In his Corner Shop at Far East Plaza, Jebson Tan has seen trends come and go. He’s quietly made a name for himself as one of the few purveyors of retro menswear, available in his store filled with paraphernalia from decades ago. Seeing now that wearing mom jeans is deemed acceptable, we find out how he feels and dig deeper into his 80s obsession.
Are you happy now that fashion is coming one full circle?
Yes, because more companies are reproducing them and I get more products. No, because the people wearing them don’t understand what it is about and style them wrongly.
But it gives you a chance to educate them now that they are interested.
I offer free styling advice to anyone who walks in. My quote is “Help me to help you” from Jerry Maguire.
Why do you think most young Singaporeans dress alike?
Peer pressure; they want to fit in with friends. If one person has a black Chrome Heart tee, everyone needs to have it. Same goes with the Nudie Jeans or black Vans trend. It’s like a school uniform. This is our way of life and it’s been that’s way for so long, that’s why people like me stand out.
That’s the problem with Singaporeans: you wear a T-shirt and jeans nobody says anything but put on suspenders, people will ask where you’re going to. They don’t mean anything but it makes you think that something might be wrong. I think the culture can change. Most of our local culture is like that. They should respond instead with “nice ah”.
What was the first product that started your collection of 80s and goods?
I started with vintage tees because they were the easiest to sell. Shorts and T-shirts are the easiest to start with if you open a retail business as it’s always sunny here. The store now is so different since we opened in 2008. We also sold vintage motorcycle merchandise including 70s-styled bike helmets with sparkles or wrapped in beige leather.
What do you like about the retro culture?
I’m always stuck in that era. The music I first listened to and the first T-shirt I ever had was from those times. It brings back a lot of memories; happy times. Obviously, you’d want to stay in a place that makes you happy, right?
Do you like surrounding yourself with nostalgia?
I like to not only surround myself with nostalgic goods and items but turn them into something relevant and sellable. I always use inspiration from the 80s to create a product that consumers now can relate to. Acid-washed jeans or high-waisted pleated pants, for example, had flared bottoms then but now you’ve to taper the ends. It’s hard to pull off flared pants but after alteration, people see how they can wear it. Unlike a fashion designer, I can’t make something out of nothing so I have to depend on my tailor to help with the execution.
Has your personal style been retro-inspired all this time?
I still dress the same, I’ve never changed. There was the hip-hop and rock n roll era but I know I can’t wear skinny jeans or baggy clothes so those trends were totally not for me. I stick to my own style of vintage chic.
Where did you buy your clothes from back in the day?
In the early 90s, there was a shop at Scotts Shopping Centre and at Queensway Shopping Centre there was Ben Hur and Man Master. Last time, Queensway was the place to go for menswear. The second floor was where all the independent menswear companies were. Some of them are still there but if you don’t change you become obsolete.
What are your new shopping spots?
Zha Huo Dian aka The Corner Shop! -laughs- I shop at Supplies & Co., buy my shoes from Leftfoot, and Last & Lapel at Millenia Walk for ready to wear apparel from Italy.
How do you decide what is sold in Zha Huo Dian?
This store is the combination of everything I love: it’s why I have vinyls and videotapes here too. When I was young, the stores I visited all the time were Tower Records and CD shops. I could’ve stayed there forever. I would only browse in clothing shops because I didn’t have much money at that time. I ended up working for them, which is how I learnt my trade.
Where did you work at?
After my national service, I got a sales job in advertising but I wasn’t happy. My friend said there was an opening at Issey Miyake at Four Seasons Hotel so for one year, I learnt as much as I could from high fashion. Then my boss wanted to start a streetwear store and got me to oversee it. That’s how I started Le Future in Queensway.
I also worked at Man Master and was brought to Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong to learn how to do merchandising. I developed an eye for buying goods. Two people can both work for similar shops but different things will catch our eye. He only brought me to Osaka and Thailand once then told me to fly myself there the next time. That was around 1999 to 2000. For me, the trip was eye opening.
What did you learn?
Japan is always 10 years ahead of us. It is the place to go for any retailer to get inspired; they don’t copy anyone and every shop is different. The best thing about the Japanese culture is that they help each other. Here, it’s see who dies first. There’s no collaboration culture in Singapore.
For the Japanese, if their brand is hot at the moment, they help bring other brands up. That’s something we have to learn from them. Right now, I’m collaborating with local artists and retailers. It’s different from the past; people are keener now.
I’m doing something for the display window with Paper Carpenter, he’s a friend who creates structures out of paper. We can do T-shirts wrapped in his boxes so I’m working out something with him. Last year I changed up the display window with Mossing Garden: grass and dried flowers. The smell was different. I had to spray every day to freshen up.
You were talking about creating T-shirts with old Hong Kong movie artwork prints. Is that a big influence for you too?
Oriental culture in fashion is actually very strong but nobody is doing it or people are too shy to wear it. I still want to explore it but, of course, I have to make money. Sometimes people don’t get what you’re trying to do. At the moment, I’m doing one a Double Dragon Canton Restaurant print on a long sleeve Champion T-shirt. The shirt brand is my insurance; even if you don’t like the design you will still buy Champion because that’s what’s trendy.
Between Oriental and Western culture, which one influenced you more?
Equally. When you’re young, you listen to English music and only when you’re older, you realise there’s Leslie Chung and start listening to all the Cantonese songs. I don’t listen to Mandarin music. Even though I’m Hokkien, I grew up in Chinatown and nobody spoke the dialect. If you can’t beat them, join them!
If you’ve to choose one thing in this shop to represent you, which is it?
This T-shirt that I’ve had since I was very young. I got this in Thailand on my first trip there. Nobody was buying this kind of shirts. Back then, people were more interested in high-end fashion like Dries Van Hoten or Helmut Lang. I was very happy when I found it.
Written by Lu Yawen, Photos by Choo Ee