drop this year.
Flesh Imp intends to do the same with artists and creatives in other countries as well, which is why it chose to set up its first overseas store in Chengdu.
“We discovered that Chengdu is a very creative city with a rich artisan history and many musicians, singers and designers. The street culture is relatively strong there and people are willing to experiment,” says Cho.
“Once we build the foundation with the Benjamins and ShiGGAs of Chengdu, then we can cross-pollinate. That is something that no hype can create.”