This August, we catch up with Darren Lee, founder of local street style site Shentonista and integrated communications agency Uniform (whose clients include The Working Capitol, Luxe Singapore and Kilo). At their cosy office in Aljunied, we learn more about the origins of both projects, and Darren’s views on Singapore’s style and fashion scene today.
Hi Darren! Most people know you as the founder of Shentonista, but your first baby seems really to be Uniform. Could you tell us a little more about it?
Actually, Shentonista started first. I used to work at a video production and branding house at Raffles Place, and I was with a good childhood friend, and he exclaimed, ‘I doubt you can find any fashionable people here!’ So I went about trying to prove him wrong, and that’s how Shentonista first started.
How did you decide to branch out from Shentonista to start Uniform, and what inspired you?
Previously I was with another company and we did some fashion branding projects. They gave me quite a bit of freedom with a menswear label called The Perfect Tangent. I had a significant amount of fun with the project and it allowed me to merge both my marketing and fashion backgrounds. After awhile the company decided to focus on video post-production; that wasn’t really aligned with what I wanted, things didn’t work out in the company and that led me along the way to start Uniform.
Initially, we focused on creating fashion films. We felt that it was an emerging market and brands would catch on – not many understood the value of content at the time. We kept on pitching ideas and that paved the way for us to work with some brands in completely disparate fields (construction and fashion). It got the ball rolling.
We realised our strengths lay in content and communication, so we began focusing on that.
Who are the most inspiring/stylish/coolest people you met through Shentonista? Do you have any favourite outfits from the people featured on the site?
We had this one lady at Art Stage, and she was wearing a cheongsam. She was quite stunning and looked like she just popped out of a Wong Kar-Wai film! She was an art gallery curator who fascinated and captivated us.
The rest of the people we have shot also have their own distinct style and it mirrors what they do at work and how they live. It’s interesting to uncover the connection. We’ve worked with models on fashion campaigns previously and they’ve not been as effective as the everyday person, who generate quite a bit of traction.
We hold a little contest on our Facebook page for the Shentonista of the Year and, this year, the winner Debra had the highest traction ever.
The key reason we work on Shentonista is for the opportunity to celebrate common people and we want to change the perception that Singaporeans can’t dress, while uncovering the psyche of the Singaporean, their thoughts on work, life and how they express themselves.
How would you describe your own style? Do you have any clothing articles that are essential to your own personal style?
I’ve been told it was weird before but now it’s just become like ‘poor schoolboy who just wears pyjamas to work’. It represents the way I’m living, working and how I generally feel – yearning for sleep but still learning.
So, how‘s it like working at Uniform?
Uniform is almost like a school, sometimes it reminds my colleague Shu of classes she used to have. I’d like to think that we’re very close knit, like a school with all your friends, almost like a family of sorts. This is the company culture we’ve been trying to move along with.
It’s about constantly learning, defining our value proposition to our clients, providing them a good experience and, hopefully, having them see value in our work. The eventual goal is to keep everyone together and grow together because that’s all that matters to me.
What do you think about the general style identity of Singapore?
I think it’s progressively improved – at least in Raffles Place where we see a huge congregation of professionals; they’re more open to experimenting new styles. Colour is definitely being used more by guys, and people are slowly moving away from super-skinny jeans, which is refreshing for me! (laughs) Everyone is gradually affected by the easy access to inspiration online. Everyone draws bits and pieces from various influences and labels, and puts them together. It doesn’t always fit with who they are but that’s interesting in itself.
Who are your favourite local designers and why?
For me, the people who do interesting work and steer towards maintaining a certain standard of quality are Kevin Seah, Atelier LLYR, and Ed et Al. They’ve made a dent in the social fabric. On Shenton Way, you see a number of people picking up bespoke menswear and tailored suits. It’s slowly moving away from being something for specific occasions and has become more Asian-centric – it’s great o see that more locals and Asians are supporting this craft.
Alfie Leong deserves a mention. He has been around for a long time, and for him to stay in business for that long a time proves his stamina in the business. What’s more, he caters to not only the high-end, with his company A.W.O.L (All Walks of Life), he has a more accessible line BYSM too. Somehow he finds time to manage a create a platform for local and Asian emerging designers at Workshop Element. Carrie K. has done a fantastic job on her jewelry line and Keepers too, it’s heartening to see more platforms for talent in Singapore – particularly so when it’s helmed by someone who’s been through the struggles of starting out in the industry themselves too.
What are some of the challenges you think local brands face today?
Not everyone embraces or truly appreciates these local brands in the market. There isn’t a textile industry in Singapore – this makes it highly challenging for designers to create what they want and sell it at a price point that resonates with the market.
But generally people are more open to adopting and supporting Singaporean brands now. Like with Yessah, Linda translates her distinct style into her collections, manages to get it stocked in various places and actually have the passion to keep at it even though it’s incredibly thankless a project.
What‘s the wackiest/strangest thing you‘ve ever done for style/fashion?
Well, at one point, I looked like a baby Jesus at Mediacorp. My hair was too long. People kept saying I looked like a junkie. It was a terrible look! (laughs) Never could complete the look and grow beard though.
Now that Uniform and Shentonista are both up and running, with a big following for the latter, what‘s next on the charts for you?
After an initial focus on fashion, we’ve been focused on diversifying Uniform’s portfolio to include lifestyle and food. So far, we’ve been fortunate to find some clients who’ve come on board. Similarly we’d like to do that for Shentonista through our content offerings for a similar type of clients.
2015 has been an awesome year for Shentonista campaigns. We’ve had great clients who want to do things like the We Need A Hero Campaign we ran with Fred Perry for Shentonista, where we found everyday heroes off the street like your landscaper, your cobbler, your fruit seller, the pizza delivery guy – gave them a makeover and celebrated them on our website. These people often go unnoticed but everyone has their own story and form of expression. It’s a refreshing change from your fashion bloggers or celebrities, because the common man could be just as interesting as well.