FIRST, it was French and Japanese brands such as Lanvin and Issey Miyake which whipped up Singaporeans' enthusiasm for imported labels in the 1980s. Then the Italians came with Versace and Armani, and Hong Kong invaded with mass-market brands Giordano and G2000.
Most recently, the global phenomenon of fast fashion - where a new trend hits the shelves every week - has resulted in the proliferation here of chain stores such as Spain's Zara, Mango and Pull and Bear and Britain's Topshop.
But a new sartorial era has dawned - that of American chic. It is casual - just the way Singaporeans like it - and relatively affordable, what with the US dollar continuing to drop against the Singapore dollar ($1.52 at press time) and all.
The latest member of the American Club is Banana Republic, a 29-year-old brand owned by Gap Inc, which opens its first Singapore store at Paragon Shopping Centre tomorrow. The double-storey, 5,400 sq ft boutique will stock apparel and accessories for both men and women.
Local fashion retailer FJ Benjamin - Gap Inc's first franchisee in the world - holds exclusive rights for both Banana Republic and Gap labels in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
It joins a slew of US brands that have sprung up here in recent years, such as preppy shirt specialist Brooks Brothers, fast-fashion chain Forever 21 and, most recently, jeans and casuals giant Gap and the Club 21-distributed label Marc by Marc Jacobs.
Multi-label boutiques like Puce and Inhabit at Palais Renaissance and Tribeca at Forum The Shopping Mall also stock togs from newer, smaller labels by designers from New York and California, such as 3.1 Phillip Lim, Ingwa Melero and Juicy Couture, as well as cult jeans labels Rock & Republic and Seven For All Mankind.
'Style-wise, they are a lot more wearable and less avant-garde than some European designers. Singaporeans prefer that still,' says Ms Monica Low, 30, owner of Inhabit.
'They are also sized for the petite Asian build and made of light materials which are suitable for Singapore's tropical weather,' says Ms Cindy Chua, 38, owner of Icing On The Cake, a mini- boutique inside The Nail Room in Holland Village which stocks US brands such as Karanina and Dallin Chase.
Banana Republic is not a designer label or mass-market chain, which makes it stand out for its chic staples at mid-range prices ranging from $159 to $375 for women's dresses, and from $79 to $375 for men's trousers.
Its contemporary but timeless designs are complete antitheses to the fast-fashion trends currently propagated by the cheap chic stores.
The brand's trump card is attention to detail: It now designs each collection knowing it is catering to customers who live in perennial tropical heat.
Speaking to Life! in New York, Ms Deborah Lloyd, 41, Banana Republic's British-born executive vice-president of product development and design, says: 'We'll have to look out for the Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia markets now. We will definitely rework certain pieces in lighter-weight fabrics that are appropriate for their warmer climate.'
She adds: 'We're not one of those brands that wait to see what trends big designers come up with so we can do copies. We're known for stylish essentials.'
Ms Jacqueline Tee, divisional director of FJ Benjamin Lifestyle, says: 'It is what we describe as accessible luxury.'
Spanish brand Massimo Dutti, which opened its first Singapore store in January last year, is arguably Banana Republic's closest competitor here in terms of style, range of products and price points.
But Ms Kemmy Sim, brand manager for Massimo Dutti, says she welcomes the competition.
'We will likely share a part of the customer base but there's enough to go around. Perhaps we are more up to date with trends as we get shipments every week,' says Ms Sim, 36.
FJ Benjamin is optimistic that Banana Republic will be able to differentiate itself in the fickle Singapore market. It is also buoyed by sales at Gap at Wisma Atria, The Centrepoint, VivoCity and Suntec City, and is confident it will become a stronger brand in the next five years.
Says Ms Tee, 42: 'All the four stores have been performing according to our sales projections and even exceeded them several times. We are (also) on track with our expansion plans.'
Those plans are to open 50 Gap and Banana Republic stores in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia by 2010, up from 12 now.
FJ Benjamin Holdings, listed on the Singapore Exchange, more than doubled its third- quarter net profits to $3.3 million this year. The introduction of Gap to Singapore late last year helped turnover for the quarter ended March 31 to surge 45 per cent to $68.6 million.
For the coming fall/winter collection slated to hit Banana Republic stores late next month, expect to see a palette of graphic, black-and-white prints with splashes of bright jewel tones. Silhouettes are 1960s-inspired, channelling former British supermodel Jean Shrimpton and veteran British actor Michael Caine.
Next spring's collection will be replete with vintage prints in bright colours such as red, coral and turquoise.
The clothes may be one part preppy and two parts mod with a healthy dose of professional chic, but in the end, a combination of the style and price of the merchandise will determine whether shoppers will rush out to the store.
Says public relations director Lynda Moo, 42: 'The clothes are basic but fashion- forward. I think it is commercially sound as a brand but everything also boils down to the right pricing.'
As for the next wave of imported labels, Mr John Ng, director of Sidefame, which distributes Anteprima and G-Star here, predicts the arrival of cult fashion brands and retailers from around the region as Singaporeans become more discerning and worldly.
'Look out for things like Hong Kong's I.T. department store and Japan's 45RPM jeans,' he says
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