Wasn’t it not so long ago when our original national pride, Orchard Road, was said to be in dire straits? It is too dominated by ubiquitous international brands, some said. It is boring and staid, remarked others. Well, if you haven’t already noticed, recent years have seen a revival along the beloved thoroughfare.
One of the early defining moments of Orchard Road’s renewal was the opening of Abercrombie & Fitch (and its controversial use of shirtless male models as promoters). Yes, that was way back in 2011, but the frenzy that ensued signalled the beginning of more imaginative and exciting times ahead. And we’d have to thank Sulian Tan-Wijaya, Executive Director of Retail & Lifestyle at Savills Singapore, for that – and more.
The National University of Singapore law graduate had spent the bulk of her early career in Indonesia as a corporate banker, before switching to hospitality in Singapore and then stumbling upon the retail industry. At the Pacific Star Group, Sulian ran Wisma Atria, before moving on to Singapore Tourism Board as Director of Tourism Shopping. She was headhunted to lead Hong Kong developer Sino Land’s iconic Fullerton Heritage, where she masterminded the successful redevelopment and repositioning of its retail, F&B and office space. In October 2008, Sulian joined Savills where she was tasked to set up a new Retail & Lifestyle department. Over the next 11 years, she’d grow her department from the ground up, winning a slew of marketing contracts and transforming the fortunes of multiple buildings, malls and projects that, together, formed a hit list of sorts.
Here comes the rainmaker
On her role in pushing for transformation in the local shopping and lifestyle scene in these uncertain times, she says: “The disruption and changes in the retail landscape are coming too fast and furious. Some retailers are not even able to complete their first lease term, and we get calls either from them or landlords to find replacements. Customers’ expectations in malls have also evolved and if malls don’t pay attention, they will lose shoppers. When tenants leave prematurely, the malls’ bargaining power with incoming tenants will diminish. Everyone stands to lose.
“To keep customers engaged and give them a reason to visit malls, we are always on the lookout for new and experiential retail, more interactive and entertainment concepts. To fill temporarily vacant spaces, we don’t just look for any pop-up store. Ideally, they should bring together the latest in street fashion and culture, a trend that’s catching on very fast in this part of the world that even luxury brands like Louis Vuitton recognise, with its past collaboration with Supreme.”
Such is the influence of Sulian’s hidden hand in how we shop and play that you’d be hard-pressed to find your everyday life not in some way touched by her – whether you’ve found yourself drawn to the revitalised Somerset district for its youthful and hip vibe, taken the family to The Grandstand for a meal or enrolled your child for classes there, or dined in style at the National Gallery Singapore.
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Some of the key trends or concepts enjoyed by Singaporeans over the past decade can also be credited to Sulian. She’d worked with H&M and Crate & Barrel on securing shop spaces; snagged Abercrombie & Fitch as a flagship tenant for Knightsbridge; introduced athleisure giant Lululemon to local landlords; found swanky new homes for F&B clients who went on to win Michelin stars; and placed co-working space The Working Capitol at its 33,000sqft shophouse premises at 1 Keong Saik Road. “When we did that in early 2015, few people knew what ‘co-working’ meant or who WeWork was,” she adds.
Orchardgateway, which opened in 2014, was one of her biggest successes. “Over 50 percent of tenants were new to Singapore, and we achieved 97 per cent occupancy two months before TOP, the highest for an Orchard Road mall. We also introduced many indie and street fashion retailers as well as blog shops, some of whom, such as Love.Bonito, blossomed into role models for online-to-offline retailers.”
Picking up on the trend towards activity-based tenants for malls, she had also introduced indoor trampoline park Bounce to Cineleisure, and brought Fat Cat games arcade to 313@Somerset. Most recently, she was instrumental in curating the tenant mix for the newly restored Raffles Hotel Arcade and seeing it through its transformation. In spite of naysayers, she had the hotel’s blessing to induct The Great Room, a co-working space, into the fold in a bid to change the perception of the property as being just a tourist hotspot.
Brains, beauty, boldness
Always being game to take on new challenges is a big part of her personality that she channels into her work, says Sulian, who’s also made a name for herself deejaying as a hobby. “Since my student days, I was always game to try new things, and failure did not scare me. When I decided to swim competitively, I won medals. When I won Law Queen in NUS and a modelling contract, I shed my tomboy look and learnt how to wear makeup and heels. I learnt to mix vinyls as a beginner deejay, and years later, I had a 15-minute crash course on using the turntables before going ‘live’.”
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Thank u Katara Hospitality for the opportunity to work on the legendary luxury Raffles Hotel Singapore’s Arcade, and curating such a wonderful line-up of great international brands and new exciting concepts. My next project couldn’t be more different: targeting Millenials and Gen Z! Stay tuned… #raffleshotel #qatar2022 #hotel #retail #foodandbeverage #entertainment #lifestyleandleisure #savills #millenials #generationz #leica #rimowa #lvmh #thehourglass #thegreatroom #coworkingspace #coworking #katara
She is also curious by nature, which she says helps in an industry as dynamic and subjective as retail. “Personally, I was getting really bored seeing the same shops and eating the same food everywhere. I asked myself: What will it take for me to make that trip to the mall? The key words that jumped at me were: Experience, Personalisation, Authenticity, Entertainment, Discovery, Story-telling, Community…”
Right now, Sulian is already on to the next big thing: GR.ID, a redevelopment project in Bugis targeting the Gen Y and Z demographic. “I’m studying their buying patterns and preferences, and how to positively engage them. I’m keen to introduce eSports and games within malls. I’m also talking to curators of multi-label street fashion and lifestyle brands, and entertainment, games arcade and hyper-reality operators. Many Asian cities have leap-frogged Singapore by embracing new retail trends, and understanding what young shoppers want. We have a lot of catching up to do. It is my dream for Singapore to reclaim the title of ‘Asia’s Shopping Capital’ again one day.”
Sulian’s accomplishment at a glance
• Launched Knightsbridge and orchestrated the entry of Abercrombie & Fitch into Singapore.
• Ushered into Singapore a host of new brands via the Orchardgateway project.
• Introduced pop-up stores for blogshops and emerging indie and street fashion brands in Somerset.
• Revamped the former rundown Turf City building into The Grandstand, a trendy and hip lifestyle and family destination.
• Involved in heritage projects such as Chijmes, Capitol Piazza and the National Gallery Singapore, where new F&B concepts hit home run.
• Curated the tenant mix for the newly restored Raffles Hotel Arcade to help it evolve from being just a tourist destination.
• Pushed for activity-based tenants in malls to improve visitor engagement and experience.
• Helped pioneer the co-working trend in Singapore.
• Involved in the current redevelopment and rejuvenation of the Bugis district.