Virtual consultations take off as bespoke businesses ply their trade online
SINGAPORE – How do you get your clothes tailored from home, without ever stepping foot into a store for a fitting? Or customise an engagement ring without being present to do quality checks?
Social distancing and the circuit breaker have made life difficult and challenging businesses that involve in-person consultations.
But rather than throw in the towel, some have swiftly adapted to offer their services online.
Can the virtual consult work in a socially distanced world? The Straits Times checks in with three brands to find out.
A form-fitting qipao tailored over Zoom
To tailor-make a piece of clothing without a personal fitting can seem counter-intuitive.
Even self-taught tailor Josephine Ho, 49, had reservations about accepting such a job. But the owner of qipao label Qiqing Qipao was so stirred by a customer’s disappointment at not being able to get her dress, that she decided to give it a go.
Perth-based general practitioner Tammie Wong, 39, had contacted her in January to custom-make a bridal qipao – also known as a cheongsam – for her wedding in late April. Born to Malaysian parents, Ms Wong wanted a qipao for the tea ceremony in Malaysia, after her Western-style wedding in Australia.
She was after a modern interpretation – “not the traditional red qipao” – and found Ho’s label on Google. Founded in 2016, Qiqing specialises in modern qipaos with more relaxed fits, muted tones, and everyday fabrics like tweed or linen-blends.
They scheduled her first fitting for end-February. Ms Wong had planned to take a holiday here then and stay for a week while Ho made the dress. But when the virus situation escalated in February, Ms Wong decided with a heavy heart to cancel her trip.
Sensing her client’s dismay, Ho suggested they try a fitting online over a video phone call. “I thought it was so brilliantly proactive of her,” recalls Ms Wong in an e-mail interview with ST.
Ho sent her pictures of bridal qipaos she had done before. In return, the doctor sent photos of herself – from the front, sides and back – so Ho could assess her body structure.
They completed everything in just two video calls.
In the first, they discussed preferences and details like length, collar height, shoulder styles (sleeveless versus cut-in), and whether to go for a side slit or back slit. Modern qipaos favour the back slit, which looks more tapered and office-appropriate, says Ho.
She showed her client fabric options on camera, taking pains to describe them in detail so Ms Wong could understand what she was choosing.
In the second call, a week later, they took the bride-to-be’s body measurements – each side armed with measuring tape, string, their phones, and assistants. Both women were dressed in a tank and tights for more precise measuring.
Ho used tricks like having Ms Wong wear a necklace, to get the exact circumference of her neck for the qipao collar. Throughout, Ms Wong found the designer’s instructions on how to measure herself “very clear and concise”.
After three weeks of tailoring and trading Whatsapp messages, Ho mailed out the package in end-March, praying nothing would happen to the dress en route. It was “too risky” to send the package back and forth, she says. “This was the one and only piece.”
When it arrived in early April, Ms Wong tried it on immediately. It was a perfect fit.
She had “complete confidence” in Ho and the process, she says. “(One) thing that impressed me was that if a measurement wasn’t done right Josephine would be able to tell immediately. She would say what she thought the measurement should be, and it would either be spot on or vary by 0.5cm when repeated correctly.”
That skill comes with experience as a tailor, acknowledges Ho. She also gives her customer credit for cooperation, and choosing the right fabric – a type of brocade with a bit of stretch.
“I was overjoyed when she sent me the photo – it was really fitted,” she adds. “It was just a labour of love; and seeing that, you know the labour didn’t go to waste.”
Above all, Ho, a mother of three boys, is grateful for the opportunity to “try new things” during this period of slow sales. While she usually sees eight to 10 bespoke customers a month during peak periods, she stopped receiving new jobs from end-January this year.
“It’s a breakthrough in my trade, realising that I don’t have to meet customers to get a cheongsam done,” adds the tailor who has a number of regulars from Australia that come to her for qipaos. “Now that travelling is reduced for those who are overseas, it helps a lot knowing I can do it online.”
It may even help with business locally. Some regulars ordered qipaos before the circuit breaker, but afraid to leave the house, put off their final fittings. “I still have the dresses, almost completed, hanging in my showroom,” she says with a laugh.
Virtual fittings would help minimise meet-ups, even after her showroom in Upper Serangoon Road reopens.
“My confidence is built up already; the opportunity from Tammie gave me the confidence,” says Ho, adding that the two have become friends. “You need to go through the whole process to realise that eh, it’s not that tough after all.”
Making scents of social distancing
Sniff and concoct your own dream perfume – without ever leaving the house.
That is what perfume atelier Maison 21G is promising, with its new virtual services. Following the circuit breaker closure, the perfumery on Duxton Road has shifted its scent-designing workshops online.
Business was good up until Covid-19 hit, says Bordeaux-born founder Johanna Monange, 45. Retail aside, the atelier conducted 80 to 100 workshops a month. Most attendees were pairs such as couples, friends, or mother-daughter duos.
Ms Monange noticed demand for home visits increasing in the lead-up to April, from customers “stressed about social distancing”. Available in Singapore and Australia, where she has another boutique, Maison 21G offers an existing Private Home Atelier service at $200 per person, which conducts the workshop in one’s home.
During a session, a scent designer will bring two ‘malettes’ (French for ‘suitcase’) of scents and concentrates – a portable version of the store’s full collection – for customers to mix and match scents they like. Once satisfied, the designer will create each person’s desired perfumes on the spot. Ms Monange can be hired to conduct the workshop for an additional $1000.
In end-April, she received a booking from Australia for a Private Home Atelier for 10 people.
“It was in the middle of Covid-19. I said it was impossible; we could go to jail,” she recalls.
To improvise, her manager in Australia suggested they do a virtual atelier. He would send the malettes to the customer’s home, and have Ms Monange call in and guide them over video. After the two-hour session, he went over to retrieve the malettes.
The virtual atelier was a success – an instant $2000 in an hour.
Encouraged, they launched the virtual service in Singapore two weeks later. Via video call, a scent designer guides you through the process of sniffing, eliminating and choosing scents – before you mix your final concoction into the perfume bottles of alcohol provided. Each kit also comes with scales and droppers delivered to your doorstep.
With only two sets of malettes, Ms Monange has been able to conduct two online workshops a week since launching. After every session, the malettes are brought back to be sanitised and refilled for the next visit.
“The good thing is that you’re dealing with alcohol (in perfume) so it’s actually very safe,” she says.
She already has plans to develop a Discovery Box of mini scents, pre-diluted with alcohol, so customers can mix on their own at home without her having to loan out full-sized malettes. Once recipes are confirmed, the physical atelier will create the actual perfume in-store.
Slated to launch in July, the Discovery Box will be supplemented with pre-filmed video tutorials on ingredients, template recipes and formula make-up.
People want more transparency in their ingredients these days, Ms Monange says, especially when buying perfumes online. “And because of Covid-19, people are much more afraid of what they consume or put on their skin.”
This, and the virtual atelier, could be one way to reshape perfume consumption in a socially distanced future, she predicts, admitting she was “amazed at how much business you can get online”.
Trained in Grasse, France as a nose, the former fragrance creative director at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) oversaw all perfume development for L’Oreal for 15 years. She opened her perfumery to get closer to the consumer.
“The perfume industry has become very mass – we lost the experience and the intimate relationship with the customer,” she says. “We’re putting too much into marketing and losing the sense of what we’re doing.”
She wants to “find out who people are, where they are from, and why they are making the perfume – Covid-19 or no Covid-19”.
Believing people will prefer intimate workshops over shopping for perfume in crowded places, Ms Monange is optimistic about continuing both online and physical arms in the future.
“For some people (the online atelier) is convenient and we’ll continue to provide it. However, I hope we can resume the real workshops with people. The beauty of the business is to share things, and share the experience.”
Ogle bespoke rare jewels from the comfort of your home
In this new era of online solemnisations and wedding ceremonies, it seems even designing custom engagement rings have been given the virtual treatment. You can craft your perfect jewel sitting at home, over video call with a jewellery specialist from B.P. de Silva Jewellers.
The home-grown luxury jeweller launched a virtual concierge service last week – a first in its 148-year history. Its atelier at Kung Chong Road had to close for the circuit breaker.
The brand had been building up its digital presence and capabilities since the beginning of the year, says creative director and fifth-generation scion of the company, Shanya Amarasuriya.
“When Covid-19 happened, it became exceptionally clear that the best way we can remain connected with our clients is through the web.”
Whether it is an engagement ring, wedding band or personalised heirloom, the virtual concierge aims to recreate B.P. de Silva’s signature bespoke journey. It is also available for their ready-to-wear collections and customisation on existing designs.
Clients are first asked to complete an online questionnaire on their needs and preferences like budget and desired gemstones. Then over a first video call with a jewellery expert – either Ms Shanya or the brand’s diamond specialist – they discuss designs and pore over the gemstone library.
“Our clients usually want to know more about design styles we are known for, such as Art Deco designs; or ask us for some of the rarest gemstones like Padparadscha Sapphires and Paraiba Tourmalines,” says Ms Shanya, 29.
“The initial appointment is really a sharing of stories and ideas; honouring our clients’ stories is incredibly important. Eventually as we go through the journey, they get a clearer picture of their dream jewels.”
Webcam quality can be iffy, so the brand filmed videos of their gemstones to be shown over screen sharing. They also prepared detailed guides with insights on their gemstones and signature designs – to help customers make informed decisions.
Customers can refer to sizing guides with step-by-step instructions for rings and other types of jewellery – though these are only available by request.
The brand offers a complimentary one-time resizing for engagement rings, but “really, anyone can do (the instructions) from home,” says Ms Shanya.
Designs are refined over two or three more consultations, before B.P. de Silva’s master craftsmen take over. The full bespoke journey takes about eight to 10 weeks after confirmation of the design.
Only on rare occasions will they share sneak peeks; the actual product typically remains a secret, says Ms Shanya. “We believe there’s power in the full unveil.”
So is there any part of the in-person experience that is missing?
“Unfortunately, I can’t serve my customers tea personally,” she says, referring to the Ceylon tea served at each appointment – a tradition for the brand since 1872. The BP de Silva Group also owns The 1872 Clipper Tea Co, and harvests from its tea plantations in Sri Lanka.
“We believe trying on our jewellery over tea is quite a defining factor of the B.P. de Silva experience. But we’re more than happy to serve them their brew of choice when they collect their piece at our atelier,” she adds.
She acknowledges that it is a pricey investment to be making over video call, but is confident in the brand’s stringency in quality and proffering “only fine and rare jewels”.
Appointment requests have already come in, with the first scheduled to take place next week. While she believes the virtual service is “not a short-term answer”, she looks forward to the day the atelier can welcome customers in person once more.
“Seeing gemstones come alive in natural light, and in person – there’s no magic like that,” she says. “There’s also nothing quite like seeing our clients’ eyes light up when they behold our gems.”
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