Singapore-themed knick-knacks and trinkets were always incorporated with the design of our national flag or the colours of Singapore Airline’s kebaya.
They are cheesy, to put it nicely.
Our Garden City is worth making much prettier souvenirs for our foreign friends.
Then, designers started coming up with more interesting and uniquely Singaporean designs on everyday items from notebooks, tote bags, to kitchenware.
But some local-inspired things stood out more at the height of SG50 like the Gem Biscuit and the Ang Ku Kueh cushions.
If you didn’t know, these iconic cushions were first produced by a homegrown company called, Meykrs.
The 31-year-old has amassed a few years of business experience, having tried starting a blogshop, a finger food company, and a business in curtains, to name a few, prior to setting up Souvenirs.
He has no design or art background but he has about six years of manufacturing experience because of the corporate gifting business he was involved in.
But even with that, he said that they “honestly didn’t know where it will go” when they launched Red Republic and Meykrs then.
He explained that Red Republic started out as Souvenirs From Singapore, a partnership between his friends who ran their own companies; Supermama, Stuck Design, and Meykrs.
The joint venture started in 2012 and was known for producing 50 items based on SG50 icons.
Then in 2015, he launched Meykrs.
Jonathan later rebranded Souvenirs From Singapore to Red Republic in 2017 when Supermama and Stuck Design left the partnership.
Meykrs began with just one product, the Gem Biscuit cushion, in three colours which Jonathan himself conceptualised.
The initial investment for Meykrs “wasn’t too much”, according to Jonathan it was “probably a couple of thousand dollars” as they leveraged on their corporate gifting background.
But for Red Republic, he said it was “a lot more”, including the time and effort of three companies put together because the first launch had 50 items.
Designs of all their products were mainly done by the design company involved, he revealed.
“We were all ready for it to fail and just close shop and carry on with our lives,” he shared.
But both brands launched successfully and Jonathan said they spent these three years growing them as much as they can.
In early August 2018, they launched area65, a marketplace where all their brands and collaborations can call home.
area65 can also be found offline at Plaza Singapura’s basement one.
But before area65 and aside from their online stores, people could only find most of Jonathan’s line of products stocked at retailers like Naiise and HipVan.
Response to the cushions seemed positive, I thought, because whenever I visited one of Naiise’s pop-up stores or HipVan’s flagship stores, there would be interested shoppers interacting with either a Gem Biscuit cushion or a Merlion Chou Chou.
Yet they decided to pull out of these two retailers.
Hipvan changed their direction to focus on selling furniture, he said, but he was “unable to disclose reasons for pulling out of Naiise”.
These events perhaps contributed to the reason he decided to set up a brick-and-mortar store of his own despite what people think about retail “dying” in Singapore.
He said that before deciding to open a shop, he has heard stories about the “woes of retail” and “how it is both mentally and physically draining”.
“Having started a physical store, I would have to say I agree wholeheartedly.”
“I think this question really has two sides to the story. It is also precisely because retail is dying/dead that we found the need to open a brick-and-mortar store,” he explained.
“We are a one-stop brand, meaning we conceptualise, design, prototype, manufacture, store and handle logistics by ourselves while the last aspect of the chain (the sales part), we heavily depended on others,” he continued.
That last part of the chain had worked for them in the past, i.e. Naiise and Hipvan, but he found that it would be “risky” to depend on others to sell for them.
“This is actually really tough on us as that key aspect of the supply chain is completely not within our control. We could technically just fail overnight.”
Now that they’re both their own supplier and retailer, Jonathan shared that they finally understood the difficulties retailers faced since becoming one themselves.
“Looking back, perhaps back when we were just a supplier, we could have supported more.”
Jonathan hopes to balance their roles as both the supplier and retailer by having the respective departments run independently.
He explained, “That means as much as we are a retailer, our own in-house brands are handled by a separate person and are treated, as much as possible, the same as all other external brands we carry.”
“This hopefully allows an internal check on our retailer and supplier roles.”
“I guess the main challenge of launching [the Gem Biscuit cushion] was actually the pre-launch phase,” Jonathan said.
“We were new to the retail scene and were really not sure if the market would respond well to such a cushion. Initially, (answers from) surveys were also just 50-50.”
In retrospect, he said Meykrs “pretty much lucked out” with the Gem Biscuit cushion, adding that although they only had one product back then, support from retailers was strong.
The products area65 carries are all visually-appealing and come in the form of a bolster or a towel or a coin pouch – practical, everyday things.
For example, before I knew of the Gem Biscuit and Ang Ku Kueh cushions, cushions, in general, were seen as mere accessories for sofas and couches.
Such accessories could have been marketed and priced as art pieces, I told him.
But he said he didn’t want their products to be “labelled as art pieces” that are only for “the minority that appreciates art”.
“Our goal is to bring laughs to people, as many people as possible. To evoke the feelings of nostalgia or help recall fond memories only when an individual feels it and not to force it on people,” he shared.
“Functionality in a product helps in this area. The idea is that what if the normal, daily objects that we use have a quirky option, that either bring laughter or a slice of the past.”
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If Meykrs and Red Republic had failed back then, Jonathan reckoned he would have just gone back to doing corporate gifts, and revealed that he is still running his corporate gifting business.
Three years ago, when they launched, they were still “pretty new to the retail scene” and the initial collection of products were made to commemorate SG50.
Even though they don’t work together anymore, he maintains a tight relationship with the people who created the initial products together with him.
“I like to think that over the past three years, the little knowledge about the market that we gained have been added along the way into our designs,” he shared.
From all of his business ventures, one of the key takeaways Jonathan has learnt is that people should try.
“[You’ll] never know where it will bring you.”
“Looking back, when I was trying out the first idea (I had), it had never crossed my mind that I will be doing what I am doing now,” he added.
“And [seeing] how I went from blogshop to corporate gifting and then to retail brands to retail itself, it seems like such a [long way].”
On launching his brands with limited products, I asked Jonathan if he thinks that’s a good way for people with little capital to launch their business.
“Yes, surely. I have always been an advocate of just trying when possible,” he replied.
“Meykrs was essentially born this way.”
He hopes to work with as many local artists and craftsmen as possible and have them come on board area65, he said brightly.
In five years’ time, he wants to “do more than just help brands sell stuff”.
“Yes, although selling stuff is essentially what a marketplace is, we hope to be able to bring more to the table,” he shared.
“For one, perhaps we could offer our manufacturing capabilities to more budding designers or existing brands.”
He concluded, “There are many such plans in the works and in five years’ time, we should aim to be a lot more than just a marketplace.”
68 Orchard Rd, Plaza Singapura
Featured Image Credit: area65, Naiise