After closing down her fashion label during the financial crisis of 1997, Esther Tay began designing uniforms for local companies to make ends meet. Now, she is launching a new brand and helping a fresh generation of dressmakers grow.
Esther Tay, one of Singapore’s pioneer dressmakers, was forced to close down her first and very own fashion label — Esta — when revenues plummeted and costs began to rise during the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Yet, she has not had one free moment since venturing into the booming business of designing uniforms for Singapore’s corporate sector soon after. In fact, business has been so successful that Tay has rebuilt Esta into an established brand in the uniform-making industry and recently launched a new brand of readyto- wear uniforms.
“We currently have two brands. The first is Esta, which offers, from conceptualisation to production, customised uniforms for corporations from sectors ranging from aviation to cosmetics. The second is R2W, which offers affordable, corporate ready-to-wear uniform options to the hospitality industry. We launched R2W two years ago and recently put the brand online to offer customers an easy-to-order option,” says Tay.
On the face of it, making uniforms may seem like a mundane and trivial job, but the demure and petite Tay has played an important role in shaping the image of Singapore’s most venerable and iconic firms over the past two decades. “Coming up with a good uniform design involves understanding the company’s mission statement, history and culture so that the public’s perception and trust in its brand are enhanced,” she says. Take, for example, the navy blue blazers of POSB or the white shirts of the ruling Peoples’ Action Party. “A company’s uniform gives it an official identity that not only resonates with its employees but its customers as well.”
Uniform design also involves extensive research on the company’s competitors as well as its operations, because the uniforms must be optimised for comfort and quality above all else. “Corporate uniforms are much more than just another place to put your logo. Everyone wearing it is on the front line of your battle for business. We believe that smart, comfortable clothes make people confident and perform their best,” says Tay.
Getting the basics right
Since Tay began designing uniforms under Esta in 1997, her clients have included the likes of DBS Group Holdings, POSB, United Overseas Bank (UOB), Raffles Hotel, Singapore Airlines, the Singapore Armed Forces and PAP. Some companies, such as SIA, have been Esta’s clients for more than 10 years. Recently, Esta teamed up with the Singapore National Sports Council to design and modify the red blazers for Team Singapore during the 28th SEA Games held in the city state this year. The blazers now sport a leaner cut and brighter shade of red, and include a sewn-on label above the pocket with the words: “Kiss medal. Bite medal. Place medal here.”
Tay also designed the yellow-and-black uniform for the cabin crew of budget airline Scoot. “Given that Scoot is a budget airline targeting younger travellers, our goal for the company was to design a uniform that would make the cabin crew appear approachable when dealing with budget travellers. In addition, we needed the uniforms to be functional and comfortable for the crew when they move about the aircraft, so we came up with a simple spandex dress for the stewardesses and a smart polo shirt for the stewards,” she explains. “Ultimately, our design had to enhance the airline’s image and brand.”
Scoot is controlled by parent company SIA, for which Esta has also designed ground staff uniforms. Tay reveals that the Scoot uniform is among the designs she is most proud of. “The uniform really captured the heart of the brand and was very well-received. It was also very rewarding for me to see the entire Team Singapore decked out in their red blazers during the opening ceremony of the 2015 SEA Games.”
But making uniforms can be very technical and tedious work. That was especially so for Tay when designing uniforms for the Singapore Armed Forces. “Everything, from the fabric down to the last button, had to pass the relevant ISO tests and meet very specific technical requirements,” says Tay. Another example is the hotel industry. “Designing uniforms may seem easy, but when it comes to a hotel, which has 30 to 40 job categories, doing up the specifications for each design can be quite overwhelming.”
Other clients such as PAP have a large staff base, so production volumes can get intense, while clients such as UOB and DBS have outlets across the region. “Clients such as UOB like to have a consistent corporate uniform around the region. But other clients want us to customise the uniforms to suit the culture of the different countries, so we would need to make modifications to our designs,” Tay says. Currently, Tay does all the designing and conceptual work at her office in Singapore, while the main production line for Esta and R2W is in China and Indonesia.
That has all been enough to keep Tay busy over the past 18 years. Now, she works for 15 to 20 clients at any one time. “Under Esta, we develop the make-up and suggest accessories such as earrings to match the uniform. We also organise dinner events to showcase the uniforms. Many of our clients appreciate this,” she says. Typically, it takes six to eight months for Tay to complete a new uniform. Some designs, such as those for the banks and government agencies, can last a good six years. However, in industries such as cosmetics, a company’s uniform may need to be changed to suit the four seasons.
Fashion label to uniform
Tay had not always been keen on making uniforms though. She first started out in the dressmaking industry after graduating from ITE in 1973. “I had wanted to go into graphics, but my grades were not good enough. So I opted for a diploma in dressmaking,” she says. Her first job was selling high-quality textiles such as linen, Indian cotton and raw silk at a small boutique in Tanglin Shopping Centre. “It was very boring, so I asked my boss if I could make some garments from her fabrics. With her support, we started selling some of my lace blouses and sundresses at the shop. To our surprise, they were very well-received by the expatriate community.”
In fact, demand for Tay’s handmade women’s clothing was so popular, she eventually left her job to start and market her own label in the mid-1980s. “I approached CK Tang with the hope that they would host my brand in their stores, but at the time, they did not think I was ready. Instead, they suggested that I help design their in-house career-wear labels, so I accepted the offer,” she recalls. Three years later, Tay approached CK Tang chairman Tang Wee Sung, who had just returned from the US to join the family business, and was given a space to launch her brand Esta, which included a career-wear line and resort-wear line.
Things took off from that point on. With the support of government agencies SPRING Singapore and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, Tay managed to exhibit her work in all the fashion capitals of the world, including Paris, New York, London, Tokyo and Sydney. “At the time, there was a lot of support for fashion designers, and competition from mass-market brands such as Zara and H&M did not exist yet. So, labels like Esta enjoyed a good share of the market,” says Tay, who was the first Singaporean designer to have her label selected for retail at Japanese department store Takashimaya in Japan. By the early 1990s, Esta was selling in almost every department store in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, during a time when stores such as Sogo, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette were still popular.
However, when the financial crisis hit in 1997, demand ground to a halt and many of the department stores that carried Esta shut down. “All of a sudden, there was no more revenue in the fashion industry. Coincidentally, I was approached by a friend to help design some uniforms for cosmetics maker Lancôme, so I took it on. Then came the second uniform contract by Fraser and Neave, and through word of mouth and referrals, I soon became very busy with uniforms and rebuilt the business under the old Esta brand,” says Tay.
Now, Tay is also helping to groom and mentor a new generation of Singapore fashion designers. She is a committee member of the Singapore Textile and Fashion Federation, which aims to help local fashion designers and retailers grow. “Some TAFF members who are in the textile manufacturing industry are helping younger designers bring their collections overseas to Paris and New York, while others are providing help in sourcing for a production base outside Singapore. This is how TAFF helps. Otherwise, it is very tough in today’s environment for younger designers to find the resources to get started,” she says.
Another TAFF initiative is Keepers, which provides a single location for Singapore craftsmanship and independent design to be valued and exhibited. Currently, Keepers represents over 50 designers and is located at Orchard Road and Changi Airport. The initiative also enjoys funding support from SPRING and IE. “This year, there will be more than 200 students graduating from fashion courses across Singapore. Yet, there are not enough fashion companies in Singapore that can accept them. That’s why Keepers offers them a space to be noticed by overseas companies,” says Tay.
Will Tay go back to the world of fashion and reopen her label? “I do have old customers who keep asking after my old collections because of the quality and craftsmanship involved. These days, everything is about cheaper prices and as a result, quality has suffered a lot. It is either you settle for mass-market brands with subpar quality or go for the really high-end labels, so there is actually a space for my old label,” she says.
But with rentals on the rise, the onslaught of online shopping and competition rising from mass producers, Tay reckons her place, for now, is still at the forefront of the uniform industry.
This article appeared in the Options of Issue 697 (Oct 5) of The Edge Singapore.