By Raiment Young
The areas flanking Horne Road in the vicinity of Lavender MRT station have, in the past two years, become a hipster hangout much like Tiong Bahru had before. Sure, the young and the arabica– and robusta-aware come here for the cafés (last count, about half a dozen of them) rather than lifestyle or fashion stores. But I think all that may change. Singapore’s still (sadly) under-rated men’s wear brand Biro has just opened their first store and they may do for the periphery of Little India what specialty coffee wholesalers and retailers Papa Palheta did for this part of the city when they opened Chye Seng Huat Coffee Café (CSHCC) in 2012.
Before you think Biro’s store is in another hardware-shop-turn-indie-cool-retail-post, let me say they really have not gone down that path. The brand’s solo brick-and-mortar debut is inside Kitchener Complex, a still-unattractive building that, despite renovations, I think still bears the hallmarks of HDB architecture from the ’80s. In fact, the store is hidden in a corner on the third level of Mahota Commune, a chirpy market/eaterie opened six months ago by the family behind Prime Supermarket (one of their branches was originally at nearby King George Road). Mahota Commune is dedicated to organic produce and what a staff member told me are “raw foods—no processing—and those from sustainable farms.” It may sound a little too new-age-y, but it really isn’t. There’s an old-Jasons-Supermarket-meets-Akomeya-Tokyo vibe about it that I found immensely appealing and comforting.
The rear-area store that goes with the Commune and yet stands out is known as Shouten by Biro (shouten is shop in Japanese and shares the same characters with Chinese: 商店). Opened just two days ago, it is the brainchild of Biro founders, the brothers Chong Kenghow and Kage. The small space looks like a Japanese transplant from, say the Tokyo neighbourhood of Kamimeguro, and the first thing that beckons is the blueness of the shop. I sensed that it is an indigo-themed space. Standing in front of the store, I knew I was not wrong, and my mind was busy with thoughts, which could be transcribed as “I like this a lot.” Chromatically, this was triumph of mono over poly, especially when the overall tactile and visual qualities seem to suggest rural Nippon craft.
Just to be sure that this isn’t a pop-up store (i.e. temporary), I asked the brothers if the arrangement with the landlord or lessee is permanent or long-term. “Yes it is,” confirmed Chong Keng How. “We were approached by the people from Mahota Commune. They like our stuff, and we like their concept here too. The space is a nice fit.” And just like the multi-use larger floor, Shouten by Biro is not restricted to one product category or what they have come to be known for: men’s clothing. In fact, it goes comfortably with the umbrella term lifestyle. This is a general store and clothing (primarily T-shirts and jeans) takes up a rather small part of the space, which, unexpectedly, is also habitat to accessories, bath products, and stationery.
Kage Chong, Biro’s principal designer, was keen to introduce me to the Tokushima indigo—the ai pigment used in dyeing or ai-zome (believed to have existed since the 10th century)—which gives almost the whole store its alluring patina of blue. Tokushima is a region in the eastern end of the Japanese island of Shikoku, and it is Tokushima, Japan’s biggest domestic grower of the indigo plant, that supplies most of the natural dyes to the jeans factories of Okayama, dubbed Japan’s denim capital, if not the world’s. But what truly piqued my interest was the hardwood floor planks used in the store and on its walls.
These, as I learned, are from the Japanese lumber dealer Dairi Lumber Company (unsurprisingly, from Tokushima) that is known for their indigo-stained exterior and interior building materials, such as those used on the floor that I was standing on. The ai tint of the wood, interestingly, isn’t intense; it appears as if watercolour was brushed over it, allowing the grain of the wood, and its natural colour, to be discerned. The best part is that these cedar and pine planks are available for retail. Kage Chong elucidated, “When we stumbled upon these wood floor planks, we feel they’re so much like our DNA. We just had to do something about them.” And they sure did. At Biro’s shouten, it’s now not unimaginable living in an interior with the blue that gives jeans the colour that we have yet tire of.
Shouten by Biro is in Mahota Commune, level 3, Kitchener Complex. Photos: Galerie Gombak