Raoul: Singapore born global brand

No-one knows fashion in Asia better than the Benjamins. So it’s no wonder their first unique brand is already a global hit… 

When your business model is built around retailing products designed by others, your fortunes rise and fall with those brands – and head office decisions in other countries.

That’s how Singapore retail company FJ Benjamin came to launch its own fashion brand, Raoul.

And empowered with 50 years’ of highs and lows selling a plethora of luxury brand names in the Asia market, it’s no surprise Raoul was an overnight success – and now a cornerstone of the family-run business’ future. (It was listed in 1996).

The mark of any true entrepreneur is to admit when it went wrong. And the best business stories of all are those which tell of the fight back.

Douglas Benjamin, a director of the company his father Frank founded in 1959, was a presenter on the Westfield Asian Express Retail Study Tour.

“It would appear we’ve chopped and changed (brands) through the years but in southeast Asia things change all the time. Part of the reason we’ve survived is because we’ve had the ability to change.” Read nimble, an essential quality in today’s fast-changing retail environment.

Raoul – which has one store in Australia, in Melbourne’s Crown Casino complex – is a fashion brand just eight years old. It started with just a menswear range, but three years ago added womenswear – because women shoppers were buying smaller sized men’s shirts to wear themselves.

Benjamin describes the range as “good fashion at an affordable price point”.

“We like the phrase ‘elevated essentials’.”

In 50 years, FJ Benjamin has held Singapore or regional rights to brands as diverse as Gucci, Gap, Manchester United, La Senza and Fendi. (It sold its six Australian La Senza stores in 2010, but has retained corporate offices in Melbourne, almost certainly with the aim of rolling out the Raoul brand once the trading results of the new Crown store are clear.)

Its current stable includes Goyard, Celine, Givenchy, Catherine Deane (a UK brand just acquired), Marciano, Banana Republic, Nautica, Marc Ecko, Victorinox, Chronotech, Rado, De Witt and several other watch brands.
It has a payroll of 2000 with the majority of its 160 stores are in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. In 2010 it held leases on 350,000 sqft of retail space.

Benjamin’s father was working in office supplies when his brother returned from a trip to France wearing a silk neck tie.

“Everything was polyester back in those days. A silk tie cost $60, a polyester $5.”

Benjamin Snr took note of the brand name stitched into the back of the tie and approached the company for a licence. And so FJ Benjamin had its first agency: a Lanvin store.

Over ensuing years they added brands like Gucci and Fendi, pioneered department store concessions in the region, and accumulated rights to other luxury labels from Europe.

A considered move into the lifestyle market first came in the 1990s, broadening the business focus from high end fashion.

Extremes of highs and lows ensued, from the failed experiment with a Manchester United Club in the heart of Orchard Rd to the publicity coup of having 15,000 people turn up to see Anna Nicole Smith launch its first Guess? store in the city state.

“We realised we needed to go to centre of the market and expand – we did that through Guess? (in 1992).”

Such was the success of the chain – FJ Benjamin owned stores stretched as far as Australia – it listed in 1996.

Cue the dramatic music: “Then the Asian crisis hit in 1997. We spent many years trying to restructure the company and we lost a lot of money for a few years after 1997. I can almost say I got my double MBA in those few years, shutting down stores and restructuring.”

In the 2000s the company gave up or lost franchises for Gucci, Fendi and Lanvin. It replaced them with names like Valentino, Naomi Campbell, La Perla, Ungaro, to retail high end labels. None exist in the company’s portfolio any more. “The market was not big enough to support these brands.”

So it increased its focus on the lifestyle brands that had started to underpin the company’s profitability.

“In business you have to be nimble. We thought ‘OK, lifestyle has done well for us. Let’s continue’.”

The Raoul brand was conceived on a trip by Benjamin to London seven years ago.

“The company had always been franchising and representing brands from other companies. My father was a strong believer we needed to have our own brand. In 2003 we bought some shirts from some expensive stores and after three to four months I was wearing shirt and the cuffs were fraying, buttons coming off.”

What if they could produce shirts that looked as high in quality, but actually lasted?

“We decided to develop a men’s shirt label. We’d get the best quality material and make it in Asia and if you give a man a choice, he will buy.”

So Raoul – the French name for Ralph – was launched through stores in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The first store combining both ranges opened its doors in 2007 and a flagship in the classic Paragon shopping centre on Orchard Rd in 2009.

oday Raoul lines sit alongside high end labels in US, European and UK department stores, including Harrods.
Pricing is moderate – 95 per cent of stock retails at under S$300 (A$230) – and the brand is promoted by Australian supermodel Elle McPherson and Chinese actress Zhang Zyi (Memoirs of a Geisha).

Raoul has brought added depth to the FJ Benjamin business, giving it greater control of its destiny in an industry where brand rights can come and go on decisions made in board rooms many thousands of miles away.

The overall business is more stable now – what Benjamin describes as “a good spread” between high fashion and lifestyle fashion.

The company places great weight in its vision – “to be a global company that delivers on our promise to customers by fulfilling their lifestyle aspirations”. It aims to “create superior customer experiences” and “at the end of the day we want to keep customers happy,” says Benjamin.

Raoul may still be just a single store in Melbourne for Australians, but the company behind it has amassed 50 years of retail experience and credentials – both locally and abroad.

Watch out for a Raoul store in every major Australian fashion precinct in time…

This feature first appeared in Inside Retailing Magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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