Thursday, August 23, 2012


Raoul is, without a doubt, the crown jewel of the FJ Benjamin business.
This is clear the moment you step into the company's office in Science Park Road. The walls are lined with press clippings and blown-up magazine covers of celebrities dressed in Raoul and editorial coverage featuring the home-grown brand.

The latest addition to its hall of fame is possibly its biggest coup yet: A large photograph of Kate Middleton in a printed blouse and skirt from its pre-fall 2012 collection. The Duchess of Cambridge wore the outfit when she visited Singapore last month as part of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

That was probably the best birthday present for Raoul, which marks its 10th anniversary this month. The brand which started as a men's shirt brand in 2002, has grown into one of Singapore's biggest womenswear exports. Speaking to Urban last week, Raoul's creative directors, the husband-and-wife team of Douglas and Odile Benjamin, say they found out about the Duchess of Cambridge's choice of outfit when they were in New York presenting Raoul's spring/summer 2013 collection at Fashion week.

"There was a huge picture of her in our New York showroom and our staff were telling the buyers and press who came, 'See, even Kate Middleton wears Raoul' says Mr Benjamin, 48 who is the chief operating officer of the FJ Benjamin Group. His wife adds:" She really put us out there on the map as a Singapore brand." Mr Benjamin quips:"At least people are not asking me anymore if we are a brand from Spain".

For the record, Raoul is the name of the couple's 17-year-old son. They also have two daughters - Lara,18 and Dalia, 13. Mrs Benjamin, 41, gave birth in April to the couple's fourth child, a girl named Rayna.

The name Raoul was chosen at the last minute when the original name Mr Benjamin wanted - which he declines to reveal - was taken by a luxuary Swiss watch brand. He admits that most international buyers are surprised when they realise that Raoul is a Singapore Label. "They don't think of Singapore as an incubator of creativity and design. They think of us more as a centre for banking, manufacturing and all the hard stuff," he says.

"But they also equate Singapore with quality and good business practices. This reputation has helped us". Mr Benjamin decided to create Raoul after being frustrated by the disappointing quality of designer men's shirts he had bought in London. The first store in Millenia Walk has since closed and the label now has three outlets in Singapore: at Marina Bay Sands, Raffles City and Paragon. The couple decided to branch into womenswear in 2005 as it is the cash cow of most fashion businesses.
Today, Raoul employs 50 people in Singapore and abroad, including an international team of consultants, designers and stylists. There are now six other stores in three South-east Asian countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

There are also more than 150 concessions around the world, including Europe,  the Middle East and the United States. These include those at upscale department stores such as Bloomingdale's in New York and Printemps Haussmann in Paris. To increase its reach overseas, it opened a showroom in New York in 2009 and in Milan last year. Although the brand stilll sells men's shirts today, its focus is on the more lucrative womenswear segment. In late 2007, an accessories and leather goods line was launched. Raoul sources for most of its fabrics from Europe but manufactures its design in Asia, including China and India.

FJ Benjamin, which distributes a stable of 27 brands, including Guess and Gap, declines to reveal the revenue figures for Raoul. For the financial year ending June this year, its operating expenses increased by $19.1 million, of which some was spent on opening a new showroom in Milan as well as a logistics and warehousing centre in Shenzhen for Raoul. The company declines to reveal exact figures.

The brand really took off when Australian model Elle Macpherson became the first celebrity to be spotted carrying its clutch in 2010. Thereafter, Hollywood stars Rebecca Romijin, Freida Pinto and Viola Davis also appeared in Raoul. Mrs Benjamin reveals that three Hollywood actresses have since become private clients of the brand, ordering custom-made clothes for their personal wardrobes. She declines to name them but says:"Our seamstresses and pattern-makers get so excited when they know who they are making the clothes for". Could the increasing presence of eveningwear in recent collections be the reason for this celebrity patronage?
"There's an element of that", she concedes. "But we are also very much demand-driven. As we expand into the Middle East and Eastern European countries, there is a very big demand for eveningwear and we are fulfilling that."

As it becomes more well-known, the brand has also recieved some flak - most notably for its apparent similarity to the pared-down aesthetic of luxury fashion labels such as Celine and Chloe.
This, says Mr Benjamin, is inevitable, and he sees it as a compliment. "We've been compared to Celine, Prada, Lanvin, Chloe and Stella McCartney. It's flattering to be compared to all these labels. "The press is merely trying to define our niche in the fashion market. It's just another way of saying we do very clean lines at a good price".

Mrs Benjamin adds:" I don't think there's anyone who can point to a piece from Raoul and a piece from Celine and say they look the same." Work remains a top priority for the couple, who have not planned any special bash to mark Raoul's 10th birthday. "We haven't reached a point where we feel that we can pop the champagne yet," says Mrs Benjamin, who is booked on a flight to London for a design meeting the day after this interview.

The Benjamins first met at a house party in London in 1989 and tied the knot three years later. The Lebanon-born Mrs Benjamin, a London School of Economics graduate who once worked as a buyer and brand manager for FJ Benjamin, is a workaholic and brings a sharp eye for detail to the design table, says her husband.
He recounts how she was working on her Blackberry five hours after giving birth to their fourth child. A week after that, she was involved in a 12-hour design meeting. He is pulling his weight too. Last friday, Mr Benjamin was named one of the five winners of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.
The distinguished business award honours top entrepreneurs for their contribution to the economy and society. Asked to grade her husband's work, Mrs Benjamin replies:"9.5 well, he has just won an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, how can I grade him anything less?"

article on Strait Times Urban

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