Velda Tan: A Vision Unveiled
Well, this is a first. Velda Tan has somehow managed to turn the tables on me, and is asking a slew of questions before I can lob one over. I have now become the interviewee. Not that I mind, but I am pleasantly surprised and slightly caught off guard. Wait. This is not the scenario I had envisioned. Singapore’s much-feted social media star who has successfully played an influential role in making blogshops the zeitgeist in fashion or rather the woman-that-everyone-probably-style-stalks, is taking a keen interest in getting to know me? I had braced myself for a veneer of icy aloofness and perhaps some self-absorbed antics. Instead, Velda is warm and engaging, making even the most bashful person feel at ease. As I judiciously answer each question, she listens intently, yet maintaining strong eye contact in an unblinking manner. Her sincere curiosity is most endearing. Is this what fame does to someone? Usually, it’s quite the contrary. But how Velda has kept herself grounded and is seemingly unfazed by the whirl of glitz – even to the point whereby she doesn’t know how the general public perceives her, is somewhat of an enigma.
“I really don’t know what people out there are saying or thinking about me,” confesses Velda, “And I don’t try to find out because I don’t want to know either.” I am trying to parse what she is telling me, but she slips so readily into a degree of candour that I simply acknowledge the veritas. There is no uncertainty on Velda’s end, however, as she is conscious and mindful of the potential implications of social media gone awry. “Sometimes, it can be quite pressurising because I have to be very careful about what I post. I’m aware there are many young girls who follow me since my Love, Bonito days and I want to be a positive influence. Hopefully, I can inspire them too.”
As Velda sits opposite me, her quiet charisma and poised demeanour are outlined by her strong-boned features and lush feathered brows. Yet, there are moments where I catch glimpses of her vulnerability. “When I left Love, Bonito, it really crushed me.” Her supple, full lips part ever so gently to reveal a slight gap in her front teeth, when pausing to reflect. “I had a hard time adjusting. . . I made the decision with no regrets, but I did not understand why my inner voice was telling me to leave.”
This bold move cements Velda’s position in the fashion industry as someone who is fearless and isn’t daunted at starting from scratch in order to create a different kind of impact – the appreciation for local designers. And her Pre-Fall debut of her new label, Collate, could not have been a more emphatic distancing from the former. It’s no surprise Velda is wearing the best-selling piece from that collection: a black double peplum knit dress, which also comes in two other colours. “I put on this business-like dress for you actually.”
WY-LENE YAP: What does your office represent for you?
VELDA TAN: To me, it is a space that fosters collaboration, and I apply that same mindset when I hire my employees too. I personally hand-picked every single one of them because ultimately, Collate represents something collective and we’re a bunch of people coming together to create something.
WY-LENE: How big is your team?
VELDA: I have 7 people.
WY-LENE: Do you like being in clean white spaces or do you like being surrounded by things that inspire you or remind you of times in your life?
VELDA: I like being in clean white spaces. If I had a choice, I would make it more minimalistic. It doesn’t necessarily have to be cold, but rather a blank space where you can allow creativity to happen and flourish. I don’t like to be cluttered by things.
I like to surround myself in a quiet environment and draw inspiration from there.
WY-LENE: Where does your creativity and ideas come from?
VELDA: It really depends on which point of my life I am at – currently, I am very inspired by nature, and I like taking walks and trips to scenic places. I like to surround myself in a quiet environment and draw inspiration from there. I used to be a city girl, but that was just a cosmopolitan phase.
WY-LENE: Looking at greenery helps to nourish your mind.
VELDA: Yes, and it clears your mind too. My ideas tend to come naturally. It’s hard to pinpoint when they pop up.
WY-LENE: What kind of books do you read?
VELDA: At the moment, I am reading two books: one is called Triggers, which talks about adult behavioural change, and the other is The Power of Habit. I am very interested in knowing what makes a habit and how the habit loop works.
WY-LENE: If I’m not wrong, it takes 21 days to develop a new habit.
VELDA: I don’t think they go into that, but rather the theory behind it. There are three things: the trigger, the action and the reward. They were doing studies on how you can change the habit (your action), but still keep the trigger and the reward.
WY-LENE: Ah, I see. Interesting.
VELDA: I don’t know why I am into that, but I also read quite broadly. For example, art magazines…
WY-LENE: You like Kinfolk too, right?
WY-LENE: Tell me more about your design process. Do you draw your collection out first, or do you design on the computer?
VELDA: I have a team of designers: a friend who works in London that does print design, and another in-house designer, Shu Juang [Oon] who used to be from OwnMuse. So, it starts with fabrics first. We will go on sourcing trips and make sure we find quality fabrics. Using the right fabric is important in the design process. We do have an idea of the kinds of fabrics to look for, and we will pick out those that we feel can form a collection. From there, Shu Juang will start to sketch. I am not trained technically, so I don’t do any sketching. However, along the way, she will show me the sketches and I will give my inputs – that is how the collection comes about. There are always a few key looks and certain elements we want to incorporate – for our Pre-Fall collection, we explored using different textures like playing with the contrast between soft and structured, as well as the double peplum. And that was our very first collection which we showcased at Singapore Fashion Week.
WY-LENE: You have embarked on a new journey and direction.
VELDA: Yeah, it’s also a steep learning curve – to go from being a retailer to a local designer. It is two different worlds.
WY-LENE: What fabrics are you obsessed with?
VELDA: I’m obsessed with a structured fabric called woven knit. It is flowy, and isn’t too thick for our weather.
WY-LENE: Why did you choose to go to Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion to study drawing, pattern-making and brand management?
VELDA: I had been to New York and London before. But I haven’t really explored London at that time. So it was a toss up between Parsons and Central Saint Martins. I’m not sure what attracted me to London, but something in my heart just told me to go there.
WY-LENE: How long were you there for?
VELDA: I took a 3 month-long winter course in 2013 and a month-long summer course in 2014.
WY-LENE: How was the experience like?
VELDA: It was great and I enjoyed my time there. But I wouldn’t say I liked going to school because I dropped out of school before, and I’m not an academic person.
VELDA: I went to MGS for secondary school, then Pioneer Junior College, followed by SIM. During my first year at SIM, I wasn’t keen on studying anymore. And two years into it… I decided to drop out. To be honest, after my O levels, I asked my mum if I could be an air stewardess because I wanted to be independent. Plus, I did not want to depend on my family anymore. I knew studying wasn’t my thing and I felt I didn’t need to have the paper qualifications. However, I had to follow the traditional path – so I went to JC not being happy. At SIM, I wasn’t happy too, and that’s when I started Bonito Chico. It was getting quite a lot of traction, but balancing my studies and running a business was tough. Eventually, I had to choose one, and strike while the iron was hot.
The key is to listen and understand what your customers want, and provide something meaningful for them.
WY-LENE: It’s admirable how you took the path less travelled. Unfortunately, in Singapore, people still judge one another based on their academic qualifications.
VELDA: But that’s how society works right?
WY-LENE: I’ve never believed that good grades are a measurement of success. You started out with Bonito Chico/ Love, Bonito and now, you have taken it to the next level with a more upmarket label: Collate. In these 8 years, what are the valuable lessons you have learnt?
VELDA: The key is to listen and understand what your customers want, and provide something meaningful for them. This is how people will stick to you and relate to your brand. So I try to apply the same philosophy of putting customers first, which I established at Love, Bonito, over at Collate.
WY-LENE: How has the industry evolved?
VELDA: When I was 18, nobody bought online – it was like taboo. I think even my parents were scared when I bought something from the US. They were sceptical and made comments like: “Why did you give your credit card to people so arbitrarily?” But I saw a gap there, and all it took was for us [Love, Bonito] to gain the trust of our customers and be a consistent brand. That was how people started to shop online. It was quite a big shift from the offline to online scene. Over the past few years, the boundaries between online and offline shopping have blurred further, as bigger brands have established their own e-commerce websites to provide value-add to their customers.
WY-LENE: How was the response like for your pop-up store at Tangs?
VELDA: Really good! Having a pop-up store played a crucial part in helping my business take off, and I knew I had to do that right at the start. It is not easy being an online brand and telling people who you are through a single platform. Customers need time to get to know me, my label, types of fabrics we use, various cuts, etc.
WY-LENE: Are you planning to do another one?
VELDA: Definitely, and I want to do something different every season.
WY-LENE: How are sales doing at the moment?
VELDA: Quite encouraging – especially at Tangs. We were given a target to hit within the 3-week time period and by the first week; we managed to hit the target. Thereafter, we had a meeting with Tangs and they asked us to stay longer. Hence, we extended our pop-up store from 3 weeks to 3 months. At first, I was quite apprehensive. I never worked on the retail floor before. But I received great customer feedback and learnt a lot from that experience, so I thought why not.
WY-LENE: How about online?
VELDA: Online sales have been picking up with our marketing efforts. I am very glad I chose to have a pop-up store because that’s where the majority of our sales come from.
WY-LENE: Do you find it challenging to move away from being closely associated to Love, Bonito now that you’re redefining yourself?
VELDA: The association of being a blogshop owner has always been there and it is part of who I am. I didn’t set out to redefine myself. It is a progressive step in my career and I’m excited to be able to build something new. Nowadays, people are very discerning, and I think they can tell the difference between Love, Bonito and Collate. I feel very strongly about my new brand and I hope to make an impact in the fashion industry. I want Singaporeans to appreciate and support local designers. Unfortunately, we are still not so keen right?
WY-LENE: Yeah, it’s always about big brands or fast fashion. The awareness is not there, and the general perception tends to be that anything local is inferior.
VELDA: I think it will take a lot to change Singaporeans’ perspective. But with all the SG50 initiatives to imbue a sense of local pride, I recognise a shift and would like to be part of it – that is also why I started Collate.
I hope my clothes can empower women when they wear them.
WY-LENE: Is the modern, sophisticated working woman who has more spending power your target market?
VELDA: Not necessarily… I want to provide a different alternative. We have a customer who is 60 years old and she is super fashionable! Increasingly, I’ve been noticing a lot of strong women or should I say “power women” in Singapore who are entrepreneurs… and the existing brands at the moment may not be the most ideal in terms of their style, personality and dress sense. I hope my clothes can empower women when they wear them.
WY-LENE: What’s your ultimate vision for Collate?
VELDA: Actually, I struggle with that because the brand is still too young. At this point, I am not going to confine it, but rather allow it to grow and evolve organically. That being said, we do adhere to certain guidelines: for example, we want to make styling effortless and explore ways to put a modern twist on classics.
WY-LENE: How are preparations for your Fall/Winter collection coming along?
VELDA: They are going well! I hope people will like the new collection.
WY-LENE: What can customers expect?
VELDA: We are moving away from pastel and seafoam colours towards a darker colour palette like burgundy, navy…
WY-LENE: When is it coming out?
VELDA: Mid-to-End September. We are also going to New York to do a trade show in September.
WY-LENE: Any plans for accessories?
VELDA: We hope to have diffusion lines, but it’s too soon to say right now.
WY-LENE: Which is harder: running a clothing label or a restaurant?
VELDA: Running a restaurant [Pince & Pints]! Maybe my aptitude for it is not there. My husband [Frederick] is a bit more flexible and nimble when dealing with different industries. He picked up the restaurant business very quickly, whereas I struggled, so he said: “Babe, I think it is time you find something that you love doing. I don’t think this makes you happy.”
WY-LENE: How long did you try it out for?
VELDA: 2 months.
WY-LENE: So you didn’t like it.
VELDA: It’s not that I didn’t like it. I enjoyed the creative process of working with a branding company to come up with the concept, so I helped him in that aspect. The rest was all on him.
WY-LENE: The restaurant business is tough and it’s not easy to survive.
VELDA: Yeah, there is a 50 percent turnover.
WY-LENE: Have you always wanted to open a restaurant? How did the idea come about?
VELDA: In 2013, Frederick and I left Love, Bonito together. And we took a year off to figure out what we wanted to do. We go to New York and London quite often. In New York, we love eating at lobster shacks and food trucks, and the prices are pretty reasonable too. In London, they have the burger and lobster concept where you can get a full lobster dish for £20 – and to me, that's quite a magical experience. Whereas in Singapore, you would have to go to a Chinese restaurant, and they charge you an arm and a leg for a lobster. So wanting to give people the experience of having a whole lobster and making it more accessible to them, sparked the idea.
WY-LENE: Why the name Pince & Pints?
VELDA: It’s hard to come up with a name, but I realised just don’t think too much about it, and go with the flow. Initially, I thought of “Pincers & Pints”, but it wasn’t catchy. Fred suggested “Pince & Pints” and at that time, we also played around with other options. What really sealed the deal was when we communicated to the branding company about our idea of wanting to serve lobsters and craft beers, and out of the list of 20 to 30 names which they came up with, one of them was “Pince & Pints”.
WY-LENE: When was the time you felt most broken?
VELDA: When I left Love, Bonito, it really crushed me. I had a hard time adjusting… I made the decision with no regrets, but I did not understand why my inner voice was telling me to leave. The company was at its peak and there was so much potential. I committed 8 years of my life to Love, Bonito, but somehow I was “called” to get out and I had to follow my inner voice.
WY-LENE: Your inner voice told you that you did not belong there?
VELDA: Ummm... yeah. For 6 months until I decided to leave. I did talk to my partners, and we cried and prayed about it… that was hard for me.
WY-LENE: You founded Love, Bonito with your sister [Viola] and best friend [Rachel].
VELDA: My dad was working as the warehouse guy too.
WY-LENE: Was there a catalyst?
VELDA: I think at that point, Frederick and I had been working together for a while already – he also quit school to help the company. We were quite aligned with our vision and direction in life, and somehow both of us were unhappy. We weren’t sure where the unhappiness came from—whether it was personal or work-related. And we tried to figure what that was… maybe it was something to do with working together and not being happy… I really don’t know.
WY-LENE: Growing and running a family business can be quite challenging. It’s a different dynamics altogether.
VELDA: I felt like I was stuck in the centre of everything and had to bear the responsibility of making sure everyone was okay. For example, I did not want Rachel to feel like she was not part of the family. I also did not want my marriage to be part of work because it’s not appropriate to bring personal matters into the mix.
WY-LENE: Who has influenced you the most in your life?
VELDA: My mum. She is the breadwinner of the family and has worked for the same bank for 40 years since she was nineteen. She also has polio and is a handicap, but has managed to get pregnant with 3 girls, raise them up, yet still hold a job. Her resilience and tenacity truly inspire me, and these are qualities I want to have.
At this point, I don’t think I have accomplished anything that I would be really proud of. The best is yet to be.
WY-LENE: What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
VELDA: At this point, I don’t think I have accomplished anything that I would be really proud of. The best is yet to be. So, we’ll see…
WY-LENE: How important are your looks to you?
VELDA: Important enough for me to put on make-up and look polished. I think that’s necessary in my industry where everything is taken at face value at the start. Down the line, I would like to age gracefully.
WY-LENE: You are known to be a huge social media influencer. How does it feel to have so many followers?
VELDA: People who have interviewed me or talked to me always say: “Oh, you have such a huge following… you’re an Instagram star.” But, I’ve never really thought of it that way. To me, I see social media as a creative outlet. Plus, there are a lot more people out there who have a bigger following. I am not chasing the numbers and it was never my intention in the first place. Sometimes, it can be quite pressurising because I have to be very careful about what I post. I’m aware there are many young girls who follow me since my Love, Bonito days and I want to be a positive influence. Hopefully, I can inspire them too.
Money or fame was never a motivation.
WY-LENE: That is heart-warming. Did you always have a desire for fame?
VELDA: No. Fame was never on my list of things I wanted in life. I’ve been asked questions before like: What have I always wanted in life? And money or fame was never a motivation. I always wanted a simple life. I dreamt of being a housewife when I was young… while others wanted to be doctors and lawyers.
WY-LENE: What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?
VELDA: I really don’t know what people out there are saying or thinking about me. And I don’t try to find out because I don’t want to know either. Sometimes, I will ask my colleagues what people are saying.
WY-LENE: That’s very intriguing…
VELDA: In primary school, I setup my own website and it was like an online journal/diary. After that, I had a blog and when I was blogging, I could be authentic and genuine – that was also a period when I was happy. Looking back at the past 10 years, I realised that sharing my stories make me happy, and I would like to try to do that again. For the last 2 years, I have been more closed off because of what I was going through.
WY-LENE: When I say fashion obsession, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
WY-LENE: Is there a particular person who you style stalk online?
VELDA: I used to stalk Song of Style’s Aimee Song. I really like Eleonora Carisi – she has great style.
WY-LENE: How would you define Singaporean style?
VELDA: Singaporeans tend to be very trend-driven. But it might be shifting. As a country, we’re still very young. Our neighbouring countries like Japan and Korea do have a very strong sense of style, and that is why they are one of the fashion capitals of the world – apart from New York, London, Italy and Paris. Hopefully, Singapore can be a fashionable city one day.
WY-LENE: What’s one thing that never goes out of style?
VELDA: A well-tailored pair of pants, a fitted blazer or a little black dress.
WY-LENE: This question may upset you, but what’s your style secret?
VELDA: Wearing the right underwear. It’s not the most glamorous answer. [laughs]
WY-LENE: Who do you dress for?
WY-LENE: Whose wardrobe would you like to steal?
VELDA: Eleonora Carisi’s wardrobe.
WY-LENE: Flats or stilettos?
VELDA: Flats. I am mostly in flats. I only wear heels for photo shoots.
WY-LENE: Pants or skirt?
VELDA: Definitely pants.
WY-LENE: Last question: I know you have a penchant for motorbikes. Are you a Harley or Ducati girl?
VELDA: Ducati for sure.