SINGAPORE (Oct 22): Naming your new fashion brand after a former red light district may not seem like a good idea. Thankfully, however, expat couple Dustin Ramos and Iris Sangalang were able to see through a fresh lens uncoloured by this slice of Singapore history. They had no qualms naming their menswear line after a vice-ridden neighbourhood notoriously known for opium and gambling dens back in the day.
Named after Duxton Road in Tanjong Pagar, their label Duxton evolved organically from the couple’s experiences with their first business, Monument Lifestyle, a café-cum-multibrand menswear retail store, which they set up on the same street in 2016.
Although it has been many a year since the Duxton enclave has been gentrified with trendy cafés, upmarket restaurants, cool concept stores and creative agencies recently joined by luxurious new neighbour Six Senses Duxton boutique hotel designed by acclaimed British designer Anouska Hempel, memories of its seedy past still linger.
“The harshest critics by far are Singaporeans. They’re like, ‘Wait, why would you name it that? Don’t you know it’s ‘KTV central’?” says Sangalang, referring to the many KTV lounges once located in the area, and the sometimes questionable goings-on within.
But if you strip away the baggage weighing the name, Duxton does evoke the image of a dapper gentleman and sounds like a promising young brand flush with global appeal. It is a name that would not be out of place on, say, London’s Savile Row.
Sangalang’s eyes widen with excitement as I point this out. The dynamic duo, both originally from California and with a wealth of experience in the US tech start-up scene, harbours aspirations to take the Singapore-born label international.
The everyday guy
Describing the design ethos of Duxton as “California chic”, Sangalang says: “It’s that amazing messy-haired look that someone spent hours doing but they look like they just walked out the door [looking like that].”
We are in Duxton’s showroom-cum-office located directly above Monument, and the charismatic couple is giving me a feel of their fabrics.
Their spirited presentation tells me this is going to be a fun interview. Sangalang is vivacious and animated while Ramos is a little more contained — both as passionate and both 37, born just eight days apart, and there are just good vibes all round.
Duxton’s collection of casual, yet quality, everyday essentials centres around the classic tee and its many iterations, along with a collection of shortsleeved shirts in funky prints inspired by a specific city each season.
Who is “The Duxton Guy” they are designing for? “The Duxton man isn’t your typical guy who’s in a boardroom. Maybe he’s exploring new paths in life. It’s someone who’s open to adventures, who’s really looking to step outside his comfort zone; someone who’s definitely versatile,” says Ramos.
“He’s in his 30s to 50s, rediscovering himself, embarking on a new journey, new career, new travels. It’s the guy who’s doing something new and different — that’s the guy we developed the brand for,” adds Sangalang, her effervescent personality beaming across often during the interview, along with her beautiful set of pearly whites.
Notes Ramos, almost wistfully: “It’s easy for guys to feel like they’ve outgrown being cool but still want to be cool.”
Duxton, therefore, endeavours to make men look effortlessly cool. And Ramos, I gather, is the perfect embodiment of the Duxton guy.
“He’s definitely symbolic of the Duxton guy: unafraid to do something different mid-career. Going from start-ups to fashion is definitely something different, and Dustin is not an anomaly; so many of our friends are in the same boat,” offers Sangalang.
The married couple began developing Duxton a year into running Monument, drawing inspiration from the men they met in the café and on the retail floor and their phenomenal stories about reinventing themselves, following their passions and living life to the full. The feedback from customers as they tried on the various menswear labels retailed at Monument were stitched together and woven into this new menswear line with the aesthetic and tailored fit that Ramos and Sangalang knew their customers were looking for.
They then took these stories and spun them into five characters: Henry, Adam, Rich, Justin and Mikey — each representing a charming profile accompanied by a corresponding design style.
Henry is “calm, responsible and composed at all times”, personified by the classic short-sleeved crew neck tee. Adam is a go-to long sleeve for “weathering all the ups and downs of life”. Fun and easy-going, Rich is represented by the classic short-sleeved pocket tee “for the creative and carefree individual”. Justin is a “relatable and spontaneous urban adventurer”, embodied in a three-button short-sleeved tee. Finally, Mikey channels the “kooky and fun inner child” with short-sleeved button-down shirts in creative prints.
The shirts and tees, made from high-quality fabric, are designed for comfort and “fit and flatter men of every shape and size”; the knit fabrics are from Los Angeles and the fine printed woven fabrics from Japan. The core knit fabric used is a cotton slub — soft, light and easy to slip on.
In developing the first collection, the team meticulously visited and researched different local knit mills in LA. They eventually partnered a family-owned boutique mill that creates its fabric in downtown LA, chosen for the mill’s array of quality fabric and their fair labour practices.
Duxton also works with local fabric specialty mills across Japan to source for prints that best reflect the city inspiration for each season’s collection. These fabrics undergo a “special Tokyo wash” that ensures the fabric remains extremely soft while retaining the shirt’s structure.
The brand rolls out two collections a year: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. Duxton’s first collection — Spring/Summer 2018 — launched in July, is inspired by the couple’s hometown of LA, with shirts evoking the relaxed vibe of downtown LA and prints of those iconic palm trees found all around town.
The Fall/Winter 2018 collection is inspired by the city of Portland, Oregon in the US and features long-sleeved tees perfect for layering up in cool weather. “We’re calling the line ‘Jack’ for lumberjack because of the forest, woodsy feel that’s very Portland,” says Sangalang.
For the coming Spring/Summer 2019 collection, “we’re going in an opposite direction — we’re going very New York City, Central Park, Chelsea, with a different, brighter aesthetic”, she continues.
Having fun with the colour wheel is Duxton’s thing. The brand introduces up to 25 colours in each collection, each creatively christened with fun names such as blue steel, dinosaur, milkshake, eggnog, sangria, cotton candy and dusty rose.
“Our first-year goal is to be the go-to for men’s essentials for every colour under the rainbow,” says Sangalang. “Most brands release five to seven new colours per season because it’s a very long and exhausting process of approving the colours, but we’re doing 20 to 25 colours each season.”
Before the launch, the Duxton team, located across Singapore, Australia and the US, debated which colours to introduce in its first season. “They were like, ‘There’s no way people wear pink [in Singapore]. What are you thinking?” recalls Sangalang. “Then we come here and the bright colours literally go off the shelves. No one can predict it, really. I think they’re used to a certain colour wave in the States.”
Duxton’s casual, yet quality, everyday essentials centre around the classic tee and its many iterations, along with a collection of short-sleeved shirts in funky prints.
In choosing where to set up Monument two years ago, the couple deliberated between Singapore, Holland and Venice Beach in downtown LA.
“Singapore won because we thought what we’re doing is quite different and unique to the space,” says Sangalang. They brought in gourmet coffee and tea from San Francisco as well as independent designers from the US that had yet to make their way to Asia, and it was here that they fell in love with the fashion world and decided to start their own label.
Monument is a good testing ground for Duxton, its first point of sale, where its pieces retail for between $75 and $165.
Plans for global expansion are already underway. In August, Sangalang and Ramos took Duxton to trade shows in LA and Tokyo. They are also in discussions with retailers in Singapore and the US to stock the brand.
In the pipeline is also the development of men’s bottoms to complement the current collection of tees and shirts.
Womenswear is not on the horizon, though. “Right now, we want to make sure we understand the market that we’re serving — that it meets the needs of what our clientele is asking for. Once that’s done, then we’re open to everything and anything,” explains Sangalang. Getting external investors to this self-funded enterprise is not on the cards yet either.
“People who know Monument know the aesthetic we cater to, so we got quite a lot of offers for funding from early on. But we want to know the lane we’re swimming in before we add additional folks in the kitchen. We’d possibly be open to it after Year One,” she estimates.
Ramos adds: “Between now and then, we are keeping our eyes open for partnerships and collaborations that we think would be interesting for the brand to grow, while keeping the team lean.”
Adventurous entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia
The day Ramos and Sangalang arrived in Singapore four years ago, their driver dropped them off near a kopitiam on the corner of the street of their first home in the city. They saw people carrying little transparent plastic bags of coffee by the string and thought, “Oh! So, that’s how everyone drinks their coffee in Singapore!” Sangalang reminisces with a laugh.
The pair did “zero research” before the big move from New York, where Sangalang had just sold the company she founded and built, a tech startup that innovated IT solutions in the HR space.
“Okay, we did some research. But a lot of how we make decisions is with our gut,” she says. Heeding one’s instinct does appear to be a go-to strategy for many entrepreneurs. Also, the couple was clearly ready to answer the call of adventure. Fresh off the acquisition of her company, Sanga lang had received a call from an old boss who offered her a position to head one of their international markets.
“He said, ‘We have offices around the world; pick the office you like best.’ We’d never been to Southeast Asia before and thought it would be a really great experience. We’re quite open to new adventures and trying new things. So, we knew if we waited too long [to make a decision], we would’ve said, no, that’s crazy [and pass up the opportunity]. If you talk about it for a very long time, you can usually talk yourself out of anything,” she says.
Once the couple made the decision to carpe diem, Ramos landed a role for a Seattle-based startup in Singapore. “So, three months after that call, we were here with all our stuff,” says Sangalang.
Two years later, the pair found themselves at another fork in the road when their respective contracts were up and they were deciding whether to head back home to the US or stay on in Singapore.
Baby Matilda helped tip the decision in favour of Singapore. “We got pregnant two years in and this is a wonderful place to raise children. We also want to make sure that we’re raising Matilda in a place where she sees us doing what we love and what we’re passionate about, and that we’re not just clocking in and out every day in a job we have to do, so that she gets inspired to do something that makes her happy [when she grows up],” says Sangalang.
Add the element of risk-taking to their entrepreneurial journey and you have an inspired philosophy underwritten by passion. The couple barrelled into this new domain with no experience in the fashion industry, but their start-up approach to the business has helped the brand gain good traction in a short span of time.
“The No 1 thing we did when we started was get a team together that has been in fashion who knew all the manufacturers that were well-respected in the industry, and those people are our directors and our sounding board,” says Sangalang.
Ramos adds: “With our backgrounds in startups, there’s a measured approach in developing a product — whether it’s a tech product or fashion product — and that has played to our strengths in terms of executing quickly and making sure we know what the end-goal is, and taking all the other inputs into account.”
The biggest challenge for the couple in bringing Duxton to the market while running the café and retail store is drawing a clear distinction between work and home.
“It’s interesting when your business partner is also your spouse. And the biggest challenge for us is in making sure we’re not just talking about Duxton all day long, which we can really do. The key is balance,” says Sangalang.
How are they even still together? I ask, tongue firmly in cheek. As the explosion of laughter subsides, the fun-loving twosome puts it down to complementary personalities — and skillsets. “I’m much more big picture-oriented in terms of planning the grander picture for the next five years and the milestones we need to hit along the way, whereas Dustin is very meticulous about where we need to be each day in terms of operations,” says Sangalang.
Any advice for other married couples building a business together? “Don’t do it…” Ramos’ voice drops to a whisper, triggering another eruption of laughter around the room.
This article appeared in Issue 853 (Oct 22) of The Edge Singapore.