Inside Ling Wu Le Salon with Wu Ling Ling
In an echoing apartment along Chip Bee Gardens (the more trendy stretch of Holland Village), Wu Ling Ling of her own eponymous label, Ling Wu is inviting me to take a seat at the dining table. The first time I met Ling was on a rainy evening, at the opening launch of her new boutique, Le Salon, that evokes an apartment-style, showroom-esque allure. When I entered the door, the amiable Ling took me by the hand like a warm host greeting an old friend.
The same stretch that houses Le Salon also features a row of homegrown brands such as Ong Shunmugam, Bynd Artisan, and Sunday Folks just to name a few. Unlike the rest, Le Salon is located on the 2nd floor, with an inconspicuous sign by the door. When I ask her if she intentionally wanted to create a level of intrigue, Ling muses, “I want to create the mystery of what lies beyond a door, and upon entering, you find yourself in a beautifully conceptualised space.”
Ling spent her adolescent years and most of her childhood in the garment manufacturing business owned by her parents. With a solid foundation, she explored other creative outlets like being a graphic designer at Zouk to selling lingerie, eventually settling down to become a handbag and accessories designer known for the use of butter-soft leathers and hand-polished exotic skins. We speak to with Ling on how she handles being a lecturer at Lasalle, a mother of 3 and the future of her business.
HNW: Why a walk-up apartment concept?
Wu Ling Ling: Prior to opening Ling Wu Le Salon, all our goods were consigned to shops and departmental store counters. For the last 3 years, we were at the National Design Centre but it was just a 300 sq feet space consisting of a small tiny corner to display our products. People expressed their interest to come, but we felt that the space wasn’t adequate enough to truly reflect the brand. Subsequently, when I was planning to open a boutique, I wanted it to be very much like my own home—cosy and personable. In Japan and Hong Kong, I am amazed by their little concept stores. Even if you look at other countries, their stores can be on the 7th or 13th floor because ground floor units are too expensive, so people got creative by converting residential units into commercial spaces. We don’t have signages downstairs but our address is on the website, and if people need directions, they can call us.
Who designed the space and what is the idea behind it?
I did everything and it took me 3 months to complete the space. No interior designers were engaged, and everything was sourced and done by me. As a creative, it doesn’t make sense to engage an interior designer. In terms of the concept of the space, I wanted to have a relaxing dining area where people can come and have tea, and there is a cosy living room with products that blend into the overall decor. I want my customers to make themselves feel at home, allowing them to immerse themselves in the world of Ling Wu. Understanding and experiencing the brand are very important to me.
When you have your own place, you have the freedom to add pieces and tweak the layout. We bought this frame (where the handbags are on) and felt that the black was too industrial, so together with my daughter, we hand painted it gold. This sofa has been with us forever, but when we brought it in, it felt too masculine and hard. So we decided to add the sheepskin throw to soften the contrast, while still appearing luxurious. Most of our furniture is vintage: we have a 1950s Danish sofa, chairs from Germany, and a 1952 recreation of the George Nelson’s ceiling light. I started sourcing for vintage items since I was a teen and I loved doing it. I have no idea why I obsessed with vintage, but perhaps the history and story behind each item fascinates me.
What’s your favourite feature of the space?
I like my Helmut Newton Jodie Foster poster. I also like hanging out at the dining table. When we have guests over, we will clear the coffee table by the sofa and sit around it. We will bring out cheese and wine and sometimes even host a tea party. Just the other day, I had 7 ladies in their 50s who were secondary school friends from the Dance and Drama club. Sometimes you just want to chill with your girlfriends in a relaxed ambience to shop, without feeling stuffy.
In the shop, we also carry products from other designers such as Alexandra Alberta, a Singaporean designer based in London, niche fragrance home objects from A Dose of Something Good, vintage accessories from Dark Horse Vintage, jewellery from Pyar and also cashmere scarves from Trebene.
How did you realise your love for design?
Growing up in a garment manufacturing family, my family had their business literally at home. Everywhere was filled with sewing machines and cutting tables. It was an old semi-detached, corner house and we were living and sleeping on the balcony. When I was young, during summer holidays, my parents would make us go to the factory to help out, which sparked my interest in production. I prefer making things and seeing products come to life in the sample room than perhaps, going to a fashion event. I guess creating products came naturally to me, so I went to Lasalle and studied graphic design, before going to London.
To me, design can be on a flat paper or on the computer, there are so many different mediums to express yourself. Although I make handbags and accessories, at the end of the day, I really love the creative process from start to finish.
How did you start the brand?
I started the brand 6 years ago. At that time, I was studying in London and the only bag that I could afford was the weekend trip to Portobello Market or Camden. I would get myself a 5 to 10-pound vintage bag specifically from the 1920s to the 80s. Every bag that I have seen, I know exactly where the designers take inspiration from because I am always researching about vintage bags.
It came from there, collecting a lot of vintage bags, bringing it back to Singapore and selling them. Every country that I travel to, like Italy, I would check out vintage stores. Every time we go back to Australia, the first stop will be the vintage stores or the weekend flea markets. When I ended the lingerie business, I was thinking what to do next. I had 2 kids then and was sort of on a break when I went to Bali. There, I saw this beautiful raw material of python skin and different exotic skin and thought that why not start a few bags and see how it goes? It started from there and it evolves into a real business.
How did you take the risk and start a business?
My parents were very poor but they were so hardworking. Despite not being well-educated, they could still make it in the business world. And if I were to compare myself to them, shouldn’t I be in a more advantageous position? The fashion business is very different from other businesses. Fashion is very fast-paced and you need a lot of stamina. When I first started, 3 years into the business, we had 10 consignment stocking outlets and we had to handle delivery, returns, and a mountain of paperwork. There was a lot of work involved but gradually, word got out.
In the fashion business, I have seen a lot of designers give up and I can understand why. The local market is too small and you are easily affected if there is an economic downturn. I think every designer should think further and expand their business overseas. Having your own business means working 24/7. Unless you are really passionate, I suggest you work for someone else. You have to be very focused and it can be very tough.
How do you define the Ling Wu customer?
Most of our customers are working professionals. We get a lot of working women with the money to spare because our bags don’t fall into the $200 to $300 price range. They are individuals with a higher spending power. Once they purchase their first bag, and get to know the brand better, they start expanding their collection with an evening bag or a weekend bag.
What makes your bags so special/unique?
We use a lot of exotic skins. Usually, exotic skins in the designer category will cost around $3,000 to $5,000, but we want to make the pricing more affordable for the independent working woman. Our emphasis is on quality—we use crocodile skin and even Heng Long leather, the same supplier of Hermes and Louis Vuitton.
When we design, we think about our target audience. For example, if women need a compartment to put their laptops, or additional pockets to carry documents. With every bag that we sell, it has to be functional too. Evening bags were our recent addition and during the design process, I asked myself: When you go out for dinner, what do you need? Phone, house keys, car keys and some money… the purse has to be able to fit everything. Our first batch was so pretty but they were too small. Ultimately, our bags have to be aesthetically pretty, yet practical for our customers.
Unlike a departmental store, where you can’t give feedback and accurately know what customers are looking for, we get ideas from our customers’ feedback and suggestions, and take that into consideration when we push out a new range. The problem with consignment stores is that there is a high staff turnover. In addition, staff either don’t know the product well or provide the correct information you need. At Le Salon, we take the time to introduce and explain to customers our products.
What is the future of Ling Wu?
We are thinking of collaborating with other designers and also going into jewellery. Other things like chairs and tables are of interest to me too. Pottery is something that I have been wanting to try as well. It is always nice to work with people because everyone has a different skill set, and we can learn and inspire from each another.