The scented candle on their bedroom balcony is lit. Their whiskies of choice – Lagavulin on the rocks for him and a Japanese highball for her – are in hand. Reclining comfortably in lounge chairs, Winnie Chan and James Quan are finally able to relax at the end of a long day.
This is a nightly ritual that the husband and wife, who are co-founders of custom bookbinding and leather-craft atelier Bynd Artisan, never miss. “After work, we have our whisky and talk on our balcony well into the night,” says Quan, 49.
Indulging in conversation, away from any digital screen, is their balm for an increasingly hectic work and travel schedule, brought on by the trend-defying growth of their business since it launched in 2014. With the digitisation of Singapore’s economy and a wave of people migrating to digital tools, stationery shops and bookstores have been shuttering at an alarming pace. Who would have wagered that an atelier featuring septuagenarian craftsmen sewing and hot-stamping personalised, leather-bound notebooks would have the slightest chance of survival?
However, Bynd Artisan’s revenue to date has tripled from its first year of operations, having tapped into a surprising pent-up demand for analogue products that inspire nostalgia. While Quan declined to reveal revenue figures, he shared that a “significant part” of their revenue is derived from bespoke corporate orders, with a “typical order” pegged at “high six-figure numbers”.
APPEALING TO THE MILLENNIALS
On a recent weekday afternoon, as we seat ourselves around the dining table of Chan and Quan’s condominium in Upper Thomson, the couple – who have been married for 20 years – rattle off a list of the international openings they are negotiating. “This year is going to be a watershed year,” says Quan. Plans to take the brand to China, in partnership with luxury department store Lane Crawford, are under way. If negotiations with another business partner goes well, the brand will venture into the Middle East too, beginning with Dubai.
In Singapore, Bynd Artisan’s presence continues to grow. In addition to the atelier in Holland Village and retail counters at Pedder on Scotts and Tangs at Tangs Plaza, two retail stores are slated to open in Ngee Ann City and Raffles City by next month.
With light jazz playing softly and jeweller Choo Yilin’s floral tea brewing in Scene Shang teacups, the couple take stock of how things have changed in just three years. As Quan dishes out cakes and pastries, Chan talks about their struggle to get started. In October 2014, they could not get a single mall to offer them retail space. Hence, Bynd Artisan’s first atelier was located at the Chan family’s factory in Boon Lay.
John Clang, a New York-based photographer and family friend, who had given them prescient advice to focus on the brand’s Asian heritage, was indignant that the malls had turned them away. He told Chan: “Never mind, we will make the malls come to you.”
Despite those challenging early days, Bynd quickly hit its stride, relying on an Instagram-worthy retail space and a savvy social-media marketing campaign to engage millennial customers. Digital influencers with strong social network followings were invited to bookbinding sessions where they tried their hand at customising notebooks.
As Clang predicted, the tables soon turned. Malls began beating a path to the duo’s doorstep, as landlords sought out novel retail concepts. At the landowner’s request, the upcoming Raffles City Atelier will host bookbinding and leather-craft workshops. These crafts, once considered dying trades, are seeing a resurgence among the younger crowd and are a way to draw people to retail hubs.
STARTING A NEW CHAPTER
The changing fortunes of this old-school business is not lost on the couple. Chan cut her teeth in the business as a third-generation director at Singapore-based Grandluxe, a corporate paper product and gift supplier business her grandfather founded in 1942. She grew up collecting cute stationery products from the Sanrio universe of Hello Kitty and My Melody. Upon graduating with an economics degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1994, she asked her father for a job at Grandluxe and only left last May to focus on Bynd Artisan.
Over the years, she endeavoured to start her own brand as she could not connect with the “utilitarian” look of Grandluxe’s products. Chan also wanted to sidestep the price-sensitive nature of the industry by coming up with a price-proof concept. The catalyst came about when the family moved their factory to Malaysia and a pool of production workers were earmarked for retrenchment. Together with Quan, who had previously operated a corporate gifting business, Chan retrained the employees and converted them from production workers to frontline craftsmen. Today, these workers, such as 75-year-old Chong Beng Cheng, are poster boys and girls for the brand.
The couple smile fondly as they recall demystifying millennial habits for their senior workers. For one, the craftsmen were initially concerned about young customers snapping photographs of the atelier. “We told them to let the customers take photos and spread the news about us,” Chan says. Today, the elderly craftsmen are so well-versed in social media that they dispense photography advice to customers.
The brand’s upscale take on this traditional business has proven to be a winning formula and it has garnered some of Singapore’s most prestigious awards, including Best Shopping Experience at the Singapore Tourism Awards 2017, and the President’s Design Award – Design of the Year 2016.
TIMED FOR SUCCESS
Their journey has been paved with a series of lucky breaks. Quan recalls how they were invited to set up at Tangs at Tangs Plaza in November 2014, a month after Bynd’s Boon Lay atelier was launched. As their products were suitable for gifting, the brand was immediately popular with shoppers stocking up for the holiday season.
A year later, he received a late-night call from Tangs, asking if Bynd wanted to showcase its wares on the first floor of the department store. An international brand had pulled out suddenly. The catch – they had to make the move overnight.
“I remember lying in bed thinking about how we could get this done,” Quan recalls. Still, he rallied his team and relocated the pop-up in time for the store’s opening the following morning.
“I destroyed the escalator,” Quan exclaims of the harrowing move, before Chan quickly interjects that the damage was more of a “nick”.
The monumental effort paid off . Given their prime display position at Tangs, Bynd caught the eye of a visiting Lane Crawford team from Hong Kong. Soon after, the couple was invited by Peter Harris, president of the Pedder Group, which owns the luxury department store, to set up in Hong Kong.
Successes aside, this whirlwind climb to the top of their game has left them with little time for their personal lives. They work 24/7 and barely have time to relax at home. “In the six years that we have lived here, I’ve not gone to the gym or used the pool even once,” says Chan with a laugh. It’s a good thing that their two children, Vera, 20, and Josh, 17, are old enough to be self-sufficient.
Despite their exhortation that they barely spend time at home, their place is filled with little touches that inspire them. A curated selection of artworks by Singapore artists graces the home, including an abstract painting by Andre Tan and a contemporary landscape by Wyn-Lyn Tan.
This love for all things local dates back to Chan’s adolescence. She was an avid reader of the now-defunct Go! Magazine and shopped home-grown labels such as Tangs Studio. This passion for local labels is kept alive through a series of Bynd Artisan collaborations with Singaporean creatives, including fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam and singer-songwriter Gentle Bones. Collaborations also allow them to create new leather and paper products beyond the stationery category. For instance, Bynd is working with architect Colin Seah to design leather fashion accessories.
Supporting local brands is also one of the ways they think the retail industry can shake off its slump. “When you travel to Japan, you are sure to seek out Japanese brands, not other brands you can easily buy anywhere in the world,” says Quan. “For Singapore retail to stand out, tourists must want to shop here for Singapore brands,” he argues. As such, Singapore has to be the site where home-grown brands offer their widest range of products at the most competitive prices.
It helps that perceptions of local brands have evolved, Chan adds. “Five years ago, I don’t think we would have dared to start a Singapore brand because we didn’t think Singaporeans would support a local product.”
She believes they started Bynd Artisan at a time where Singaporeans were considering their identity and eager to support Singaporean labels.
“It’s a good time to be a local brand.”