Their directional lifestyle store has a cult following in Singapore — now Dennis Tay and Amanda Eng have their sights set on London. Katie Law meets a power ...and more »
What do you get if you cross British taste with Singapore style? An origami bulldog, obviously. The paper structure, which comes in red, blue or white, flatpacked for you to assemble yourself, is just one of hundreds of items you’ll be able to buy at Naiise, an exciting new lifestyle pop-up at The Old Truman Brewery that opens today.
Naiise (pronounced “nice”) is the brainchild of Singaporean couple Dennis Tay and his wife, Amanda Eng, both 32, who have come to London with their 14-month-old son Ralph to oversee the opening of the UK’s first Naiise store.
They’re staying at The Hoxton hotel in Old Street — where else? — and since the 1,000sq ft space in Shoreditch isn’t ready yet, we meet in their hotel bedroom (the lobby is much too crowded and noisy to talk business). In tune with their effortlessly cool, start-up vibe, the bed is piled high with a selection of specially selected Naiise products, including a scented candle in a pot that has a nose for a lid, a “Walk in Hyde Park” silk scarf embellished with corgis, teapots and swans, some Japanese manga-inspired porcelain cups and, of course, a couple of the aforementioned bulldogs, which have been made by a Singaporean designer in collaboration with Hull-based paper mill GF Smith.
The initial idea behind the company, which Tay started in 2013 with just a laptop and £1,600, was to bring Singaporean designers onto an online platform to help them sell their products.
“At the start I was trying to find a way of helping designers sell what they already had. I was going round, knocking on their doors,” he says. Having rung his own small creative agency and just finished a degree in business administration, majoring in entrepreneurship, he knew what he was doing. But still his biggest challenge was introducing the concept of accessible, everyday design to Singaporeans.
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By comparison to London, says Eng, Singapore is a design desert, or was until Naiise come along. “Regular consumers aren’t exposed to design. Design shops selling furniture like Philippe Starck or Herman Miller are very expensive and seen as alien. No one incorporates design into their daily lives.
“When I started, most people were only buying products at the two extreme ends of the scale. It was either your LVMH, your Prada or your Gucci, a status-symbol product to prove you could afford it, without understanding its heritage, or really cheap, mass-manufactured things that people could get at any market. The hard part was working out how I was going to find something in the middle.”
Eng and Tay at their London pop-up (Matt Writtle)Using Apple as his design model —“the perfect fusion of science and design” — and Amazon as his marketplace model, “we undertook every aspect of the fulfilment process”. Tay quickly built up a stable of designers — from Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Britain — to sell a fun and quirky range of home products. They were an instant hit with busy young Singaporeans used to traipsing round uninspiring high-rise shopping malls.
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A year later, Tay opened his first retail store in Singapore and took on his first employee, his then girlfriend, now wife Eng, who left her high-flying career at e-commerce company Rocket Internet to work alongside him as marketing director. They have known each other since they were 17, dated on and off, and finally married in 2015.
Since then, Naiise has opened five more shops in Singapore, sells 80 brands, has a turnover of more than £3 million (it charges a 40-45 per cent sales commission), has 85 employees and is set on, if not exactly world domination, then certainly making its mark in London.
And what’s to stop them? For all the Scandi stores and lifestyle boutiques, there’s nothing here quite like it. “Our concept in essence is that our products are cool and people love them,” he says. “We decided to come to London because it’s the world’s design capital. We were talking to landlords and everyone just got the concept immediately. They were genuinely excited by the designers and the brands we wanted to bring over. It’s also our second-largest overseas market, with British customers coming second after us,” says Eng.
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“Remember, we were once a British colony; we share a common heritage, our banks have partnerships here, we drive on the same side of the road, and we speak the same language,” adds Tay, who wants to build the number of British designers selling on the site up to 50 per cent of what’s on there, to create a reciprocal exchange of Singaporean and British designers and sellers that should stay Brexit-proof.
Paper bulldogs by ninetyninestates Back home, Tay and Eng, who live in a “clean, simple and uncluttered apartment decorated in black and white”, are also spearheading a “small batch” movement, with locally produced food and beauty products representing two of the fastest-growing areas of the website. “Artisanal food is a relatively new concept in Singapore. Most people are used to food coming from China, so it’s about building that niche market.” Authenticity is crucial. “So for example, someone came to see us and said the motivation to start her business was that her father had heart disease and needed a healthier breakfast, so she started to make granola. That turned into Christmas gifts and then into a viable business.”
Naiise’s best-selling product to date, however, is not granola but a garish red-and-green plush cushion, called an Ang Ku Kueh, that looks like a traditional Chinese sticky rice red tortoise cake. So far almost 50,000 of the £16 cushions have sold. “They became super-popular because they’re useful and functional,” says Eng, “as well as cute, in a form that only Singaporeans understand.”
She’s right. They may not take off here quite as well but I bet those (£59) bulldogs will.
Naiise will be at the Old Truman Brewery, E1, from today until November 19; naiise.com