The local retail landscape is changing and Eric Tho tells Syida Lizta Amirul Ihsan how he is adapting to it
VETERAN fashion designer Eric Tho, 53, shows me his new store. He calls it his “humble abode”. Until late March, he occupied a larger spot on the ground floor of Mid Valley Megamall but rental has gone up and his E’Tho boutique is now in a smaller space on the first floor.
If there is a tinge of disappointment in his voice, he keeps it hidden with his loud laugh and wide smile.
“A lot has changed,” he says, referring to the local fashion scene. “The competition wasn’t so stiff, say, 15 years ago. There were not many shopping malls — once upon a time there were only Sungei Wang Plaza, Ampang Park, Lot 10 and The Mall.
“Now, competition is stiffer. While there are more consumers, there are also more shopping centres,” he says.
He is worried that the onslaught of foreign fashion labels will soon kill the local industry, if local players are not business-savvy enough to play the game.
“We cannot compete with them. They are mass products and they can keep costs low due to massive demands. Of course, local brands will feel the pinch,” he says.
“They have the money to manufacture in Vietnam, China and India... bringing the cost even lower. But local fashion designers are small entrepreneurs,” he says.
TIME TO CHANGE
Penang-born Tho, who burst into the local fashion scene years ago with his modern take on batik, modelled by his parents, nephews and nieces, says that after making a mark in traditional clothes, it is time for him to move on.
With the customers getting younger and the outlook more global, Tho says he has to move with the times and so, for the first time, make drastic changes to his designs.
Now, E’Tho (the logo is re-branded in bright orange instead of brown) offers more than just kebaya and cheongsam.
The new line includes shift dresses for work and perhaps, a cocktail event after, separates such as long skirts and blouses for work and casual, tunics and knee-length skirts.
For men, the selection of shirts sees different patterns — from graphic to batik.
But Tho’s signature traditional accent still peeks through his clothes, whether through Mandarin collars or dresses cut like the cheongsam.
“I guess at the end of the day, that’s me,” he says. He adds that his decision to venture out of traditional clothes is to keep business afloat.
“Sure, there is still a market for traditional clothes but the segment is limited. People buy cheongsam and kebaya but not every day... young people buy clothes for work more often,” he says.
The onslaught of international brands isn’t the only factor that may lead to the demise of local brands’ presence in shopping malls.
Rental is skyrocketing. “Shopping malls tell us that if you don’t want the spot, other people will,” he says. “It is all about, making money. I guess a designer has to be prudent — he or she has to be in the right mall selling the right products.”
Then there is the perception that local labels aren’t good enough. “Which is a perception more than anything else. But when the market is not educated, when it doesn’t understand tailoring and cannot differentiate machine hem from hand hem, it thinks foreign brands are good.”
All Tho’s clothes are still hand-hemmed “because that’s the right way of doing it”.
He also thinks local designers should give good service, like altering clothes and not just reducing length of pants and sleeves.
“I am at my store most of the time and customers feel special when the designer attends to them,” he says, adding that his clothes are “special” as they are cut according to Asian sizes though he also has various sizes, from small to double XL.
Indeed, a lot has changed since Tho started designing 19 years ago. Two years ago, his father died. His mum, he says, is 87, and is “too old to model my clothes”.
His nephews and nieces are grown-up, no longer the children they were in his campaigns.
Tho has grown to be an animal lover, looking after two dogs at home. “When I want to mop the floor, one of my dogs will jump up the sofa and will only come down when the floor is dry because she hates wet floors,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Two years ago, when my dad died, followed by my business partner soon after, life was very hard but I remember how my dogs comforted me.”
Business-wise, he is still going strong. He is considering retirement at 60. “We can’t work forever.”
In the meantime, he says, wonderful customers (some have been with him for 18 years) keep him going. “Nothing beats the satisfaction of seeing someone wear your clothes,” he says.
Don’t follow trends
1. Dress according to your age. After 50, don’t wear what your daughters wear.
2. As you age, don’t wear sexy clothes. It’s unflattering.
3. Shop carefully. Wear what suits you. Don’t follow trends.
What’s in the closet
1. Eric Tho has 20 pairs of jeans.
2. He has two racks
3. He has 25 pairs
4. Closet-cleaning tip: Give good clothes away if you need space for new ones.