With 7 standalone Benjamin Barker stores and a space at Isetan @ Scotts, a multi-label store and a café respectively named The Assembly Store and The Assembly Ground, you wouldn’t think that the team behind it all is based in Singapore. This is especially so when most local fashion brands struggle to even set up and maintain one store.

In celebration of The Assembly Store’s 1st-year anniversary and the launch of its online presence, we met up with Nelson Yap, the founder and creative director of the Benjamin Barker Group. We sat down at The Assembly Ground and had a chat about his menswear label, what makes a gentleman and the reality of being a local fashion brand in Singapore.

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How did you come up with the name ‘Benjamin Barker’?
It’s actually very boring how we came up with it. I was thinking of a name with significance so ‘Benjamin’ actually means ‘son of the south’. And I conceived this name when I was in Australia – “south” referring to “down under”. Then, Barker is the road that I grew up in.

Who is the Benjamin Barker man?
The Benjamin Barker man is a gentleman who embodies a quiet confidence. He is a collector of memories, experiences and adventures. He’s slightly quirky and he’s assured of his own personal style, which is more of classics rather than the sweeping trends on the runway.

Benjamin Barker has been pretty successfully, with 7 standalone stores. What’s your formula to achieving such success?
I think honestly, I would attribute it to the team because for the longest time, we felt like the underdog brand. And I think the key is to be faithful in the little things and that it will amount to something big one day. I don’t think we are successful yet but we just focus on doing the little things well, know what our customers want and then we go with that.

As opposed to competing with other brands.
Yes yes. We don’t actually look at our competitors but rather; this is what our customers will appreciate. And then we try to make the product even better. We focus a lot on looking towards our customers.

Why do you think other local designers find it harder to set up even one store?
I think it’s very hard to set up a fashion label in Singapore. Just because the market is small and in Singapore, for a business to make it, you have to get a lot of things right. You cannot look inwards and say, “Ok I want to set up a fashion brand and this is what I want. This is my style.” You need to look outwards and ask what is the customer looking for or is this already available in the market. When we started off it was very tough because when we wanted to get into malls, there was a lot of hesitation. But an international brand comes along and straightaway they will just give the space to the international brand. I think all the local brands face this. So I think we just have to be very focused and don’t grow for the sake of growing. We pumped back everything into our next store. But we didn’t grow because we wanted to have more stores, we grew because we identified that there’s a bigger market.

Your prices are quite competitive. How did you guys manage to do that?
I think when we started, we already knew that in order to influence men to be inspired to dress up, we need it to be accessible. It came from that – we need to sell it at a very competitive price. So we came from that angle and made the best out of how much we can get out of that price.  We asked ourselves what the priority is for every single piece of item. Is it the fabric? Is it keeping it simple? Is it, you know, not putting in too many details? If putting in details means added cost then we’d rather take it away. So we focus a lot on the fit. Ultimately everyone wants to look sharp, right?

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What do you think makes a gentleman? Is it the way one dresses?
To me, a gentleman is a mix of velvet and steel – he’s someone who can be firm but at the same time he can be compassionate. I believe a gentleman dresses appropriately for the occasion. He doesn’t necessarily always have to be in a three-piece suit.

 What do you think of the Gentleman’s Pride then?
(laughs) I knew that was going to come out. You see, I’ve recently met them. Because I’m a filmmaker and I also do campaigns, I think when you dress like that, it’s for a specific purpose; to tell a story. It’s obviously for a photoshoot. If you’re just going to take that image and say, “Hey, this guy is dressing like that in Singapore. That’s very over the top.” it’s like taking something out of context. Because when I met them, they weren’t wearing all that – they were in T-shirts and jeans.

How much do you think Singapore’s fashion sense has evolved?
How much has it evolved? laughs It’s a lot. But then again, I travel a lot so I see that we are behind other countries. We are not so daring and are not so able to try this or that. I think it’s because Singaporeans judge people very easily. And people are scared to be judged. That actually restricts us from trying to express ourselves. You go to a country like Australia or the US, people will just dress however they want and no one cares. So I think it’s definitely evolved in a way that we are more discerning in what we wear but not really in a fashionable sense.

What is one thing that you wish men would stop wearing?
Ok. I don’t think that there’s anything I’ve seen that’s hideous in Singapore. Everything seems ok but if there’s anything, I know what my wife would want me to stop wearing – hairbands.

What are the plans for Benjamin Barker in the future?
For this year, we have established 8 stores in Singapore and that was our target for Singapore. This year, I’m going down to Australia to set up a store. And as well as starting to speak to some of the franchisees who are interested in our brand to bring in to their country. Most of them are our customers who wrote in a few years ago but we’ve always replied no because we wanted to be very stable in Singapore first. Now that we are very stable, this year is where we are looking at regional expansion.

Benjamin Barker is located at Orchard Cineleisure, Wheelock Place, Marina Square, Vivo City, Grand Cathay, Capitol Piazza, Suntec City and Isetan @ Scotts, as well as online at benjaminbarker.co and theassemblystore.com.

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