Waiting to cross the traffic lights from Millennia Walk on Temasek Avenue, I could see, right ahead, the queue stretching across the entire length of the second floor of the Pit Building. Normally, as the name suggest, this would be the nerve centre of the world’s most famous Grand Prix, but on this day and for the next four days, it would serve as the disposal point from which one of Singapore’s largest fashion retailers will clear old stocks. A woman with a trolley bag too big to be allowed into any aircraft cabin was impatient for the light to turn green. She asked her companion in Chinese, “What if everything is gone by the time we get there?” The prospect of losing out is a damper more disheartening than queuing in the stifling afternoon heat for a length of time, quite unnatural for the purchase a few discounted frocks.
I was attending with friends the annual Club 21 Bazaar, a sale of such massive popularity that it now attracts shoppers from the region. It was mid-week, and the first day of the event, which, I was told, was designated “family and friends” (tickets were required for entry). The doors were supposed to open at 3pm (in previous years, the sale commenced at 5), but by 2 in the afternoon (the time we had just arrived), the line was easily more than two hundred strong. I did not realise Club 21 has so many supporters that could be considered kin and chum. A sale such as this, as it turned out, made everyone related to the discount provider, advertised to be offering up to 90% markdown. As we were crossing the car park in front of the Pit Building, it was clear the sale had long begun. Shoppers had already completed their mission, laden with shopping bags—in one case, enough to fill the entire boot of a taxi, plus the back seat!
We joined the queue, which had snaked onto the first floor, meandering into the car park. There was something festive about the atmosphere, as jolly as the queue outside Lim Chee Guan during the week leading up to Chinese New Year. The people that had formed this length of fashion-hungry humanity wasn’t just the eager and voluble youngsters that would typically line up outside H&M during the launch of a designer collab or Nubox and Epicentre stores to welcome the release of new iPhones. There were others: older individuals in practical dress who looked like they were there to receive an MP during a ministerial walkabout, and, of course, the non-natives.
The queue moved along and in twenty minutes, my companions and I arrived on the second floor of the Pit Building. No sooner had we turn to catch sight of the traffic jam ahead of us, a skinny, sleekly dressed teen, no older than 20 years, appeared from nowhere and slipped into the narrow space in front of us. It was an appearing act that had the hallmarks of Houdini. While I was sure he had jumped queue, one of my friends suggested that perhaps he had come to join the people in front. The sneaky guy immediately messaged someone, and in less than 3 minutes, two others—similarly attired and mysterious—joined him. It was clear by now what has happened. Annoyed by this blatant disregard for orderly conduct, I inched forward and rebuked, “Excuse me. Please join the queue from the back!” Without looking at me, he said, “Oh” and hurried his friends away. One of them looked at me quizzically and exclaimed, “I didn’t know.” Ignorance, we were determined, won’t have its fashion moment.
Once inside the three-hall sale space that was the Bazaar, you’re really on your own. You’ll come as a group, as I did, but you’ll gravitate towards what appeals to you, completely oblivious to what caught your companions’ eye. The crowd was overwhelming, and there was no one on hand to orientate the newbie shopper. I knew what I wanted or what will appeal to me, and headed straight for that area. The clothes were organised by brand, but by then, the racks were a jumble, and the most determined shoppers—they were all determined—would be sweeping garment after garment aside, as they inspect each with the single-mindedness of retail buyers at a wholesale mart. Before I could pull one out to see if I may like it, the piece will be brushed out-of-the-way by the persons doing the frantic selecting on both sides of me. I did not exist.
Who were these people? They were not your regular bargain hunters during GSS. These were upgraders going from ‘masstige’ brands to those with unpronounceable names. These were seekers of anything with prices drastically reduced, more concerned with low cost than high design. These were the style-challenged hunting down a statement piece to wear to 1 Altitude. Truth be told, I was intimidated by them. These were not Club 21 habitués, yet they knew what to nail. Choices were made based on brand names. If unfamiliar, there was always a friend who could enlighten. They picked everything the way a locust devours. It was select first, decide later. The clear plastic bags handed out at the entrance had to be filled (“Why is your bag so empty?” was frequently heard). The grab-fest had the buzz of refugees attacking UN trucks bearing humanitarian aid. I was in an unfamiliar territory.
The Club 21 Bazaar wasn’t always like this. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I do recall rather vividly the early days of the Bazaar. It was not such a massive affair, nor as frenetic. The first one I attended was when it was held at the now-defunct Concorde Hotel on Outram Road. Spread out in the Concorde Ballroom that ran the perimeter of the tubular building, the space was curved, not the linear expanse that is the Pit Building. Clothes were laid on tables as well as hung on racks. Sale staff from the Club 21 group of stores was in attendance, and will assist familiar faces in picking the best buys. It was busy, as typical of sales, but it was not crowded and manic. The customers weren’t desperate or anxious, and they were certainly better-dressed; they were fashion, not fishing folk. Picking up bargains naturally arouses adrenaline rush, but no matter how heady things may get then, there was always a moment among the whirl. You had the chance to admire the clothes and make informed purchase decisions. You didn’t sense the pressure to accumulate your finds in a battered plastic bag, lest someone else beat you to them. With the purchases made, my friends and I would go down to the coffee house, Melting Pot Café, where we could have a meal while pouring over what we had bought.
There was something elitist about the early Club 21 Bazaar. Not everyone knew about it as they do now. It was a treat to be able to go. You felt privileged. I certainly did. Fashion—designer fashion—was consumed by those who knew about it and were genuinely interested in it. It was a world peopled by those in the industry, as well as those in the arts and in the media, many making that first step on the ladder of upward mobility. Even at a sale, they bought with care, and with admiration of what were to be purchased. The Club 21 Bazaar was a relatively insider event. I do not remember the ads they have now, or the free-of-charge bus such as the one provided to ferry shoppers from The Adelphi to Pit Building. It was pre-smartphone, when human interaction wasn’t circumscribed by text message interface, and they certainly did not Tweet about the event as they now do, with shoppers showing off their buys at once amid the frenzy.
With the introduction of convention centres such as Singapore Expo in the late 90s, fashion sales became very big events. The John Little and Metro “Expo sales”, just like the IT shows (the precursor, though these are not sales per se), were crowd pullers. You’d go to them as an outing, with loved ones. As the Singapore Expo usually stages concurrent events—travel fair in this hall, electronic in the other (10 halls in all), you could really make it an all-day jaunt, just as you would when you go to Orchard Road. The mega-sale become a part of our social life, and Club 21 would soon join the fray.
Club 21 had turned into one of Singapore’s largest fashion retailers, not the one-store multi-label boutique it once was. In the early days, their sales—even clearance sales—were conducted in-store, as were those of many of the other Singapore-born boutiques of its ilk, such as the now-gone Man and his Woman, Glamourette, and the more recent casualty, The Link. By the mid-Nineties, the fashion crowd had consecrated Club 21, while the rest were slowing fizzling out of the luxury retail landscape. With size comes huge inventory, and this inventory does not necessarily have a healthy sell-through. In later years, even inventory from its Hong Kong stores were shipped back here for disposal. Club 21 would need a much bigger space than a modest hotel ballroom to purge its warehouses of dead stocks.
At the Pit Building, in front of the racks of Comme des Garçons, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of guys—like characters from the Taiwanese film Monga, more hooligans than hipsters—determined to spare the clothes a boxed-up journey back to storage. They were grabbing every shirt that they could lay their hands on, and dumping into their plastic bags, by now so scratched they were no longer clear. As they rummaged, they would edify each other with what the clothes really meant in the scheme of things or in the thick of their social lives: “This one you can wear to Robert (sic) wedding.” One of them lifted a shirt with chess-board patchwork front, and another said, “No”, adding “this one looks like you can buy from Far East Plaza”. With a fling, the shirt landed on the floor.
It was heartbreaking for me to see what could be considered classic CDG treated this way. This wasn’t merely a rejection of what wasn’t desired, this was denunciation of design. If clothes are not respected, surely the designs are immaterial. What, then, were the people buying into if not mere brand names and slashed prices? In fact, so many of the shoppers showed scant regard for the clothes that it was worse than fruiterers throwing away spoilt produce. I saw striking Marni and Balenciaga coats tossed like soiled blankets in the wash. No one folded away what they did not want, most dumped. The recalcitrant ones would litter the entire length of area with piles of clothes. Was this Club 21 Bazaar or Thieves’ Market? By a gondola filled with Lanvin merchandise, a woman, hair streaked blond, picks and flings, and, at some point, a blouse slammed into me. Looking at her in disbelief, she returned with a “what?” and walked away. I really didn’t expect “family and friends” of Club 21 to treat the store’s clothes this way.
The venue offered no fitting room—not even one curtained corner—for the shoppers to try the garments. Trying was, in fact, not allowed. There was also not even a shard of mirror for anyone to look at. There are mirrored pillars throughout the halls, but all were plastered with paper to block its reflective surface. However, there was one thing they could not obstruct: smartphones. The less demanding were happy to just look at the reflection on their black smartphone screen, but most were selfie-ready, trying one outfit after another before their phone’s front camera. Technology has come out handy in a fashion sale. But technology cannot rid those with a predilection to—borrowing from army-speak—pasar malam their intended buys. A woman, seated on the floor with legs split opened like Kim Kardashian’s neckline, had spilled the contents of her plastic bag between her thighs to make the final select. As she was blocking the way of an increasingly long line to the cashiers, she was asked to move away by security staff—a shift she made with visible disdain.
Unable to find my friends, I decided to leave. I had been inside this overcrowded place for nearly an hour. Out of the three halls filled with stuff, only the first I had some interest in. The heat during the 50-minute queue to get in was affecting me the way a bad smell could be disorienting. The sea of clothes, mostly an indiscriminate black or darkish hue, was beginning to overwhelm. Only the music—a mix tape of British New Wave of the ’80s—coming out of the PA system was an amusing distraction. Outside, I could smell the salt of the sea. It was oddly comforting. Five hours later, happily lolling on my sofa at home, I received a WhatsApp message from my friends: they were still at the Bazaar, stuck for four hours in a slow-moving queue to pay. I was only able to wish them good luck.