Checking Out: Elizabeth Kwan

The Hong Kong-born designer is Head of Visual Merchandising for Robinsons in Singapore, and she runs one of the most fashion-forward visual programs in Asia
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Posted June 27, 2018

Was visual creativity a part of your early family life?

My mother practiced Chinese calligraphy and painted for many years. We can all draw, and I’ve always liked to make things for myself – rings, earrings, bags and clothes. So I guess both retail and visual merchandising were calling me from an early age.

Did you formally study art?

I did study fine art and design. In the 1980s, in Hong Kong, there were no visual communications courses.

You’ve said you “coincidentally joined this industry.” How did that happen?

One summer, I worked part time in sales for the Rocco Barroco fashion brand. They didn’t have visual merchandisers, so I helped out in display and signage. The boss liked me and said, ‘Why don’t you join us as a full-time visual merchandiser after you graduate?’

That’s 30 years ago. How much has changed?

Well, the titles have changed. We used to call them ‘window dressers’ or ‘displayers.’ They developed their skills hands-on, especially making props, and they spent a lot of time on the sales floor. Now, I think 80 percent of a visual merchandiser’s job is coordinating. Most of the brands have their own visual merchandising guidelines, and the department stores just give them the windows.

You worked for luxury retailer Lane Crawford for a time. How rewarding was that?

I’m very proud of my time there because I had the opportunity to develop my skills. We did a lot of great displays, but also fashion shows, store openings and events. Once Lane Crawford hired an English artist to teach us how to paint and do stencil work. That particular year, our Christmas window was marvelous. We made most of the props ourselves. It took more than three months, with 20 visual merchandisers working full-time in the workshop.

Your responsibilities involve all three Robinsons stores in Singapore. What’s your primary competition?

For me, the main competition is Robinsons itself, and all of the excellent work we have been known for over the years. I always tell myself that Robinsons needs to continue to be the best in class and the talk of the town. That’s where my competition is.

What else challenges you?

I compare the work we do with Bergdorf Goodman, Selfridges, Liberty, Le Bon Marche and Galeries Lafayette. And the brands we work with – Moschino, Paul Smith, Kenzo, Alexander McQueen. They set the bar high, and I feel a strong responsibility to them. 

What is the consumer market like in Singapore?

Singapore is an island, but it’s also an international city-state full of wealthy citizens and tourists from all over the world, and the mindset is very Western. The result is a mix of cultures, attitudes, fashion, tastes, behavior. It’s a little bit more conservative than the major Chinese cities like Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. In China, they like to try new things. But fashion and visual merchandising are also very important to Robinsons, and we put a lot of effort – and money! – into it. Especially this year. We’re celebrating our 160th anniversary. You can imagine the gala.