Despite being but a tiny island, you can’t doubt Singapore’s fashion credentials. As well as our own local designers you can find most of the luxurious international designer stores you could wish for, including Gucci, Fendi and Coach – whose presence here is largely due to a company called FJ Benjamin Holdings Ltd (SGX: F10). Frank Benjamin, the second-generation son of a well-to-do Jewish family, grew up in Singapore attending St Andrew’s School. His father had owned a textile factory before the Japanese Occupation caused him to lose it. Frank started out working for his uncle’s optometrist shop, before…
As well as our own local designers you can find most of the luxurious international designer stores you could wish for, including Gucci, Fendi and Coach – whose presence here is largely due to a company called FJ Benjamin Holdings Ltd (SGX: F10).
Frank Benjamin, the second-generation son of a well-to-do Jewish family, grew up in Singapore attending St Andrew’s School. His father had owned a textile factory before the Japanese Occupation caused him to lose it.
Frank started out working for his uncle’s optometrist shop, before moving to become a salesman at the American trading company “Getz Bros”.
Pots & pans
In 1959 Benjamin was 24, and realising he had quite the flair for sales, left Getz, deciding to start his own business: “F J Benjamin” instead. The new company sold anything – from paper products and cameras to pots and pans. Despite often needing to borrow money to pay the rent, Frank and his wife Mavis, a teacher, struggled along.
Things were to change in 1969, when an agent from the Australian jeans company Amco called into his office with some “fashion jeans” samples. Benjamin, who believed Wrangler and Levi’s to have already saturated the Singapore jeans market was brusque with the agent – and only agreed to distribute them as an afterthought as he felt bad.
Fortunately, this turned out to be one of his best decisions – Amco became a huge hit for FJ Benjamin, turning over $10k each quarter.
Benjamin decided to pursue more fashion houses and cold-called numerous European luxury brands and managed to open Singapore’s first luxury fashion store, the “Lanvin Boutique” in the Hyatt hotel in 1975.
Realising Asians had quite the taste for high fashion, Benjamin followed this up with single-brand name stores including the uber-popular Italian fashion houses of Gucci and Fendi as well as Huntingworld and American luxury leather goods company Coach.
Singapore was making its mark as the place to shop for luxury goods.
However, from 1976-78 Singapore was rife with counterfeit goods, with shops selling cheap imitations of many of FJ Benjamin’s brands’ products – often alongside the real thing.
Benjamin came down hard, refusing to supply stocks to guilty traders, listing authorised dealers and educating shoppers on how to “spot a fake”.
In 1991, Benjamin’s brother Nash, on a trip to Los Angeles discovered Guess jeans. Frank, again, was not keen, having recently given up the Amco partnership and that with another jeans firm, Jordache. But not having the heart to say no, he agreed that Nash could try the brand on the Singapore market with a small shop.
When the store in the Wisma Atria shopping centre opened, shoppers queued to get in.
Unfortunately, times were to get harder. FJ Benjamin was listed in 1996 – the same year as the Asian financial crisis. The company suffered not just from the recession, but from currency devaluation in all the markets it was in.
What’s more, big conglomerates keen to do their own business snapped up the Gucci and Fendi fashion houses.
Benjamin decided to move from high-end fashion to more affordable lines, taking on popular US stores Gap and Banana Republic as well as Celine and its old partner Guess. Additionally, and perhaps in response to its experiences in the recession FJ Benjamin decided to start its own fashion line: Raoul.
But did you know…
- Benjamin started a social club for members of the Jewish community after leaving school in the fifties. He and his friends charged the 1,000 members $1 per week and David Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister, was the club’s legal advisor.
- When he started his business he had no business plan, and wrote to principals of companies claiming to be an agent in Singapore – getting away with it as “no one checked up in those days”.
- When Benjamin set his sights on Italian fashion house Gucci he was rebuffed for three years – before spotting a sign in Chinatown reading “Gucci selling here”. He sent a photo of the shop to Gucci, with a letter explaining: “if you don’t start a shop in Singapore, your brand will be vulgarised”. Gucci sent one of its directors on the next plane to Singapore to work out how quickly FJ Benjamin could open a shop.
- 4. After the Asian recession FJ Benjamin struggled – but was saved by a capital injection from investor Peter Lim
- Despite establishing his name through clothing names, Frank Benjamin is not at all inclined towards fashion himself.
Today, FJ Benjamin is an investment holding company engaged in brand building and management as well as the development of retail and distribution networks for international luxury and lifestyle brands in Asia.
As well as its fashion brands such as Banana Republic, Catherine Deane, Gap, Givenchy, Goyard, Guess, La Senza, Roaol, Sheridan and VNC, it also distributes numerous luxury timepiece brands such as Bell & Ross, ChronoSwiss and Girard-Perregaux.
The company has 212 stores, 35 of which being in Singapore, 67 in Malaysia, 106 in Indonesia and 4 in Hong Kong.
Not bad for the young man who started out selling pots and pans and paper products.
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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Alison Hunt doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.