Fashion Forward: An Interview with TaFF CEO Semun Ho on Design Orchard’s Brand New Cocoon Space and The Bridge Fashion Incubator
The Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) has always been looked to as the authority and governing body spearheading new initiatives for the local fashion scene. Having recently completed the building of creative space Design Orchard in the heart of Singapore’s shopping belt however, they’ve taken things one step further by introducing two brand new initiatives to the scene – fashion and design-oriented co-working quarters and event space the Cocoon Space and The Bridge Fashion Incubator accompanying it.
Speaking to new TaFF CEO Semun Ho, we found out a little more about her thoughts on the local fashion scene, and how both initiatives are set to spark a change. But as we all know, change doesn’t come overnight, or even easily. Says Semun: “How quickly the industry changes is dependent on the pipeline of new people coming in with new ideas to dilute the old, stubborn ways of thinking. There may be a lot of people who can’t be budged, but there’s also a whole chunk of people sitting on the fence waiting to see where things swing. We need the wave of change from people who want to buck the trend and make a difference, get them unearth a few ‘rocks’ and all of a sudden, you’ve got these fence-sitter taking a stand, and that’s when the tipping point begins.”
Coming from a corporate background with little to no stakes in fashion, some may see Semun’s appointment as a puzzling one, but she has a message for the faithless: “My background isn’t in fashion, and that’s a plus. I don’t have any baggage and can look at things with a fresh perspective, looking at things objectively with no bias towards any factions. I have these new eyes and determination to learn new things and ride this wave of change, and I’m glad to be coming in at such a vibrant time, where there is that willingness for change to happen, not when things are stuck or full of know it alls and it’s impossible to make any kind of change.”
“I don’t intend to change the world, but what I do intend to do is convince you that there is a future and opportunity in local fashion. No matter who you are, whether you’re Trump or Obama, you’ll have your fair share of supporters and detractors. I’m going to use this opportunity to build this community, whether you believe in me or not,” she adds. “Besides, it’s a good time for change with the way Singapore is being positioned now, what with the rise in profile from the Tump-Kim summit and Crazy Rich Asians putting us on the international map once again.While we can never hope to compete with Paris or New York at their own game, what we do have is the advantage of technology and smart tech, and that’s something we as a country can and should leverage on to set us apart in the fashion world.”
Speaking directly about the Cocoon Space, we learn a little more about how it goes beyond simply being a blank space for fashionistas and designers to occupy, but in fact, has a very strong aim accompanying its existence. Housed at the top two levels of the newly opened Design Orchard, the Cocoon Space is designed to provide the community with networking and interaction opportunities, whilst also offering quiet corners and workstations to foster creativity and innovation, with adaptable desk spaces at the Gallery, the Co-Lab, the Incubation Room and theatre space. Says Semun: “This space isn’t just going to be another co-working space. It’s a space to create the design and fashion community, to get them to come together with the people from the supporting industries and build an ecosystem for people to work together, invest in them, and believe in the scene.”
“While it’s not a brand new idea,” she continues. “We do want people to be here to incubate and work with each other. Essentially, as a ‘Cocoon’, we want its users to flourish and metamorphose into butterflies. What we want is a system where people can come in and grow, wherever they are. Here, we’ve got all the specialized resources available, from industrial grade sewing machines to an event hall perfect for launching collections or fashion shows. For designers, you’re only as good as your last collection, and to keep creating, you need new machinery, you need people to work together, and to find the right partners to support the ecosystem. We want a culture where the community cares for each other, where craft is appreciated not just by members of the community, but the consumers as well. You don’t just buy something because of a brand, but because of the good make and fine craftsmanship.”
In terms of affordability, especially for those just starting out, TaFF has ensured equal opportunity to use the space for all, especially in the case of bright-eyed bushy-tailed students or fresh fashion graduates. Says Semun: “For students, we’ve got a special student membership for them. We’re not making it completely free, maybe the price of a couple of drinks from Starbucks for a number of hours in a year you can use it, and just make them realise that nothing in this world comes free. Especially in Singapore, we can’t keep having this mentality that the world or the government owes us a living, and we should never take the value of things for granted – if it’s worth it, you’ll have to pay for it to reap the rewards.”
Meanwhile, the Cocoon Space is also set to introduce the 30-week long The Bridge Fashion Incubator programme, aiming to enables aspiring firms who are keen to launch or scale their business in the fashion industry. Run by award-winning womenswear fashion designer Jo Soh of Hansel, and with fashion-focused venture partner and consultant Debra Langley as Resident Mentor, the incubator is currently in the open call stage, where successful applicants will undergo mentorship in product portfolio development, business model structuring, pitching, and relevant exposure to technological innovations and sustainability.
On the relevance and introduction of the programme, Semun says: “I think about other industries like the tech industry, and it makes me think about how both fields need investors and incubators, something that the fashion industry currently lacks, and we have a lot of talented people in here who need the proper guidance and do better than where they currently are today. We need to bridge people from the fashion side, the fashion tech side, the design and entrepreneurial sides. While we can’t promise that everyone who comes through will be successful, we can guarantee reducing the cost of failure and accelerating the learning curve, where you don’t have to sink so much of your savings in before realising ‘oh, this isn’t for me’, and get very direct feedback about what is or isn’t working.”
On some of the applications they’ve already received, Semun comments: “We always assumed it would mostly be people just starting out with the greatest hunger, but we’ve actually gotten a lot of people doing mid-career switches, people with products but want to do more, tech companies and just this interesting, unexpected mixed bag. We’re still figuring out how best to cater to their needs, with a curation round, to pick and identify those with the most potential to benefit from this programme and people who are open to suggestions and change. They don’t have to be directly involved in the industry, but related to it, and the means to stand by their statement.”
With one of the greatest driving forces of both the Cocoon Space and the incubator being collaboration and community, TaFF has also joined forces with international partners such as Hong Kong-based incubator The Mills Fabrica and fibre company Lenzing Group to support the project with materials and knowledge sharing. Says Semun: “We want to position ourselves as the epicentre for innovative fashion in Southeast Asia. There’s no clear country which occupies that position just yet, and we’re all about how we can do more together as a region. Hong Kong for example, has The Mills Fabrica, and members of The Cocoon Space can co-work there too if they’re ever there and vice versa. We’re constantly trying to do more collaboration and exchange, and eventually, become the hub to provide investment, knowledge, community and the platforms for success.”
Semun concludes: “In all, it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a community to raise a designer. TaFF alone can’t do this. But what we can help is to build a community that can. My hope is that as a body, we can eventually reach a point where the people know what to do and will do it without being told, and we just provide the extra support they need to really succeed. The Nirvana state is that the community will propel this space on their own, to do something together, to organise and be the catalyst to do things. We hope there’s independence and growth on the horizon, and more maturity and responsibility in the fashion community as the years go by.”