There has been a recent effort to bridge the economic ties between the Japanese and Singaporean design industries, aimed to encourage cross-border collaboration at various points along the supply chain. For some, the pursuit for quality has come without intervention. The Makers’ Journal speaks to Kage and Kenghow, brothers and founders of new fashion label biro, about making clothes the good old traditional way.
Have you always been interested in clothes and fashion?
K: Yes, since secondary school!
KH: I remember drawing stuff during my army days. And then back in 2007 we were very into street wear, so we started an online store where we imported street wear from America. We bought and sold brands and as we slowly grew out of the street wear thing, it evolved into biro.
So you were never properly trained in fashion?
K: No, but our mum is a seamstress, so if there’s anything we just ask her!
KH: There are a lot of techniques, a lot of hidden stuff that we can’t learn from books alone.
K: So actually we buy a lot of stuff, a lot of clothes, and from there we take reference. Most of the clothes we buy are not trendy clothes. For myself I have been into denim for a long time, so I have collected like 30 to 40 pairs of denim pieces, and from there you learn and pick up.
KH: Previously I was actually running my own printing company, something I started way back before everything, but I’m not a very businessman kind of person. I just did it because I didn’t want to work for others, so I had to find something to do. But I couldn’t go into fashion straightaway because I had zero experience.
Has realizing your own fashion label from scratch been a tenuous journey so far?
K: Before biro we tried designing street wear. It was more graphic, but after that we realized it didn’t really suit our taste. For biro we tried many different products around the same design, and for the quality and workmanship, we tried a lot of different countries, different makers, different fabrics before we finally went to Japan. We tried everything that was possible. Actually we already knew Japan was the best fit at the start, but to go to Japan directly is a little tough, because everything is so expensive and you need to speak Japanese.
KH: It’s lucky that we came across these particular two factories and they are quite good in English…
K: But still it’s in Japanese English! (Laughs) You can communicate but once the email comes, you go.. what are they talking about? So to make sure things are clear, we usually go down to Japan. It’s the best way, if not sending stuff to and from Japan is just too expensive. We really searched through every single factory, and they were all spread out everywhere - we had to see what they are good at, what they are famous for.
Do you feel all that hard work paid off? How has the response to biro been so far?
KH: In terms of appreciation it has been quite fantastic, but in terms of sales, it’s not exactly what we expected, but I guess this is how it goes, being a new brand and having a higher price point that our local market might find harder to accept.
K: Before we made the price point, we looked at our product to see if it’s worth this price for a consumer. If we feel that it’s possible to sell at this price, we’re comfortable with it. But to me, whatever we do is not pricey. We are not like those huge labels - their production is in such huge units, so their cost is so much lesser than ours. For people who usually buy such quality stuff or who like such traditional methods, I don’t think they will mind, but the thing is I don’t think many people in Singapore know about such things. They go for fast fashion.
Can you explain “quality” in fashion?
K: For me, I think it’s different perspectives. Everyone can say their product is of a high quality, even if you mass produce it in Indonesia, but it’s the depth of it. For us, we go through every detail, from the sewing, the workmanship, to where the fabric comes from, the dyeing method. We also use old machinery. It’s more in-depth. When you tell people they don’t really know what you’re talking about. So you can say anything is premium, but premium on what level?
Biro uses traditional production methods. How does this separate you from the pack?
K: Fast fashion factories use modernized machines so the speed is very fast. I’m not saying there is no quality but there is definitely something missing. We go to Japan because only they have the vintage machinery. Like for this t-shirt (Artisan Patchwork T-shirt from biro’s first collection), only two factories in the world have the machinery to make and produce it. Whatever we are doing, a lot of high end designers are doing it as well, just that they are really up there, so they don’t really need to spread the word. For example, NIKE just did a collaboration with the factory we work with.
How did you begin to design your first collection?
KH: Actually we spent quite a lot of time planning and developing this first collection. We were going through a lot, wanting to work with the right places, the right people, and developing what we could be satisfied with, so it took a good two and a half to three years.
K: We are quite demanding, because even for the Japanese factories, if we are not happy with their work we will just question them, “Why is it like this! Is this a Japanese product?” Because we buy a lot of Japanese products ourselves, so if we see that the ones we bought are of a certain quality, then why is the factory producing otherwise… It’s not like everything made in Japan is automatically good.
What about the theme of your first collection? Is there a story you are trying to tell or a message you’re trying to push through?
KH: It’s about how we want to bring this whole new idea about precision manufacturing to our market here. We had been sourcing for good materials and good workmanship for the past couple of years before we decided to launch, and we had the designs since two to three years ago, but we were doing our samples, wasting a lot of money, going back and forth with a lot of people… Even until now we’re still tweaking. Then finally we decided to release the collection. The main thing about “intervention” is we want to emphasize the exquisiteness of our workmanship, the tailoring, the manufacturing process, where the fabrics come from, the weave, the dye, all these stuff.
Is there a distinct biro look?
KH: We are still doing very straightforward tees and pants, so for now as we focus more on the detailing, the precision, I’d think it’s still very difficult to tell something is a “biro”.
Are there any brands that inspired you along the way?
K: For me it’s Levi’s vintage clothing. I started from collecting most of their jeans. They are not like LV or anything, but when you wear it, over time you will feel very attached to the product. If you wear another pair of jeans you will feel like something is missing. Probably it’s personal, but I like something with a vintage touch to it, and something that focuses more on old cuts and patterns and something that’s comfortable. Sometimes a design is very nice, but when you wear it it’s just for you to look good, but it’s not very comfortable. The fabric used [for Levi’s] is also very good. Until five years ago the products were all made in USA, now it’s maybe Europe.
KH: I come from a more visual background. What inspires me is more of architectural stuff. The things we see everyday on the streets. As compared to clothes, I’m more intrigued by architecture, like buildings, spacing on the road, pavements… somehow they give me inspiration and ideas. It’s like the whole entirety. When you change a little bit of design here, how does the entire thing look like? So it’s like on the streets - if you place a lamp post here, the whole scene changes.
What’s next for biro?
KH: We already have a theme for our second collection and we’ve sent it for production. It’s going to be more monochromatic, although it’s for Spring/Summer!
K: We still want to have the cool factor, because for Spring/Summer people usually dress down or in louder colors. For us we are not really trendy people - I think different personalities choose different clothes - so we won’t choose to wear a loud shirt and walk around. So for us, even for Spring/Summer you still have to look cool or look smart!
KH: Our first season was considered quite grunge-raw, so for the second season we wanted something more clean-cut. We also wanted to expand the collection into a wider range, and we chose black and white because we are new and for a start, black and white stuff is more acceptable to people than louder, more floral stuff. Everyone needs a black top! But of course it won’t be all black and white, there will be dark blue, indigo, but there won’t be any bright colors.
Finally, which part of running your own fashion label do you enjoy most?
K: The process is the most important. Going down to the factory is important for me to know what the factory is doing, what other brands they are manufacturing for, how hardworking they are. Sourcing for buttons or fabrics is also very fun for us. We get to learn a lot of things we didn’t even know about. So we appreciate the whole process. If there’s no process, even if we see the final product, we don’t know what it is. It’s just a design. Once we go through this whole phase of choosing this and that, the whole thing comes out and fits together.
KH: We cannot foresee what’s happening next. It just keeps coming and coming, be it obstacles or some form of feedback from people, so that part of the process is quite interesting.
Interview and Photos by Rebecca Toh for The Makers’ Journal.
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