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Bynd Artisan's Winnie Chan on the value of staying true to our Asian story

Consumers didn't bite when Singapore's Bynd Artisan first presented itself with a Western slant – it would take a focus on the brand's heritage and Asian roots.

Bynd Artisan's Winnie Chan on the value of staying true to our Asian story

Winnie Chan wears cotton shirt by 3.1 Phillip Lim; wool-blend skirt and Mary Jane flats, both by Prada; Folie des Pres earring and ring, both by Van Cleef & Arpels. (Photo: Singapore Tatler)

Most parents remind their children not to overindulge in all things fashionable and covetable. Winnie Chan, however, is not like most parents.

Like many of his peers, her son Josh enjoys collecting rare sneakers. But instead of ticking him off, the founder and CEO of Bynd Artisan, which customises paper and leather goods, posed him a question: “In the future, how you do create a huge demand for the next limited-edition sneakers or product?”

Clearly, Winnie’s approach to parenting is anything but conventional. But this unorthodox approach to tackling issues and challenges in life has been an asset, especially when it comes to her business, which she set up with her husband, James Quan, in 2014.

“We wanted to build a brand of our own instead of being dictated by wholesale and OEM (original equipment manufacturer) customers in my family business,” said Winnie, who previously worked for her family’s bookbinding and stationery firm, Grandluxe, for 22 years.

THE IMPORTANCE OF STAYING ASIAN

The couple first launched Bynd Artisan with an atelier in Boon Lay in 2014, before being invited to set up a corner in Tangs at Tang Plaza later that same year. The business has since flourished to include a flagship atelier in Holland Village, standalone retail stores in malls such as Ion Orchard, Takashimaya and Raffles City, a shop-in-shop outlet in multi-label fashion boutique Pedder On Scotts, and an outpost in Shanghai.

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“What we have done with Bynd Artisan is to apply business innovation to an old-school product and seemingly sunset industry. It resulted in us opening our atelier, an experiential space that differentiates us from other retail offerings and piques one’s curiosity to step inside,” she said.

This approach has given the team of ageing but highly experienced craftsmen from her family business a second wind – while supplying Bynd Artisan an edge over other similar brands in the market.

“It has allowed us to make use of our craftsmen’s existing skill sets on a different platform and essentially reinvent and value-add the good old notebook together with other leather goods.”

“Leveraging on our heritage and Asian roots, the brand was able to ride on the growing public interest in local design that gained momentum in the years leading up to Singapore’s golden jubilee celebrations.” 

While its operations have seemingly grown from strength to strength, it has not always been smooth sailing. The very first iteration of the brand concept took on a Western slant, and it did not resonate with local consumers.

“We wanted to give the impression that we were a foreign brand,” Winnie explained. “Especially when we grew up thinking that foreign brands are better than local ones.”

The couple went back to the drawing board.

"Leveraging on our heritage and Asian roots, the brand was able to ride on the growing public interest in local design that gained momentum in the years leading up to Singapore’s golden jubilee celebrations."

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The key differentiators for Bynd Artisan, said Winnie, include personalisation services and customised monograms. “These services were all provided in-house and live. Ultimately, they became our unique selling points.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

More offers to open overseas outposts have poured in, and while Winnie and James are not against the idea of overseas expansion, they do not want to run these operations on their own, preferring to work with selected partners who are aligned with them in terms of beliefs and principles.

Bynd Artisan founders Winnie Chan and her husband James Quan. (Photo: Bynd Artisan)

“We are quite lean, and I believe in being high value-added. That’s why the type of people that we hire are very hands-on,” she said, adding that her total staff strength stands at 28, including those at the Shanghai outpost, which opened in late 2018.

“We have had quite a few interested parties asking us to partner them in Australia, Indonesia and China. Ultimately, it boils down to synergy and also similar aspirations," said Winnie. "It’s a balance of remaining artisanal, having a relatively wide appeal, and maintaining the brand equity.

“If we have to engage professionals to take us to the next level, we will go that route. The brand must be bigger than one individual.”

"We started operations in Shanghai because we felt our China partner is aligned with our strategy and we were convinced that they will focus on building our brand for the long run.”

Four years on, Bynd Artisan has amassed various accolades such as Design Of The Year at the President Design Awards 2016 and Best Shopping Experience at the Singapore Tourism Awards 2017 – proof that the business is on the right track. Winnie acknowledges the success and admits that she is “satisfied on all fronts” including its brand equity and annual turnover.

However, she believes it is still too early to determine if Bynd Artisan has the legs to grow into a legacy business – but she is glad that her children, Josh and Vera, are keen to join the business.

During her university term break, Vera interned at Bynd Artisan and experienced for herself the pride and joy her parents derive from seeing customers leave the store with a personalised notebook.

In the meantime, Winnie and James will continue nurturing this other child, their baby Bynd Artisan, with the same steely determination that has gotten them this far.

“If we have to engage professionals to take us to the next level, we will go that route. The brand must be bigger than one individual.”

A version of this story first appeared on Singapore Tatler.

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Source: CNA/ds

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