Debra Langley: Fashion, Retail and Venture Funding, Singapore

Industry: Fashion, retail and now venture funding

Work Experience:  My career has been a perfect mix of startups (a couple of which I’ve started) and international companies like Hearst Magazines,The Economist, and DKNY, all in different countries.

Current company and Role: I have my own consulting business, Coraggio, where I specialize in fashion and retail projects, and mentoring new designers. At the same time, I’ve recently joined Blackrun Ventures, which is a new, very cool global investment platform. At Blackrun, I focus on a few different industry segments, including initiatives that have a direct impact on women’s lives (and therefore on the lives of many others), women-led ventures, games, wellness, artificial intelligence and robotics.

Current Country:  Singapore

How long you have been living here for: Almost 8 years

Frame of Reference: London, New York, Boston, California, Hong Kong, New Zealand, brief stint in the Philippines, now Singapore. I call New Zealand “home” (despite not living there for more than 20 years), and am also an American who thinks of California and New York as former homes with which I still have strong emotional ties and lots of friends.

Inverted Edge

THE MOVE: REALITY VS. EXPECTATIONS

I moved here from California, because I’d been offered an international role that was based out of Singapore. I’d visited previously for other businesses, but living in a country is different from staying in a hotel and doing meetings at nice offices and restaurants. So I don’t think I really came with any set expectations, although I was lucky to have local and foreign friends here already who kind of gave me the lay of the land. But I’ll be honest, for the first nine months, many days I wanted to go home (US home) because there were a lot of things about the US/California lifestyle that I missed, and of course a big chunk of that was my network of friends there.

SINGAPORE IN A NUTSHELL

I could spend a long time talking about my experiences in Singapore and how they’ve shaped my view of living, but to echo social media, ‘it’s complicated”. I guess the short-form version is that I find Singapore poised and beautiful, but restrained and quite formal. It has a polished and quite sophisticated façade, but it feels afraid to cut loose, so I think the pulse could be bigger, louder and more vibrant if everyone let go and was more spontaneous. To put that into context, Singapore is like a pleasant dinner party companion who’s knowledgeable about a lot of things, but doesn’t say anything too irreverent or outrageous, and so it’s hard to know what she’s really thinking. But you’d still want to hang out with her again because you know there’s something interesting there.

To put that into context, Singapore is like a pleasant dinner party companion who’s knowledgeable about a lot of things, but doesn’t say anything too irreverent or outrageous, and so it’s hard to know what she’s really thinking. But you’d still want to hang out with her again because you know there’s something interesting there.

ITS COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

It’s clean and safe; no guns; taxes are workable (unless you’re American and then anything to do with tax is a pain); professional women like me can get affordable help; overall quality of life is good except when there’s haze; the international school my daughter attends has an incredibly diverse, UN-type student body and an outward facing curriculum. Oh, and it’s sort of in between the US and New Zealand.

THE PEOPLE

I think we’re lucky because in Singapore there’s such an incredible melting pot of people from all over, and there are also so many international influences in media, business, music, and culture. It’s very cool that K-Pop stars, Jennifer Lawrence, Fan Bing Bing, Taylor Swift, Gordon Ramsey, and David Beckham are all part of the same popular zeitgeist.

I have a great international social circle as well as local friends who haven’t lived outside Singapore, but we have things in common due to our kids for instance, or our interests. And my fashion network is amazingly diverse, and what we have in common is our love of the industry and design, or more specifically, our desire to see the industry in Singapore grow stronger and be recognized in the region and ultimately, globally for its entrepreneurialism and talent.

I think we’re lucky because in Singapore there’s such an incredible melting pot of people from all over, and there are also so many international influences in media, business, music, and culture. It’s very cool that K-Pop stars, Jennifer Lawrence, Fan Bing Bing, Taylor Swift, Gordon Ramsey, and David Beckham are all part of the same popular zeitgeist.

LIFE AS A FOREIGNER

There was a bit more of a welcoming environment for foreigners when I first arrived in Singapore, and there wasn’t so much public conversation about “the foreign factor.” I understand that the change is somehow bound up with politics and the elections, and popular sentiment, but I think part of the confusion stems from all foreigners being lumped together when we’re actually different segments with very different ecosystems. There’s the foreigners on expat packages who are here for a short time; there’s the foreigners on local packages (which is most of my international friends) who generally stay here for much longer than 2-3 years – some coming up to 15 years; and  there’s the single crowd who come for an adventure and do whatever work they can find or start companies. Of course there are also the foreign workers, whose issues are obviously very challenging and at a different part of the spectrum.

THE WORK CULTURE

I think it’s very hard to generalize and at the risk of stereotyping, I won’t. Let’s just say, I’ve worked here for a family-run business, a multinational, a startup with different investors, and now something of a hybrid.

In business, I’m generally direct, and while I try to be respectful in all cultures, I choose my words more carefully here than I would in say New York because I’m sensitive about how what I say might be interpreted – although to be fair, this caution is true for many of us working in Asian cultures.

ON BUSINESS : ENTREPRENEURSHIP

What, in your opinion, are the industries that are currently shaping Singapore?

I think Singapore is currently being shaped by tech and tech-related ventures in the startup ecosystem – and this is great, because being part of a startup is an amazing and unpredictable experience that forces you to innovate and to break out of traditional and in the case of recent graduates, school-mandated behaviors.

Even when the business is a copy of something from the US (which happens quite a lot here) startups are an alternative way to grow one’s skills beyond being an accountant, lawyer, doctor etc, and I say that with absolute respect for people who fill these professions.

I think Singapore is currently being shaped by tech and tech-related ventures in the startup ecosystem – and this is great, because being part of a startup is an amazing and unpredictable experience that forces you to innovate and to break out of traditional and in the case of recent graduates, school-mandated behaviors.

On a local front, do you think working in less traditional fields like entrepreneurship or the creative industry are accepted or celebrated?

I meet a lot of about-to-graduate or graduates who would like to be in design or fashion or something creative, but they’ve done degrees in engineering or law etc. to keep their parents happy.

I feel it’s going to take time before entrepreneurship and excelling in creative fields are truly celebrated here, but I get it. It’s a generational thing: parents naturally want their kids to get established and have regular incomes, and be financially safe, and being an entrepreneur or a designer, artist or musician doesn’t offer that kind of security. But the skills one learns from these pursuits can lead to greatness, financially and in other ways.

What type of support (or control) does the government give or have in contributing to the growth of these fields?

The government through its many agencies has been spectacularly supportive of tech ventures in Singapore and the region, and there are now multiple incubator and “Y Combinator”-type initiatives to help bring early stage ventures to commercial viability. Now it seems like many private entities also have venture funds – even the guys who sell iPhone covers and dongles and device equipment. There’s a lot of money sloshing around chasing startups that in turn employ people who give  rise to a different kind of ecosystem of products and services, e.g. such as new co-working spaces and Block 71, which is becoming a little tech town of its own, and there are now a myriad of tech related conferences that create jobs and breed new ideas.

There’s a lot of money sloshing around chasing startups that in turn employ people who give  rise to a different kind of ecosystem of products and services, e.g. such as new co-working spaces and Block 71, which is becoming a little tech town of its own, and there are now a myriad of tech related conferences that create jobs and breed new ideas.

How do you think this would impact Singapore in the future?

I’d like to think that when graduates who’ve been part of startups go on to have families and take on newer and bigger businesses, that they’re open and more creative, and that all the DIY startup experiences will influence everyone around them for the better. This should translate into a greater push from an informed and experienced business population to drive innovation and to do things differently. And of course there’s always the chance that a Singapore startup will do something totally world-changing or that will have a major impact on the way we live our lives.

ON THE SPACE : FASHION AND TECH

Given that your experiences range and crossover in the space of fashion, tech and entrepreneurship, what level of maturity do you think these industries are currently at?

For fashion, Singapore doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to support local fashion designers, which is something I would really like to work with the right agencies to change.

We have a talent pool in Singapore that has the potential to grow if the bar was raised higher by providing guidance to our designers in a way that’s current. This could come in the form of an incubator-type structure similar to the tech world that exposes designers to visiting experts, gives access to a robust fabric library, helps with building powerful brand propositions,  provides feedback on quality and production, and introduces new developments in design, technology, social media and retail. And importantly,  we bring them together so they learn from and challenge each other.

This is a model that would differentiate Singapore and is harder for others to replicate because this country’s infrastructure sophistication gives it an edge relative to others. When you make something like this work is when you have undeniable bragging rights about excellence.

This is a model that would differentiate Singapore and is harder for others to replicate because this country’s infrastructure sophistication gives it an edge relative to others. When you make something like this work is when you have undeniable bragging rights about excellence.

When running my last startup, Inverted Edge, which focused on collections from emerging designers, we encountered the result of what happens when designers have little gaps in their experience that translate to issues with fabrics, fit and pricing: there’s a major impact on customer perception, acceptance and ultimately sales. Mercury Communications, through their Fashion Futures 1.0 program, and Harper’s BAZAAR with their Asia New Generation Fashion Award, are important initiatives that are taking steps to mentor our rising stars, but we need to build on that even more, possibly in the form of a SWAT-like team that are equipped to better prepare designers to compete on an international stage.

I think one of the areas we have to look at, and that could attract more widespread funding support is in the area of fashtech. The reality is that fashion, retail and technology are quite naturally melding – with, for instance, lots of talk now about in-store and online digital experiences like shoppable video (Zentrick), interactive changing rooms deployed at Ralph Lauren (Oak Labs), and VR to bring runway shows directly to consumers everywhere (YouVisit). These are disruptive technologies that can really change the way people consume fashion. On that basis alone, I’d love to see initiatives in Singapore that take those kinds of ideas to a commercial level. Changing the ecosystem around the designers naturally drives change within. 

What, then, do you think would be the next step to propel this forward?

I think for fashion in Singapore, we’re coming to a real inflection point. Over the past few months I’ve been having and hearing encouraging conversations on needs to be done to position Singapore as a powerful and creative regional fashion hub (yes, really, we can do this), and there’s a collective understanding that we need to be what we say rather than just say what we want to be – because making an announcement along those lines requires real world justification.

I believe there’s support in the right places, and an open acknowledgement that we CAN do much more, but my personal view is that all that focus, intellectual horsepower and experience has to be harnessed under a single umbrella. It’s hard to do change by committee. The question is who is the “right” umbrella – should it be private or public or a blend … but once we resolve that and the leadership is in place, I think the path forward becomes quite clear.

Bazaar Designer Awards 2015-6998Debra on the judging panel ofHarper’s BAZAAR Asia New Generation Fashion Designer Award.Harpers BAZAAR AsiaNewGen 2016 competitionA snapshot of the work by the competing designers

Coraggio.coCoraggio is Debra’s consulting business which focuses on fashion brands and growing them.

Mercury Communicaitons Fashion Futures Emerging Designer Program - mentor session with Zaazaa

Debra with Walid Zaazaa, owner of local contemporary designer retail shop Manifesto, at Mercury Communications’ Fashion Futures Emerging Designer Program, which gives local designers the opportunity to learn from designers in NYC (a collaboration effort with the CFDA- Council of Fashion Designers of American) and show their brands to international buyers at this year’s Singapore Fashion Week.

THE RANKS:

  • Ease of travel/ getting around – 10
  • Beauty and appreciation of the city9
  • Security – 9
  • Ease of setting up8
  • The dining, retail and lifestyle scene7 (not a 10 due to the markups on food and fashion here… and no Chipotle)
  • Facilities and outlets to lead a healthy lifestyle8
  • The social and networking scene – 8
  • Personal growth – 7
  • Affordability of the city – 5 (becoming increasingly expensive)

Learn more about the ranking considerations here

Follow Kinnsu for the latest updates on our Facebook page

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s